As far as we know, The White Devil (1612) was the first play Webster wrote solely by himself. Performed at the popular Red Bull Theater in north London, it was followed two years later by what is usually considered Webster’s masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi. Both are set in Italy and depict a world in which characters are defined by lust, lawless ambition, and treachery. T.S. Eliot, writing about Webster in “Whispers of Immortality,” suggestively said:
Webster was much possessed by
death And saw the skull beneath
the skin; And breastless creatures
under ground Leaned backward
with a lipless grin. Daffodil bulbs
instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
Eliot caught here the macabre fascination with death in Webster’s tragedies and the way in which the grave, repository of skulls and bones, mocks human ambition and aspiration. Whatever Webster’s characters hope to achieve, in the end they are defeated by the foe that captures everyone. Death comes in novel ways in The White Devil. Characters kiss poisoned pictures, have their necks deliberately broken when exercising on a vaulting horse, go brainsick from the fumes of a poisoned helmet, or, more prosaically, are run through with a sword. Webster’s talents as a dramatist are shown in part by his inventiveness with these technologies of death.
The White Devil belongs to the early modern genre of revenge tragedy, a type of play in which crime spurs secret retaliation that in turn spurs further revenge. We see this cycle when Brachiano, married to Isabella, falls passionately in love with the beautiful Vittoria, who is married to Camillo. In pursuit of his adulterous passion, Brachiano has Isabella killed by a poisoned painting and Camillo’s neck snapped at the vaulting horse. Flamineo, the discontented and poor secretary to Brachiano and Vittoria’s brother, is his instrument. In the play’s counteraction, Francisco, Duke of Florence and his sister of Isabella, seeks revenge for her murder, aided by the Cardinal Monticelso, and Count Lodovico, an unrequited lover of Isabella. Vittoria stands trial and is banished to a religious house before both she and Brachiano, and a host of others, are killed.
The voraciousness with which Brachiano and Vittoria, the play’s protagonists, pursue their adulterous passion, along with the remarkable composure displayed by Vittoria in the long courtroom scene that dominates Act III, are riveting theater. Brachiano and Vittoria are villain heroes; each ruthlessly spurns conventional morality; each displays remarkable courage and strength of mind in the face of almost certain death and, in Vittoria’s case, in the face of the combined forces of state and church. Her outspoken defiance of those who would judge her, her insistence that they stop speaking Latin and condemn her plainly in their shared native tongue, have made this character interesting to contemporary feminists. In a play in which men have most of the power, she seizes as much of it as she can, unmasking the hypocrisy and double standard by which her crimes are punished and men’s are not. Cornelia, mother of Vittoria and Flamineo, is the play’s only truly “good” woman, a figure of antique Roman virtue rather than contemporary Italian vice, but she is out-shone, theatrically speaking, by the shamelessly adulterous Vittoria and her Moorish maid, Zanche.
Flamineo, the discontented secretary, is Webster’s other remarkable creation in this play. He is clear kin to Bosola, the ambitious courtier in The Duchess of Malfi. Like Bosola, Flamineo serves the great and does terrible things, including murdering his brother, to win their favor. Like many other Renaissance aspiring servants, his efforts win him few rewards, but when it comes his time to die, he faces death with clear-eyed Stoicism: “We cease to grieve, cease to be Fortune’s slaves / Nay, cease to die by dying” (V.vi.252-53). Here, death inspires less terror than relief. It means the end of fearing death; it means the end of a life dominated by Fortune, that restless goddess who gives men opportunities only to snatch them away. Bosola has been great men’s lackey, trying to seize fickle Fortune’s rewards. In the end, he achieves a noble death only by embracing it and setting his face against the world whose prizes have teased and eluded him.
Jean Howard, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities, Columbia University