The White Devil

  Date and sources

The White Devil was first published in 1612, and there is evidence of a first performance early in that year. The playwright Thomas Dekker (c. 1570-1632) wrote in a  dedication to the Queen's Men, who had performed a play by him also published in 1612,

 'I wish a Faire and Fortunate Day, to your Next New-Play ... because such Brave Triumphes of Poesie, and Elaborate Industry, which my Worthy Friend's Muse hath there set forth, deserve a Theatre full of the very Muses themselves to be Spectators. To that Faire Day I wish a Full, Free and Knowing Auditor.' 

The 'New-Play' is almost certainly The White Devil. Webster was a 'Friend' to Dekker, his work does blend 'Poesie' with 'Industry', and his own preface to The White Devil echoes the above passage. As this preface tells us that the play was acted in winter, the most logical placing of the first performance is early in 1612.

The play is based on events in recent Italian history, twenty-seven years having passed since Vittoria Accoramboni's actual death. Her story was of such topical interest that over one hundred separate accounts of it have survived. None of these coincide exactly with Webster's version and it is likely that he used a number of sources, the main one being the same as that found in a newsletter to a German banking house. This has some of the same factual errors as Webster's play - Giovanni for Virginio, the real name of Brachiano's heir, for example - and it ignores Brachiano's obesity, and Vittoria's rumoured suicide attempts, as Webster does.

 The fact that there are many discrepancies between Webster's and accurate modern versions of the story is partly due to conflicting sources, but also to the accepted literary convention which authorised the reshaping of history in order to create a formal unity and a higher, more general truth than raw history provided. Where Webster appears to have been deliberately inaccurate one can gain insight into his artistic intentions. For example, he chooses to magnify the involvement of Francisco de Medici, a minor figure in the sources, in order to strengthen the revenge element and to provide a vital link between the two main groups in the play. In the sources Cornelia and Isabella are less than admirable, but Webster gives his play a greater moral clarity by presenting them as virtuous. He gives shape to the formless chronicle of the sources by developing the-role of Giovanni who, unhistorically, brings a semblance of order and justice to the end of the play. By altering the sources, moreover, Webster is able to complicate our response to what seem straightforward crimes. Vittoria, for example, is provided with an excuse for adultery by the changing of the virile young husband of the sources into the foolish and impotent Camillo.

 There is a peculiar difficulty involved in tracing sources for this author's work, as Webster is one of English literature's greatest borrowers, both in extent and in skilfulness of adaptation. His plays are largely pieced together, in a subtly altered form, from memorable bits of his reading, which he will have jotted down in what was called a ‘commonplace book'. The result is that there are innumerable minor sources for a play such as The White Devil, one example being his borrowing of the details of the papal election scene from A Treatise of the Election of Popes (1605). Though shocking to some modern readers, plagiarism was accepted by Webster's contemporaries, as imitation and embellishment of others' work was conventional and commended.

  The Italy of Vittoria Accoramboni

  Renaissance England was fascinated by life in Italy, and it was a favourite setting for plays. It was known as the centre of European art, the source of man's greatest creative genius; but paradoxically, it reputedly contained the most underhand and corrupt of courts. Such was the popular image, fuelled by a hatred and suspicion of Roman  Catholicism, which provided playwrights with a ready-to-hand image of the workings of evil in a highly-developed civilisation.

 Vittoria, born into an old and respected family, was married at sixteen to Francesco Peretti (Webster's Camillo), nephew of Cardinal Montalto (Webster's Monticelso). Some seven years later, childless and unhappy, she met the Duke of Bracciano, who was overweight and twenty years her senior. He was estranged from his wife, Isabella, who by 1576 had taken a lover. During one of Bracciano's rare visits she died (probably strangled by the duke) leaving him free to court Vittoria. In this, he was aided by her brother, Marcello (Webster's Flamineo), who lured her husband into an ambush in which he was killed. Within a fortnight of Peretti's death in 1581 Vittoria and Bracciano were secretly married, without a religious ceremony. The Pope annulled the marriage, however, and as suspicions about the deaths of Isabella and Peretti increased, ordered Bracciano to send Vittoria home. She was arrested en route and confined in a nunnery. Here she attempted to commit suicide when Bracciano appeared to have renounced her, but the duke secretly met her and removed her to his palace for a full wedding ceremony.

  Their happiness ended with the election of Montalto as Pope, In 1585 the duke travelled to Rome-and tried, without success, to effect a reconciliation with the Pope. Suffering from a malignant ulcer in his leg, he died shortly after his return home. Most of his fortune was left to Vittoria, but the Orsini and Medici families (relatives of Isabella and Bracciano) opposed her inheritance. Lodovico Orsini, a distant cousin and former confidant of Bracciano, forced her to surrender the will, but she cunningly used an earlier document to make the authorities recognise her claim. An infuriated Lodovico returned with an armed gang, dressed fantastically, and broke in upon Vittoria and Flamineo (her younger brother) at prayer. Two men held her and another murdered her brutally while making obscene jests. Flamineo was shot and stabbed to death. 

   Lodovico and his followers were later seized by the authorities and he was strangled in prison. Marcello was beheaded in 1586 on the order of the Pope. Webster appears to have toned down certain aspects of this bloody tale. According to his main source two of the accomplices in Vittoria's murder 'were riven asunder with red-hot tongs, and killed with a hammer and then quartered'. With its extreme examples of brutality, sexual passion, unscrupulous murder and revenge, this piece of history neatly encapsulated all the commonly held beliefs about life in Italy. 

 The nature of the play

 Revenge tragedy

Webster is a controversial dramatist, viewed at one extreme as second only to Shakespeare, and at the other as a crude sensationalist, responsible for immoral and clumsily structured plays. There is disagreement not only about the artistic integrity of The White Devil but also about the nature of the play. This is partly due to Webster's eclecticism, his habit of selecting from numerous sources or models. The White Devil appears to make use of several theatrical trends, some of them slightly old-fashioned, to produce a distinctive amalgam which defies categorisation. It has been called, among other things, revenge tragedy, a chronicle play, a family tragedy, a tragedy of love, the tragedy of a whole society, a tragicomedy, and a black farce.

 Without doubt, however, The White Devil is heavily influenced by the conventions of revenge tragedy. Revenge plays drew on the example of the Roman playwright Seneca (4BC-AD65), who dramatised some  spectacularly violent sequences of crime and revenge, and, like Webster, combined bloody and treacherous actions with sententious moralising. Part of the appeal of Seneca's plays for Elizabethans was their guidance on enduring adversity through fortitude, particularly their presentation of the art of dying well. Such stoicism is a significant feature of Webster's tragedies also. Seneca grew in popularity because he was treating a subject, revenge, which was highly contentious at this time. Private revenge, linked with family honour, was considered by many to be a sacred duty, but this clashed with the Christian ethic, which placed revenge in God's hands alone.

 Revenge plays were often set in Italy, where, it was believed, the most extreme examples could be found. The writer Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) records that in Italy he 'heard of a box of the ear that hath been revenged thirtie yeares after'. These words contain the basic revenge plot (an offence, a period of delay and then revenge) appealing to playwrights because it solves two great problems: how to begin and how to end a play. The White Devil ends in the conventional way: the avengers are disguised, they appear in a 'masque' (a surprise entry of masked revellers), and a figure of authority restores order after the bloody climax. But the revenge element is not so clearly focused in other areas of the play. Lodovico is the main agent of revenge but his motivation seems carelessly presented (for example, II.2.32-4); and the main plotter, Francisco, is a rather shadowy figure who is forgotten by the end of the play. Revenge conventions are being used but are adapted to suit Webster's purpose.

Webster wished to show both revengers and the victims of revenge as evil, the good characters being only on the edge of the action, whereas conventionally the victims were morally inferior. This allowed him to rearrange conventions, for example by making Flamineo, one of the victims, a malcontent who disguises his nature to avoid suspicion, which is a role usually taken by the avenger. Both avengers and victims seek the conventional 'perfect' murder, taking pride in their ingenuity:

 'I limb'd this night-piece and it was my best' (V.6.297, and cf. 11.2.38) boasts Lodovico. 

 Both factions employ the conventional method, poison, and one from each side sees the conventional ghost (although the ghosts do not trigger off the revenge action as was customary). By making Vittoria, Brachiano and Flamineo more attractive than Francisco and Lodovico, the avengers, Webster reversed the usual flow of sympathy in earlier revenge plays. The genre of revenge tragedy provided Webster with a framework and a number of useful theatrical effects, but he was not attempting to write a revenge play himself, as most of his attention was paid to the relationship between Brachiano, Vittoria and Flamineo, and the latter’s satirical commentary, to which the revenge element is far from being central. 


The sub-title claims that The White Devil is the tragedy of Brachiano, but many critics have questioned whether he is the central protagonist, and some have questioned whether the play is a tragedy at all. It can be argued that Vittoria has the strongest claim for centrality as she probably is the 'white devil' of the title; or, this play can be seen as one that has no single hero. In this respect it has been likened to a chronicle, or history play, with which it also shares other characteristics: in the pageantry of the papal election and trial scenes; in its basis in historical fact; and in its sequence of separate events in place of a steady build-up to a single climax. The characters, however, are somewhat too close to being conventional theatrical types rather than realistic historical figures, to allow the play to fit into this category. Critics have sought other descriptions to suit a play without a hero, one of the most appealing of which is the view that it is the tragedy of a society:

'Webster's satirical tragedy looks beyond individuals to the society that shapes them... The White Devil is not Vittoria Corombona but Renaissance Europe'.’ (J Lever)

 Webster's play certainly does seem to draw general conclusions about the nature of society and seeks to expose and reform corruption in a harsh way, as we expect of satire, but can the term 'tragedy' be applied to it? Some critics think not, on the grounds that it lacks the general gravity of tone which one associates with that term. It is not that the play lacks deadly serious or highly poignant moments: Cornelia's grief and madness, Brachiano's dying love for Vittoria, and the latter's defiance at her trial and when facing death, are the stuff of which tragedy is made. Webster's technique, however, is to continuously undermine such moments either with satirical commentary (particularly by Flamineo) or with actions which incite laughter and at times border on farce, for example Flamineo's mock-death. In the words of one critic, it is 'a form in which comedy and tragedy, the laughable and the appalling, are so composed that neither is predominant' (J.R. Mulryne) thus it is a tragicomedy.

  Such a method is particularly suited to Webster's apparent objective in the play, which is to show that what seems 'white' (that is, pure and virtuous) may be as black as the 'devil'. The dominant tone of the play is one of confused uncertainty, as Webster moves us from one extreme response to its opposite without a breathing space. Such polarisation occurs when we find ourselves laughing at moments of horror: as when Lodovico, ironically disguised as a holy man administering last rites, wittily taunts the crazed and dying Brachiano; or when Brachiano himself jokes about the horrific poisoning of his wife as he watches her death in a dumb show. Even more striking is the juxtaposition of Flamineo's mock-death with his real death. An audience finds it hard to take the real death with due seriousness when it so closely resembles the comic pretend death.

Thus, even death itself, the climax of conventional tragedy, is apparently parodied by Webster. Flamineo's exaggerated death speeches seem to mock the drawn-out deaths of tragic heroes: 

  0 I smell soot, Most stinking soot, the chimney is a-fire, -
My liver's parboil'd like Scotch holy bread,
There's a plumber, laying pipes in my guts; - it scalds. (V.6.141^1)

 Throughout the play we come across such comic exaggeration and grotesqueness of both language and action, even at the potentially most solemn moments. Thus Webster uses the standard ghosts of tragedy, but they are received mockingly by those whom they are meant to disturb.This tragicomic technique makes sympathising with personal suffering almost an impossibility, and as we are distanced from individual characters we become more aware of an entire society trapped in a 'mist'of uncertainty (see V.6.260).