The White Devil is one of the two most popular plays written by John Webster, the other being The Duchess of Malfi. The White Devil was first performed in 1612 at the Red Bull theater, where it was largely considered a failure. It is unknown why The White Devil was received so poorly when it first appeared, but some scholars think that wintry weather might have disrupted the performance. Additionally, the Red Bull was a theater known for broad, heroic plays, and hence was probably not equipped to handle the complex subtlety and genre-bending of Webster's work.
The White Devil can be considered a revenge tragedy, since it employs many of that genre's devices, like ghosts, high body counts, and scheming revenge. However, it also plays with the genre conventions. Brachiano seems to fit the traditional, masculine, aristocratic tragic hero, but lacks much heroic virtue by the play's end. Further, Flamineo also fits the tragic mold, unusual because he is a low-born character and because he constantly criticizes the elements that make the story seem like a traditional revenge tragedy. Vittoria, the third tragic character, is extremely unusual, as her presence offers a strong, intelligent criticism of the genre's widespread misogyny. Underlying The White Devil is a strong ambivalence between right and wrong, and it is difficult to declare any one character as the hero or villain.
Like many other revenge tragedies, The White Devil is based on a historical affair between Paolo Giordano, Duke of Bracciano, and Vittoria Accoramboni, a poor but charming noblewoman. The affair was very scandalous in its day, and provided Webster with a vivid base on which to hang his narrative structure. Webster changes a few details, such as bringing characters like Lodovico and Flamineo into the play's forefront. He also employs stronger, more ambiguous characterizations, aligning characters with different motivations, so that even the ostensibly moral characters - such as Cornelia, Marcello, and Giovanni - are not free from criticism.
From this gory tale, Webster created a subtle play that explores the true nature of guilt and corruption, while delivering a biting criticism of the wealthy classes. Time and time again, the reader or audience is reminded of the duplicitous nature of "great men," who can afford to live above the fray because they pay others to do their dirty work.