"Fortune's a right whore:/If she give ought, she deals it in small parcels,/That she may take away all at one swoop"
Here, Lodovico personifies Fortune as a female whore who taunts men with small victories and great losses. His comment is typical of the misogynist tone of the play's male characters. The danger of a woman's sexuality is apparent in the ever-present threat of cuckoldry, seemingly the worst offense a man can suffer, and so it is fitting that Lodovico considers the dangers of fortune as akin to those posed by women. The women in The White Devil are considered either virgins or whores, and personifying fortune or chance as a whore links her to the other "whore" of the play, Vittoria.
"Yet why should ladies blush to hear that named, which they do not fear to handle? O they are politic; they know our desire is increased by the difficulty of enjoying, whereas satiety is a blunt, weary and drowsy passion. If the buttery-hatch at court stood continually open there would be nothing so passionate crowding, nor hot suit after the beverage."
Flamineo is a strongly misogynistic character, and constantly views women with a negative or cynical viewpoint. Here, he criticizes women as having two-faces, virgins and whores, which suggests that even below innocent facades, sin lurks. This theme of deceptive appearance extends beyond women in the play, applying even to "noble" characters like Francisco and Cardinal Monticelso. Flamineo also uses this line to espouse insight into the human condition. He remarks that humans want what they cannot have, which is a guiding rule for the motivations in the play. The desire for what you cannot have eventually causes your undoing. As a married duke, Brachiano cannot marry Vittoria. He reaches for his desires anyway, however, and causes many tragic deaths.
"Both flowers and weeds spring when the sun is warm,/And great men do great good, or else great harm."
Though he is only in one scene, the conjurer speaks great wisdom in this line. Although transient and unnamed, he acts as a "chorus"-like character who speaks truthful platitudes. In his statement on the possibilities of great men, he ambiguously offers two options. On its surface, his warning here applies to Brachiano's actions, but the statement's ambiguity forces the reader to examine all of the "great men" within the play, including Francisco and Monticelso, and to contrast them with the common characters like Lodovico or Flamineo, who do their dirty work.
"Grant I was tempted,/Temptation to lust proves not the act,/Casta est quam nemo rogavit,/You read his hot love to me, but you want/My frosty answer...Condemn you me for that the Duke did love me,/So may you blame some fair and crystal river/For that some melancholic distracted man/Hath drowned himself in't."
Consistently described as a whore, Vittoria takes advantage of her trial to exonerate her character. As a woman, her agency is limited, but she here uses the opportunity to prove both her intelligence, quoting Latin, and her ability to reason. She strikes a blow at Monticelso through showing his argument to be logically flawed - she compares herself to a river that a man chooses to drown in. Vittoria's argument at the trial is both the strongest rebuttal to the misogyny that runs through the play's male characters, and a biting social commentary on inequalities between the sexes. Vittoria points out that Brachiano is actually the sinner, but that because he isn't a "whore," he isn't on trial. Of course, Webster's pessimism is apparent when she is condemned despite the strength of her argument and the paucity of evidence on the prosecution's side. A woman is ironically condemned partially for her "masculine" use of reason and strength.
"That the last day of judgment may so find you,/And leave you the same devil you were before,/Instruct me some good horse-leech to speak treason,/For since you cannot take my life for deeds,/Take it for words. O woman's poor revenge/Which dwells but in the tongue; I will not weep,/No I do scorn to call up one poor tear/To fawn on your injustice"
Vittoria's spirited defense at her trial, cited here, mimics Isabella's argument with Brachiano. Both women see themselves as victims of masculine crime, and are frustrated by the lack of tools at their disposal. Vittoria characterizes female revenge as limited solely to words, as opposed to action, like Francisco can use. She argues a strongly feminist position, using the only weapon given to her: words. Her comments about tears foreshadow a later moment of strength, when she is killed by Gasparo and again refuses to cry. Vittoria attempts to revert female stereotypes by not becoming an emotional or hysterical mess when she is threatened, and instead showing masculine strength. Ironically, this strength is part of why she is condemned despite the paucity of evidence on the prosecution's side.
"It may appear to some ridiculous/Thus to talk knave and madman; and sometimes/Come in with a dried sentence, stuffed with sage./But this allows my varying of shapes,/'Knaves do grow great by being great men's apes'."
Flamineo's remarks and behavior recall another feigned madness in a revenge tragedy: that of the ubiquitous Hamlet. Here, Flamineo decides to act like a madman in order to divert any suspicion that he is the actual murderer of Camillo. Flamineo remarks on the different roles he plays: philandering knave, distracted madman, and token wiseman. A meta-reference to the roles of the theater, Flamineo notes that his schizophrenic nature allows him to also pretend to be a great man, and that there is barely a difference between great men and knaves - they are all self-interested and petty. He again undermines the inherent goodness or strength of great men, letting the reader question the true motives of Francisco, Monticelso, and Brachiano. Simply because a person appears "great" does not at all mean he is is "great."
"Now to th'act of blood;/There's but three Furies found in spacious hell;/But in a great man's breast three thousand dwell."
Here, Lodovico resolves to avenge Isabella's death by murdering Brachiano. He invokes the Roman Furies, three frightening goddesses of revenge. Lodovico shows mankind's deep capacity for evil and revenge, explaining that in mythology (and in hell), there are only three furies, while a man's heart contains a nearly infinite capacity for revenge. As a revenge tragedy, The White Devil centers around the concept of revenge, and the Furies play a crucial metaphoric role towards expressing that. Lodovico's words also recall Monticelso's warning to him earlier in the scene, that he leaves him "with all the Furies hanging 'bout [his] neck,/Till by [his] penitence [he] remove this evil,/In conjuring from [his] breast that cruel devil" (IV.iii.125-8). Although Monticelso tells Lodovico that he wishes he would remove the devil of revenge from his heart, Monticelso's money convinces Lodovico to go through with his plan. Even the "great" men have this capacity for revenge.
"Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright/But looked to near, have neither heat nor light."
Webster borrowed this metaphor from Alexander's Alexandrean Tragedy, and used it in both The White Devil and [The Duchess of Malfi]. The lines offer a comment on the futility of princely ambitions - Webster compares a prince's glories to a glow-worm's light. Despite looking magnificent and important, both the glory and the light prove hollow on close inspection. Here again is the theme of deceptive outward appearances expressed, though Flamineo misses its greater irony. That both Brachiano and Francisco enter as he ends the line is significant. Their princely ambitions may seem great and grand, but little separates them from common thugs; they can merely disguise their depravity through money and titles.
"Oft gay and honored robes those torture try:/'We think caged birds sing, when indeed they cry'."
After killing his brother and witnessing the death of his patron, Flamineo is understandably disturbed. He finally reveals the twisted nature of his internal conflict by remarking that despite his jolly appearance, he is often internally tortured. He claims this is a common malady among wealthy and costumed courtiers. He then compares courtiers to misunderstood caged birds, who appear to have it all but actually suffer badly from spiritual want. This is one of the first times that Flamineo explicitly recognizes the deceptive nature of appearances, which has previously manifested in ambiguous dialogue, unconscious observations, and theatrical irony.
"Fool! Princes give rewards with their hands,/But death or punishment by the hands of others."
When Vittoria asks that Francisco kill her himself, Gasparo almost bitterly replies that princes get others to do their dirty work for them. The wealth and authority that "great men" possess enable them to disobey laws without ever getting in trouble. This is the key to the deceptive nature of outward appearances. Francisco can act a generous and good duke to the public, precisely because he can privately hire thugs to indulge his greatest vices. The conjurer's depiction of the ambiguously dual possibilities of great men is not meant to suggest divided possibilities, but instead combined personalities. Great men do both great good and great harm, thanks to the power their position gives them. Finally, Gasparo's contempt in his reply suggests that the lower men do not only recognize this hypocrisy, but in fact enable it. It is accepted as fact, and few think to challenge this status quo, which ensures it will persist.
The White Devil Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The White Devil is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.