The play opens in Rome.
Three men enter: Count Lodovico, and his two friends Antonelli and Gasparo. Antonelli and Gasparo tell Lodovico that he has been banished from Italy for his crimes, and explain that his noblemen friends now laugh at his misery, considering him like a worthless meteor pulled from the earth - an evil omen.
Gasparo reveals that Lodovico has been banished because he has murdered several people in Rome. When Lodovico asks why the court will not simply execute him, Gasparo explains that the court wants to prevent further bloodshed and give Lodovico a chance at penance. Lodovico complains that other wicked men are spared banishment. He offers as example the Duke of Brachiano, who is secretly trying to seduce Vittoria Corombona. Antonelli tries to soothe Lodovico, but Lodovico instead threatens to cut his enemies into shreds.
Lodovico finally accepts his fate and decides to leave. Before he goes, he gives Gasparo and Antonelli money with which to try and repeal his banishment.
Brachiano, Camillo, Flamineo, Vittoria, and several unidentified gentlemen, holding torches, enter.
Vittoria welcomes Brachiano to Rome, and then leaves with Camillo, her husband. Flamineo, her brother, whispers to Brachiano that she will meet with him in private, and then tells the men with torches to leave.
Now that they are alone, Flamineo can speak to Brachiano freely. He explains that Vittoria is enamored of Brachiano, and that her servant, Zanche the Moor, will help facilitate an affair. He also criticizes feminine coyness, accusing women of manipulating men's desire for their own gain. When Brachiano inquires about the obstacle of Camillo, Flamineo quickly dismisses him, claiming Camillo has grown dispassionate and impotent because of syphilis. Hearing Camillo returning, Flamineo tells Brachiano to hide in the closet so that Flamineo can trick Camillo.
Under his breath, Flamineo mocks Camillo's rich clothing and poor wit as the latter enters. Flamineo asks Camillo if he is going to Vittoria's bed, and Camillo admits that he cannot remember the last time he slept with Vittoria. Flamineo laments that Camillo has lost his "count," punning on the similarity of the word to "cunt."
Camillo then admits his suspicion over Brachiano's motives. He compares Brachiano's visit to a game of bowls, subtly accusing Brachiano of "bowl booty," or of conspiring with another player against a third in order to get a desired object (in this case, Vittoria). Flamineo dismisses Camillo's fears, insisting Camillo is both wise and born under lucky stars, but Camillo counters, claiming that the stars have nothing to do with being cuckolded. Flamineo sarcastically advises him to lock Vittoria up for a fortnight, to ensure he will not be cuckolded. When Camillo pleads for serious advice, Flamineo suggests that women are most chaste when they have the most liberty. He claims Camillo's jealousy is coloring his vision, making him see threats where there are none.
Vittoria enters, and Flamineo tells Camillo to watch from a distance as he convinces his sister to sleep with Camillo. Flamineo pulls Vittoria aside, where he privately tells her that Camillo is upset. She insists she was respectful to him at dinner - she "carved" to him, in her language. He puns in response, saying she didn't need to "carve" (or castrate) him, since he already has the reputation of being a eunuch.
He then loudly compliments Camillo, so that the latter can hear, and Camillo remarks to himself that Flamineo will now arouse Vittoria. However, Flamineo privately undermines his compliments in conversation with Vittoria, even as he continues to speak them aloud.
Aloud so that Camillo can hear, Flamineo tells Vittoria that she will go to bed with "his lord," who will give her a ring adorned with a philosopher's stone as they lie in a bed stuffed with turtle dove feathers. Camillo believes "lord" refers to him, wheras Flamineo is subtly suggesting Brachiano to his sister. She quietly asks Flamineo how they will get rid of Camillo, and Flamineo then speaks to Camillo, suggesting she is almost ready, but that he should deny her this night so as to increase her desire for the next night. Camillo thanks Flamineo for his wise advice, and tells Vittoria that he will not sleep with her that night. Flamineo asks how he can ensure Camillo will not renege on his commitment to wait, and Camillo offers to be locked in his room for assurance. He then leaves, happy with the way things have gone.
As Camillo leaves, Brachiano enters from the shadows where he was hiding, and begins wooing Vittoria with courtly vows. At the same time, Zanche brings out a carpet and two pillows to set up a bed for their affair. Cornelia, Vittoria and Flamineo's mother, enters and hears the planning. She laments to herself how her family is sinking into ruin, predicting that this affair will ruin them all.
Brachiano gives Vittoria a jewel for her "jewel," punning on the female sexual organ, and tells her to wear it at the base of her dress bodice. Vittoria then tells him of her most recent dream. She was sitting under a yew tree when Brachiano's wife (Isabella) and Camillo confronted her, accusing her of trying to uproot the yew. They decided to bury her alive and began to dig a grave for her, when the yew tree killed them with one of its branches. Flamineo whispers to himself that the smart and devilish Vittoria has subtly insisted that Brachiano kill his wife and Camillo. Brachiano promises to protect Vittoria from their spouses, and to devote himself to her entirely.
Cornelia enters from the shadows as Flamineo chases Zanche away. She lectures Vittoria and Brachiano on the sinfulness of their illicit relationship, and Vittoria pleads with her mother to understand. Cornelia reveals that Brachiano's sick wife is returning to Rome, and Vittoria protests that she could only have resisted Brachiano's love at the cost of bloodshed. Together, Cornelia and Vittoria kneel for forgiveness, and Vittoria flees from shame.
Flamineo insists to Brachiano that he can bring her back, but Brachiano is upset, and tells Cornelia that she has stirred up a storm. He then leaves. Flamineo accuses Cornelia of betrayal, insisting this was the only way he knew to increase his and the family's financial and social position. Cornelia regrets having given birth to him, and he counters that he would rather have been born to a prostitute in Rome. Cornelia leaves upset, and Flamineo resolves to continue with his mischief, using deception and indirect methods if necessary.
As a revenge tragedy, John Webster's The White Devil promises its audience imminent violence, bloodshed, and betrayal. It delivers on all counts. Few characters in the work are marked by goodness or purity, and the perspective on humanity is rather bleak and pessimistic. However, to Webster's credit, he also mostly avoids a simplistic understanding of evil, by giving his villains motives that are as much symptoms of society as of original sin.
Significantly, Webster chooses to open his play with the scene of Lodovico's banishment. Lodovico is a side character compared to Brachiano, Vittoria, or Flamineo, yet he both opens and closes the play. Arguably, this is because his story so perfectly encapsulates the play's conflict between powerful social forces and the anarchic individual. Lodovico is a dangerous man without any regard for law and order, and he is banished precisely because he openly refuses to bow before the laws of the land. The Roman rulers have decided that Lodovico is too unstable and violent to live within their society, and so wish him gone. Similarly, the same social forces will reject Vittoria for her unruly sexuality, and Brachiano for his unbridled lust.
These social forces, however, are not to be trusted as inexorably just. In fact, Flamineo wishes not to flaunt these forces but rather to be embraced by them, and through Flamineo's social-climbing, Webster makes an implicit attack on the forces of money and power than define society. Like Lodovico, Flamineo is a desperate and dangerous man who will balk at nothing to get what he wants, including prostituting his sister and killing his own brother, but he does so surreptitiously. He wishes respect and acceptance, whereas Lodovico is willing to forgo those.
One distinction is that Flamineo is born poor, and hence has to rely on his wit to balance the score with his social 'betters.' His use of wit, puns, and double-entendres touches on the discrepancy between what appears and what truly is, a crucial motif in the play. One instance of Flamineo's wit comes when Camillo remarks that he cannot remember that last time that he and Vittoria slept together, and Flamineo responds, "Strange you should lose your count." Flamineo is superficially referring to Camillo's count of the days since his last union with Vittoria, but he also is referring to female genitals, punning on the pronunciation of the word "count." This distinction between what appears and what is, extends from Flamineo's verbal acrobatics to the moral natures of many of the play's characters. Flamineo is a low-born man but will use subterfuge to gain prestige even as he does not admit his goal to anyone but his mother.
However, class inequality is not the only factor that creates a hierarchy forcing people to use subterfuge for their gain. Women, too, are rather powerless unless they use manipulation. Flamineo indicates as much in his first conversation with Brachiano, but the latter is nevertheless easily fooled when Vittoria plants the idea of murder by relating her dream. In the dream (detailed in the Summary), she subtly compares Brachiano to the yew tree, which has several psychological implications. The first is a compliment to his ego - the tree is large, a foundation, a powerful institution that dwarfs the people under it. However, the language is also effective, as "yew" is a homophone of "you," which leads Brachiano to associate himself with the tree. Its final rhetorical effect relies on the symbolic connection between a yew tree and death, a common motif in revenge tragedy. While Vittoria never explicitly admits that she uses the dream as tactic, the play's general perspective on humanity, and her later admission that a woman's only weapon is her words, suggest that she is compensating for her lack of power through a trickery similar to that of her brother. What she presents is not what she truly is, which conforms to one of the play's most pervasive themes.
A woman's position in the world is also explored through the fear of cuckoldry that Camillo expresses in his discussion with Flamineo. A cuckold is a husband whose wife has been unfaithful to him. The word stems from the cuckoo bird, who is known to change mates frequently and lay its eggs in other nests. The many references to a cuckold's horns refer to the mating practice of stags, where defeated male stags lose their horns. As the husband of the unfaithful Vittoria, Camillo is a classic cuckold. Traditionally, there were fewer worse insults that a man could suffer, whereas male infidelity was nowhere near as grievous. The extremity of the fear serves as reminder that a wife was considered as much possession as partner, and hence was limited in her agency. Flamineo manipulates this excessive fear. While Vittoria keeps Camillo sexually impotent by refusing to copulate with him, Flamineo emasculates him verbally by subtly insulting him over and over again.
Cornelia's entrance at the end of Scene Two evokes a symbolic morality play. Morality plays, popular in the medieval period, usually detailed one individual's path as he fell from innocence into sin, repented, and was ultimately saved. The plays personified concepts like virtues and sins in order to make them more understandable. In the case of The White Devil, Brachiano and Vittoria's love-bed would likely be placed at the center of the stage, with Flamineo and Zanche representing Vice on one side, and Cornelia representing Virtue on the other. The contrast between the two groups vividly and visually depicts the two possibilities for the lovers. Invoking these morality plays makes the play's narrative arc easier to understand, and it prepares the audience for the imminent drama.
Of course, Webster's morality is far more ambiguous, and he ends his Act with Flamineo to remind us that evil comes not from simple choice, but rather from complicated social desires. Flamineo is not interested in a moral choice, but in a physical gain, in achieving a social position to which he feels entitled. It is unlikely that many characters will choose the side of Virtue that Cornelia represents, and the audience can feel this even at the end of Act I.