The White Devil

The White Devil Summary and Analysis of Act 5


Scene 1

Act 5 opens in Padua, where Brachiano and Vittoria have fled.

Brachiano and Vittoria cross the stage in a glorious wedding procession, followed by Flamineo, Marcelo, Hortensio, Cornelia, Zanche, and the ambassadors.

The party exits, but Flamineo and Hortensio remain behind. Hortensio and Flamineo discuss the Moor, named Mulinassar, who has recently arrived at court, and Flamineo expresses approval of the Moor's experience with state affairs and warfare. His is further pleased that Mulinassar has agreed to aid Brachiano in the impending war with Francisco. He finally explains the presence of the two gentlemen accompanying Mulinassar: they are Hungarian noblemen who are entering a Capuchin monastery after having fought in a crusade. As the audience alone knows, Mulinassar is actually Francisco in disguise, and the Hungarian gentleman are Lodovico, Gasparo, and Antonelli in disguise.

Brachiano enters with Mulinassar, the Hungarian gentlemen, Fernese, Carlo, and Pedro. Brachiano welcomes the Moor and asks him to stay for his wedding festivities. Brachiano, Flamineo, and Hortensio leave, and Carlo and Pedro welcome the conspirators. Together, they all discuss how to best kill Brachiano. Hearing Flamineo returning, all the conspirators exit, except for Francisco.

Flamineo, Marcello, and Zanche enter. Marcello asks why Zanche follows them, and Flamineo makes an off-color joke about his erection and her ability to end it. Zanche resolves to later speak to her "countryman" Mulinassar, and exits the stage. Flamineo asks Mulinassar (Francisco) for some war stories, but the latter refuses to brag about himself. Flamineo then advises the Moor on how to best obtain his payment from Brachiano.

Hortensio, a young lord, and Zanche re-enter. The former informs Flamineo that the games are about to begin, and Flamineo then badmouths him behind his back to Mulinassar (Francisco). Hortensio tells Flamineo that his lover, Zanche, has arrived, and Flamineo admits that they sleep together but also that he cannot trust her. He had promised to marry her, but he now regrets that promise and wants to avoid her. Zanche accuses him of falling out of love with her, and he claims that he is a better lover because his lack of "heat" prevents him from contracting venereal disease. When Zanche accuses him of falling in love with the "painted" courtiers, he replies that only a fool gives up what he has for what he wants.

Cornelia then enters, and immediately assaults Zanche. Flamineo leaps to the Moor's defense, threatening to lock his mother in the stocks. Marcello aids Cornelia, striking Zanche again and calling her a whore. He then explains that she has been bragging that Flamineo will marry her. While the two brothers argue with one other, Mulinassar (Francisco) enters, distracting Zanche. Zanche, clearly attracted to him, admits that she has fallen in love with Flamineo, which he explains is unwise. She promises him a dowry to offset her lack of virtue, and Francisco remarks aside that Zanche's confidence may be very helpful in aiding his schemes.

Scene 2

Marcello and Cornelia are together alone on stage. Cornelia confronts her son about court gossip claiming Marcello is set to duel with someone. He denies it, and asks his mother to back off.

Suddenly, Flamineo appears brandishing Marcello's sword. He fatally stabs his brother, and leaves.

Hortensio, Carlo, and Pedro arrive right after Marcello dies. Cornelia refuses to admit that Marcello is dead, and pleads with Hortensio and Carlo to fetch help. Brachiano enters, sees Marcello dead, and asks Flamineo if he committed the crime. Cornelia, however, asserts that it was Hortensio's crime, since he refused to aid the dying man. Clearly mentally unhinged, she then begs Flamineo for his forgiveness. Brachiano tells Flamineo that he cannot pardon the murder, but will allow a lease on Flamineo's life which the man must renew every evening. While Brachiano delivers this sentence, Lodovico poisons his helmet's mouthpiece, which evokes the method of Isabella's death.

Scene 3

As Scene 3 opens, several unnamed knights are engaged in battle as part of the tournament being held to celebrate the wedding.

Brachiano, Flamineo, Giovanni, Vittoria, and the disguised Francisco enter. Brachiano desperately calls for an armorer because he feels like his head is on fire. He soon realizes he has been poisoned, and he sends the armorer to be tortured. Doctors arrive and discover the poison is fatal, at which point Brachiano delivers a speech blaming Francisco and Fate/Death.

Lodovico and Gasparo arrive dressed as Franciscan monks, seemingly to deliver the last rites, and all but Mulinassar (Francisco) and Flamineo withdraw. Flamineo remarks how quickly great men lose friends and flatterers once they are in trouble, telling the disguised Francisco that the Duke cared more for money than he did for his subject's lives.

Lodovico re-enters to tell them that Brachiano is delirious and dying. Brachiano is then brought in on a bed alongside Vittoria and the disguised murderers. He rails against Vittoria, accusing her of causing him misery. He hallucinates images of the devil and of Flamineo dancing with money on a tightrope.

Gasparo and Lodovico begin to hypocritically intone Brachiano's last rites in Latin. They ask everyone to leave so that they may have religious privacy. Once everyone has left, they reveal their true identities to Brachiano, and curse him. He desperately calls for Vittoria, who rushes in but is quickly sent away again by Gasparo and Lodovico. To speed the death, Lodovico strangles Brachiano, and then everyone else re-enters. Flamineo and Mulinassar (Francisco) discuss Brachiano's death; they suggest Francisco as the likely murderer, and Flamineo admits he would like to speak with Brachiano once more.

Flamineo exits, and Lodovico enters from the shadows to suggest Francisco manipulate Zanche, who is attracted to him and thinks him a Moor like her, to learn secrets. Zanche and Francisco flirt, talking of their dreams. Francisco claims he had a dream in which he placed a blanket over Zanche's naked body, which tickled her. Zanche then tells Francisco how Isabella and Camillo died, and explains how she and Vittoria are planning to sneak out later that night. She gives the disguised Francisco a dowry, and asks him to meet her later. She exits, only to immediately re-enter to specify that he should meet her at midnight in the chapel. When she finally exits, Francisco explains to Lodovico that they will achieve great glory through their actions, and use that glory to get rid of the crime's taint.

Scene 4

Giovanni enters to find Flamineo and Gasparo speaking. Giovanni asks Flamineo to leave him, but Flamineo instead tells a fable emphasizing how great Giovanni can become now that his father is dead and he is "in the saddle." Giovanni chastizes him for insufficient grief, and exits.

Flamineo remarks that he does not trust Giovanni, and a courtier enters, telling Flamineo that Giovanni has ordered him to leave court. After the courtier exits, Francisco enters to tell Flamineo that Cornelia is currently distraught and burying Marcello. Cornelia, Zanche, and other assorted women enter. Cornelia, clearly somewhat insane, is murmuring distractedly about flowers for Marcello's grave. She does not recognize Flamineo, although she does call him the "grave-maker," a pun on grave-digger and murderer. She sings a song over Marcello's body in an attempt to bless and protect his grave. She then leaves with the rest of the women, and Flamineo asks Francisco to let him be alone.

In a soliloquy, Flamineo contemplates his corrupt life at court and his own failed plans. Suddenly, Brachiano's ghost appears, holding a pot of lilies with a skull buried beneath them. Flamineo unleashes a flurry of questions to the ghost, questioning what hell is like and whether Flamineo will also soon die. The ghost remains silent, but throws dirt on Flamineo, revealing the skull underneath the lilies. Frightened by all the misfortune around him, Flamineo runs off to kill his sister, hoping that will resolve everything.

Scene 5

Francisco and Lodovico enter, unaware that Hortensio hides behind them. Lodovico advises Francisco to leave the city before he gets caught or dragged into further evil. Francisco agrees, and promises to immortalize Lodovico's name if the latter dies in carrying out their plan. The two men exit, and Hortensio, now aware of the deception and conspiracies, races off to raise an army of men.

Scene 6

Vittoria and Zanche enter, followed by Flamineo. Flamineo interrupts Vittoria's prayers to demand payment for his service to Brachiano. Vittoria, outraged over his murder of Marcello, writes down that she will give him what God gave Cain. Angered, Flamineo storms out, and Zanche cautions Vittoria to be kinder to him.

Flamineo rushes back in with a pair of pistols, and threatens Vittoria. She asks him to calm down, reminding him that she has no children and so he will inherit all that she owns. Flamineo explains to her that he swore an oath to Brachiano that neither he nor Vittoria would outlive him by longer than four hours, and that it is unlikely that any other authority will allow them to live. When Vittoria recognizes his resolve, she argues they should commit a dual suicide, and that Flamineo should go first. Zache adds that she will join them, but that Flamineo must show them how to properly kill themselves.

Flamineo agrees, and instructs Zanche to shoot him and then Vittoria. The two women promise to follow the plan, and Flamineo gives them the guns. They then admit they have deceived him, and Vittoria ignores his insults to invoke the Furies, triumphant in her revenge. Zanche tells him that they will frame his murder like a suicide and thereby avoid any punishment for his death. Zanche shoots him.

In the midst of a murmuring speech about hellish burning, Flamineo reveals that he has deceived them by not actually loading the guns with bullets. He curses both them and womankind in general before brandishing different weapons towards them.

Lodovico, Gasparo, Carlo and Pedro suddenly barge in. They reveal their true identities, as well as that of the departed Mulinassar. Flamineo pleads with them to let him kill Vittoria, but they tie him to a pillar. Vittoria asks that Francisco kill her himself, but Gasparo explains nastily that great men recruit others to do their dirty work. Lodovico lashes out at Flamineo, explaining that he wishes he could kill him over and over again. When he says he will kill Zanche first, Vittoria begs him to kill her first. The women bravely confront their executioners, taunting that they will never cry.

Simultaneously, the three men stab Flamineo, Vittoria, and Zanche. Vittoria and Flamineo taunt their executioners before reconciling with one another. Zanche dies, then Vittoria. As Flamineo finally dies, the English Ambassador bursts onto the stage, followed by Giovanni and the rest of the guards and ambassadors. The guards uses guns to capture the conspirators, and then announce their intention to incarcerate them in the dungeon. All exit.


Act 5 serves to both conclude the play's plot and offer a final expression of its primary themes. In particular, the play explores the distinction between appearance and reality, and the way that corruption breeds corruption.

The distinction between appearance and reality, which has been present from the play's title through all of the acts thus far, gets explicit manifestation in the disguises used by the conspirators. Francisco does not only don a disguise but he also dresses as a Moor, a black man, through his Mulinassar persona. By dressing as a social inferior, a black man, he particularly evades suspicion.

All of the deceit is quite fitting, considering that Brachiano has wrought such a situation. The presence of these traitors within Brachiano's own court suggests the self-destructive nature of Brachiano's love and consequent death. Brachiano's foolish actions have brought his tragedy upon himself by engendering a court of distrust and corruption. It is fitting that his court and wife die by the same vices that defined him.

Further, Brachiano's death reflects the hypocrisy and irony with which he lived. Brachiano's death occurs during a game of barriers, a jousting game played in celebration of his wedding. Barriers were often staged as symbolic battles between allegorical forces like Truth versus Opinion. In performance, these games provide a spectacle for the audience as well as for the play's characters, but they also function as a source of irony, since their chivalric values contrast so sharply with the Machiavellian plotting.

Additionally, the method of his death has a poetic justice, in that he is killed by a mouthpiece, which evokes Isabella's murder. This repeated motif suggests the retributive nature of revenge. When Brachiano realizes that he has been fatally poisoned, he admits Francisco as the likely culprit, but saves his greatest ire for Fate. He claims that, as a "great man," he is above petty mortal squabbles, but that his fate is unalterably written in the stars. While this method of his death convinces him he is correct, the audience knows the truth - the motif does not reflect the justice of the heavens, but rather of man. He dies because of what he has done, but it is fitting with his hypocritical delusions of grandeur that he does not initially consider his own actions as the cause.

The depth of Flamineo's resentful, ugly character are also explored in this final act. He is driven by no loyalties save those he feels he owes to himself. He kills his brother over an argument concerning a woman he has only recently described as annoying, and becomes desperate in his plotting once Giovanni banishes him. Ultimately, despite his great wit and facility for machinations, he is powerless, and this realization drives him to desperately commit greater evil. In killing Marcello, he reveals his inflated sense of power and pride, but after Brachiano, the only person who grants him any power at all, dies, he is unseated. His encounter with Brachiano's ghost reminds him of how little power he truly has. The image of the lilies reinforces this point, since lilies are beautiful despite their foul odor. Flamineo is reminded of the truly deceptive nature of appearances, for what looks fair actually hides evil and death. Of course, if he were to have missed that point, Webster's grotesque streak makes sure that it is unavoidable through the skull that lies beneath the flowers.

Of course, Flamineo's most desperate act is to pursue his sister's death. Though she was once his primary tool towards achieving a higher status, he now views her as the cause of his problems, so much so that he is willing to kill himself to end her life. In their encounter, Vittoria reveals a stronger moral sense than his; she seems genuinely upset about Marcello's death, and will no longer tolerate his scheming. Of course, one could argue that this is itself a tactic, considering how self-interested all of the play's characters are. Nevertheless, Flamineo remains a schemer till the end. His feigned death is not only a trick played on Vittoria, but also one played on the audience. This meta-theatrical device reminds the audience of the illusive nature of plays and appearance, which of course reinforces the story's themes. Ultimately, Webster's critique of our reliance on appearance involves even his own work and the theater itself.

There are also several allusions made during Flamineo's desperation, revealing Webster's love of that device. At Marcello's funeral. Cornelia, very "distracted," gives Flamineo a speech about the proper flowers for burial, and then sings a little song. All of this is incredibly reminiscent of Hamlet's Ophelia, and her behavior after Laertes's death. When Vittoria denies Flamineo, she makes a biblical allusion by comparing him to Cain because of his fratricide. Finally, when Flamineo claims he vowed he and Vittoria would die soon after Brachiano, it is a reference to King Herod, who supposedly decreed that his beloved wife would be killed upon his death. The White Devil is full of such allusions, and Webster constantly references the work of other playwrights, the writing of antiquity, and historical events.

Finally, the play ends with the success of the scheme, but without offering any hope for humanity. The audience has naturally come to root for the conspirators, since they are ostensibly the arm of Francisco, who has become the protagonist since Isabella's death. However, they are quickly captured and imprisoned for their act, reminding us that they too commit evil. Revenge, being part of a vicious cycle, never breeds virtue. Francisco has promised to immortalize Lodovico's name, but we have every reason to doubt him, considering how self-interested everyone is. Webster leaves his story with a strong plot resolution, but a thematic uncertainty. Nobody has learned anything in the play, and nobody has grown more virtuous. Instead, they maintained the same selfish and hypocritical behaviors until circumstances ended the story, which reveals the true depth of Webster's pessimism.