As a revenge tragedy, The White Devil plays strongly with themes of revenge and retribution. It uses many revenge tragedy tropes, including a secret murder of a harmless person, a ghostly visitation, feigned madness, and a devastating final scene that leaves most of the cast dead.
The theme resonates throughout the plot. Francisco seeks revenge for the murder of his sister, Isabella, against her husband Brachiano. In the play, revenge is cyclical and foreshadowed. For instance, Isabella is killed by Doctor Julio and his assistant Christophero, who poison the lips of the portrait that she kisses each night. In turn, Brachiano is killed through a poisoned mouthpiece. Both victims appear as ghosts to their avengers (Francisco and Flamineo, respectively), suggesting that revenge is inspired from beyond the grave.
Tied to the theme of revenge is a consistent allusion to the Roman Furies, the goddesses of vengeance. The female characters in the play are often either explicitly or implicitly compared to the Furies - Francisco accuses Isabella of being a Fury when she demands a divorce from Brachiano, and Cornelia's violent entrance in Act 5 is reminiscent of the supposed movement of Furies. While women are usually criticized for acting out on jealousy and feelings of revenge, the male characters justify their actions as noble, as when Cardinal Monticelso justifies his deception of Camillo. Ultimately, the characters' efforts at revenge lead to their own undoing, as nearly everyone lies dead or captured at the end of the play. Revenge breeds revenge, and never does virtue result from it.
Much of the play's conflict centers around the struggle between the anarchic individual and the oppressive rules of society. The play begins with a confrontation between the murderous Lodovico and the forces of society, embodied in Gasparo and Antonelli's decree of banishment. From there, the play moves to Brachiano, a man trapped in a loveless marriage who wishes to divorce his wife and follow his desires to Vittoria. For indulging their natural desires, they are banished from Rome and forced to live outside of the law. Vittoria, another headstrong individual, seeks to escape the repressive social forces that separate her from her lover, criticize her as a whore, and generally limit her agency as a woman. 'Respectable' society is embodied by the "great men" of the play, namely Francisco and Monticelso. While ostensibly representing legality and honesty, these two men undermine the power and purity of societal forces and show them to be more about maintaing power than encouraging virtue. The reader is left uncertain over which side is preferable, but certain of what happens when they stand in conflict: death.
Misogyny is a strong theme in the play, and is manifest in the viewpoints of most of its male characters. Flamineo, although seemingly a womanizer, constantly utters disparaging remarks about women, including his mother, his sister, and his lover. Most of the characters treat the headstrong Vittoria as a whore, but avoid prosecuting Brachiano. In her defense of herself, Vittoria points out the hypocritical inconsistencies of Monticelso's prosecuting argument. Monticelso shows the court a letter written to her by Brachiano, which sensuously professes his love for her. Monticelso tries to establish her guilt, but Vittoria counters, asking whether he would blame a river for a man committing suicide within it. Women in the play are consistently held to different standards then men when it comes to vengeance, and are treated as dangerous when they show strength or sexuality. Perhaps in response to the rabid misogyny, the women are represented as strong, developed characters who argue intelligently for their equality, albeit to little avail.
Embedded with the title, The White Devil is filled with warnings about the deceptive nature of appearances. Most strongly cautioned against are the "great men," Francisco and Monticelso. While these men are noble by birth and title, very little separates them from thugs like Lodovico and Flamineo, aside from money and social status. Although, as the instigators of the murders, Brachiano and Flamineo could be called the villains of the play, the play's caution against the deceptive nature of appearances forces the reader to question who the real villain is. Despite being outfitted in the holy robes of a cardinal, Monticelso is a scheming revenger who subtly instigates a bloodbath. Through these warnings, Webster also warns against many social and religious institutions. This divorce between appearance and reality even extends to the level of the text. Many of Flamineo's lines contain double entendres, and what is on the surface of the dialogue is often the extreme opposite of what is meant. All people are self-obsessed, Webster seems to suggest, and so any appearance to the contrary is worth doubting.
Female virtue is a constant topic of discussion within the play. Superficially set up as complete opposites, Isabella represents the martyr while Vittoria represents the whore. When one looks beneath the surface, however, they are far more similar than they are different. Isabella and Vittoria are both (and both see themselves as) victims of male lust and desires. Both are held to unfair standards of virtue, simply because they are women. When Brachiano is unfaithful, he is criticized but encouraged to reform. However, Isabella is criticized simply for expressing jealousy. Vittoria is also equally unfavorably compared to Brachiano. She receives the blame for being a whore and tempting him, rather than him receiving the blame for lusting after and seducing her. In her spirited defense of herself, Vittoria demonstrates a typically male virtue, the power of logical argument, but then feels compelled to apologize for it to her judges. Vittoria and Isabella's ambiguously virtuous natures pose a problem for the strict dichotomy of female virtue and vice, leading the reader to reevaluate the play's misogynistic tone. A woman, it seems, is stuck between two irreconcilable options.
As is the case with most British literature, class is an important theme within The White Devil. Flamineo's strongest motivation is his desire to ascend the social ladder. According to Flamineo, class structure is simultaneously fluid and rigid. He claims "knaves do grow great by being great men's apes," i.e., if he fakes being a great man for long enough, he will be a great man. However, he also recognizes the near impossibility of ascending the social ladder, bitterly lashing out at all around him. Mechanisms like Francisco's hired thugs prevent him from attaining the life he wanted, and once Brachiano dies, he realizes how little power he actually has. The White Devil also explores the moral inequality of class systems, most elegantly stated when Gasparo bitterly remarks that princes give "death or punishment by the hands of others." Those in the upper class are good because they can afford to be good.
Sprinkled throughout The White Devil are several references to different medieval constructs, including morality plays and chivalric values. In Brachiano and Vittoria's first illicit encounter, the stage is set so that Cornelia is on one side, and Flamineo and Zanche are on the other. The effect is that of a medieval morality play in which each side represents Virtue and Vice, respectively. Further, there are many allusions to medieval chivalric values. Giovanni's suit of armor, the Knights/Ambassador's livery, and the games at Brachiano and Vittoria's wedding all recall the chivalric code of conduct. Knights were supposed to honor God, respect women, be loyal and generous, protect the weak, and obey authority. The inclusion of these allusions is significant because they sharply contrast with the code that many of the characters actually live by. The women in the play are treated with widespread disrespect, authorities are disobeyed at every turn, and no one is loyal or generous without some sort of selfish motive. By comparing the actions of the characters to these fabled virtues, the reader fully understands the complex corruption of each character, and is led to implicitly wonder whether such virtues were ever anything but a deceiving appearance.
The White Devil Questions and Answers
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