The White Devil

The White Devil Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Flamineo justifies his behavior by saying "Knaves do grow great by being great men's apes." What does he mean by this, and does the action of the play support this conclusion?

    Flamineo claims that if he pretends to be a great man for long enough, he will eventually become a great man. The suggestion is that the appearance of greatness is sufficient, since true characters are disguised by outward appearance. The play rejects this claim, as both Vittoria and Flamineo fail to successfully climb their social ladders despite significant effort. However, this statement also supports another interpretation, which is that great men are in fact no different from the knaves they employ. This interpretation is supported by Francisco's actions in plotting the massacre at the end of the play. Although Lodovico may be the actual murderer, Francisco is just as complicit; the only difference is that he maintains an outward appearance of "greatness."

  2. 2

    Compare and contrast Vittoria and Isabella. How are they similar and how are they different?

    Although originally presented as female incarnations of vice and virtue, Vittoria and Isabella are revealed to be far more similar than they are different. Despite being constantly reviled as a whore, Vittoria shows a moral conscience in several scenes, and Isabella's harangues at Brachiano suggest that she has more "Fury" in her than people perceive. Ultimately, the women are similar because they both recognize the limited agency they have as women, and attempt to counter masculine aggression rather than simply accept their status as victims.

  3. 3

    What purpose do the dumb shows serve in The White Devil?

    The dumb shows advance the plot quickly by giving a succinct depiction of the murders of Camillo and Isabella. Were Webster to write these scenes, they would undoubtedly take longer since he would be compelled to observe the unity of time and let them unfold over a more realistic duration. They also provide emotional distance for the audience, since the severity and villainy of the murders is tampered by the lack of vocal accompaniment. The dumb shows also foreshadow Brachiano's death, hinting at the way he will be killed. Finally, they offer a great theatrical spectacle - an audience at revenge tragedy wants to see murder, and this allows Webster to provide that with minimal interruption to his plot.

  4. 4

    How does Webster use parallelism to shape the play?

    The White Devil is filled with parallelism in terms of actor grouping, double scenes, and repeated actions. Oftentimes, Webster uses these structures to draw comparisons between seemingly unlike things, like between Francisco and Monticelso's plotting and Brachiano and Flamineo's plotting. In this case, the parallel reveals that there is less difference between "great" and common men than titles suggest. He also explores the threat of misogyny for women by paralleling the situations of Isabella and Vittoria. The parallel structures reveal the true natures of many of the characters, suggesting that the many social distinctions we draw are merely ruses to disguise the inherent villainy of which all people are capable.

  5. 5

    Why might Webster have chosen The White Devil as the title of the play?

    The deceptive nature of appearances is one of the strongest themes running through the play, and the title establishes that. Although the devil is usually associated with darkness, Webster instead ties it here to whiteness, suggesting deception and false innocence. Who is the "White Devil"? The answer is ambiguous, but certainly carries within it an indictment of the supposedly innocent and lawful characters of Francisco and Monticelso. In other words, all people know to fear and avoid "blackness" and vice, but the play cautions us to also cast our skepticism and fear towards those who seem "white."

  6. 6

    How does Webster convey his idea that appearances are often deceptive and truth lurks beneath the surface?

    The White Devil is littered with references to the differences between appearances and reality. Many of the characters speak in double entendres and puns, which allow true meanings to be hidden below the surface. He also uses symbols to explore the theme, such as the pot of lilies which hides a human skull. Most of all, it is characters who manifest the difference between appearance and truth. The best example is probably Monticelso, who claims to abhor vice but facilitates murder through a "black book" and money given to Lodovico. Death and evil lurk beneath many surfaces, including those of the so-called "great men."

  7. 7

    How does Vittoria influence Brachiano towards his actions? Are her manipulations accidental or intentional?

    When Vittoria describes her dream to Brachiano, an idea is planted in his head through its symbols. By comparing him to a yew true, she both evokes the idea of death (which was classically associated with the yew), and strokes his ego by comparing him to a large, immovable object. Similarly, the dream presents her as in need of protection. Whether Vittoria was deliberately planting this idea can be argued either way. Her defense in her trial suggests she believes herself the victim of male lust and an impotent husband, which means she would not have facilitated murder. However, the play's overarching conception of people as self-interested and villainous suggests some culpability on her part. She herself notes that women can only enable action through words because of a misogynist society, and so subtly suggesting murder would fall within her scope of action.

  8. 8

    How is The White Devil a revenge tragedy?

    The White Devil includes many tropes from revenge tragedies, including ghosts, subtle scheming, betrayal, disguises, feigned madness, and a high body count. However, the play complicates the genre by problematizing the role of the tragic hero. Brachiano represents a typical tragic, aristocratic hero, but he is easy to criticize as petty and self-involved, lacking noble qualities. Flamineo and Vittoria complicate it further by being less aristocratic and yet tragic heroes of the plot, and their roles serve not to glorify man but instead to criticize the trappings of their social world, and by default the genre of the revenge tragedy itself.

  9. 9

    How does Webster incorporate chivalric values into the play, and how do they infororm the story?

    Webster references chivalric values through Giovanni's suit of armor, the Ambassador knights, and the games at Brachiano and Vittoria's wedding. All of these evoke the medieval system of chivalry, which we continue to associate with virtue and honor. These traditional values of loyalty, respect to women, and generosity contrast sharply with the behavior of both the villains and the heroes in Webster's play. By posing his own villainous characters against an image of more noble behavior, the audience is led to both realize the depravity of Webster's characters and to implicitly consider whether such ideal behavior ever truly existed, or whether it was itself simply a mask behind which people hid their less noble qualities.

  10. 10

    What position does The White Devil take on "great men"?

    The play is strongly critical of "great men." Flamineo makes many disparaging remarks about "great men," and Vittoria curses her involvement with them as she dies. In fact, Flamineo's behavior is somewhat understandable (if not justifiable) by considering how badly he wishes to climb the social ladder, to be recognized as "great" for his wit and cleverness even though the rigid hierarchy prevents it. However, he would find little virtue there even if he could climb that ladder. The "great men" of the play - Francisco, Monticelso, and Brachiano - are all self-absorbed hypocrites who are only good in appearance, and manipulate their power to ruin the lives of others.