The White Devil is not an easy play to wrap your head around. The language is dense, the plot complicated to the point of convoluted, and the male characters all have names that end with “o.” Thanks, early modern dramatists’ obsession with Italy! The first time I read Webster’s work there was only one scene I enjoyed (more on that later), but having let it sink in for a few days, I find that there are things I appreciate about this play, things worth drudging through the confusing dialogue for.
The story of The White Devil was inspired by the real-life scandal surrounding the murder of Vittoria Accoramboni, a woman from a poor but proud family. In the play, she and the Duke of Brachiano have an affair, egged on by Vittoria’s brother Flamineo, and decide that the only way they can be together is if they get rid of their respective spouses. Brachiano gets in trouble with his late wife’s family, the Medicis, and Vittoria is convicted of her husband’s murder. However, Vittoria and Brachiano manage to elope together, get excommunicated by the new pope, and make even more enemies along the way. After Brachiano is poisoned by a Medici assassin and dies, Flamineo moves in to claim his reward, hoping that he can get Vittoria to give him some of the inheritance. The Medicis close in on them, all hell breaks loose, and everybody dies. Lovely. No wonder Webster found this story inspiring; it’s not a Jacobean tragedy unless the stage is littered with corpses by the end.
In his play, Webster explores the corruption of the court and the justice system, pointing out the hypocrisy of those who call themselves pure and are quick to judge others (hence the title: The White Devil). People are strangled by assassins disguised as monks, the cardinal agrees to keep certain names out of his little black book of criminals as long as they pay him enough, and Vittoria is sentenced to imprisonment in “a house of penitent whores” without any real proof. The desire for power is what drives every single male character to unsavoury acts: bribery, murder, all is fair when you are trying to climb up that social ladder. And who are the ones who end up paying for this cycle of violence and personal ambition? The women. Vittoria, her mother Cornelia, Brachiano’s wife, they are the moral centre in a vile world where they have little to no control over what happens to them. They are either pawns in the men’s game or obstacles to be swept aside, completely at their mercy.
But then Webster does something revolutionary: he gives Vittoria a voice. Better than that, he lets her defend herself against all the charges these men lay against her. In the court scene, which stands out and grabbed me instantly, Vittoria is called a whore and a murderess, and instead of having her undergo this horrible treatment with meek sadness and tears in her eyes, Webster lets her fight back. Vittoria mocks the lawyer’s Latin, the cardinal’s words of judgment (“O poor charity, / Thou art seldom found in scarlet”), and marches out of the court with her head held high. Even when surrounded by the Medici assassins in the final scene, she does not break. When one of them says that it looks like she is trembling with fear, she spits out:
O thou art deceived. I am too true a woman:
Conceit can never kill me. I’ll tell thee what,
I will not in my death shed one base tear,
Or if look pale, for want of blood not fear.
This play is not without its flaws: in fact, The White Devil can be a real chore to get through. The language is utterly inaccessible at times, the story is very difficult to follow the first time around, Webster’s words are not as poetic as I would have liked, and there are a few plot twists that will make you facepalm repeatedly. However, I still think it is worth a read/watch if you are at all interested in early modern England or views on female sexuality in general. After all, this is the play that gives Bracciano’s wife the following lines:
O that I were a man, or that I had power
To execute my apprehended wishes,
I would whip some with scorpions.