John Webster’s The White Devil is a story of passion and revenge. Written and first performed in 1612, The White Devil is loosely based on a sensational event that happened in Italy some thirty years earlier: the murder of historical Vittoria Accoramboni in Padua, on December 22, 1585. Webster apparently used one or more chronicles of the event for his plot line, his settings, and his characters. According to John Russell Brown, however, Webster had to be very careful as he retold this story. Webster’s interest was not so much in the historical accuracy of his retelling, but rather in the way this story could ‘‘[depict] the political and moral state of England in his own day.’’
Although The White Devil is an example of the revenge tragedy genre, a popular Jacobean form of drama, Webster’s design and purpose in the play are not always clear. Many critics contend that this is a seriously flawed play, one that has no central purpose other than to reveal the corruption at the heart of court life. There are other, more recent critics, however, who argue that Webster’s creation of a chaotic world lacking stability is a masterpiece. Indeed, Webster’s play is a commentary on the fragmentary, shifting nature of reality itself. As Brown writes, ‘‘The white devil herself is at the centre of the story and its staging, but she is by no means a stabilizing factor; she is always changing, and changing the audience’s view of other persons.’’ The White Devil continues to fascinate audi ences and readers alike; Manchester University Press published an easily accessible, updated paperback edition of the play in 1996.