The White Devil is one of John Webster’s two exceptional revenge tragedies. The revenge tragedy is a subgenre that flourished during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. It is characterized by actions of lust, murder, and vengeance. The dark passions and questionable motives that govern the revengers distinguish these plays from more classically conceived tragedies, in which the hero who falls is noble, if flawed, and the fall arouses pity and awe. The high moral message is noticeably absent from revenge tragedies such as The White Devil.
To plot his play, Webster used real events that occurred some twenty-seven years before the play’s first production. Conveniently, the scandalous affair between Vittoria Corombona and the duke of Brachiano took place in Italy, a country traditionally associated with corruption for the English. It is an appropriate setting for Vittoria, the white devil of the title. While some critics are unsure to whom the epithet is applied, only Vittoria combines satisfactorily its dual nature. Beautiful, intelligent, articulate, strong, Vittoria is also an unrepentant adulterer who is implicated in the murders of her husband Camillo and Brachiano’s duchess Isabella. It is no accident, however, that in this drama of moral ambiguity, the extent of Vittoria’s responsibility is left unclear; she may be guilty of no more than a wish, revealed in a dream, that Isabella and Camillo die.
In a world lacking nobility and goodness, Vittoria’s stoicism and integrity emerge as admirable. By virtue of Webster’s art, they contrast favorably with the pale pieties of her mother, Cornelia, and with the unfortunate Isabella. While one can sympathize with Cornelia’s displeasure over her daughter’s flagrant infidelity, the violence of her own language reveals her own viciousness. She curses Vittoria, wishing her life shortened if she should betray her husband—a dolt who is scorned by even his own faction. Later, her parading of her own sense of moral rectitude is revealed as a symptom of her madness in act 5, in which she appears onstage to strike Zanche, accusing her of being a whore. That she is, for the most part, correct does not redeem her behavior; rather, it serves to set her up in opposition to Zanche. They are two extremes of the same failing.
Part of the equivocal moral atmosphere of this play is that Vittoria’s adultery must demand censure, but it is impossible to imagine a life of contentment or fulfillment with Camillo. Modern readers might remind themselves that divorce is unavailable to Vittoria. Webster forces audiences to...
(The entire section is 1069 words.)
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