The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe and The White Devil by John Webster were written around the same time period by British playwrights who knew each other and worked for the royal court and local theaters. Both plays satirize, unmask, and upend religion and religious hypocrisy by showing various would-be pious characters scheming for power and killing one another if necessary to further their own purposes.
In each play, two women are subject to a specific religious ritual—conversion to become a nun in a nunnery. The circumstances and outcome of each situation are starkly different.
In The Jew of Malta, the anti-hero is Barabas, the eponymous Jew of the title who is out to destroy virtually everyone else, and especially Protestants and Catholics. He orders his daughter to infiltrate a local convent by becoming a nun, so that she will become his eyes and ears there as he searches for treasure on the convent estate (the estate used to be his, but was taken from him).
Abagail agrees to help her father, but as the story progresses, her eyes are opened to his intensely vengeful nature. She says:
Then were my thoughts so frail and unconfirmed, And I was chained to follies of the world;
But now experience purchased with grief,
Has made me see different of things. My sinful soul, alas, hath paced too long The fatal labyrinth of misbelief,
Far from the Son that gives eternal life.
Abagail decides to truly take her vows and become a nun in the convent, abandoning her father and his plans. Barabas—not a very good father—punishes Abagail by poisoning her, then goes on to poison all the nuns and strangle several friars so he can find his hidden treasure. So much for the safety and protection of nunneries.
In The White Devil, the protagonist, Vittoria, is put on trial for the murder of her husband. She is railroaded by the court, though there is not evidence she did it (and she did not). She is sentenced by the court to a nunnery for penitent whores. However, she and her lover, Brachiano, manage to escape before she is forcibly removed to the nunnery. To punish Vittoria, after she escapes, she is excommunicated by the Pope, another Catholoic religious ritual.
Webster also has his characters employ inversions of religious rituals in the play. Brachiano, who has fallen in love with Vittoria, decides to abandon his wife, Isabella. He does so by cursing the priest who sang their wedding mass, and he tells her:
Your hand I’ll kiss,
This is the latest ceremony of my love,
Henceforth I’ll never lie with thee—by this,
This wedding ring, I’ll never more lie with thee.
This is a cruel parody of the ritual of the wedding service, as Brachiano swears by their own wedding ring that he will never lie with her again, using a mocking version of the vows themselves to drive it home. These satires of religious ritual are used several times more in the play, by characters who have no true religious scruples or beliefs whatsoever.