John Webster’s two greatest plays are The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. They have many points in common. Both are tragedies based on events that occurred in Italy in the sixteenth century. Both carry the audience into a dark and grim world in which evil characters are capable of virtually any atrocity and in which good characters are all too frequently destroyed by murderous plotters, many of whom are of their own family. Bonds of kinship and marriage are not enough to protect the innocent from the greed, jealousy, and ruthlessness of husbands, wives, and brothers. The bases of order seem in question. Church and state are both corrupt; evil seems rampant everywhere.
Webster’s characters are memorable, particularly the women. Webster creates tragic heroines, Vittoria and the Duchess, women whose lives and deaths make them capable of drawing the admiration and sympathies of author and audience. The three major villains—Brachiano, the Cardinal, and Duke Ferdinand, men of rank in church and state—are creatures of immense selfishness whose will is law. What they desire they must have, even if innocents have to die. Both plays contain melancholics, Flamineo in The White Devil and Daniel de Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi, and much of Webster’s sarcasm appears in their speeches. Both of them are poor, having been scholars who could find no preferment except by joining the service of cruel noblemen. Their low birth and poverty doom them to serve as tools to be used in the iniquity of others. Flamineo takes some pleasure in the villainies he commits, but Bosola is pained by the tortures he is forced to inflict.
The White Devil
The opening word in The White Devil catches attention immediately: “Banish’d!” The speaker is Count Lodovico, who is being banished for his many crimes, including several murders. He indicates the lack of moral value in his diseased world by calling his killings flea bites. He reveals more about his world by naming the gods that rule it: reward and punishment at court.
The evil master whom Flamineo serves is the Duke of Brachiano, who has been smitten by the great beauty of Vittoria, Flamineo’s sister. Flamineo has no qualms about pandering to his own sister; her allure can help him to advance in Brachiano’s service. Early in The White Devil, Brachiano meets secretly with Vittoria, whom he desires as a mistress. Vittoria indicates her willingness to become his lover, but unfortunately she sees two problems: his wife and her husband. Without ever saying so directly, she indicates that Brachiano should kill both of them. She tells him of a dream in which she was attacked by both of their spouses. Her situation was desperate until a limb from a yew tree fell and crushed both of her attackers. She has let Brachiano know that he is the “you” who must kill to get her. Flamineo, eavesdropping, appreciates the cunning of her invitation to murder.
In staging his plays, Webster greatly favored the device of the dumb show. The deaths of both unwanted spouses are depicted in this way. The murder of Brachiano’s wife, Isabella, who loves her husband devotedly, is silently acted out onstage as Brachiano, with the aid of a conjurer who has supplied him with a magic cap, happily watches from a distance. Isabella prepares for bed, saying her prayers and then kissing, as she always does, her husband’s picture, which has been anointed with a powerful poison. She dies immediately. Brachiano continues to watch as Vittoria is freed from her unwanted husband, Camillo, in a second show provided by the conjurer. The ambitious and unscrupulous Flamineo commits the murder himself, breaking the neck of his brother-in-law but making the injury appear to be the tragic result of a fall from a vaulting horse. Webster characterizes Brachiano deftly as he praises his henchmen; they provided a good show, and he enjoyed it. Vittoria is his.
Although the death of Isabella is not immediately known, the murderers have made dangerous enemies of two potent figures in church and state. Camillo was a nephew of Cardinal Monticelso, who will become the pope before the play ends. Isabella was a Medici, sister to Francisco, the great duke of Florence, who resents Vittoria’s adultery with his sister’s husband. These powerful men prosecute their revenge. Vittoria is brought to trial, and Webster’s training in the law creates an impressive scene. Vittoria defends herself against all charges; she is neither a whore nor a murderess. Her spirited defense and her magnificent beauty win over many of the judges but show her to be the white devil of the title, for one meaning of the term is “hypocrite” and the other, something of external beauty that is ugly within. In either case, Vittoria seems a “white devil.” She is sentenced to confinement in a religious house.
After the trial, Francisco learns of his sister’s murder and plans his revenge. A book exists that contains the names of criminals who would be available for a price. Francisco borrows it from its owner, Cardinal Monticelso, soon to be pope. The next step in Francisco’s revenge is to make Brachiano think that he has a rival for Vittoria’s love. Brachiano rages at Vittoria, who turns away from him. Afraid of losing her, he takes her away from her house of confinement and marries her. Francisco chortles: He has tricked Brachiano into the disgrace of marrying his whore. Now he will kill him. As Brachiano prepares for a tournament, his assassins put poison inside his helmet. Heat and perspiration activate the poison, which surges through him. His agony is terrible, and his murderers delight in his suffering.
The duke’s death is hard for Flamineo to bear. He has risked everything for Brachiano, but the new duke, Brachiano’s son, banishes Flamineo from his court. Unless Vittoria, his sister, can rescue him, Flamineo has lost everything. Vittoria will not help him because one of his victims was their own brother, Marcello. The angry dispute between the two is interrupted by the assassins. Flamineo, furious with his sister, volunteers to kill her for them, but the killers strike both together. Vittoria dies bravely, regaining the admiration of her brother. Vittoria’s last words voice Webster’s view of nobles and their corrupt courts: Those who have never seen a court and have never known a nobleman are truly fortunate.
The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess of Malfi is favored above the earlier play by many. The second play does have flaws, but its language is superb, its characterization rich, its themes immensely significant, and its story, from Italian history, well chosen to give Webster frequent opportunity to display his talent for creating horror.
At the court of the Duchess Giovanna of Malfi, five truly interesting characters appear, three of them villains. The coldest of them is the older brother of the Duchess, the Cardinal. The younger brother, Duke Ferdinand, is fiery. Again, Webster shows evil and corruption in the great positions that control power in the state and the church. The third figure is Bosola, the tool villain, used by the other two to carry out their crimes.
The victims of these men are the Duchess herself and Antonio Bologna. At the beginning of the play, Antonio, steward to the Duchess, wins a prize for his equestrian skill. Webster has thus indicated Antonio’s worth. In an age that values good horsemanship exceedingly, Antonio, though not of noble birth, has excelled. From such a man, serving as Webster’s choric commentator, come the statements that begin the characterization of the other major figures. The Cardinal employs spies and panders to do his bidding; he has even tried to bribe his way into the papal chair. The Duke is like a spider, using the law like a cobweb to entrap his victims. The Duchess, however, is far different from her brothers; she is a gracious lady. As for Bosola, he is too melancholic, but Antonio has sympathy for him, believing that he has been used badly by the brothers and that he will be used by them again.
(The entire section is 3336 words.)