The White Devil Summary
by John Webster

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The White Devil Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Antonelli and Gasparo, courtiers of Francisco de Medicis, duke of Florence, bring to Count Lodovico in Rome the news that he is banished because of his notorious intrigues and bloody murders. Lodovico cannot understand why he is singled out for punishment when other noblemen, especially the duke of Brachiano, are guilty of crimes just as heinous.

Brachiano is trying to seduce Vittoria Corombona, wife of the aging Camillo. Helping Brachiano in his scheme is Vittoria’s unscrupulous brother Flamineo, who convinces Camillo that the best way to keep Vittoria virtuous is to give her unlimited freedom. This privilege granted, Vittoria keeps an assignation with Brachiano. Through the transparent symbolism of a dream that she fabricates, Vittoria urges her lover to murder Isabella, his wife, and Camillo, her husband. Just as Brachiano declares his love for Vittoria and his understanding of her design, Vittoria’s mother, Cornelia, discloses herself to denounce the two and to announce the arrival of Brachiano’s wife in Rome.

Isabella’s brothers, Francisco and Cardinal Monticelso, summon Brachiano to remonstrate against his philandering. When their appeal to Brachiano’s sense of virtue results only in mutual recrimination, the brothers produce Giovanni, Brachiano’s son, whose youthful innocence, they hope, will inspire Brachiano with a sense of family duty. Confronted alone by Isabella, Brachiano proves the folly of such a hope by berating his wife and vowing never again to sleep with her. To forestall the war that will surely ensue if Francisco learns of this vow, Isabella pretends that she is unable to forgive her husband and declares that she is abandoning her husband’s bed. Her ruse and Brachiano’s acquiescence in it fools Francisco so completely that he denounces Isabella for mad jealousy.

Disgusted by their sister’s vow but convinced that she will soon retract it, Francisco and Monticelso turn their attention to Camillo and Marcello, another of Vittoria’s brothers, whom they decide to appoint joint commissioners in charge of combating the pirates reportedly led by the banished Lodovico. Camillo objects because he fears he will be cuckolded during his absence from home, but Monticelso’s promise to keep an eye on Vittoria quiets him. Actually, Monticelso and Francisco are giving Camillo the commission to get him away from Rome so that Brachiano might have free access to Vittoria. By this scheme the two brothers hope to plunge Brachiano into a shameful scandal.

Brachiano, however, makes his own plans, arranging for Flamineo to murder Camillo, and for Julio, a physician, to kill Isabella. Through the magic of a conjurer, Brachiano is able to watch the murders, Isabella dying from kissing a poisoned portrait of her husband, and Camillo, from being pushed off a vaulting horse in a gymnasium.

Monticelso and Francisco immediately bring Vittoria to trial for the murder of her husband, although they know they have no evidence other than her ill repute. At her trial before the ambassadors to Rome, a hearing presided over by Monticelso, Brachiano admits that he stayed at Vittoria’s house the night of the murder. This testimony, along with other incriminating but circumstantial evidence of her adultery, is sufficient to convict Vittoria, although she protests her innocence and denounces the conduct of the trial. Monticelso sentences her to confinement in a house of reformed prostitutes.

Immediately after the pronouncement of this sentence, Giovanni arrives to tell his uncles of his mother’s death. Accompanying him is Lodovico, who secretly was in love with Isabella and who, in fact, witnessed her death. Francisco and Monticelso realize that Brachiano was responsible for the murder of their sister but disagree on how to avenge it. Fearing that a war might result from an open attack on Brachiano, yet unwilling to defer vengeance, Francisco, inspired by a vision of Isabella’s ghost, devises a trick. He writes a letter to...

(The entire section is 1,902 words.)