Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Rome. Leading city of Italy, in which the first four acts of the play take place. During Webster’s time, Rome was known for its political and moral complexities and corruption. The play’s second act is set at midnight in an isolated Roman location where Duke Brachianio watches as a conjurer produces a dumb show that achieves an appropriately theatrical effect while also advancing the drama’s plot. The setting of the third act assumes a more official air, as the characters Flamineo, Marcello, and Vittoria are brought to trial before Cardinal Monticelso in his palace.

House of the Convertites

House of the Convertites. Home for reformed prostitutes to which Vittoria is sent after she is condemned by Cardinal Monticelso. Here she is effectively imprisoned, with the additional punishment of being stripped of her reputation. There is dramatic irony in the fact that the virtuous Vittoria must serve her unjust sentence in a home for “fallen women” in what the playwright regards as one of the most corrupt cities in Christendom.


*Vatican. Roman residence of the pope and the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. During the play the reigning pope, Gregory XIII, dies, and the College of Cardinals assembles to elect his successor, who is none other than Cardinal Monticelso. The combination of the scene and the action reinforce the drama’s theme of the moral hypocrisy of Vittoria’s enemies and the pervasive corruption of Italy.


*Padua. City in northeast Italy, near Venice, to which Brachiano and Vittoria flee and get married after their escape from Rome. Although Padua at first seems a refuge from the treachery and deception of Rome, it proves to be equally corrupt, and the couple are murdered by their foes. In a land and time of utter moral depravity, no innocent persons or couples are safe.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Reign of King James I and the Theatre
When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, she did so without an heir, forcing England to...

(The entire section is 930 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Revenge Tragedy
The Revenge Tragedy was a popular genre of drama during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Thomas Kyd’s The...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1600s: In 1611, King James I authorizes the translation and writing of the Holy Bible into English. The King James Version is a poetic...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the life and writings of Machiavelli. How does his political theory, particularly that articulated in The Prince inform Webster’s writing of The White Devil?

Examine several heroines of Renaissance tragedy such as Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, the Duchess of Malfi, and Vittoria. How do each of these female characters embody contemporary Renaissance ideas about women?

Read several revenge tragedies, beginning with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and including Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Hamlet. As a group, what do these plays have in common with The White Devil? How does the revenge tragedy change across time?

How does the animosity between Catholics and Protestants in England in the seventeenth century manifest itself in the play? What historical, political, religious, and social events reflect this animosity? Is the question of religion ever adequately resolved?

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

The Duchess of Malfi (1623) is Webster’s other important play. It also features a woman as the main character. The Duchess, however,...

(The entire section is 165 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Aughterson, Kate, Webster: The Tragedies, Palgrave, 2001.

Behling, Laura L., ‘‘‘S/he Scandles...

(The entire section is 391 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bliss, Lee. The World’s Perspective: John Webster and the Jacobean Drama. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983. Discusses Webster in the context of his relation to his contemporaries and predecessors. Seeks to establish the existence of a social commentary of disillusionment in the play.

Forker, Charles R. Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986. A comprehensive study of Webster’s life and work. Recounts the historical incidents upon which The White Devil is based and explores the nuances of the characters’ relationships with one another by close reading.

Pearson, Jacqueline. Tragedy and Tragicomedy in the Plays of John Webster. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980. Documents The White Devil’s pattern of repetitions—often ironic—which make for a tight, interconnected structure. Less convincing in the attempt to establish these patterns as tragicomic.

Waage, Frederick O. The White Devil Discover’d: Backgrounds and Foregrounds to Webster’s Tragedy. New York: Peter Lang, 1984. A close reading of the play, with emphasis on how the structure reflects Webster’s ethical stance. In the balance of action scenes with scenes of stasis, discovers a calculated attempt to capture more closely the rhythms and “irresolution” of life than traditional five act divisions do.

Wymer, Rowland. Webster and Ford. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Discusses the relevance and appeal of Webster’s work to twentieth century audiences. The chapter on The White Devil explores the dramatic potential of the play’s symbolism of black and white—for example, having black actors take on some of the major roles—to highlight Webster’s sense of moral ambiguity.