Passion and Revenge inThe White Devil
John Webster was born around 1580 and died around 1634. He”was an English Jacobean dramatist best known for his tragedies “The White Devil” and “The Duchess of Malfi”, which are often regarded as masterpieces of the early 17th-century English stage.”1According to ReneWeis in the introduction of the book “The Duchess of Malfi and other plays” by John Webster,”The White Devil” is based on “sources about the life and death of Vittoria Accoramboni of Gubbio (1557-85) and her turbulent marriage (or repeated marriages) to the Duke of Bracciano. The play traces the couple’s relationship, aided and abetted by Vittoria’sbrother Flamineo.”2[Webster, 1996: XV]However, in this paper I will focus on the passion and revenge in the play.
Passion, according to me, is the driving force in the play “The White Devil”. Had it not been for the passion the charactersfelt, theyprobably wouldn’t have acted the way they did. Flamineo’s passionto climb up the social ladderis what incites him to plot with Bracciano the murders of Bracciano’s wife, Isabella, and Flamineo’s brother-in-law, Camillo.Bracciano’s passion for Vittoria is what stimulates him tohire someone tomurderIsabella andplot with Flamineo the murder ofCamillo.The passion of Francisco to avenge Isabella’s death is what incites him to disguise later on in the play andpoison Bracciano. Lodovico’s passion for Isabella, he is in love with her, is what incites him to enter the quest for revenge with Francisco and Cardinal Monticelso, who wanted to avenge the death of Camillo.
Since Bracciano is in love with Vittoria, the sister of Flamineo, Flamineo does whatever he is capable of to aid Bracciano in marrying Vittoria: “FLAMINEO Pursue your noble wishes; I am prompt/ As lightning to your service. O my lord! / (Whispers) The fair Vittoria, my happy sister, / Shall give you present audience. – Gentlemen, / Let the caroche go on, and tis his pleasure/ You put out all your torches and depart.”3(The White Devil 1.2. 4-9).Bracciano then asks about the husband of Vittoria, Camillo; Flamineo responds by saying “Hang him, a gilder that hath his brains perished with quicksilver is not more cold in the liver.”4(The White Devil 1.2. 26-27)Even so early in the play Flamineo already suggesttoBracciano to murder Camillo since he is “a gilder” which according to the notes in the book”The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays by John Webster”means “repeated exposure to the vapors of mercury usedin gilding could cause tremors and insanity when inhaled. The liver was thought to be the seat of passion.”5The meaning of the sentence is that Camillo is basically useless.Further lines down Flamineo keeps on encouraging Bracciano to pursue Vittoria romantically. Flamineo tries so hard to persuade Bracciano to pursue Vittoria all because of the passion he has to climb up the social ladder.Personally, Flamineo reminds me of Hamlet’s uncle, who so desperately wanted to become a king and kills his own brother and marries his brother’s widow.
Bracciano, on the other hand is easily manipulated because of the passion he has for Vittoria. He is ready to do whatever it takes to have Vittoria. He publiclyannounces hisdivorcewithhiswife Isabella: “BRACCIANO This is the latest ceremony of my love; / Henceforth I’ll never lie with thee, by this, / This wedding-ring; I’ll ne’er more lie with thee. / And this divorce shall be as truly kept, / As if the judge had doomed it; fare you well, / Our sleeps are severed.”6.In order to marry Vittoria, he is capable of anything. He hires Doctor Julio and Christophero to murder his wife, he plots with Flamineo the murder of Camillo. Bracciano won’t stop at anything to have Vittoria. Later on in the play, this passion he has for Vittoria drives him jealous. He finds love letters, which were written to Vittoria and he is ready to kill her. Bracciano doesn’t want anyone beside him to have Vittoria. Even today people sometimes are so blinded with passion and jealousy that they will stop at nothing to have the person of their desire only to themselves and if that means to murdersomeone or even their most beloved person.
Personally, I believe that passion is a very strong emotion which can make a person behave out of his ordinary behavior and can also stimulate someone to take the law into their own hands. Which is exactly what Francisco does. He doesn’t trust the legal system and the passion to avenge his sister’s deathand his sister’s ghost that appears to himis whatpersuadeshim to seek revenge.
Francisco is mad because his sister has been murdered and the murderers are not punished.He accuses Bracciano, Vittoria and Flamineo. When Bracciano and Flamineo only hired Doctor Julio and Christophero to poison the portraitthatIsabella kisses every night.At first Francisco did not want to seek revenge:”FRANCISCOFar be it from my thoughts / To seek revenge.”6(The White Devil 4.1. 2-3)Francisco decides that Bracciano will be punished by God when he dies: “FRANCISCOHe that unjustly caused it first proceed. / Shall find it in his grave and in his seed.”7(The White Devil 4.1.10-11).But after the ghost of Isabella appears to Francisco he is persuaded to seek revenge for herdeath: “FRANCISCOBracciano, I am now fit for thyencounter. / Like the wild Irish I’ll ne’er think thee dead, / Till I can play at football with thy head.”8(The White Devil 4.1. 133-5).Francisco no longer believes that he should Bracciano to live his life and meet his creator when his time comes, now Francisco wants to take action and make sure that Bracciano payed with his own life for taking Isabella’s life.Francisco, Cardinal Monticelso and later Lodovico disguise themselves and go after Vittoria, Flamineo and Bracciano. They do manage to poison Braccianoby using a helmetand kill him. Francisco vaguely reminds me of Hamlet. Hamlet as well sought revenge for the murder of his father.Isabella’s brother will do anything to avenge her untimely death just like Hamlet did everything he could toavenge his father’s death.
After Bracciano is murdered he appears as a ghost to Flamineo, who promise to avenge his death. Since Flamineobelievesthat Vittoria and Zanche havesomething to do withBracciano’s death and since he promised Bracciano neither Flamineo nor Vittoria will continue to live he brings a gun and make both of the women to promise to kill each other after they kill him.In the end, Lodovico is the one who kills Vittoria, Flamineo and Zanche. Just like in the play “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare everyone dies.
According to Rene Weis, “although “The White Devil” reverts again and again to moral speeches and ethical positions, its power does not reside in its moral truths but”9and here she quotes Alvin Kernan “in the force with which it presents the dark energies of the self-uncoiling and striking whatever opposes them” (Kernan 1975:396).10The way I understand this quote by Kernan is that the characters in the play will compel to their own passion and do whatever it takes to satiate it. And as I was reading the play, I saw this: Flamineo’s passion to climb up the social ladder is what persuades him to do whatever it takes; Bracciano’s passion for Vittoria is what persuades him to plot the murders of Isabella and Camillo; Francisco’s passion to avenge Isabella’s death is what incites him to plot the murder of Bracciano and Lodovico’s passion for Isabella is what incites him to team up with Francisco in the murders of the murderers. In my opinion, the passion each of the characters felt was the driving force behind their actions in the play.
Webster, John”The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays”;Edited with an Introduction byReneWeis, New York:Oxford University Press,1996 pp. XV
Webster, John”The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays”;Edited with an Introduction byReneWeis, New York:Oxford University Press,1996 pp. 7,act 1, scene 2,lines 4-9
Webster, John”The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays”;Edited with an Introduction byReneWeis, New York:Oxford University Press,1996 pp. 8,act 1, scene 2, lines 26-27
Webster, John”The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays”;Edited with an Introduction byReneWeis, New York:Oxford University Press,1996 pp.367
Webster, John”The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays”;Edited with an Introduction byReneWeis, New York:Oxford University Press,1996 pp.51,act 4, scene 1,lines 2-3
Webster, John”The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays”;Edited with an Introduction byReneWeis, New York:Oxford University Press,1996 pp.51,act 4, scene 1,lines 10-11
Webster, John”The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays”;Edited with an Introduction byReneWeis, New York:Oxford University Press,1996 pp. 54,act 4, scene 1,lines 133-135
Webster, John”The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays”;Edited with an Introduction byReneWeis, New York:Oxford University Press,1996 pp.XV
Kernan, Alvin (1975), “Banisht!”: The Dark World of Jacobean Tragedy’, inThe Revels History of Drama in English,vol. iii: 1576 – 1613