The play 'The White Devil' by John Webster, together with Thomas Kyd's 'The Spanish Tragedy' and Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', is an example of a very popular genre of drama during the Jacobean and Elizabethan eras- the revenge tragedy. Key elements in every revenge tragedy are a secret murder, the presence of a vengeful ghost, scenes of real or feigned madness, a central character, who seeks to revenge for the murder after justice has failed them in the public area, intrigue, plotting and disguise, and an eruption of general violence at the end which leads to the destruction of the characters in the play, together with the avenger. Those key elements of the revenge tragedy are closely interrelated with two of the main themes in 'The White Devil'- the themes of passion and revenge.
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The play itself is a story of passion and revenge, with the two themes being closely interconnected, as the one leads to the other. The author based his play on the real life story of the killing of Vittoria Accoramboni in Padua on December 22, 1585. John Webster is said to have written this play with the aim of showing corruption in Italy and in so doing to depict 'the political and moral state of England in his own day'. But what grabs the audience of the play is not so much the hidden message, but the presentation of what a person is capable of under the influence of emotions, when common sense is left behind, when the driving forces are passion or revenge.
But passion doesn't come from nowhere, it always, as every emotion, has a source. And in this play the main source of passion is not anyone else but Vittoria, the 'femme fatale', the supposed 'white devil' from the title. It is even said that the title refers to a contemporary proverb holding that 'the white devil is worse than the black'. Colors are symbolic in this play, especially black and white, but red also appears in the story when in the middle of the trial Vittoria's white cloak falls down and reveals a red dress. Thus Vittoria is sometimes referred to as the 'scarlet woman'. But what is more important is how passion leads to the act of murder , and in the case with Vittoria and her lover Brachiano, it is passion in the sense of very strong sexual desire that makes Brachiano plot the murders of his wife Isabella and of Vittoria's husband. Thus we can say that Brachiano's passion is a violent passion, one that is, according to Rowland Wymer, nothing more than an 'aspect of an arrogant, aristocratic will which recognizes no social or moral impediments to its fulfillment'. That's why when Isabella's brother and Cardinal Monticelso decide to make Brachiano confess his adulterous relationship with Vittoria, instead of doing that he and Flamineo arrange to have Isabella and Camillo murdered. This is more than an explicit indication of how passion can be violent, dangerous and even leading to death and murder. Moreover it is supposed that Vittoria herself urged her lover to commit the murders by recounting to him an ambiguous dream that she had, in which she sees the graves of her husband and his wife.
But passion in "The White Devil" can be seen not only in the sense of a very strong sexual desire. It can also come to mean 'a very strong belief or feeling about something'(Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English), and in this meaning it can be none the less dangerous or violent. When, for example, Isabella's brother Francisco decides to avenge her death, it is again passion in the sense of a strong desire to do something because you believe in it, and believe it is right, that is the driving force for committing murder. Not only him, but many, if not all of the characters in the play, can be seen as behaving in very different ways, sometimes driven by rational judgments, sometimes- by other, unconscious forces. As Wymer puts it, ' the deeper and more pervasive emphasis is on the extreme and unstable mixture of contrary impulses to be found in the human heart'(38) and what achieves the startling and surprising effect is that ' virtuous self-control gives way to sudden surges of violence'(38). And this Wymer's argument gives support to my observation that passion is what takes control when self-control is gone, as we can substitute 'surges of violence' with 'violent passions' and see that it fits more than well. Moreover the author himself supports the argument that his characters give up reason and surrender to their passions by reducing them to the level of the animals. Animals and beast are the creatures whose driving force are instincts and passions, because they don't have, unlike human beings, reason or intelligence, and therefore act according to what they feel, to what their instincts and passions tell them. The characters of the play are several times referred to as animals: Vittoria is compared to a 'cursed dog let loose at midnight', Brachiano when dying from the poisoned helmet, refers to people as wolves.
But the themes of passion and revenge are not interconnected only with each other, but also with the themes of death and corruption or injustice. What we see in 'The White Devil' is a vicious circle, with one these leading invariably to the other. The story itself begins with Lodovico claiming that he has been treated unjustly by the court and protesting against the court's discrimination between aristocrats and himself. Injustice is also seen in the scene with Vittoria's trial where she is found guilty of being a whore despite the fact that there is little hard evidence of her being involved in the murder, apart from the dream she had and told to Brachiano. This unfair sentence comes from the fact that her accusers are also her judges. But injustice often has consequences, and in this play the consequence of injustice takes the form of personal revenge. Lodovico, who has been in love with Isabella, and Francisco, her brother, see her death as an unjust act of violence born from adulterous passion and decide to bring justice themselves and to avenge Isabella's death. Death is another aspect that is all-pervasive in the play- from the very first arranged murder to the death of almost all characters in the end of the play. Some critics have even argued that Webster was too concerned with death, but others argued that it was not so much death itself that Webster wanted to present in this play, but 'the art of noble dying'( Thomas McAlindon, 45). An example of this is given by Vittoria and Flamineo, who face their deaths with courage and stoicism. Brachiano's death, on the other hand, is agonizing and horrifying, and it can be seen to serve as a connection between crime and punishment. Brachiano is seen as the villain of the piece so his death, which is again an act of revenge, is the most brutal, incorporating physical pain and spiritual torment, when his murderers reveal to him their identities.
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When first staged, the play didn't achieve success, even the opposite- it was a complete failure, mainly, some argue, because of its sophistication. Indeed Webster's 'The White Devil' presents us with so many themes and aspects at the same time, that it is sometimes even hard to understand what its main purpose is. Even though it was based on a real-life story, the play doesn't follow the storyline closely, mainly because Webster used not one, but many sources. But some argue that he deviates from the real historical event and figures deliberately, in order to achieve some of his ends, for instance he magnifies the involvement of some figures so that the revenge element can be put emphasis on. But putting aside these discrepancies, 'The White Devil' has proved an excellent example of a Jacobean tragedy making use of some of the most characteristic conventions of the revenge tragedy. We have an offence, plotting, intrigue, bloody treacherous actions, faked madness, private revenge, disguise, death, and order restored at the end. And what is more- the play is set in Italy, which was very characteristic of revenge plays. But no matter what the purpose of Webster was, he presents us with many themes in order to achieve this purpose, and two of the most evident ones are the themes of passion and revenge, which together with the themes of injustice and death form a vicious circle. It is the violent passion of Brachiano for Vittoria that sets all the tragic events in motion: his passion leads to death, this death leads to revenge which ends again in death. The chaotic violent passions that blur the mind of almost all the characters of the play are opposed to the stoic facing of death of some of them. And it is not the underlying message, but this sensationalism, that grabs the audience.
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