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The White Devil

John Webster and The White Devil

The White Devil has always been a controversial play. It was not well received at its first performance and was hardly performed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, it has been appreciated much more since the beginning of the twentieth-century. Its critique of corruption in high places and its presentation of morally ambiguous characters seem to strike a chord with modern audiences.

The play is seen as part of the genre of revenge tragedy. Yet whilst it is interesting to see it as part of that tradition, in many ways it doesn’t fit well into the genre.

John Webster

The Duchess of MalfiJohn Webster (c.1580 – 1625) was an English playwright and contemporary of William Shakespeare. As well as writing The White Devil he is also well known for his other tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. Read more . . .

Context of The White Devil

William ShakespeareJohn Webster lived in the late 16th and early 17th century. The world of Shakespeare and the Metaphysical Poets had a profound effect on his writings and provides a lense through which one can better understand the text. Read more . . .

Dive in to The White Devil text guide

Synopsis and commentary - Read a scene by scene summary and commentary on The White Devil.

Characterisation - Find out about the main protagonists in the play and analyse their characters.

Themes and significant ideas - Discover the role of Morality, Good and Evil.

Imagery and symbolism - Investigate the imagery of colours throughout the play.

The White Devil e-book - Read the play and research the text, all for free and online.

How to do well in your The White Devil essay

Decide what the key words of the question are, and underline them.

If you are asked to analyse an extract, read it through two or three times.

Do not adopt the first possible approach - be willing to dispute the terms of the question if you are given the opportunity.

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Why study The White Devil?

The play’s modernity

The characters are very much of their time being drawn from the world of Italian aristocrats, church men, courtesans and courtiers. But these characters are also very modern. Characters like Flamineo and Vittoria challenge the status quo as they try to make their way in a world that does them no favours.

The world of seventeenth century Italy that is presented in the play is often a cipher for Webster’s contemporary English society, which he satirises. It is a world that is changing from settled medieval hierarchies to an era that is becoming early modern, with individuals challenging established power bases, religious belief and morality.

The prominence of women

Women are very important in The White Devil. Arguably the most important character is Vittoria, to whom the play’s title refers. She is a complex character who will not accept a traditional role and suffers for it.

Webster invites the audience to consider the place of women in society through the fate of Vittoria, who is presented with a certain amount of sympathy. The other female characters show us women suffering at the hands of men and because of the expectations of society. But they are seen attempting to maintain their integrity and beliefs.

Poetry and struggle

The White Devil is rightly famous for the quality of its language. Rather than memorable soliloquies it has robust dialogue between the characters, exemplified in Vittoria’s trial. The language of the play abounds with the imagery of animals, poisonous plants, corruption, money and trade. This reflects the corrupt and mercenary world of the play.

The abiding effect of the play is of the main characters struggling against events and powerful figures stacked against them, yet maintaining intelligence, courage and often humour in this situation. There is much wickedness and wrongdoing and the characters could hardly be said to offer good moral examples. However, they are always presented in a way that shows their humanity. The oxymoron of ‘white devil’ is a clear indication of this moral complexity.

 

A French word meaning type or class. A major division of type or style in an art-form. A sub-genre is a lesser division. The main literary genres are novel, short story, comedy, tragedy, epic and lyric.
The revenge play or revenge tragedy was a popular genre in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period which looked to the Roman poet Seneca for its origins.
Belonging to the Middle Ages.
a speech in drama where one character, alone on stage, speaks
Figure of speech in which a person or object or happening is described in terms of some other person, object or action, either by saying X is Y (metaphor); or X is like Y (simile). In each case, X is the original, Y is the image.
A Figure of speech in which two apparently opposite words or ideas are put together as if they were in agreement.