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Characterisation in The White Devil » Cardinal Monticelso

Representative of the Catholic Church

Cardinal Monticelso first appears in Act 2 sc 1, where he joins forces with Francisco de Medici in criticising Brachiano for his behaviour in neglecting his wife and embarking on an affair with Vittoria. Francisco's argument shows concern for the plight of Isabella, his sister. As a man of the church, Monticelso concentrates on the moral argument:

‘should you in your prime age
Neglect your awful throne, for the soft down
Of an insatiate bed.'

Monticelso would have been clearly identified as a cardinal to the audience by the red colour of his robes. Vittoria refers to this in Act 3 sc 2:

‘O poor charity
Thou art seldom found in scarlet.'

Later in the play Monticelso is elected Pope. Thus during the course of the drama he represents two of the most important figures in the Roman Catholic Church. His characterisation and association with duplicity would have reinforced the contemporary negative attitude towards Roman Catholicism. (See Religious/Philosophical Context > Attitudes to Catholicism in Webster's time > Catholic stereotypes in The White Devil.)

Monticelso as a villain

Monticelso's main role in the play is as a fellow conspirator with Francisco to plot the downfall of Vittoria and Brachiano:

‘To what scorned purpose else should we make choice
Of him for a sea captain,' (Act 2 scene1)
‘Were your intelligencing ears as long
As to my thoughts,'

The Cardinal's abuse of power

CardinalWhen Monticelso takes the leading role in Vittoria's trial, he acts as both judge and accuser. With some justification Vittoria complains that he has ‘ravished Justice', whilst the English Ambassador says that his accusations are ‘too bitter', following the Cardinal's misogynistic diatribe against whores (Act 3 sc 2).

Monticelso encourages Francisco to take revenge on Brachiano and Vittoria after his sister's death and is prepared to supply him with helpers. He has a ‘black book' with the names of villains who will undertake any manner of villainy for a price:

‘Here is a general catalogue of knaves.
A man might study all the prisons o'er
Yet never attain this knowledge.'
(Act 4 scene 1)

A change of heart?

In Act 4 scene 3 Monticelso is elected Pope and this appears to change his attitude towards Francisco's schemes of revenge. In conversation with Lodovico, who is heavily implicated in Francisco's vengeance, Monticelso takes the standard Christian view of revenge in condemning him:

‘If thou persist in this, ‘tis damnable.
Dost thou imagine thou canst slide on blood
And not be tainted with a shameful fall?'

This is the last time that Monticelso appears on stage, which might indicate that he really has removed himself from the plots of the conspirators. Yet Francisco has already declared that he distrusts the Cardinal, and after his departure Lodovico is all too ready to believe that the Pope is bribing him to take vengeance. For the audience, Monticelso's reputation for villainy and duplicity would seem to outweigh his newly proclaimed virtue.

In the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic church, Cardinals represent the layer between Archbishops and the Pope. They are responsible for electing a new Pope, and they meet regularly with him in council.
1. Term for a worshipping community of Christians. 2. The building in which Christians traditionally meet for worship. 3. The worldwide community of Christian believers.
The supreme governor of the Roman Catholic Church who has his headquarters in Rome, in Vatican City. In certain circumstances, his doctrinal utterances are deemed infallible.
Member of a worldwide Christian church which traces its origins from St. Peter, one of Jesus' original disciples. It has a continuous history from earliest Christianity.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.