"Woman to man is either a god or a wolf"
John Webster's first independent play, The White Devil, originally performed in 1612, centres on the beautiful Vittoria Corombona and her lover, Duke Brachiano, whose passionate, adulterous affair unleashes the powerful revenge of their enemies. While clearly guilty of lust and murder, these unsavoury characters become startlingly heroic under pressure, challenging both conventional moral judgments and oppressive social forces.
This revised student edition contains a lengthy new Introduction with background on the author, date and sources, theme, critical interpretation and stage history. The Introduction discusses Webster's radical experimentation with tragic modes, his interest in the heroic potential of women, and evaluates the handling of both in recent stage productions. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (6)
Continuous intrigue and deception, plots and counterplots, and complex motivations
Few works by John Webster have survived, but two - The Duchess of Malfiand The White Devil - have been staged frequently in recent decades. Many readers may remember the young John Webster as a darkly comic figure in that delightful 1998 romantic comedy, Shakespeare in Love. In expressing his admiration to Shakespeare for his gruesome play, Titus Andronicus, the boy observes: "I like it when they cut heads off.And when the daughter was mutilated with knives".I laughed with those around me, as I had some inkling of John Webster's dark reputation, but I had not actually read, nor seen a performance of his plays.
Despite Webster's dark and dismal view of human nature, I found The White Devil to be considerably less gruesome than Titus Andronicus and definitely less shocking. There are some poisonings, stabbings, and stranglings, especially in the final act, but what makes Webster's play truly memorable is the continuous intrigue, deceit, and betrayals.
The White Devil has elements of a revenge play, but the motivations of the characters are more varied and complex. In her introduction to the New Mermaids edition, Christina Luckyj illustrates how Webster adapted to the stage an actual murderous event that occurred in Italy some years earlier. Paolo Giordano, Duke of Brachiano, and the beautiful Vittoria Corombona, as well as others in this play are not entirely fictional.
The second act presents the initial murders, the poisoning of Isabella, wife to Brachiano, and the killing of Camillo, husband to Vittoria, in two dumb shows representing conjurer's images of the actual murders. These silent displays are said to have a somewhat haunting impact on the stage.
Despite no evidence of involvement in Camillo's death, Vittoria is placed on trial for her adulterous affair, is found guilty, and confined to a house of convertites, a house of penitent whores. The murder of Camillo and Isabella goes unpunished, although some do suspect the Duke of Brachiano.
Brachiano's chief rival, Francisco De Medici, the Duke of Florence, quietly plots to have Brachiano and his followers killed. He cleverly tricks Brachiano into effecting the escape of Vittoria. The two are quickly married in a lavish ceremony. Soon thereafter Brachiano and Vittoria are excommunicated by the new Pope, the former Cardinal Monticelso, another long time rival of the Brachiano.
Plots and counterplots collide in act five resulting in the deaths of nearly all key characters. Most die loquaciously, expositing on their guilt and thoughts of divine punishment.
The White Devil does not offer the dramatic impact of a Shakespearean tragedy, nor the tight focus characteristic of most Elizabethan revenge plays. This play's fascination is the continuous intrigue and deception, the plots and counterplots, and the complex motivations of Webster's dark characters. Four stars to The White Devil.
The Edgar Alan Poe of Shakespeare'sDay.
For those of you who saw "Shakespeare In Love," you will probably remember John Webster as the 13 year old boy who was obsessed with blood and death. John Webster's plays came out about the time William Shakespeare was putting out his final plays. Hazelton Spencer says this of John Webster: "Even Webster's most lyrical verse is preoccupied with decay and death." But if we are willing to move past this, John Webster's writing is actually quite impressive. Act 1 begins with the banishment of Count Lodovico. Interestingly, Lodovico tells of the evil Bracciano. (Why not? It would seem people of an evil nature would know each other.) And through the testimony of his judges, we are introduced to the evil behind Lodovico. We later meet the diabolical Bracciano himself. He is having an affair with his friend Flamineo's sister Vittoria. Not surprisingly, Vittoria has a nightmare about a massacre. We later see that Cornelia (the mother of Vittoria and Flamineo) does not care for them. In Act 2, we meet the Cardinal. We are allowed to respect him in that he is no flatterer. Webster then shows us the division between the diabolical Bracciano and the at least moderately virtuous Francisco. (Francisco is of course angered that his sister Isabella is being mistreated by her husband Bracciano.) But Bracciano's untainted son Giovanni breaks the tension with some comic relief. With the use of magical images, Bracciano sees his murder plot against his wife Isabella and Vittoria's husband Camillo come to pass. But Lodovico sees the death of Isabella, and he will return before long. Onto Act 3. The Cardinal suspects that Vittoria had something to do with her husband's death. We know that it was not Vittoria's fault, but how sorry can we feel for her? If she was this intimate with the diabolical Bracciano, how ignorant could she have been (unless she was very obtuse) to the evil she submitted herself to? The Cardinal sentences Vittoria to life as a nun. During the trial, Flamineo is frightened that his part in aiding the affair will come out. And Lodovico makes his return. He loved Isabella (even though she would not submit to having an affair with him), and Lodovico will avenge her. (Perhaps Webster was trying to use contrast between Isabella and Vittoria to limit our sympathy to Vittoria.) Onto Act 4. The Cardinal informs Francisco of his sister's murder. Francisco of course wants revenge. While we have no real reason to dislike the Cardinal or see him as a bad person, it is interesting that the Cardinal has a book of criminals. Can we doubt for a moment that Lodovico is listed in it? (But like Shakespeare and Dickens, Webster is really skilled at creating fully 3d characters as opposed to Hollywood heroes and villains.) Isabella's ghost appears to Francisco. (Probably to make sure Francisco will not hesitate in his revenge.) Bracciano and Vittoria meet again, and while Vittoria is reluctant, she and Bracciano marry. Act 4 ends with the Cardinal becoming Pope. After rebuking Lodovico, the Cardinal approves of him joining in Fracisco's revenge. Perhaps here, Webster is pointing out a 'terrible truth' that Hollywood can't figure out. As people, we are not 100 % good or evil. And while the cardinal is a virtuous person, he agrees to the revenge on Bracciano even to the point of employing the evil Lodovico. And while we know Lodovico is evil, we probably will applaud him if he contributes to Bracciano's comeuppance. Onto Act 5. Bracciano and Vittoria marry. Disuised, Francisco finds his way into Bracciano's territory. Well, Fracisco and Lodovico succeed in killing Bracciano. But things are not quite over. Giovanni is sad over his father's death. Vittoria (Bracciano's widow) is in charge for the moment. And Flamineo thinks he can get some money out of his sister. (Why not? He aided her in her affair. Vittoria probably has access to money now.) Bracciano's ghost appears to Flamineo foreshadowing his downfall. Interestingly, in John Webster, ghosts appear to the people who were close to them as opposed to their enemies. The play ends in the massacre of Zanche, Flamineo, and Vittoria by Lodovico. (Undoubtedly, Francisco and Lodovico wanted them dead as well to avenge Isabella.) Giovanni to some extent restores orders and Lodovico tells Giovanni that Francisco was involved. Lodovico can be punished, But what can Giovanni do to his uncle Francisco? Francisco is also a duke. Overall, its a good play, but you do have to have a tolerance for brutal scenes as well as passages preoccupied with death.
After you read this, read The Duchess of Malfi, considered Webster's masterpiece.You cannot go wrong with the Revels editions of these plays.
Marlowe and Shakespeare's Protege (Corrected)
For those of you who read my reviews and use them to try to understand literature, I owe you an apology. I made a slight error in my review of this, and I will correct it now. For those of you who know me, I cherish the writings of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Hawthorne, and Dickens. I now have a 6th hero. The opening is quite captivating when through testimony we learn of Lodovico's evil. Webster also grabs our attention with the affair between Vittoria and Bracciano. Despite the questionable qualities of these 2 characters, they are easy to like. He also draws the division between the virtuous Francisco and the ambitious Bracciano well. Cornelia is memorable as the mother who despairs over the actions of her children Flamineo and Vittoria. Isabella is fine as a picture of innocence. The Cardinal is captivating as one of the most careful characters in the play,and we need not be surprised when he gets elected Pope. Bracciano's son Giovanni is drawn well. Through an early appearance, we get a look at his character. We then see him in mourning after he has lost both his parents. Finally, we see him restore order after the massacre has fully unleashed. Lodovico is fine as a picture of ambition. (The mistake I made was that I named Lodovico in the murder of Isabella. He was innocent of her murder. But it is possible to wonder if his affair with her 'Bracciano's wife' triggered Bracciano's affair with Vittoria. Ofcourse, the affair between Bracciano and Vittoria triggers the events of this play.) Webster also offers us horrifying and yet beautiful passages, chilling omens such as the ghosts of Isabella and Bracciano, and pure suspense. My only complaint about this is that Lodovico's delight in his massacre does not mix well with Giovanni's sudden rise to power and his restoration of order. In Marlowe's "Edward II," the 17 year old Edward III fills his enemies with pure terror when he gains control of the situation. Once again, I apologize for my error, and I wish to thank all of you who found my reviews helpful.
Marlowe and Shakespeare's Protege
For those of you familiar with my writing, you know I cherish the works of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Hawthorne, and Dickens. Well, I now have a 6th favorite. Lodovico is frighteningly demonic. 1st he participates in the murder of Isabella, then he participates in the revenge of Isabella! Poor Isabella is memorable as a picture of innocence. Vittoria is an interesting woman. She is not exactly a picture of innocence, but she does carry herself well, and she faces her death with as much dignity as possible. Webster also draws the dissension between Francisco and Bracciano well. Bracciano is captivating with all of his ambition. Francisco is memorable as the good and decent man prompted to fury by the death of his innocent sister. The harsh tones between Cornelia and her son Flamineo are dramatic. Bracciano's son Giovanni is well drawn. First he is an innocent young man, but his lines reveal his good character. Then we see him after he has lost both his parents. Finally, he flips the tables on everyone and restores order. Cardinal Monticelso is also captivating. He is a very careful character who probes the situations without losing his sense of reason. And we need not be surprised when this careful character is promoted to Pope Paul IV. What's left? Only striking images, only well constructed passages, only pure terror side by side with beauty etc. My only complaint about this play is that Webster combines 2 wonderful final touches that would be wonderful by themselves, but do not combine well (in my opinion). Lodovico's delight in his massacre does not (in my opinion) mix well with Giovanni's sudden rise to power and his sudden crush of the situation. In my opinion what makes Edward III's restoration to order in Marlowe's "Edward II" so dramatic is the pure terror the 17 year old king instills in his enemies. At this point, I would like to thank all of you who found my reviews helpful.
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