John Webster’s The White Devil: Feminism and Performative Virtue in Jacobean Drama

 

TheWhiteDevilThe White Devil (or The White Divel as it was originally spelled), by John Webster (no relation to Webster, Noah Webster, or the governor of the same name), shares similarities with Shakespeare’s Othello in that is speaks to the performative nature of virtue and put a woman on trial for her failure to perform her virtue effectively enough to convince her peers of its authenticity.  The narrative differs significantly, however, and though not as entertaining or as eloquently written as Shakespeare’s work, it does contain nuances that make it unique among other works at the time.  Like Othello, it provides a descriptive presentation of the oppressive biases inherent in patriarchal society, but it also tackles issues relating to law, capitalism, and war.  Though the play has some flaws, namely its underdeveloped and inconsistent characters, the dialogue has moments of brilliance which make the work worthy of thorough analysis.

 

FEMINISM

 

James Franco, who would be well cast as Lodovico in a film adaptation of The White Devil.

James Franco, who would be well cast as Lodovico in a film adaptation of The White Devil.

In terms of patriarchal oppression, the play’s men speak openly about the ways in which they have unchecked authority over women, most notably through the character Flamineo.  Flamineo, who is an extremely problematic and at times inconsistent character, seems to find fault with the restrictions placed on women in patriarchal society, claiming that “women are more willinglie & more gloriouslie chast, when they are least restrained of their libertie” (224).  Here, Flamineo seems to describe what might best be called a Miltonic virtue, whereby a woman’s chastity is more valuable in the context of her own freedom, much as Milton argues that true reason and virtue cannot exist in the absence of choice in his seminal essay Areopagitica, an almost Sartrean or Sartistic sentiment choice.  The comment, though, illuminates the fact that the ‘virtue’ of women in the era was a virtue that was enforced, and therefore was, as Milton would say, excremental whiteness.  Flamineo, though, is not always so progressive.  When plotting with fellow antagonist Brachiano, he compares “A quiet woman” to “still water under a great bridge”, suggesting that “A man may shoot her safely” (284).  This passage not only demonstrates the degree of violence the masculine realm feel entitled to commit against women, and the nonchalant attitude about such violence, but also reinforces how the oppression and silencing of women facilitates their marginalization and creates a culture that allows, rationalizes, and fosters violence against women.  Because women were meant to be silent, they could be easily victimized, and should they speak out, then such vocalizations would justify their victimization.  Webster, then, shows the audience the paradoxical nature of such oppression.

 

 

Amanda Seyfriend would be well cast as Isabella for a film adaptation.

Amanda Seyfriend would be well cast as Isabella for a film adaptation.

In contrast, the Webster’s women are sure to express their dissatisfaction with their marginalization and express a desire to occupy a position equal to that of men in their patriarchal society.  Isabella, Brachiano’s wife and victim, states early that she wishes she “were a man, or that [she] had power/ To execute [her] apprehended wishes”, repeating almost word for word what Beatrice says in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, where she wishes that she were a man (4.1).  It is also reminiscent of Lady Macbeth’s criticism of her husband in Macbeth (1.7), and Volumnia’s criticisms of her son in Coriolanus (5.3), both of whom seek to live vicariously through the men in their lives, hoping to fulfill their own desires through the masculine realm.  In sense, Isabella is very much a Shakespearean heroine, but Webster’s women are not all so passive as to rely on wishin’ and hopin’.  Vittoria, who is perhaps the most problematic and simultaneously enjoyable character of the play, relies on more active words.  In one scene, Webster writes that she enters the stage with a book in hand.  Flamineo asks if she is praying, suggesting that he assumes she is holding a prayer book, but she rebuffs this and says instead that she is interested in ‘worldly business’ (321).  It seems she has traded her prayer book, which essentially amounts to wishing, for literature that can empower her language and understanding whilst allowing her speak on parity terms with men.  Though adopting an empowered language seems appealing for Vittoria, not all of Webster’s women rely on words.  Cornelia, mother to Isabella, lunges at Flamineo with a knife, saying that she scarcely has “breath to number twentie minute”, and would “not spend that in cursing” (303).  Where Isabella uses only words, Cornelia believes that action is superior, and chooses to have her actions heard above her words.  Through Isabella, Webster demonstrates that in their current station, women are completely disempowered, whilst Vittoria and Cornelia demonstrate how women can secure power through language and action respectively.

 

Sophia Loren would have been ideal casting for Vittoria in her youth, and now would be well cast as Cornelia.

Sophia Loren would have been ideal casting for Vittoria in her youth, and now would be well cast as Cornelia.

The scene that is perhaps most emblematic of patriarchal oppression is likely Vittoria’s trial.  During the scene, the lawyer prosecuting her relies heavily on ad hominem attacks in the form of slut shaming, rather than proving her guilt in the murder of her husband and Isabella.  So common is this tactic, that Vittoria is referred to as a strumpet (235), a brach, which was a Jacobean synonym for ‘bitch’ (326), and is referred to as a ‘whore’ no less than ten times (235, 257 x2, 258 x3, 264, 271, 280, 288), several of which occur during her trial.  Flamineao fosters this slut shaming outside of the courtroom as well, often implying that women are unable to be chaste.  In one scene, he says that women who have “no faults… hath the art to hide them” (331), suggesting that any virtue they display is purely performative.  This is reinforced when he claims that a woman’s coyness is “the superficies of lust most women have” (221), claiming again that any virtue that appears in women is strictly superficial.  Throughout the play, women, most especially Vittoria, are defined through their perceived sexuality and not the content of their characters, offering evidence that the tradition of slut shaming goes at least as far back as the Jacobean era.

 

 

 

Sofia Vergara would be well cast as Vittoria in a film adaptation of The White Devil.

Sofia Vergara would be well cast as Vittoria in a film adaptation of The White Devil.

Vittoria, who is often the target of slut shaming, does an exceptional job of rejecting such rhetoric. Of the accusatory language, Vittoria responds that words like “Whoore and Murdresse they proceed from [men],/ As if a man should spit against the wind,/ The filth returne’s in’s face” (260).  Through this language, she challenges her accusers, suggesting that in spreading such ‘filth’, they are the guilty ones.  When accused of being tempted, Vittoria freely admits that she was: “Grant I was tempted,/ Temptation to lust proves not the act”.  She then concludes, in Latin, that she who is chaste has been solicited by no man, or “Casta est quam nemo rogavit (262).  Vittoria, then, is eager and capable of defending herself, and demonstrates the flawed logic that allowed others to accuse her.  She also employs what may again be defined as Miltonic logic, suggesting that only those who have not been exposed to vice can be virtuous, but that such virtue can be present only when choice is not.  Vittoria is even educated enough to offer a critique to the lawyer’s Latin, suggesting that his language “is welsh to Lattin” (256), and thereby suggesting that he is not as educated as her.  Though Vittoria is the target of much Jacobean slut shaming, she is not a passive victim as Webster employs her to attack such ad hominem attacks,  thereby offering a critique of the flawed logic used to debase and insult women.

 

JUSTICE

 

Russell Crowe could easily pull off the role of Brachiano.

Russell Crowe could easily pull off the role of Brachiano.

Webster uses the play as a forum to critique the judicial system, in part through his proto-feminist overtones, but also with what might be called a proto-Marxist approach as well.  Vittoria’s criticisms are couched in feminist rhetoric.  When describing the ruling on her case, she tells the court that it is akin to a rape as they “have ravish justice./ [and] Forc’t her to do your pleasure” (264).  This rape analogy is especially fitting given that justice is often personified as a lady, and both Vittoria and Lady Justice have been forced to do the biding of a patriarchal system.  This sits in sharp contrast to the model of justice that Gasparo, a peripheral character in the play, outlines.  Gasparo suggests that “The law doth sometimes mediate, thinkes it good/ Not ever to steepe violent sinnes in blood/ This gentle penance may both end [one’s] crimes,/ And in the example better thee bad times” (219).  The goal of justice, then, is to end one’s own crime, and discourage others from committing them as well.  Vengeance is not part of this, and nor is wrongful convictions based on ad hominem attacks.  In Vittoria’s case, this idea of justice was certainly perverted by the patriarchal system, but it is also corrupted through capitalism.  Lodovico, who is convicted of a crime, notes that giving money to the hangman would ensure a more merciful and quick death (220), suggesting the at least certain elements of the judicial system are greased by money.  Flamineo suggests that similar attitudes reach into the world of academia.  Due to a “want of meanes”, Flamineo suggests that the University he attended ‘judged’ him to be unqualified of receive his degree until they his tutors were adequately compensated (232), suggesting that judgments both in the judicial system, and the world of academia, are influenced by finances.  This is a problem that persists today as many people still do not have access to equal justice or education in capitalist countries like America.

 

WAR

 

Antonio Banderas would be perfect for the role of Francisco.

Antonio Banderas would be perfect for the role of Francisco.

Though Francisco, Isabella’s brother, is overtly righteous character whose lack of depth is required to propel the narrative, there is one passage that reverberates with particular clarity from a contemporary reading.  When the topic of war comes up after he has learned that Brchiano was responsible for the murder of his sister, Francisco offers a meditative, philosophical analysis of war:

Shall I defye him, and impose a warre/ Most burthumsome on my poore subjects neckes,/ Which at my will I have not power to end?/ You know; for all the murders, rapes, and thefts,/ Committed in the horred lust of warre,/ He that unjustly caus’d it first proceed,/ Shall finde it in his grave and in his seed. (272)

Though brutal acts, like 9/11, often invoke an emotive response, it is important to not allow such emotion to undermine reason.  The American government, for instance, responded to the events on 9/11 with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, though neither country organized the attack.  America went onto employ torture, often times on innocent people.  As for the murders, nearly 200 000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan during America’s recent incursion, and over 200 000 civilians have been killed in Iraq.  Not to mention the rapes.  Francisco believes that the lives lost and pain endured in a war would be his responsibility, and he specifically call upon instances of murder and rape as examples.  He therefore refuses to unjustly go to war.  Unfortunately, few nations have heeded this prophetically sage advice.  Francisco’s words sound as though they were written by an opponent to the war in Iraq, making the 400-year-old text tragically relevant.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

John Leguizamo would have been well cast as Flamineo.

John Leguizamo would have been well cast as Flamineo.

Webster’s work is far from a masterpiece, and indeed, those who watched the play in its first run were not impressed.  Webster, though, knew the value of his work and was as critical of the audience as they were of him, stating that “most of the people that c[a]me to that Play-house, resemble[d]… ignorant asses” (215), encouraging him to write, in his most pretentious Latin: “Nec Rhoncos metues maligniorum/ Nec Scombris tunicas, dabis molestas”, or “You [my book] shall not fear the snouts of the malicious,/ Nor provide wrapping paper for mackerel” (215).  The plotting and character development is ultimately dull, but Vottoria’s trial and Francisco’s eloquent speech against war alone make the play worth reading.  The work explores the concept of performative virtue as excitedly as Othello, but with less interesting characters and plotting, making Webster’s attempt less effective than Shakespeare’s, but that said, he is one of a long list of writers whose work might be considered inferior to Shakespeare.  The work though does make a nice contribution to conversations on gender and performative virtue, and also weaves in a number of ecological metaphors that could also appeal to an ecocritical reading whilst likewise offering constructive criticism of the judicial system and capitalism.  The work is certainly worth a read for any fan of Jacobean theatre, and is worthy of the attention of feminist theorists interested in literature from the era, though readers who are strictly fans of contemporary literature may not find much enjoyment in the piece.

 

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to get updates on my latest ramblings by following me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.

 

Works Cited:

Webster, John.  The White Devil.  From Jacobean Drama: An Anthology.  Ed. Richard C. Harrier. Vol. 1.  Toronto: Norton.  1963.  Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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