IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT THE WHITE DEVIL IS BLOODY AND FULL OF HORROR. IS THE WHITE DEVIL ANYTHING MORE THAN A HORROR STORY?
it has been said that ‘the white devil’ is ‘bloody and full of horror’. is ‘the white devil’ anything more than a horror story? When considering the above statement, it must be acknowledged that ‘The White Devil’ does indeed contain many instances of graphic violence, which serve to shock the audience. However, to assume that this means that the play is nothing more than a ‘horror story’, that Webster’s incorporation of bloody horror constitutes nothing more than sensationalist shock, would be reductionist. The play provides a dramatic insight into the corruption of the social elites and of the Catholic Church, with both the physical violence and violent imagery therein contributing to this overarching theme rather than standing alone as a kind of exercise in mindless bloody horror, as the view in the title would seem to suggest. Despite the shortcomings of the given view, the quote it is derived from is fairly valid; there is no escaping the fact that ‘The White Devil’ is “bloody and full of horror”. Indeed, the quote appears to have come from the lips of Gasparo, a minor character in the play, who states that Lodovico has “acted certain murders here in Rome, bloody and full of horror” in the opening scene of the play. From the offset, then, Webster leaves no doubt that the goings-on in the play are bloody and horrible. However, the fact that the
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audience learns of Lodovico’s murderous past at an early stage does more than contribute to a sense of bloody horror in the play. His association with Monticelso later in the play highlights the base and shady nature of the upper echelons of Italian society (or at least, Webster’s perception of the Italian elites’ corruption), as his status as a murderer and an outlaw has already been established in the first scene. Francisco tells Monticelso that he is a “worthy member of the state” who has done “infinite good” by liaising between Francisco and the murderous Lodovico; this shows a direct link between the self-absorbed corruption of the elites and the bloody horror which is so prevalent throughout the play. Gasparo’s hint at Lodovico’s bloody past in the opening scene is simply a passing mention of horrors which have happened; however, the audience` do not have to long to wait until real deaths occur, specifically those of Camillo and Isabella. With both Isabella and Camillo being killed off in a fairly bizarre and grim manner, the gruesome nature of the deaths will be at the forefront of the audience’s collective mind: the shock of seeing these unusual deaths could inspire sentiments similar to the given view, that ‘The White Devil’ merely entails bloody occurrences and mindless horror. It may have been this which led to the play being a failure with the audience on its premiere, and the idea of killing one’s wife in order to be with another woman would alienate and shock a modern audience even more, perhaps contributing to the idea that Webster’s play is sensationalist in its use of violence. However, the violence does not stand alone; it contributes to the idea of moral corruption in the social elites, here in the Duke of Brachiano, with the fact that he would arrange for these murders to occur at take pleasure in them in order to sate his lust clearly conveying the corruption of the socially powerful. Another act of bloody violence occurs near the end, before the bloodbath of final scene, when Flamineo kills his own brother, Marcello, in front of their mother, Cornelia. Flamineo running Marcello through with a sword when he had only just entered the scene, in front of Cornelia, would again be shocking for the audience, for both its timing and the familial link in the scene. The sudden nature of the shock would also contribute to the notion that this instance of violence was random and incorporated on a whim. However, again, the violence acts as a symbol for the Duke of Brachiano’s own moral corruption, which led to the equally corrupt Flamineo to commit various dastardly deeds culminating in Marcello’s murder. It is clear, then, that any instances of physical violence in the play, while making the play “bloody and full of horror”, serve a higher purpose than mere sensationalist crowd-pleasing. Webster continually uses violence in order to draw a clear link between the moral corruption in Italy and its bloody consequences, to show that this corruption comes at a cost, be it life itself (in the case of many characters including the Duke of Brachiano and Vittoria) or sanity (in the case of Cornelia). Webster uses physical violence as a medium to convey these costs; this violence also serves as entertainment and provides shock value, but this should not be considered to be its main purpose. In the same way that the extensive physical violence in the play contributes to the aforementioned destination, Webster’s constant use of imagery which could be considered to be “bloody and full of horror” contributes to this destination. Webster uses this imagery so frequently that it is easy to see how the audience could think that the play was designed to shock and disgust. A particularly memorable example of Webster’s use of nauseating imagery comes when Isabella expounds upon her hatred of the adulterous Vittoria, stating that she wishes to “dig the strumpet’s eyes out, let her lie/Some twenty months a-dying, to cut off/Her nose and lips, pull out her rotten teeth…”. This repulsive image features reference to decomposition and disease, which both feature extensively throughout the play, as does poison. Reference to both disease and poison contribute to the sense of horror within the play, which undoubtedly contribute to the view in the title. These references can be found particularly in Act III Scene II (or ‘The Arraignment of Vittoria’ as it is subtitled) when Monticelso attempts to portray Vittoria as a whore. He describes whores, and thus Vittoria, as “sweetmeats which rot the eater: in man’s nostril/Poison’d perfumes”, implying that women like Vittoria may be pleasant on the surface, but in truth are dangerous and serve only to ruin men. While such imagery may seem only to contribute to the idea of horror in the play, it also serves to strengthen both the Gothic attributes of the play and the destination concerning moral corruption. Monticelso’s overt misogyny in placing women as evil temptresses is a common feature of Gothic texts, as is his separation of the appearance and reality of women. In painting Vittoria in such an unflattering light, the unfairness of the trial is made abundantly clear, illustrating the corrupt nature of Monticelso and thus of the Italian elites. Such imagery can be found commonly throughout the play, and while evoking horror, also contribute to the Gothic nature of the play and hint at the corruption which Webster tries to exhibit through every possible way in ‘The White Devil’. Thus, the fact the imagery, like the physical violence itself, serves a higher purpose than providing shock value for the audience. They also introduce and maintain Gothic norms in the text, as well as emphasising the constantly underlying destination concerning the moral corruption of the elites in Italy, from the lustful Duke of Brachiano, to the shady Cardinal (later Pope) Monticelso.