Originally performed between 1609-1613, The White Devil is renowned for its darkly baroque imagery and unusually powerful female character.
In Vittoria, Webster has written one of the most pivotal and significant ‘female’ parts of the time (although it was originally performed by a male actor): a notorious strumpet and femme fatale, she is able to defend herself in verbal and tactical battles against the oppressive male-dominated society. Vittoria proves that in their powerplays, political scheming and lust, they are no better than she, although they condemn her for the same things in their own hypocrisy.
From the brochure for the Sydney Theatre Company production of The White Devil, with Hugo Weaving as Brachiano:
"The adulterous love affair between the beautiful Vittoria Corombona and the hot-tempered Duke of Brachiano threatens the very fabric of a corrupt and volatile society. Murder follows violent murder in a bloody trail of destruction as hypocrisy and revenge, unleashed, threaten to crush the escaping lovers and decimate their world. Poetic, menacing and brilliantly nightmarish, The White Devil is based on a true account of treachery and sexual intrigue in the 17th century Italian court."
A Fatal Attraction
The Duke of Brachiano (Hugo Weaving) falls lustily in love with Vittoria while staying at the house of Camillo, her aged and wealthy husband. Embarking on an adulterous, all-consuming affair, Vittoria recounts a dream that she had, thereby urging Brachiano to murder Camillo.
Although Brachiano is tired of his virtuous but dull wife, Isabella, the situation is complicated as she is the sister of Francisco de Medici (Duke of Florence) and Cardinal Monticeslo: two of the most powerful men in Italy.
Lovers in Double Murder Spouse Shocker
Meanwhile, dutiful Isabella arrives in Rome to be with her absentee husband. Her brothers confront Brachiano about his flagrantly scandalous behaviour but their threats fail and he ruthlessly informs the doting Isabella that they are effectively divorced ~ he will never touch her again. To further his freedom from her, Brachiano orders Flamineo (his personal assistant and brother to Vittoria) to murder Isabella by coating a portrait of him with poison: when she kisses it, her lips will receive a fatal last touch from him.
Flamineo also breaks Camillo’s neck, arranging it to look like a sporting accident, while Brachiano, relishing the incumbent freedom of his lover, watches from the sidelines (in some productions by CCTV).
Trial and Punishment – Scandal of Society Whore
However, it is Vittoria who is arrested on suspicion of being an accessory to the murder of her husband and the subsequent trial is powerful and intense. By pure coincidence the Chief Prosecutor is Cardinal Monticeslo (soon to be Pope), who accuses her of being a murderer, an adulterous whore and a "debauched and diversivolent woman". His prosecution case is that her character and loose morals make her guilty, rather than proving that she was actually involved in the murder itself.
However, Vittoria gives as good as she gets, turning their words against them, showing their double standards and open hypocrisy: she is labelled a whore simply because of her sex. Yet despite a convincing defence, when Brachiano is forced to admit that he was at her house on the night that Camillo died, she is found guilty. Brachiano leaves abruptly before the trial ends, seemingly abandoning her to condemnation and confinement in a nunnery (or in Edwards’ production, a prison for whores) for the rest of her life.
Outlaw Lovers in Excommunication Scandal
Being unable to risk open war between the city-states of Brachiano’s Padua and his Florence, Francisco (Isabella’s brother) tries to sow further disorder by writing a fake love letter to Vittoria, in order to split the adulterous couple, and hiring Ludovico to murder her.
When Brachiano finally arrives at the convent, Francisco’s fake love letter sends him into a jealous and suspicious fury. After a passionate and violent argument, he takes Vittoria out of her imprisonment and marries her, in defiance of the machinations of Church and State (symbolised by Cardinal Monticeslo and Francisco, Duke of Florence).
Outraged at the challenge to his Absolute power, Monticeslo (now Pope) excommunicates Brachiano and Vittoria. Francisco pays Ludovico 1000 ducats – allegedly from the Pope himself – to murder Vittoria.
The Plot Thickens
Francisco arrives at Brachiano’s palace, disguised as a Moor knight, come to join him in his increasingly powerful army. He is accompanied by the assassins Ludovico and Gasparo, who are disguised as Maltese knights. Their true identities and purpose concealed, they look out for the smallest chance of consummating their revenge.
Elsewhere in the palace, Flamineo (brother to Vittoria and henchman to Brachiano) murders his virtuous and favoured brother Marcello in front of their mother, who goes mad with grief and shock.
Infamous Duke in Tragic Sporting ‘Accident’
Ludovico cunningly arranges to murder Brachiano, an accomplished and sporting swordsman, by sprinkling poison (mercury-based) onto the visor of his helmet before he fights in a tournament. However, Brachiano’s helmet is removed before it kills him outright and he suffers a painful and lingering death, delusional in his agony.
Ludovico and Gasparo disguise themselves as Capuchin monks, sent to perform the Last Rites. Once they have cleared the room of messy witnesses, they begin to strangle Brachiano (in some performances with a rosary). However, as he screams and rails at them in his death throes, Vittoria runs into the room, witnessing his agonised last moments ~ and (unknowingly) their crime.
Blood will have Blood
As with most Jacobean Tragedies, the final act ends with a stage drenched in buckets of blood and littered with the bodies of characters who have died gruesome and fruitless deaths.
Brachiano makes a (typically Jacobean) ghostly appearance, warning the self-serving and fratricidal Flamineo that he will die a hideous death. The panicking Flamineo then threatens Vittoria (his own sister) and her maid with murder unless they pay him off for his continued silence and loyalty.
Eventually, after further histrionics, all three appear to agree to a grotesque suicide pact (actually a convoluted double bluff) and Flamineo, who is to go first, is shot by his sister with his own pistols. Understandably, they fail to match this with their own deaths and the wily Flamineo rises unhurt to finish the job. Vittoria and the maid’s screams rouse the fake Capuchin monks, who stab all three characters and make their escape.
As Vittoria slowly dies, she claims that her ‘sin’ lay in her blood, that she was punished for her very nature, that her fate was therefore inevitable: "now my blood pays for’t…my soul, like to a ship in a black storm, is driven, I know not whither".
Happily Ever After
In the typically Jacobean thirst for justice to be delivered along with the blood, the hired murderers are captured by Giovanni, the virtuous, ‘golden’, but abandoned son of Brachiano. Ludovico confesses, implicating Giovanni’s own uncle, Francisco, and the young noble swears to bring all to justice.
This symbol of innocent youth (and a new generation) restoring order is similar to the ending of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.
Webster’s play challenges easy moral assumptions based on prejudice, comparing the overt symbolism of ‘Scarlet Woman’ Vittoria to the scarlet of the Cardinal (who later becomes ‘pure’ white as the Pope): it is the Cardinal who hides the most evil within his robes and reminds us that appearances can be deceiving.