John Webster was an early 17th century English playwright. He is best known for his dark, gloomy, and morbid tragedies. Literary critic, T.S. Eliot, wrote that “Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin.” In this video, we will discuss Webster’s treatment of death in his famous tragedy titled, The White Devil.
The White Devil is a play based on true events surrounding the murder of a 16th century Italian noblewoman named Vittoria Accoramboni. In the beginning of the play, the audience learns that Vittoria is having an affair with the Duke of Brachiano, who is married to Isabella Medici of the famous Medici family. The Duke and Vittoria conspire to murder their respective spouses and elope. Vittoria’s brother, Flamineo, kills Vitoria’s husband and makes the death seem like an accident. The Duke’s physician poisons the Duke’s wife, Isabella, with a picture that she fatally kisses. Isabella Medici’s brother, Francisco, resolves to avenge the murder of his sister. He enlists the aid of two other men and, in the final act of the play, murders the Duke, Vittoria, and Flamineo.
Given the bloodbath that occurs, death is clearly a major theme within the play. The main characters – Vittoria, Flamineo, and the Duke of Brachiano – have various attitudes towards death. Vittoria is afraid of death. While she lies dying, she recalls her sins and wonders whether she will ascend to Heaven or fall to Hell. “My soul, like to a ship in a black storm is driven I know not whither.” Uncertainty about the afterlife is perhaps the greatest cause of humanity’s fear of death. But even those who are certain that they know what will happen after they die still must deal with the loss of this worldly life.
Flamineo believes that he knows what will happen after he dies. He is certain that death is nothing more than a long sleep from which he will never awaken. He looks forward to death with delight because he considers life meaningless and painful. “We cease to grieve, cease to be fortune’s slaves, nay, cease to die by dying.” Flamineo’s triumph over the fear of death is admirable, but the means by which he achieves this victory – his contempt for life – is pitiable. Webster concludes that the drawbacks of pessimism are not worth the elimination of fear associated with death.
Contrary to Flamineo’s pessimistic interpretation of life, the Duke of Brachiano loves life; and therefore, he laments over his own death because he will lose all the blessings of life. “O thou strong heart! There’s such a covenant ‘tween the world and it, they’re loath to break.” The Duke’s response towards death is different from Flamineo’s, but the audience understands that both responses are inadequate and undesirable.
Thus, Webster demonstrates that neither a love for life nor a contempt for life is sufficient to solve the problem of death; something more is necessary. Webster does not elaborate upon what that something is, but rather poses the question to the audience – how will you conquer the fear of death?