The White Devil


John Webster

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The White Devil Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Webster's The White Devil. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Webster

Other than the fact that he was born and raised in London, very little is known of John Webster’s life. His father was a carriagemaker and his mother was a blacksmith’s daughter; Webster himself probably made carriages, though records show that he also dabbled both in acting and in legal studies. In 1605, Webster married the 17-year-old Sara Peniall (who was seven months pregnant at the time), and they had several children together. In addition to The White Devil, Webster wrote a host of poems and seven other plays, the most famous of which is the 1613 tragedy The Duchess of Malfi (which, like The White Devil, is set in Italy). Webster also frequently collaborated with other playwrights of the era, writing a few different history and comedy plays, though many of these were never produced. The White Devil was booed upon its 1612 premiere, but fortunately for Webster, his reputation was redeemed a year later when The Duchess of Malfi proved to be a huge hit.
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Historical Context of The White Devil

Stylistically, the violence in this piece reflects a larger trend in English playwriting. In the aftermath of the 1606 Gunpowder Plot—in which a disgruntled young man tried and failed to blow up King James I and Parliament—Jacobean drama became darker and more murderous than it had been just decades earlier. In terms of plot, The White Devil is based on an actual historical scandal: there was a real woman named Vittoria Accoramboni, and she really did marry the soon-to-be-Pope’s nephew. When Vittoria’s younger brother Marcello began working for the Duke of Bracciano (who years earlier had murdered his wife Isabella), Marcello and Vittoria saw another chance to advance their family’s standing. Marcello and Bracciano then had Vittoria’s first husband murdered, and they all fled to Padua, where Vittoria and Bracciano were married. Soon after, Vittoria was stabbed to death by a man named Ludovico Orsini, a relative of Bracciano’s who nursed a deep hatred for Vittoria.

Other Books Related to The White Devil

Webster was writing in the heart of the Jacobean period, which spans from roughly 1603 to 1625. William Shakespeare is perhaps the most well-known playwright of this time (though he began writing well before, in the Elizabethan era), but in fact Webster had a number of important contemporaries. Webster’s closest collaborator was Thomas Dekker, with whom he wrote the 1603 satiric play Westward Ho—a work so impactful that it inspired renowned writer Ben Jonson to respond with his own piece Eastward Ho. But while Webster dabbled in comedy (and worked at the Red Bull Theater, known for Dekker’s lighter touch), The White Devil is more in line with the era’s bloodier plays. These include the 1622 play The Changeling and much of Shakespeare’s darker works, like Othello (1603) and Macbeth (1606). Like Macbeth, The White Devil is considered “a tragedy of action,” meaning that more of the drama comes from plot points than from individual suffering.
Key Facts about The White Devil
  • Full Title: The White Divel; or, the Tragedy of Paulo Giordano Ursini, Duke of Brachiano. With the Life and Death of Vittoria Corombona the famous Venetian Curtizan
  • When Written: 1611–1612
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1612
  • Literary Period: English Renaissance (Jacobean)
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: Courts and courthouses in Rome and Padua
  • Climax: In disguise and acting on behalf of Duke Francisco, Count Lodovico poisons Brachiano’s helmet. Brachiano then collapses in the middle of a staged fight.
  • Antagonist:  Everyone is a villain.

Extra Credit for The White Devil

Poison Galore.  Poison plays a big role in this particular play, and that’s because death-by-poisoning was in fact a Webster trademark. In other works, Webster had his characters poison books and tennis rackets in addition to pictures and helmets. And indeed, Webster’s love of violence is so essential to his persona that when he makes a brief appearance in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, his only action is to torture mice.  

A Red Bull Redux. Nearly four centuries after Webster’s play premiered at the Red Bull Theatre in London, a group of New York City theater artists founded their own Red Bull Theater, dedicated to producing new versions of beloved classics. In 2019, the New York City Red Bull did its own gory production of The White Devil, allowing Webster’s play to come full circle.