Poison, a common cause of death for the play’s characters, is also a symbol of deception—what looks safe or familiar, the play warns, might actually be toxic and deadly. There are two major uses of poison in the play. First, Brachiano plots with a conjurer to kill his wife Isabella by poisoning his own picture, which she kisses each night before bed; in doing so, Brachiano reveals the gap between Isabella’s adoring image of her husband and his murderous reality. The second poisoning happens to Brachiano himself, when Count Lodovico (dressed as a Capuchin monk) poisons the front part—the “beaver”—of Brachiano’s helmet. The armor meant to protect Brachiano then becomes the source of his downfall, just as the monk, supposed to be a healing figure, becomes a harmful one.
In other words, The White Devil uses these events to show that there is poison behind even the prettiest gestures. When she is on the stand at her trial, Vittoria goes so far as to make this symbolism overt: “I discern poison under your gilded pills,” she tells Francisco, assuring him that lofty rhetoric and a good reputation cannot hide his true nature forever. And along the same lines, the presence of poison throughout the entire play—from Rome to Padua, from a conjurer to a count—suggests that the entire “gilded” society is in fact corrosive and corrupted underneath.
Poison Quotes in The White Devil
Shall I expound whore to you? sure I shall;
I ’ll give their perfect character. They are first,
Sweetmeats which rot the eater; in man’s nostrils
Poison’d perfumes. They are cozening alchemy;
Shipwrecks in calmest weather. What are whores!
Cold Russian winters, that appear so barren,
As if that nature had forgot the spring.
They are the true material fire of hell:
Worse than those tributes i’ th’ Low Countries paid,
Exactions upon meat, drink, garments, sleep,
Ay, even on man’s perdition, his sin.
They are those brittle evidences of law,
Which forfeit all a wretched man’s estate
For leaving out one syllable. What are whores!
They are those flattering bells have all one tune,
At weddings, and at funerals. Your rich whores
Are only treasuries by extortion fill’d,
And emptied by curs’d riot. They are worse,
Worse than dead bodies which are begg’d at gallows,
And wrought upon by surgeons, to teach man
Wherein he is imperfect. What’s a whore!
She’s like the guilty counterfeited coin,
Which, whosoe’er first stamps it, brings in trouble
All that receive it.
My lord, there’s great suspicion of the murder,
But no sound proof who did it. For my part,
I do not think she hath a soul so black
To act a deed so bloody; if she have,
As in cold countries husbandmen plant vines,
And with warm blood manure them; even so
One summer she will bear unsavory fruit,
And ere next spring wither both branch and root.
The act of blood let pass; only descend
To matters of incontinence.
I discern poison
Under your gilded pills.
Here, the rest being departed, LODOVICO and GASPARO discover themselves.
Devil Brachiano, thou art damn’d.
[…]You that were held the famous politician,
Whose art was poison.
And whose conscience, murder.
That would have broke your wife’s neck down the stairs,
Ere she was poison’d.
That had your villainous sallets.
And fine embroider’d bottles, and perfumes,
Equally mortal with a winter plague.
Now there ’s mercury—
With other devilish ’pothecary stuff,
A-melting in your politic brains: dost hear? […]
And thou shalt die like a poor rogue […]
And be forgotten
Before the funeral sermon.