Over the course of The White Devil, a 1612 play by Englishman John Webster, every man in noblewoman Vittoria’s life calls her a “whore.”. Indeed, when the show begins, Vittoria does betray her husband Camillo by having an affair with the Duke of Brachiano. But while Brachiano, despite being just as married as Vittoria is, faces almost no consequences for his behavior—society takes Vittoria to court for her slip-up, publicly humiliates her, and eventually sentences her to a house of convertites (a kind of jail cell for “penitent whores”). Similarly, though prominent men like Cardinal Monticelso and Count Lodovico pry into the most intimate details of Vittoria’s private life, these very same men then fault Vittoria—and all women—for their inappropriate “lust.” It’s no wonder, then, that Vittoria sees the accusations against her as deeply hypocritical; as she puts it, “if a man should spit in the wind, the filth return in [his] face.” In other words, labeling Vittoria a “strumpet” and a “whore,” allows these powerful men to project their own desire and guilt onto a less powerful woman.
But while the play condemns this patriarchal hypocrisy, The White Devil is not free from the very misogyny it critiques. Though Vittoria defends herself with dignity at her trial, ultimately, the play reveals her to be nearly as craven and manipulative as her accusers claim: she is fickle to her lover and attempts to betray her brother Flamineo, who only sees through her ruse because he (unlike most of the other male characters) feels no attraction to her. Fascinatingly, then, the play condemns the unjust, harmful, double standards men use to judge female desire—while also replicating those same double standards on stage.
Double Standards of Desire ThemeTracker
Double Standards of Desire Quotes in The White Devil
It seems you are jealous: I ’ll show you the error of it by a familiar example: I have seen a pair of spectacles fashioned with such perspective art, that lay down but one twelve pence a’ th’ board, twill appear as if there were twenty; now should you wear a pair of these spectacles, and see your wife tying her shoe, you would imagine twenty hands were taking up of your wife’s clothes, and this would put you into a horrible, causeless fury.
The fault there, sir, is not in the eyesight.
True, but they that have the yellow jaundice think all objects they look on to be yellow. Jealousy is worse; her fits present to a man, like so many bubbles in a basin of water, twenty several crabbed faces, many times makes his own shadow his cuckold-maker.
Come, sister, darkness hides your blush. Women are like cursed dogs: civility keeps them tied all day, but they are loose at midnight. Then they do most good or most mischief.
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.
Terrify babes, my lord, with painted devils,
I am past such needless palsy. For your names
Of ‘whore’ and ‘murderess’, they proceed from you,
As if a man should spit against the wind,
The filth returns in ’s face.
Why now ’tis come about. He rail’d upon me;
And yet these crowns were told out, and laid ready,
Before he knew my voyage. Oh, the art,
The modest form of greatness! that do sit,
Like brides at wedding-dinners, with their looks turn’d
From the least wanton jests, their puling stomach
Sick from the modesty, when their thoughts are loose,
Even acting of those hot and lustful sports
Are to ensue about midnight: such his cunning!
He sounds my depth thus with a golden plummet.
I am doubly arm’d now. Now to th’ act of blood,
There ’s but three furies found in spacious hell,
But in a great man’s breast three thousand dwell.
Had women navigable rivers in their eyes,
They would dispend them all. Surely, I wonder
Why we should wish more rivers to the city,
When they sell water so good cheap. I ’ll tell thee
These are but Moorish shades of griefs or fears;
There ’s nothing sooner dry than women’s tears.
Why, here ’s an end of all my harvest; he has given me nothing.
Court promises! let wise men count them curs’d;
For while you live, he that scores best, pays worst.
Sure this was Florence’ doing.
Those are found weighty strokes which come from th’ hand,
But those are killing strokes which come from th’ head.
Oh, the rare tricks of a Machiavellian!
He doth not come, like a gross plodding slave,
And buffet you to death; no, my quaint knave,
He tickles you to death, makes you die laughing,
As if you had swallow’d down a pound of saffron.
You see the feat, ’tis practis’d in a trice;
To teach court honesty, it jumps on ice.
Oh, thou art deceived. I am too true a woman:
Conceit can never kill me. I’ll tell thee what,
I will not in my death shed one base tear,
Or if look pale, for want of blood not fear.