Many of the characters in John Webster’s The White Devil go to great lengths to demonstrate their outward virtue. Low-ranking soldier Flamineo showers his boss with compliments, noblewoman Vittoria asserts her purity, and Cardinal Monticelso constantly asserts the value of prayer and penitence. But beneath these exemplary exteriors, each of the characters is much less innocent than they appear. Flamineo is treacherous and manipulative, flattering others only to advance his own position; Vittoria is adulterous and a liar; and Monticelso is fascinated by the very sins he claims to detest. These characters, alongside vengeful Duke Francisco and murderous Count Lodovico, demonstrate that no person is ever completely virtuous or good, no matter what their noble title or reputation might suggest.
On the one hand, then, The White Devil shows just how much deception individual characters are capable of. But the play is treacherous on a structural level, too. In the first act, the script introduces a clear set of villains (like the exiled Count Lodovico) and heroes (like Cardinal Monticelso); by the fifth and final act, Lodovico faces certain torture with grace and honesty whereas Monticelso, now the Pope, reveals himself to be lecherous and easily bribed. By subverting audience expectations in this way, John Webster teaches his viewers to distrust appearances—to look beneath elaborate flattery and grand declarations to the motivations underneath, and thus to “discern poison under […] gilded pills.”
External Virtue vs. Internal Truth ThemeTracker
External Virtue vs. Internal Truth 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.
What! because we are poor
Shall we be vicious?
Pray, what means have you
To keep me from the galleys, or the gallows?
My father prov’d himself a gentleman,
Sold all ‘s land, and, like a fortunate fellow,
Died ere the money was spent. You brought me up
At Padua, I confess, where I protest,
For want of means--the University judge me--
I have been fain to heel my tutor’s stockings,
At least seven years; conspiring with a beard,
Made me a graduate; then to this duke’s service,
I visited the court, whence I return’d
More courteous, more lecherous by far,
But not a suit the richer. And shall I,
Having a path so open, and so free
To my preferment, still retain your milk
In my pale forehead? No, this face of mine
I ’ll arm, and fortify with lusty wine,
‘Gainst shame and blushing.
The duchess come to court! I like not that.
We are engag’d to mischief, and must on;
As rivers to find out the ocean
Flow with crook bendings beneath forced banks,
Or as we see, to aspire some mountain’s top,
The way ascends not straight, but imitates
The subtle foldings of a winter’s snake,
So who knows policy and her true aspect,
Shall find her ways winding and indirect.
It is a more direct and even way,
To train to virtue those of princely blood,
By examples than by precepts: if by examples,
Whom should he rather strive to imitate
Than his own father? be his pattern then,
Leave him a stock of virtue that may last,
Should fortune rend his sails, and split his mast.
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.
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.
And thus it happens:
Your poor rogues pay for ’t, which have not the means
To present bribe in fist; the rest o’ th’ band
Are razed out of the knaves’ record; or else
My lord he winks at them with easy will;
His man grows rich, the knaves are the knaves still.
[…] That in so little paper
Should lie th’ undoing of so many men!
’Tis not so big as twenty declarations.
See the corrupted use some make of books:
Divinity, wrested by some factious blood,
Draws swords, swells battles, and o’erthrows all good.
Oh, the fate of princes!
I am so used to frequent flattery
That, being alone, I now flatter myself.
Lo you, sister!
Stay, my lord; I ’ll tell you a tale. The crocodile, which lives in the River Nilus, hath a worm breeds i’ th’ teeth of ’t, which puts it to extreme anguish: a little bird, no bigger than a wren, is barber-surgeon to this crocodile; flies into the jaws of ‘t, picks out the worm, and brings present remedy. The fish, glad of ease, but ungrateful to her that did it, that the bird may not talk largely of her abroad for non-payment, closeth her chaps, intending to swallow her, and so put her to perpetual silence. But nature, loathing such ingratitude, hath armed this bird with a quill or prick on the head, top o’ th’ which wounds the crocodile i’ th’ mouth, forceth her open her bloody prison, and away flies the pretty tooth-picker from her cruel patient.
No, my lord.
You, sister, are the crocodile: you are blemish’d in your fame, my lord cures it; and though the comparison hold not in every particle, yet observe, remember, what good the bird with the prick i’ th’ head hath done you, and scorn ingratitude. It may appear to some ridiculous
[Aside] Thus to talk knave and madman, and sometimes
Come in with a dried sentence, stuffed with sage:
But this allows my varying of shapes;
Knaves do grow great by being great men’s apes.
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.
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.
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.
If Florence be in the court, would he would kill me.
Fool! Princes give rewards with their own hands,
But death or punishment by the hands of others.
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.
‘Tis well yet there’s some goodness in my death;
My life was a black charnel. I have caught
An everlasting cold; I have lost my voice
Most irrecoverably. Farewell, glorious villains.
This busy trade of life appears most vain,
Since rest breeds rest, where all seek pain by pain.
Let no harsh flattering bells resound my knell;
Strike, thunder, and strike loud, to my farewell!