Though there are very few heroes in The White Devil, the character who is most consistently decent is the young Prince Giovanni. As Giovanni comes of age over the course of the play, he gets plenty of advice from both his father the Duke of Brachiano, and from his father’s rival, Duke Francisco. But while each of these prominent men instructs Giovanni in the bravery and selflessness needed to be a successful leader, neither manages to live out in practice the virtues that he preaches. Without a role model to learn from, Giovanni begins to lose his boyish generosity; by the end of the play, other characters feel that Giovanni is as harsh and cruel as the uncle he was “taught to imitate.” Giovanni’s trajectory thus demonstrates the play’s most important political message: with great power comes great responsibility, and princes should be “examples” not only for their family members and successors but for the communities they govern. Or as Cornelia (Vittoria, Flamineo, and Marcello’s mother) says, “the lives of princes should like dials move, whose regular example is so strong, they make the times by them go right, or wrong”.
This emphasis on leading by example is especially fascinating given the early-modern period in which Webster was writing. In 1612, the concept of organized government was still relatively new, and people were passionately debating how the leaders of these governments should behave. One of the most prominent voices in this conversation was Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, who believed that rulers should govern with fear and manipulation and who The White Devil mentions by name (when Flamineo labels Francisco “a Machiavellian”). By contrast, in emphasizing the importance of good “examples,” Webster suggests an anti-Machiavellian approach to governance—one in which leaders pass down good behavior to their subjects and future generations of leaders.
Leading by Example vs. Leading by Force ThemeTracker
Leading by Example vs. Leading by Force Quotes in The White Devil
O my lord,
The law doth sometimes mediate; thinks it good
Not ever to steep violent sins in blood.
This gentle penance may both end your crimes,
And in the example better these bad times.
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.
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.
I shall never flatter him: I have studied man too much to do that. What difference is between the duke and I? no more than between two bricks, all made of one clay: only ’t may be one is placed in top of a turret, the other in the bottom of a well, by mere chance. If I were placed as high as the duke, I should stick as fast, make as fair a show, and bear out weather equally.
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.