The White Devil


John Webster

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Themes and Colors
External Virtue vs. Internal Truth Theme Icon
Double Standards of Desire Theme Icon
Class and Corruption Theme Icon
Leading by Example vs. Leading by Force Theme Icon
Punishment and Repentance  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The White Devil, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Punishment and Repentance  Theme Icon

The White Devil, John Webster’s play about lust and murder in 16th century Italy, begins with a banishment and ends with torture. For characters like the duke Francisco de Medicis or the cardinal Monticelso, punishment is both a tool and an obsession; choosing to inflict—or withhold—execution, jailtime, or forced penance is the primary way that these leaders exercise their power. But rather than affirming this eye-for-an-eye worldview, The White Devil consistently challenges the idea that harsh punishment is effective or useful. First of all, the play demonstrates that this early modern “justice” system is in fact anything but just: wealthy people bribe their way out of punishment, while “poor rogues pay.” And perhaps even more importantly, the threat of punishment tends to corrupt—not correct—characters like Flamineo, a low-ranking soldier and criminal. For example, when Flamineo fears arrest or trial, he responds by telling more lies and committing more crimes to cover up his original wrongdoing; only when he must directly face the people he has hurt does Flamineo legitimately repent. By examining the moments when punitive leadership fails, therefore, Webster’s play suggests that harsh punishment does more harm than good—and that true moral change can only come from within. 

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Punishment and Repentance ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Punishment and Repentance appears in each scene of The White Devil. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Punishment and Repentance Quotes in The White Devil

Below you will find the important quotes in The White Devil related to the theme of Punishment and Repentance .
Act 1, Scene 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Gasparo (speaker), Lodovico , Antonelli
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Flamineo (speaker), Cornelia (speaker), Brachiano
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 2, Scene 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Monticelso (speaker), Giovanni , Brachiano, Francisco/Mulinassar, Gasparo
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 2, Scene 2 Quotes

Both flowers and weeds spring when the sun is warm,
And great men do great good or else great harm.

Related Characters: Conjurer (speaker), Brachiano
Related Symbols: Trees
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 3, Scene 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Vittoria (speaker), Monticelso (speaker), Brachiano, Lodovico
Related Symbols: Poison
Page Number: 62
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 4, Scene 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Francisco/Mulinassar (speaker), Monticelso , Brachiano
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

Oh, the fate of princes!
I am so used to frequent flattery
That, being alone, I now flatter myself.

Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 4, Scene 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Lodovico (speaker), Monticelso , Francisco/Mulinassar
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 5, Scene 2 Quotes

Let me go, let me go.

She runs to Flamineo with her knife drawn, and coming to him lets it fall.

The God of heaven forgive thee! Dost not wonder
I pray for thee? I ’ll tell thee what ’s the reason,
I have scarce breath to number twenty minutes;
I ’d not spend that in cursing. Fare thee well:
Half of thyself lies there; and mayst thou live
To fill an hour-glass with his moulder’d ashes,
To tell how thou shouldst spend the time to come
In blessed repentance!

Related Characters: Cornelia (speaker), Flamineo, Marcello
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 5, Scene 4 Quotes

I have a strange thing in me, to th’which
I cannot give a name without it be

Related Characters: Flamineo (speaker), Cornelia , Marcello
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:
Act 5, Scene 6 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Vittoria (speaker), Gasparo (speaker), Lodovico , Brachiano, Francisco/Mulinassar
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

‘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!

Related Characters: Flamineo (speaker), Marcello
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis: