Saturday, January 14, 2012

The White Devil

I find that, the more plays I read, the more I'm able to focus in on what is important about that play--what makes it unique, what connects it to other stuff. Webster's The White Devil, though, is going to be hard. It's so like The Duchess of Malfi and yet not . . . I'm not sure yet what I think about it. Maybe writing will help.

Wordle: The White Devil

I made a Wordle of the play. It took a long time because, after I made it the first time, I realized that I had to take out speech prefixes and stuff like that. I could still benefit by taking out some stuff but I really liked how the "ha" is inside the "oh". And this disproves something I thought--that "wolf" would be among the most used words in the play. It still may be important, though--it's in the first scene when Lodovico describes Fortune, and it is one of the most quoted lines of the play as Brachiano rages at Vittoria, saying that "woman to man is either a god or a wolf," either worshipped or a devourer.

This play has a lot in common with the Duchess of Malfi--a tragic female brought down by her unsanctioned sexual desires who faces trial by her peers with defiance and death with bravery, whose brother takes a greater interest in her sex life than strictly necessary. A trio of brothers-in-law take her and Brachiano, her noble lover, down. And the survivor of the bloodshed, the innocent young son and heir, has the last word in the play.

I am interested in how this play constructs itself and its characters as theatrical. There is the Isabella's performance in front of her brothers, of course, as the vengeful wronged wife (again withholding sex!) from her husband, when in actuality he is the one who has spurned her and said that they will never sleep together again. There is the dumb-show in which we see the separate murders of Isabella and Camillo through spirits or sorcery, I'm not sure. But the trial is as consciously theatrical as this, and more interesting for the meaning of the play. Vittoria, knowing that she's "on show," demands to be questioned and sentenced in plain language, not in Latin. She wants those listening to be able to understand the proceedings, probably to gain their sympathy. It begins to work, too; the ambassadors believe that the cardinal is "too bitter" in his attack on her.

Vittoria also shows an acute awareness of the way theater and public shows work. She says that the names of "Whore and Murderess" proceed from those charging her, not from herself, and refuses to accept their projection. She has a projection of her own--that of the staunchly innocent wrongly-accused--but she knows that people on stage often are subjected to the ideas of others, so she fights this. When she is taken from the courtroom to the house of convertites, she cries out histrionically "A rape! A rape!" framing this moment on her own terms, rather than letting those watching interpret it as a criminal being brought to justice.

Of course, the murders are significant, too, and theatrical in their own ways. I'm indebted to my friend Victoria for this idea, that the spouses, in the moment of their murder, are enacting normative spousal roles--Isabella, the chaste and dutiful wife, is poisoned by kissing the picture of her husband before bed. Camillo, the husband whose masculinity is threatened by rumors of his wife cuckolding him, is killed supposedly in the act of jumping a hurdle with a horse, the self-consciously showy act of a manly man.

And then there's Flamineo. I do not know what to do with this guy. He's a malcontent, a very Bosola, in some ways--except not as likeable. He's sort of whiny--"I was never rich enough, and now that I'm trying to advance myself in the world, I get caught!"--and heartless. He doesn't really like his sister or Brachiano that much but he helps them because he wants to help himself. And when it doesn't work out, he just sort of fumes about it and keeps making terrible plans. I like his name--he sort of flares up and flames out like his name.

There are some really interesting Hamlet resonances in this play, too--a ghost, a skull, a grief-maddened female singing and strewing flowers about. But I don't really have time to think about them too much. Onto the next play! I hope I get to come back to this one, though; Webster is good (when he's not writing comedy.)

edit: After listening to Emma Smith's lecture on this play, I see more Duchess correspondences. The male relatives are angry/vengeful because of a slight on their house (the Duke's unfaithfulness to, and murder of, Isabella; some "strong-thighed bargeman" "leaping" their sister the Duchess). For both, there is a challenge to posterity. If the Duke is sleeping around on Isabella, might he not raise some bastard child above Giovanni? If the Duchess is having an adulterous relationship, might she not raise bastards to inherit in her line, tainting her house's name?

Also, both Bosola and Flamineo act sort of as spies or go-betweens. I'm not sure if this is that significant, but I thought I'd add it.


String Bean Jean said...

Both of these plays sound interesting. You have actually inspired me to read them. Your commentary is very good. Thanks for sharing!

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