Author: John Webster
First published: 1612
Locale: Rome and Padua, Italy
Time: Sixteenth century
Vittoria Corombona (veet-TOH-ree-ah koh-rohm-BOHnah), the brilliant and beautiful wife of an elderly Florentine official. She becomes the mistress and later the bride of Paulo Giordano Ursini, the Duke of Brachiano. She is a woman of tremendous courage and willpower and makes an eloquent and impassioned defense of her honor against the malicious but essentially just accusations of Duke Francisco de Medicis and Cardinal Monticelso. She dies with the same intensity with which she lived, refusing to weep but recognizing in her last moments the depths to which her career has brought her: “My soul, like to a ship in a black storm, is driven, I know not whither.”
Flamineo (flah-MEE-nee-oh), her brother, an ironic commentator on his own life and the society in which he moves. He strives for worldly success without scruple, playing pander for his sister, murdering her husband to win favor with his master, Duke Brachiano, and finally killing his own brother in a hasty quarrel. There are in him, however, lingering traces of humanity that make him compassionate at the sight of his mother beside the body of Marcello. He remains an opportunist to the end and dies with an ironic jest on his lips.
The Duke of Brachiano (brah-KEE-ah-noh), Vittoria's lover, whose desire for her outweighs every moral consideration. He brutally repudiates his duchess and has both her and Vittoria's husband murdered to make himself free to marry his glamorous mistress. His crimes haunt him in the form of apparitions as he lies dying from Lodovico's poison.
Isabella (ee-zah-BEHL-lah), Brachiano's patient wife, whose devotion to him almost exceeds the bounds of credulity. Deeply injured by Brachiano's harsh repudiation, she takes the blame for their separation to shield him from the wrath of her brother, the Duke of Florence. Her death is, ironically, the result of her hopeless love; she is poisoned when she kisses a portrait of her husband.
Count Lodovico (loh-doh-VEE-koh), a nobleman banished for murder after he has squandered his large estate. He secretly loves the duchess and avenges her death by bringing destruction on the heads of Brachiano, Vittoria, and Flamineo.
Francisco (frahn-CHEES-koh), Isabella's brother, the powerful Duke of Florence and a clever, subtle politician. No considerations deter him from avenging his sister's murder; he hires Lodovico and two others to kill Brachiano and disguises himself as the Moor, Mulinasser, to watch the success of his plots. He chooses this private revenge in preference to war, recognizing that the citizens of his own state would be the greatest sufferers if he attacked Brachiano.
Cardinal Monticelso (mohn-tee-CHEHL-soh), later Pope Paul IV, a violent enemy of Vittoria, whose husband was his cousin. Less subtle than Francisco, he is in some ways more vicious with his books of Roman sinners, who were undoubtedly blackmail victims. He retains scruples enough to condemn Lodovico's projected murders.
Cornelia (kohr-NEE-lyah), the mother of Vittoria, Flamineo, and Marcello, a ranting old woman in the tradition of William Shakespeare's Queen Margaret. She is shocked and repelled by the sins of her two older children and becomes mad with grief after Flamineo stabs Marcello.
Camillo (kah-MEEL-loh), Vittoria's foolish old husband. He is easily gulled by Flamineo, who convinces him that the best way to keep Vittoria faithful is to deny her the pleasure of his company. He is murdered while on a mission for the state.
Marcello (mahr-CHEHL-loh), Cornelia's loved younger son, who is free from most of the vices of his brother and sister. Disgusted by Flamineo's attentions to Zanche and the insults he directs at their mother, he accepts his brother's challenge but is treacherously stabbed before they can fight.
Zanche (ZAHN-kay), Vittoria's Moorish maid. Like most of the characters, she is loyal only to herself. She reveals the guilt of Vittoria and Flamineo to Mulinasser and offers him Vittoria's jewels as her dowry if he will wed her. She is trapped with her mistress by Flamineo and dies with them by Lodovico's hand.
Giovanni (jee-oh-VAHN-nee), Brachiano and Isabella's precocious young son. He is old enough to recognize evil, and he banishes Flamineo from court as soon as he is made duke.
Antonelli (ahn-toh-NEHL-lee) and Gasparo (GAHS-pahroh), Lodovico's companions, who assist in the murder of Brachiano.
Hortensio (ohr-TEHN-syoh), Brachiano's attendant.
Doctor Julio (YEW-lee-oh), an expert in poisoning who contrives Isabella's death.