Places: The White Devil

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1612

First produced: c. 1609-1612

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: Late sixteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Rome

*Rome. White Devil, TheLeading city of Italy, in which the first four acts of the play take place. During Webster’s time, Rome was known for its political and moral complexities and corruption. The play’s second act is set at midnight in an isolated Roman location where Duke Brachianio watches as a conjurer produces a dumb show that achieves an appropriately theatrical effect while also advancing the drama’s plot. The setting of the third act assumes a more official air, as the characters Flamineo, Marcello, and Vittoria are brought to trial before Cardinal Monticelso in his palace.

House of the Convertites

House of the Convertites. Home for reformed prostitutes to which Vittoria is sent after she is condemned by Cardinal Monticelso. Here she is effectively imprisoned, with the additional punishment of being stripped of her reputation. There is dramatic irony in the fact that the virtuous Vittoria must serve her unjust sentence in a home for “fallen women” in what the playwright regards as one of the most corrupt cities in Christendom.


*Vatican. Roman residence of the pope and the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. During the play the reigning pope, Gregory XIII, dies, and the College of Cardinals assembles to elect his successor, who is none other than Cardinal Monticelso. The combination of the scene and the action reinforce the drama’s theme of the moral hypocrisy of Vittoria’s enemies and the pervasive corruption of Italy.


*Padua. City in northeast Italy, near Venice, to which Brachiano and Vittoria flee and get married after their escape from Rome. Although Padua at first seems a refuge from the treachery and deception of Rome, it proves to be equally corrupt, and the couple are murdered by their foes. In a land and time of utter moral depravity, no innocent persons or couples are safe.

BibliographyBliss, Lee. The World’s Perspective: John Webster and the Jacobean Drama. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983. Discusses Webster in the context of his relation to his contemporaries and predecessors. Seeks to establish the existence of a social commentary of disillusionment in the play.Forker, Charles R. Skull Beneath the Skin: The Achievement of John Webster. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986. A comprehensive study of Webster’s life and work. Recounts the historical incidents upon which The White Devil is based and explores the nuances of the characters’ relationships with one another by close reading.Pearson, Jacqueline. Tragedy and Tragicomedy in the Plays of John Webster. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980. Documents The White Devil’s pattern of repetitions–often ironic–which make for a tight, interconnected structure. Less convincing in the attempt to establish these patterns as tragicomic.Waage, Frederick O. The White Devil Discover’d: Backgrounds and Foregrounds to Webster’s Tragedy. New York: Peter Lang, 1984. A close reading of the play, with emphasis on how the structure reflects Webster’s ethical stance. In the balance of action scenes with scenes of stasis, discovers a calculated attempt to capture more closely the rhythms and “irresolution” of life than traditional five act divisions do.Wymer, Rowland. Webster and Ford. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Discusses the relevance and appeal of Webster’s work to twentieth century audiences. The chapter on The White Devil explores the dramatic potential of the play’s symbolism of black and white–for example, having black actors take on some of the major roles–to highlight Webster’s sense of moral ambiguity.
Categories: Places