Tragic Effect in Webster’s ‘The White Devil’

HAPPY HALLOWEEN! I thought today would be the perfect day to discuss a chilling play, John Webster’s The White Devil.

The White Devil is a bloody Jacobean revenge play. With its scheming, seduction, horrible murders and powerful female lead (the courtroom scene is incredible), Webster’s play is one of my favourites of the era. Today I’m going to discuss the tragic aspect of the play, namely the question of whether The White Devil is tragic enough to be considered a true revenge tragedy.

George Sensabaugh, in his essay, ‘Tragic Effect in Webster’s The White Devil’ argues that while John Webster was, undoubtedly, a great playwright, there is one aspect in which his play, The White Devil falls short. He draws upon criticism such as that of Robert Ornstein who ‘found no tragic illumination at the end of the action, no new insight vouchsafed to either the spectators of, or the participants in, the catastrophe’. Sensabaugh arrives at the conclusion that the reason that criticism such as this arises from readings of Webster’s play, is because Webster, in his employment of satire, upsets the ‘delicate balance between satire and tragedy’. For Sensabaugh, Webster’s satirical comments on the workings of society in The White Devil are too overpowering; they take away from the tragedy of the play. Sensabaugh uses Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an example of a play that perfects the balance between satire and tragedy, claiming that Shakespeare ‘viewed the rotten state of Denmark’, ‘through Hamlet himself’ which ‘heighten[‘s] the total effect of the play’, without taking away the intensity of the tragedy that unfolds; while there is a satirical comment on ‘the state of Denmark’ within Shakespeare’s play, it does not overwhelm the tragic elements. Sensabaugh suggests that the ‘main purpose’ of a tragedy is the creation of ‘a heroic personage, with whom an audience could identify with in his tragic experience’. This, too, is something that he feels is lacking in The White Devil, but is done perfectly in Hamlet, adding that an audience’s empathy with a character is incredibly important as it allows the audience to feel, along with the tragic hero, that ‘man is mysteriously subject to transcendent laws and that, because these laws inexorably exact justice, the catastrophe intimates some grand universal design’; Sensabaugh’s idea is that, without a character that the audience can really connect to, the audience is indifferent to the fate’s of the characters at the end of the play and so there is no feeling that divine justice has been enacted; we’re so distant from the characters that we don’t feel any righteousness when evil is punished, or sadness, when good people are wrongly punished.

Just one of the examples that Sensabaugh gives to argue his case is the moment in Act 4, Scene 2, when, inside the ‘house of convertites’, Brachiano and Flamineo gain access to see Vittoria. Vittoria denounces the Duke for staining ‘the spotless honour of [her] house’, asking him ‘What have I gain’d by thee, but infamy?’. Of this moment, Sensabaugh writes that ‘in a moment of truth, Vittoria has seen the whole picture plain: she is a whore, Flamineo a pander, and Brachiano a murderer and a jealous lover’. ‘In her agony’, for Sensabaugh, ‘she […] is almost heroic’. Vittoria’s resentment of the Duke and her decision to free herself of him, Sensabaugh seems to suggest, aligns the audience with her; she is no longer an antagonist, she is, instead, in agony; we can empathise with her and we’re close to the narrative of the text in our feeling for the character. But Sensabaugh continues: ‘In her agony she […] is almost heroic. But Flamineo quickly shatters the tragic mood [that Vittoria’s] insight had established. “O, no oaths, for God’s sake!” [Flamineo] cynically exclaims, in reply to Brachiano’s attempt to palliate Vittoria’s righteous anger by new protestations of love’. Flamineo goes on to criticise that which Vittoria has so far said: ‘What a damn’d imposthume is a woman’s will! / Can nothing break it?’. ‘So Juvenalian a view of woman at this point in the fable’, Sensabaugh writes,

‘forces the audience to step out of the action and observe from afar Vittoria’s promptings of conscience. What had been great and moving now becomes, through a shift in perspective, simply an example of the perversity of womankind’.

This sudden cruel satirising of woman, Sensabaugh seems to suggest, snaps the audience out of that closeness to Vittoria that her earlier sadness created; the audience is forced to withdraw from their feeling of sympathy for Vittoria in attempt to gain satirical perspective and this is something that Sensabaugh deems detrimental to The White Devil.

 Satire is ‘a mode of writing that exposes the failings of individuals, institutions, or societies to ridicule and scorn’ and as Sensabaugh notes,

‘the very nature of satire calls for detachment […] [for the satirist] is looking at man and society from a superior position, arraigning his stupidities and short-comings’.

Empathy, on the other hand, is defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’; it demands a closeness. So when Webster, for a fleeting moment, encourages the audience to empathise with a character, and then immediately makes a satirical comment, the way he does in Act 4, Scene 2, and in other moments in the play, the audience is forced to withdraw and it is this constant getting near and subsequent backing away that Sensabaugh feels is a flaw in The White Devil for the satirical perspective that satire demands, distances the audience.

I agree with Sensabaugh in his view that this drawing in, and subsequent withdrawing, is present in Webster’s play, preventing the audience from ever aligning with one particular character; it is because we never allowed close enough, for a sufficient amount of time. But while Webster believes that this impacts the text in a negative way, I believe it to be what makes The White Devil an interesting text. Whatever Webster’s intention may have been in creating a play that, ultimately, distances the reader, the effect, as Sensabaugh notes, seems to be that there is no strong, impressive, final sense of justice in the closing scenes of the play as there is in a play, to use Sensabaugh’s example, like Hamlet; as Sensabaugh puts it, ‘no great person, out of his suffering, shares with his audience a new insight into the relation between man and the universe; no imitations of a great order of justice arises’.

There are several moments in The White Devil that satirise the corrupt, immoral and unjust nature of the court and the law. One moment that is particularly poignant is in Act 3, Scene 2, Vittoria’s arraignment. Vittoria dominates the court scene, offering clever, quick-witted, answers to the accusations that are thrown at her by her accusers. She challenges the court to find evidence of her guilt in the murders and she explains that her only crimes are her love for gay clothes, her merry heart and her good stomach. Despite this admirable strength, Vittoria is sent to a convent, crying, ‘a rape! a rape! you have ravished justice’, a sentiment that criticises the working of the law, that someone can be sentenced despite there being no evidence to prove guilt. Vittoria, too, in this scene mocks the working of the court, mocking the high and hard language of the lawyer. Webster’s play is clearly critical of the working of the court and of law and the satire that he injects into his play allows these criticisms to arise in an impressive way.

Sensabaugh believes that this kind of satire in The White Devil is a flaw, for it is too overpowering; it prevents the development of empathy, therefore denying the audience the satisfying feeling that a kind of divine justice has been done in the final scene; this, for Sensabaugh, is a weakness of Webster’s play. The lack of the feeling that ‘man is mysteriously subject to transcendent laws […] some grand universal design’, is, I think, exactly what makes The White Devil a great play; it is precisely what ‘puzzles’ and ‘stuns’ the audience. In the play’s final scenes, when the central characters are murdered and the sense of divine justice does not arise, the audience is left with the feeling that there may not necessarily be a ‘universal power; that can ‘enact justice’ in Webster’s world. Webster’s satirisation of the workings of society mean that all the audience is left with at the end of the play is a corrupt court, unjust law and the downfall of the people who suffer as a result of these. While Sensabaugh’s reading of The White Devil is interesting and illuminating, it seems to me that his idea of tragedy is perhaps too closely intertwined with the idea that there must be a sense of a greater power enacting justice, that a tragic play is a somewhat of a failure without it. The White Devil is tragic precisely because the audience is left with the feeling that the only justice may not be divine, but, instead, imposed by man, corrupt and, ultimately, harmful; it shocks the audience makes for an incredibly impressive play.

Happy Halloween! Stay safe!

Charlotte x

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