Written while James I was on the throne of England. James I had a number of favourite courtiers, to whom he gave titles and power. The most important ones were Robert Carr, who was knighted in 1607, then made Viscount Rochester in 1611, and George Villiers, who became Earl of Buckingham in 1619. James tended to rely on his favourites, who flattered him, rather than on Parliament or existing nobles. This caused resentment and, quite often, led to poor advice.Those who expected advancement at court were often disappointed. Reward was not always obtained through merit, but often by flattery. An unfavourable attitude towards court life can be seen in The White Devil. Much of Flamineo's cynicism seems to be linked with his poverty and lack of status. In Act 1 Sc 2 Flamineo complains to his mother:
"I would fain know where lies the mass of wealth
Which you have hoarded for my maintenance"
Like most Revenge tragedies, The White Devil was set in a Catholic country, playing to the common prejudices of the English about Catholic intrigue. Such attitudes had developed as a result of England's own history in the preceding century. It fitted in with the anti-Catholic sentiment that increased after 1605 (Gunpowder plot), as well as ideas commonly held about Italy inspired by the reputation of Machiavelli and the Borgias
In The White Devil Latin is frequently used to assert authority, because it excludes those who do not comprehend it. Webster's audience would have sympathised with Vittoria's demand to be tried in English so that what was being said was easy to comprehend.
‘Machiavellian' ideas were soon seen as being despicable, and the term became synonymous with villainy.In The White Devil, Francisco's poisoning of Brachiano would have been seen as a particularly Machiavellian act, especially since the use of poison was associated with Italian rulers such as the Borgias. Both Francisco and Lodovico show a degree of deviousness in their plotting. This is particularly apparent in Act 4, Scene 3.
- her black lust, shall make her infamous - Monticelso
- Your beauty! O, ten thousand curses on't. How long have I beheld the devil in crystal? - Bracciano
- Woman to man/ Is either god or a wolf. - Bracciano
- If a woman do breed man/ She ought to teach him manhood - Flamineo
- She hath a brave spirit - English Ambassador
- My soul, like to a ship in a black storm, Is driven I know not whither. - Vittoria
- O my greatest sin lay in my blood. Now my blood pays for't. - Vittoria
- She hath taught him in a dream/ To make away with his Duchess and her husband - Flam
- She who knows policy and her true aspect shall find her ways winding and indirect - Flamineo
- How strong imagination works! How she can frame things which are not! - Francisco
- Tis your guise to fill your mouth with gross and impudent lies! - Bracciano
- Know many women that are fam'd for masculine virtue - Flamineo
- Sweet meats which rot the eater - Monticelso
- Dig the strumpets eyes out - Isabella (Misogyny exists in women...)
- Counterfeit jewel - Monticelsco
- Women are like curst dogs: civility keeps them tied all daytime, but they are let loose at midnight. - Flamineo
- William Hazzlitt - Webster "comes the nearest to Shakespeare of anything we have upon record."
- Henry Fitzgeffrey - "Crabbed Websterio/ The Play-Wright/ Cart-Wright"
- T.S. Eliot - Webster was much possessed by death, and saw the skull beneath the skin.
- Dympna Callaghan wrote about the relationship between white Vittoria and the black Zanche, the way in which they double each other and how they are punished for their sexuality.
- In 1989 Margaret Loftus Ranald wrote about Webster's ‘surprising' modernity in his treatment of female characters: ‘He is not afraid to portray women of power, whether evil … dignified and tragic … or manipulative,' who, ‘choose to take risks and in so doing they broaden the female horizons of the Jacobean era, while at the same time undermining norms of established behaviour.'
- Marxist critics might view The White Devil as a drama that challenges dominant ideologies and in which the ruling elite is not presented as being virtuous. Different social classes are seen to be in conflict with one another, with all ranks given a significant voice. Dollimore and Sinfield said "His play is questioning and often subversive of orthodoxy".
The White Devil on Stage
- Early in the 19th Century Nahum Tate reworked the play to make the white devil much whiter and foist all the blame of Bracciano
- Frank Dunlop (1969) - designed a large symbolic set which resembled an enormous wall, to make a wall as it might be percieved by insects.The characters were also clothed in insect-like costumes to show that "Human beings are writhing grubs in an immense night" - Brooke.
- Michael Lindsay Hogg (1976) - presented Vittoria as a sympathetic and intelligent woman.
- Philip Prowse (1991) - Vittoria spent most of the production barefoot, implying an earthly sensuality, and wore a luxurious gold dress, not a white one, for her wedding. This would suggest a brazen and mercenary Vittoria, though, this was undercut by the final scene, in which both she and Flamineo wore white as their killers wore black.
- Gale Edwards (1996) A key feature of the design was a square trapdoor, covered by a metal grate, whcih stood in the centre of the playing space, which can be seen as a "fatal pivot between limbo and ultimate damnation" - Nick Tippler. Vittoria is a strongly sexual figure but but acheives monumental dignity. Monticelso verbally abuses her and speaks uncomfortably close to her, bordering on sexual abuse.
- Philip Franks (2000) A larged sword nailed to the back wall, looked like a crucifix, "It was a crucifix made of a violent instrument." Utterly rejects the idea that she is the White Devil.
The White Devil on Stage (2)
- Jonathan Munby (2008) used confined spaces to make the audience feel like they were "almost inside somebody's grave." Vittoria was essentially a survivor. Presents Camillo as someone is difficult to respect, and therefore it is hard to blame Vittoria for abandoning him.
- Geraldine McEwan (1969) - largely condemned Vittoria. Glenda Jackson (1976) did the opposite.