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As far as Jacobean playwrights go, John Webster's like the cool, obscure indie band that you probably haven't heard of yet.
Everyone knows about Shakespeare—and a fair number of people have heard of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. But John Webster? He's basically the literary equivalent of The Shins before that one scene in Garden State.
Despite his obscurity, Webster's actually a pretty big deal. He only wrote two famous plays as a solo artist (along with a few misfires), but they've had a big influence: one is The White Devil—a brutal revenge tragedy, seething with corruption and evil. (The other is also a revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi).
The White Devil wasn't actually a hit when it was first performed at The Red Bull Theater in 1612 (wait—they didn't have Red Bull back then…what gives?). In his preface to the play, Webster claimed that it failed because it was performed in an open-air theater in the dead of winter and because the audience members were "like ignorant asses." Actually, that's the reason why he published the play—to give it a second shot. And it worked. When it found a wider audience, The White Devil was revived on stage in 1630, and it's reputation picked up speed.
The play is based on true events. Webster modeled his bloody tragedy on news reports about a recent (at the time) murder and revenge plot in Italy, involving a young Italian noblewoman named Vittoria Accoramboni, who was assassinated by the ultra-rich Medici family (though she wasn't exactly a heroine, since she allegedly helped plot to murder her own husband, before running away with her alleged co-conspirator, The Duke of Brachiano). Webster was scouring the tabloids of his time for inspiration; it would be like if someone took the O.J. Simpson Trial and turned it into a first-rate, compelling play (instead of a cheesy TV movie, as is more likely).
As for Webster himself, we know barely anything about him. In that sense, he's a little similar to Shakespeare (although most lit crit-types probably wouldn't rank him quite as high as the Bard). We just know a few facts—he might have studied as a lawyer, he was married and had children, among other stray tid-bits. We probably learn a lot more about his character from the plays, which make Webster seem like a Master of Darkness. If he were around today, we can easily imagine him having been a staff writer for The Sopranos or Breaking Bad: the dude loved to explore human evil.
At Shmoop, we like to say that mindless violence isn't a good enough reason to "care" about a book—but it definitely doesn't hurt. Hence, John Webster's The White Devil is here to rope you in with the promise of violence—there's a big Game of Thrones-worthy blood-bath at the end, and a decent one at the beginning—and a healthy dollop of insight into the more twisted side of human nature. That's right, folks—this is more like mindful violence.
So, the blood-bath at the end isn't really the (only) reason you should tune in. The more interesting theme of the play—and one Webster spends the most time developing—is the corruption of human nature. Reading the play, you'll probably wonder if humans are really as grotesque and messed-up as Webster paints them as being—he's known for having the darkest view of the human condition and the human heart out of all the Jacobean playwrights (playwrights who wrote during the reign of King James I).
Webster was kind of like the Quentin Tarantino of his time. His two revenge tragedies (The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi) are pretty hardcore, and feature a lot of violence. But, Webster arguably sees humanity in an even harsher light than Tarantino. For instance, there are real heroes in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained: complicated and flawed heroes, sure, but heroes nonetheless. But Webster doesn't really have heroes (at least, not in The White Devil).
In the Webster cosmos, there are the people who commit crimes, the victims who seek revenge for those crimes, and a few secondary characters who don't seem to be all that bad; but there's no central, good character. Even religious figures, like the Cardinal Monticelso, are busy hatching revenge plots. The White Devil is closer to Macbeth—the bad guy (particularly, the character Flamineo) becomes a kind of "hero-villain" (to quote Harold Bloom), who the audience uneasily roots for, if only because he's the most charismatic guy on the stage.
In a world where goodness is passive and almost invisible, the most energetically evil people stand out for applause and admiration. But, is this right? Webster might be asking that question, trying to challenge our sense of our own motives and inner selves. Are we really motivated to act for basically good reasons, or by our own selfishness—by the desire for sex, money, power, or even by the desire to delight in someone else's pain? In answering these questions, The White Devil doesn't pull any punches—it looks right into the eyes of the beast within all of us.
Online Version of the Book
The Project Gutenberg E-Book of The White Devil is a well-rendered, accurate, typo-free copy of the work.
Encyclopedia Britannica Article on The White Devil
Learn more about The White Devil's creation and background from the experts at Brittanica.
Review of the Play from The Express
Dang, turns out they made the Tarantino comparison too—but it's a pretty natural one to make.
2010 BBC Radio 3 Production
This radio version of the play set the action in the 1950s underworld.
Shakespeare in Love
The young John Webster appears as an unwashed little kid playing with mice, who compliments Shakespeare on Titus Andronicus for having "lots of blood" and tells the Queen he liked the part in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet stabs herself.
Boardwalk Empire, Season 2, Episode 11
This episode of the HBO series features discussion of The White Devil in a Princeton classroom – the teacher quotes Cornelia, saying, "What, because we are poor shall we be vicious?" To which a student replies, quoting Flamineo, "Pray what means have you to keep me from the galleys, or the gallows?"
Review of Gender-Focused Revisioning of The White Devil
This Guardian review of a new version of The White Devil is decidedly mixed: it finds the new version interesting, while suggesting that it's also too much about the director's own ideas and vision, as opposed to Webster's.
Trailer for Suffield University Production of The White Devil
Check out this trailer for a university production of the play—it's got a very definite vibe.
Hofstra University Actress Talks About Her Role in The White Devil
An actress playing Vittoria discusses her role.
Trailer for The White Devil from The Royal Shakespeare Company (and Interview with Director)
Take an inside look at this professional production of The White Devil from the UK.
Video for "My White Devil" by Echo and the Bunnymen
This tune makes weirdly direct references to Webster—the intro basically states who he was and what he did.
Librivox Recording of The White Devil
This is a full recording of the whole play—perfectly legal and in the public domain (in the U.S.)—courtesy of Librivox.
Does she look like a murderer? The real Vittoria Accoramboni may have been totally innocent—which seems to vibe with this painting. But appearances can be deceiving—as Webster's play demonstrates.
Pope Paul IV
This is the Pope who Cardinal Monticelso becomes in the play—just not in real life.
Pope Sixtus V
In real life, Cardinal Monticelso (Montalto) became this Pope—who looks like a bit of a schemer.