The critic Clifford Leech points out that in Shakespeare's tragedies, there is always a time before the play when everything was great: Hamlet had a living dad; King Lear wasn't pitting his daughters against each other. Leech calls this "the golden world." But, in Webster's plays, there's never been a "golden world": people seem to have always lived in a nightmare land, where might makes right and nice guys finish last. Webster's good characters aren't deeply drawn—but his evil characters seem real and alive: Camillo is nothing next to Flamineo or Vittoria. And the little pieces of philosophy the different characters offer up typically have a dark, cynical message. As Flamineo says when he's dying (referencing Candlemas/Groundhog Day traditions): "mourn if the sun shine, for fear of the pitiful remainder of winter to come."
Webster's play is a tragedy—more specifically, a revenge tragedy (a hot genre at the time). Simply put, a revenge tragedy is a tragedy about…revenge. Hamlet is a classic example. But revenge is messy—it never works out the way you planned (unless you're Francisco or Monticelso). Sometimes the avenger, like Lodovico, ends up falling victim to his murderous schemes, despite being successful. Hamlet ends up dying at the same time that he finally gets his vengeance, successfully killing his uncle. Other famous examples of the genre include The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe, Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, and The Duchess of Malfi, also by Webster.
The White Devil is the title of the play—but the term "white devil" isn't actually used in the text of the tragedy. Who is the "white devil" anyway? Is it Vittoria? That seems like the strongest possibility—she does a better job of presenting her goodness than Flamineo or Brachiano do, while remaining essentially guilty. Or maybe it refers to any of the characters in the play who use a veil of deceit to hide their evil deeds? The idea that the color white symbolizes purity is used in other ways during the play though. After Flamineo murders his brother, Cornelia asks him:
Will you make me such a fool? here 's a white hand:
Can blood so soon be washed out? (5.4).
The implication is that it can't—sin runs deeper than any pretence of goodness.
In the end, everybody dies… Well, not literally everybody. Technically, Giovanni and a few others are still hanging out—but the main characters we've grown to know and…love (?)...are dead. Or, in the case of Lodovico, they're going to be dead pretty soon, after a little torture. To quote the fictional version of John Webster from Shakespeare in Love, describing the correct method of playwriting: "That's the way to do it—lots of blood." So, bad people come to a bad end, while a pack of colorless good people mope around picking up the pieces.
John Webster is known for writing excellent death speeches. All of his characters die with extremely well-wrought words on their lips as they begin to plummet down to hell. The message of the play is summed up in these speeches—since they reveal human nature at its most ghastly and damned. While getting arrested and sentenced to die, Lodovico celebrates his revenge by stating:
I do glory yet,
That I can call this act mine own. For my part,
The rack, the gallows, and the torturing wheel,
Shall be but sound sleeps to me. (5.6)
Dying, Vittoria cries out:
Oh, happy they that never saw the court,
Nor ever knew great men but by report! (5.6)
Flamineo—the real hero-villain of the play—dies after getting all introspective and denouncing his own evil:
My life was a black charnel. I have caught
An everlasting cold; I have lost my voice
Most irrecoverably. Farewell, glorious villains.
This busy trade of life appears most vain,
Since rest breeds rest, where all seek pain by pain. (5.6)
These death speeches sum it all up really—don't be some selfish evil dude, murdering people for your own glory (like a "glorious villain"). And avoid "great" people (meaning scheming, overly ambitious people without moral scruples). You'd probably be best leading a quite, morally upright life, enduring suffering with stoic courage, trying to be content with what you've got… unless evil seems more interesting and satisfying, as Lodovico finds it.
Webster sets his play in 16th Century Italy—only in the recent past, as far as Webster was concerned, since he was writing at the beginning of the 17th Century. Remember, Webster was living in Protestant Britain, and he imagines Italy—a Catholic nation—as being full of corrupted clerics like Monticelso and murderous, self-interested noblemen and women like Brachiano and Vittoria. Even the friggin' pope is out ordering hits in the play. Webster depicts Italy as a hotbed of intrigue and lust. It's a location for scandal and decadence—sort of like Las Vegas would be considered today.
It's not that England was any less scandalous, though. But by setting his play in a slightly exotic location (the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, like Shakespeare, loved to set plays in Italy), Webster is able to comment on corruption in the Church and the government. He puts it at a safe distance, though, by making it someone else's church and someone else's government. At the time, you really couldn't criticize the government in your own country. (Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe got in trouble for writing a play, The Isle of Dogs, which was deemed seditious and slanderous). But it only requires a little effort to imagine that what Webster is saying about people in Italy is true about people everywhere…including in England.
The White Devil isn't meant to be a complex Rubik's Cube play—it's meant to be fast moving and intense…yet thoughtful. Nonetheless, for modern readers, it's pretty tough—the same way Shakespeare is. Webster doesn't hesitate to bust out his full range of vocabulary. For instance, the word "limn" (which basically means the same thing as "depict") shows up towards the end (on a related note, not too long ago, one of the New York Times' literary critics was attacked for using "limn" too frequently in her reviews). So, it's not that the basic plot is too hard, or that the characters are incomprehensible: it's just that the vocab and the old-school Jacobean style make it pretty difficult. Also, Webster tosses in lots of allusions to Greek mythology and philosophy, which are much harder to comprehend in the present day than they were when the play was first written.
Webster isn't afraid to throw around some advanced SAT prep words—also, he's not too concerned if his audience doesn't know Latin, or what "limn" means, or what some specific reference to Greek mythology is all about. He writes in the elaborate style popular in the Jacobean and Elizabethan era—playwrights like Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson (and Webster if you read his preface to The White Devil) clearly prided themselves on their ability to pack a lot into one or two lines, and cite allusions from classical mythology and literature, along with the occasional quote in Latin. The first part of Flamineo's death speech is Webster at his stylistic best:
Flam. Then cast anchor.
Prosperity doth bewitch men, seeming clear;
But seas do laugh, show white, when rocks are near.
We cease to grieve, cease to be fortune's slaves,
Nay, cease to die by dying. Art thou gone?
And thou so near the bottom? false report,
Which says that women vie with the nine Muses,
For nine tough durable lives! I do not look
Who went before, nor who shall follow me;
No, at my self I will begin the end.
While we look up to heaven, we confound
Knowledge with knowledge. Oh, I am in a mist! (5.6)
This has everything—a rhyming couplet, an example of pathetic fallacy that is also a metaphor for the destruction of human happiness ("seas do laugh, show white, when rocks are near"), pessimistic musings on fortune and death, Greek mythology (the nine Muses), and confusing philosophical statements ("we confound / Knowledge with knowledge.") Again, we can look at Monticelso's speech, attacking Lodovico while secretly supporting him, for another example:
Mont. Miserable creature!
If thou persist in this, 'tis damnable.
Dost thou imagine, thou canst slide on blood,
And not be tainted with a shameful fall?
Or, like the black and melancholic yew-tree,
Dost think to root thyself in dead men's graves,
And yet to prosper? Instruction to thee
Comes like sweet showers to o'er-harden'd ground;
They wet, but pierce not deep. And so I leave thee,
With all the furies hanging 'bout thy neck,
Till by thy penitence thou remove this evil,
In conjuring from thy breast that cruel devil.
This has another rhyming couplet, a nice simile ("like sweet showers to o'er hardened ground"), a heaping of darkness ("slide on blood," etc.), and a reference to classical mythology (the furies). So, the picture's pretty clear: Webster loves density, he loves piling on images and metaphors and allusions and clever turns of phrase until he gets an effect—and he's usually shooting for a pretty dark one.
When he was a baby, Flamineo grabbed a crucifix that belonged to his father and tore off one of the arms (which was then mended by his parents or perhaps by someone else). Cornelia and Marcello are discussing this event right before Flamineo enters the room and murders Marcello. Dying, Marcello laments:
Oh, mother, now remember what I told
Of breaking of the crucifix! (5.2).
Clearly, this is meant to indicate that Flamineo is a pretty bad guy. It suggests that his views were, straight from birth, those of a mini-Antichrist. In Flamineo's worldview, naked self-interest and hate are the main forces that make people do what they do. He's totally opposed to the Christian concept of selfless love or brotherly love—made perfectly clear by the fact that he just murdered his own brother.
Flam. Lo you, sister!
Stay, my lord; I 'll tell you a tale. The crocodile, which lives
in the River Nilus, hath a worm breeds i' th' teeth of 't, which puts
it to extreme anguish: a little bird, no bigger than a wren, is
barber-surgeon to this crocodile; flies into the jaws of 't, picks out
the worm, and brings present remedy. The fish, glad of ease, but
ungrateful to her that did it, that the bird may not talk largely of
her abroad for non-payment, closeth her chaps, intending to swallow
her, and so put her to perpetual silence. But nature, loathing such
ingratitude, hath armed this bird with a quill or prick on the head,
top o' th' which wounds the crocodile i' th' mouth, forceth her open
her bloody prison, and away flies the pretty tooth-picker from her
cruel patient. (4.2)
When Flamineo first says this, Brachiano thinks he's arguing that he hasn't been properly rewarded for aiding the Duke. Flamineo says that's not what he means. He claims that his sister is the crocodile—her fame has been ruined, and the Duke is repairing it by setting her free from imprisonment and marrying her. She should remember to be grateful to the Duke, or else he might sting her in some way: like the quill on the little bird's head.
Basically, he's likening his sister's relationship with the Duke to a symbiotic relationship between animals in nature: the bird gets something to eat, the crocodile gets its pain removed. It's a win-win, an "I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine" kind of deal. This is telling, since it shows how these people relate to each other (or how Flamineo sees people as relating to each other): it's all about what you can get out of the other person. If someone stops giving you what you need, in Flamineo's eyes, you'd be justified in dispensing with them.
As Brachiano loses his mind from poisoning, he has this little exchange with Flamineo:
Brach. Why, there,
In a blue bonnet, and a pair of breeches
With a great cod-piece: ha, ha, ha!
Look you, his cod-piece is stuck full of pins,
With pearls o' th' head of them. Do you not know him?
Flam. No, my lord.
Brach. Why, 'tis the devil.
I know him by a great rose he wears on 's shoe,
To hide his cloven foot. I 'll dispute with him;
He 's a rare linguist. (5.3).
This might just be the ravings of a madman. But it might include a deeper layer of meaning, as well. It seems significant that the devil is wearing a cod-piece stuck with pins—the Duke's murders were sexually motivated, and to have pain associated with sexuality makes a lot of sense. He's someone who used his sexual desires to ruin the lives of other people, and now, confronting an image of damnation, he sees Satan wearing this unusual piece of leisure clothing.
(Note: Men in the 15th and 16th Century actually did regularly wear cod-pieces… as a, uh, fashion statement… Okay—the point was to make certain parts of their bodies look bigger. Real talk.)
As Brachiano is dying from poison, Lodovico and Gasparo, disguised as monks, pretend to administer extreme unction (part of the last rites) to him. But, since the sacrament is a fake, it makes sure that Brachiano won't just die—he'll be damned for his sins:
Lodo. … He is departing: pray stand all apart,
And let us only whisper in his ears
Some private meditations, which our order
Permits you not to hear.
[Here, the rest being departed, Lodovico and Gasparo discover themselves.
Lodo. Devil Brachiano, thou art damn'd.
Gas. Perpetually. (5.3)
In the same way that the sacrament is a fraud, Brachiano's outward mask of innocence has been a total fraud as well. He's only getting the kind of forgiveness his life demanded—false forgiveness. If he'd actually confessed to his murder plot or shown a slight sense of human remorse, maybe things would be different. But, given Brachiano's character, that probably wasn't going to happen.
Mont. That is,
Plenty of horns hath made him poor of horns.
Cam. What should this mean?
Mont. I 'll tell you; 'tis given out
You are a cuckold.
Cam. Is it given out so?
I had rather such reports as that, my lord,
Should keep within doors. (2.1)
Monticelso is telling Camillo that it's widely known his wife has cheated on him. But he's using this folk tradition—common everywhere from England to Vietnam—comparing men who've been cuckolded to stags. It's said that a cuckold—like a stag—has "horns" (or, technically, antlers).
Why stags, you ask? Well, stags steal each other's mates. If a stronger stag beats a weaker stag in a fight, he can steal that stag's doe. Hence, the use of the term "horns."
(The word "cuckold" is itself actually a reference to another animal, the cuckoo, since it incubates its eggs in the nests of other birds—the same way a man could end up raising children that he thinks are his own but really aren't.)
After Flamineo murders his brother, and the hour of his own death approaches, he meets the ghost of his old pal, Brachiano. Brachiano's ghost is holding a bowl of lilies with a skull set in them, and throws dirt on Flamineo—meaning that he'll be in the grave soon. Flamineo cries out:
What 's that? O fatal! he throws earth upon me.
A dead man's skull beneath the roots of flowers! (5.4)
The skull hidden beneath flowers is a symbol of death lurking within life. Death always waits at the end—it's the awful reality, "the skull beneath the skin" (as T.S. Eliot put it), that always stands behind the appearances of life. Like "The White Devil" in the title, it's an evil hidden behind a false show of pleasantness—a skull hidden beneath flowers, a devil hidden behind a veil of pure white.
Vit. A foolish idle dream:
Methought I walked about the mid of night
Into a churchyard, where a goodly yew-tree
Spread her large root in ground: under that yew,
As I sat sadly leaning on a grave,
Chequer'd with cross-sticks, there came stealing in
Your duchess and my husband; one of them
A pickaxe bore, th' other a rusty spade,
And in rough terms they 'gan to challenge me
About this yew. (1.2).
It seems like Vittoria's freaky dream inspires Brachiano to murder Camillo and Isabella. She asks for "protection" from them. Vittoria casts them as the threat, when, in reality, they are sheep to the slaughter—no match for her and the Duke. When Flamineo says that the "devil" was in this dream, Vittoria and Brachiano seem to think he means that the devil was behind Camillo and Isabella threatening Vittoria. But Flamineo is savvier than that: he means that it's a demonically inspired way of getting the Duke to kill his wife and Vittoria's husband (even though, of course, Flamineo is totally on the devil's side.)
Also, the yew tree is commonly found in graveyards. It's a typical symbol of sadness—for instance, Monticelso compares Lodovico to "a black and melancholic yew tree," feeding off of the corpses that lie under its roots (4.3). So its location in the cemetery in Vittoria's dream is particularly appropriate.
The play doesn't have a narrative technique—it's a play, after all. This helps Webster heighten certain effects that might have been different in a novel: he's able to remain non-commital towards some of his characters. If the audience finds Flamineo and Vittoria more attractive and interesting than Monticelso and Francisco, there's nothing Webster can really say about it. The flash and dash of his evil characters are challenging—but they might not be so challenging if Webster was writing a novel and saying, "And then the wicked Vittoria did thus…" or whatever.
The Duke is looking love, and so is Vittoria, while Flamineo is jonesin' for a step up in the world. These characters are all possessed by desire in one way or another—and that's exactly what will destroy them in the end. We can see Flamineo as the main anticipator, the guy who instigates this chain of events out of intense ambition: the world is before him, and he's really got a chance to rise out of poverty. After snapping Camillo's neck, he's got everything to look forward to (although he almost gets arrested, and his sister's trial puts him at risk, as well).
Flamineo evades arrest and fakes insanity in order to throw people off his trail, and apparently this works. Things are going wrong for Vittoria—but she gets a break when she escapes imprisonment and heads to Padua with the Duke, where Flamineo joins them. Everything seems peachy—they "got away with it." Except that they didn't…
Things start to go off the rails once the disguised avengers (Francisco, Lodovico, and Gasparo) arrive in Brachiano's court. Flamineo rashly murders his own brother, Marcello, after they argue about Flamineo's relationship with Zanche. Brachiano pardons Flamineo for the murder, but says that he needs to earn the pardon anew every day, or else hang. Then Brachiano gets murdered, and Flamineo encounters a "shadow figure" in the form of Brachiano's ghost—who holds out a bowl of lilies with a skull set in it, foretelling his doom.
At this point, Flamineo tries to convince his sister to commit suicide with him—though, in reality, it's just a ploy to test her loyalty. Nevertheless, Flamineo's fake death scene becomes a kind of nightmare predicting his own imminent doom. He's trying to outwit death—but death is gaining on him at every minute.
In the final "destruction stage," everyone important (no surprise) gets destroyed. Lodovico and Gasparo stab Flamineo and Vittoria, leaving them to speak their cautionary last words to the audience. This is the classic end to the revenge tragedy—lots of blood, and the hero-villain's (Flamineo's) death.
Webster opens the play with some very exposition-y exposition: we meet Count Lodovico, who's not even a super-major character, after he's been banished from Rome. He and his pals, Gasparo and Antonelli, chat about the banishment, about what a murderous nut Lodovico is, and about the event that will jump-start the play: the Duke of Brachiano's attempt to seduce Vittoria Corombona. After Lodovico's rap-sesh ends, we're in it: the action starts to rise quickly. The point of this little chat at the beginning involves setting the (very negative) mood, and introducing some basic background info about the main event in the play: Vittoria Corombona's affair.
As the action rises, we see how Flamineo and the Duke of Brachiano scheme to pull Camillo and Vittoria apart—not too hard a task, considering how unhappy their marriage evidently is. The Duke has a secret meeting with Vittoria where he promises to "protect" her from Camillo and Isabella (i.e. murder them). Despite the best efforts of Monticelso and Francisco in trying to prevent the Duke from divorcing Isabella and getting with Vittoria, Brachiano succeeds in his murderous plot: Isabella dies from kissing his picture on the lips (a henchman put poison on it), and Flamineo breaks Camillo's neck, making it look like an accident. This leads Vittoria to get sentenced to a "house of penitent whores"—while the Duke remains un-prosecuted. But she manages to escape with the Duke to Padua, setting the scene for the climax…You can see the rising action as being comprised of all the stuff that cries for revenge, and the climax as being the actual revenge—since this is a "revenge tragedy" after all. There is the sin, and then the punishment for that sin.
The climax comes when Lodovico and Gasparo murder Vittoria and Flamineo. Yeah, you could count Brachiano's murder too, if you want—but he's not quite as central and fiery a presence as Flamineo or Vittoria. (Oh, he's important—it's just that there's some puttering around between his murder and that of the two siblings. So you couldn't really say his death is the peak of the crisis.) The true climax is definitely when, after Flamineo's murder-suicide plan turns out to be a fake designed to test Vittoria's loyalty, Lodovico and Gasparo bust in and get revenge.
After Vittoria and Flamineo are mortally wounded, they both make eloquent statements that help sum up the play. As the action falls, they express confusion and uncertainty at death and regret the course of their lives. Vittoria says, "Oh, happy they that never saw the court / Nor ever knew great men but by report!" Flamineo admits "My life was a black charnel," complains about how pointless and full of suffering life is, and finally dies (5.6).
If you thought people were done busting into this room, you were sorely mistaken: after Flamineo busts in, and then Lodovico and Gasparo, finally Giovanni (Brachiano's son, except he's a good guy) busts in along with his officers. They arrest Lodovico for the murders, dragging him off to be tortured and executed. Lodovico doesn't seem too perturbed—really, he's immensely pleased with himself. Giovanni ends the play with a final reminder that crime doesn't pay: "Let guilty men remember, their black deeds / Do lean on crutches made of slender reeds." You know—classic denouement stuff.
"Act I" (actually Acts I and II) is about the initial schemes and dreams that ends up destroying everything for the main characters (which will happen in "Act III," which is actually Act IV and Act V). Vittoria and the Duke of Brachiano want love, and Flamineo wants power and status. Flamineo tries to get this by arranging an adulterous meeting between his sister and the Duke and by messing with Camillo's plans to renew the affection of his wife. Then, he amps it up by actually killing Camillo and abetting the Duke's designs. (The Duke also has Isabella killed.) By the end of "Act I", it seems like the bad guys are going to get what they want… This act ends with the murders of Camillo and Isabella—the calamitous betrayals created by those wicked desires.
"Act II" (actually, Act III and Act IV) is all about the complications—revenge in the works. We see Vittoria's trial, where she manages to seem sort of innocent, even though she isn't—and we witness her sentencing to a "house of convertites" (or "house of penitent whores"). We also see Francisco send his fake love-letter to Vittoria, and its inability to cause the Duke's permanent jealousy. Vittoria and the Duke just escape, eloping to Padua, and Flamineo joins them there. Meanwhile, Francisco and Monticelso (now the Pope) work on revenge, and end up hiring Lodovico as their assassin… Wheels are moving, but they're not grinding out any conclusions. Those will all come in "Act III."
In "Act III" (actually, Act V), in Padua, we finally see how the villains' desires lead to horrifying reactions. It all comes back in their faces: Francisco and Lodovico get revenge—Brachiano dies a horrible death by poisoning and strangling, and Lodovico and Gasparo stab Flamineo and Vittoria to death (along with the maid, Zanche). Their murders are complementary to the murders and betrayals committed in the beginning. Even Lodovico gets punished—the avenger is punished for killing Vittoria and Flamineo, but poetically for all the bloodshed and crime he's supposed to have committed in the past. "Evil can only create more evil" seems to be the message (which is pretty much what Giovanni says when he arrives to clean up the scene of the crime and arrest Lodovico). The only people who aren't punished are the people who orchestrated the revenge—Monticelso and Francisco. They didn't get their hands dirty in any direct physical way, and escape punishment for taking the law into their own hands (since this was apparently just, given how guilty their enemies really were).
Lodovico references the "gods" of the Greek philosopher Democritus. This might be an ironic joke—Democritus apparently didn't deny the gods (although he said they weren't immortal), but was focused on the idea that everything was caused by the motions of atoms, as opposed to the will of the gods. Lodovico might be claiming that we live in a universe without a guiding intelligence, denying the existence of God or gods.
When trying to convince Camillo that he won't be cuckolded (even though Flamineo wants him to and knows he will be), Flamineo tells him to remember Aristotle's wisdom. Aristotle is typically considered to be one of the greatest Greek philosophers, along with Plato and Socrates.
Flamineo also tells Camillo to remember Ephemerides—a famous Greek expert on astrology—and how Camillo was born under a favorable planet. Cmillo replies that he might be cuckolded during the day, when his favorable stars and planets aren't visible in the sky.
Flamineo mocks sonnet writers who would make crazy exaggerated comparison between the whiteness of a woman's cheek and the snows of Ida—a famous and sacred mountain in Crete where the god Zeus was nursed as a baby.
This is another high-flown sonnet comparison (on the same subject as the snows of Ida—a woman's cheek), which Flamineo mocks. Corinth was a famous Greek center of trade, wealth, and culture.
Monticelso compares Vittoria to the "apples of Sodom"—an actual fruit that (according to legend) grows where the original Sin City—Sodom—used to be. In the Bible, God destroys Sodom for committing a variety of sins (mainly inhospitality). But the apples aren't really apples—they're green globes full of a gross, gray, bitter sap. (The sap, because of its grayness, is compared to ashes.) They're used as a metaphor for something that seems nice on the outside, but is corrupted within.
Vittoria says that, in order to defend herself and deal with the harsh sentence Monticelso will probably give her, she will need to "personate masculine virtue" and act like Perseus—one of the most famous heroes of Greek mythology (the guy who killed the Medusa).
Flamineo says that "the first bloodshed in the world happened about religion"—which might be a reference to Cain murdering Abel, since God accepted Abel's sacrifice but not Cain's (thus causing Cain's jealousy and anger). After Flamineo murders his own brother, Marcello, Vittoria compares him to Cain, as well.
In The Odyssey, Polyphemus is a Cyclops who eats Odysseus' (Ulysses) sailors—saving Odysseus for last. (Fortunately, Odysseus blinds the Cyclops before he can eat him.) In The White Devil, Flamineo compares himself to Odysseus and Brachiano to Polyphemus, at one point, suggesting Brachiano will kill him when he's done killing his enemies—since Flamineo knows too much.
Marcello compares himself and Flamineo to the sons of Oedipus—who both ended up fighting against each other to rule the city of Thebes, after their father died. They fought each other in man-to-man combat during the battle, and finally killed each other at the same time.
The furies were Greek goddesses of vengeance, who lived in the underworld. They would attack and destroy people who broke their oaths or generally needed punishment. They're referenced multiple times in the The White Devil—for instance, Lodovico uses them to describe the evil passions hidden inside Monticelso's heart.
When Brachiano gets over his jealousy, and decides to believe Vittoria wasn't going to cheat on him with Francisco, he says that he has drunk "Lethe"—Lethe being a river in the underworld in Greek mythology, where the souls of the dead would drink in order to forget their earthly lives.
After Vittoria breaks her promise to kill herself and tries to murder him, Flamineo says that breaking this kind of oath is terrible because it was an oath about death—the gods, in Greek myth, would never swear on the river Styx (the river between the underworld and the living world) for this reason.
Machiavelli was a famous Italian philosopher from the 15th and 16th Centuries, known for such worldly-wise and cynical quotes as, "It is better to be feared than to be loved, if you cannot be both." When Brachiano is poisoned, Flamineo says that this is one of the "rare tricks of a Machiavellian"—which is ironic, since Flamineo and Brachiano are both super-Machiavellians.
Anacharsis was a figure in Greek philosophy known for being a wise "barbarian" (a person from Scythia). Flamineo says he doesn't care if he dies like Anacharsis, by being "pounded to death in a mortar." (Apparently, Anacharsis' own brother, who didn't approve of his new-fangled Greek habits and ways, murdered him.)
Lucian was a Greek writer of satires. One of his most famous works Dialogues of the Dead is a series of imaginary conversations between famous people in the underworld. Flamineo references this when he pretends to die after Vittoria "shoots" him.
Flamineo references a ton of dead world leaders from Lucian's satire, as he fake-dies:
"O Lucian, thy ridiculous purgatory! to
find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, Pompey tagging points, and
Julius Cæsar making hair-buttons, Hannibal selling blacking, and
Augustus crying garlic, Charlemagne selling lists by the dozen, and
King Pepin crying apples in a cart drawn with one horse!" (5.6)
Flamineo compares Vittoria unfavorably to Hypermnestra—a woman from Greek mythology who refused follow her father's orders, and murder her husband (unlike her forty-nine sisters, who did).
Vittoria Accoramboni (Corombona in the play) was a real figure, and her life story isn't all that different from the Vittoria in Webster's play—though some of the details are actually more brutal in the historical record. (However, Flamineo is an invention, or differently named version of Vittoria's brother. Vittoria's real-life bad-boy brother was named Marcello—although Webster's "Marcello" is a good guy.)
In Webster's play, Cardinal Monticelso becomes Pope Paul IV—but Webster mixed popes up. The real basis for this character, Cardinal Montalto, actually became Pope Sixtus V (Pope Paul IV was just before him).
Lycrugus was a great Spartan lawgiver. According to Flamineo, he wondered why men spent so much time breeding horses, but not impregnating their own wives.
Webster mentions "tennis" a bunch in The White Devil—but this is an older, though similar version of the game, now called "Real Tennis" (different from normal, popular Tennis).
Brachiano makes a derogatory reference to a "shaved Polack"—at the time, Poles supposedly shaved all of their heads except for the forehead. Also, Flamineo mentions the "forty thousand pedlars [sic] in Poland"—since Poland was considered an impoverished backwater by English people at the time.
Famously, Socrates died by drinking hemlock poison (as a death sentence). Brachiano tells Francisco he smells "hemlock in thy breath" when Francisco calls Vittoria a "strumpet."
Flamineo cryptically tells Marcello to "practice the art of Wolner and swallow all that's given thee" and be able to throw it all up and get hungry again (maybe meaning to get over guilt quickly). Wolner was a famous English guy from Queen Elizabeth's time who could eat iron, glass, raw meat, etc.
Webster routinely references the Irish as being wild and rebellious, and as playing football with people's heads. This is because Ireland was constantly trying to regain its independence from England during Webster's lifetime, fighting in numerous rebellions.
After Brachiano threatens to kick Flamineo, Flamineo says that he's not Russian and has the right to keep his shins intact. At the time, debtors in Russia were punished with shin-breaking.
Lions and other animals were kept in the Tower of London (the lions potentially being used for lion-baiting). Cryptically, on the verge of death, Flamineo tells people to be like the animals trapped in the tower (since, we're all ferocious spirits trapped in a nightmarish world), and fear the remainder of winter if Candlemas day is sunny. Candlemas Day is the same as Groundhog Day—if it's nice (and if the Groundhog can see his shadow) there's supposed to be six more weeks of winter. (Candlemas Day is also the day that the baby Jesus was, according to tradition, presented at the Temple in Jerusalem).