Study Guide

Flamineo in The White Devil

By John Webster


Show Stealer

Even though Vittoria is at the center of the play's action, her brother Flamineo tends to steal the show. He's ruthless and murderous, but always interesting—Flamineo's never at a loss for a witty comment or a philosophical aside. For a villain, he's pretty introspective—but he still knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. In this play, he wants to destroy… and to advance his position in the world at the same time.

Hey, Flamineo and his siblings didn't come from a rich family—they've had to struggle and strive. Like Drake, he started from the bottom and now he's here—though unlike with Drake, "here" is still pretty far from the top. So what's wrong with a little murder to give you a leg up? Eh? …A lot, obviously. However, Webster doesn't spend too much time developing the character of the victims. His energy is invested in the villains—and Flamineo is clearly Webster's prize creation (at least, in this play). You'd be forgiven for thinking that The White Devil is really about how compelling evil people are in comparison to everyone else.

Rap Sheet

Flamineo personally breaks the neck of his sister's husband, Camillo, because he hopes to profit from her marriage to the richer and more successful Duke of Brachiano. He narrowly escapes trial—his sister (who might not have been quite so guilty, by comparison) ends up taking the brunt of the law's vengeance. Nevertheless, like Hamlet, Flamineo pretends to be mad—in order to throw people off his trail. Also like Hamlet, this fake "madness" consists in making lots of mildly weird philosophical speeches to people when they try to talk to you. Additionally, he ends up killing his brother Marcello—ostensibly because Marcello criticized Flamineo for having an affair with a maid, but mainly because Flamineo's just a bad dude with a short fuse.

Despite all this concentrated evil, Flamineo feels pity when he sees his mother grieving over the brother he just murdered. He muses aloud:

"I have a strange thing in me, to the which /
I cannot give a name, without it be/ Compassion."

This would be ridiculous, but Flamineo seems to mean it—he really does feel bad.

At one point, Flamineo—still play-acting at being mad—tells his sister he's going to kill himself and asks her to commit suicide too. In self-defense, she tries to kill him with the gun he gives her, and he pretends she's actually shot him (the gun has blanks in it or something). But, then, Flamineo really is murdered by Count Lodovico and Gasparo. He sort of had it coming.

A Philosophical Sociopath

Dying, Flamineo waxes poetic:

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!

This provides a pretty decent example of Flamineo's outlook on life: we're all victims of fate (or fortune), and our only hope is to cling ruthlessly to our own self-interest. Even on his deathbed, Flamineo refuses to consider heaven (his mother recalls that, when he was a baby, he broke one of the arms off a crucifix)—and his attention is still centered where it's always been, on himself. Obviously, this attitude doesn't help clarify anything for him. He's still in the same mist—the same blind spell of evil—that he's always been in. Nonetheless, he admits he led a pretty terrible life (not in the section quoted though) and hopes that he'll serve as a cautionary example. And that's what he does… unless—you know—you end up thinking he's pretty cool.

Oh, and the name "Flamineo" is related to the Latin word for "flame" or heat—"flamma." We're probably meant to associate it with burning desires and wicked passions... and hellfire.