Jacobean playwright’s famous play
of femme fatale Vittoria has been influential in modern day scripts for
film and television with themes that question connections of gender and
Of the era in which it was written, the femme fatale persona posed a
threat (to men) because of the fear of the breakdown of traditional,
patriarchal power and had therefore to be destroyed, killed or become
The story line starts off in a deceptively simple way. It is set in Italy at a
time when the country was divided into city-states ruled by dukes.
Vittoria is married to Camillo who is foolish, especially with money. She
attracts the attention of Duke of Brachiano. He is married to Isabella,
who adores him. She is honourable, chaste, and in every way the ideal of
womanhood of the time. Vittoria and Brachiano’s relationship develops
to the stage where he will do anything for her. Vittoria implants the idea
that she is going to be killed by Isabella and Camillo, in Brachiano’s head
by describing a dream she has had. Brachiano arranges for them both to
be killed in imaginative circumstances
Vittoria is blamed for her husband’s death; the evidence of her crime is
that she is a “whore” because she had an adulterous relationship. In
comparison her lover, in the status of a duke from another city-state, is
an honoured visitor to the Arraignment scene, which is her trial.
Vittoria does not accept the charges against her quietly. She speaks up
and plays back word for word against her accuser Monticelso, a cardinal
soon to become Pope Paul IV. She does not hesitate to use violent words
deliberately to shock, as in her accusation that the cardinal has raped
In the society of the play, the ideal woman should be silent, and
in speaking for herself she has further inflamed the society against her.
Whilst the charge of killing her husband is dropped, she is imprisoned.
Brachiano visits her in prison, but he has turned from her, until her
words manipulate him to break her from prison. They marry.
As with many Jacobean tragedies, there is a theme of revenge in The
White Devil. In the Arraignment scene Vittoria talks of her words as a
women’s poor revenge, yet it is revenge that sets off subsequent wars
between the city-states. The play ends with a series of violent bloody
deaths, and with retribution of the offenders. Some productions show
Vittoria stabbed repeatedly in groin to show an overt connection
between her apparent crimes, and her sexuality.
Whether Vittoria is herself the White Devil of the play’s name or whether
it is her prosecutor, Monticelso is open to intellectual debate. Certainly
she is referred to as a devil within the play. What is clear is that colour
plays a strong part in this play, and in modern productions (such as that
in Sydney, Australia) she is often depicted in red, wearing seductive
clothing. In the Arraignment scene there is a reference to her as a
“scarlet woman”, a description that has now passed into common
English language usage.