John Webster's The White Devil
Carey, Katherine Jeannette Moody
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This past century, playwright John Webster has gained in prominence within the canon of English Renaissance dramatic literature. Webster published his first independently written play, The White Devil, in 1612. The play’s title proves enigmatic because no single character within the text is identified as the white devil. Re-examining the play’s title in terms of historical and cultural significance, I posit that Webster’s elusive white devil is the papacy fraught with corruption and abuse of absolute power. I also wish to examine Webster’s play as a comment on the corruption and abuse of absolute political power within the reigning monarchy of James I. Jacobean England’s power structure was evolving from a medieval feudal system toward a class structure including a thriving professional stratum with earning potential, land purchase opportunities, and municipal government representation. Corruption and abuse of power threatened this new-found bourgeois power. If James and the Catholic Church were to realign, divine right absolutism could destroy England’s evolving class structure. Literary anthropology and new historicism offer an avenue for discourse on The White Devil as a seventeenth-century literary artifact. Both James and the papacy claimed divine right absolutism to rule, both considered themselves above subjugation to human law, both demanded complete obeisance of subjects, and both abused their power. Because censorship restricted playwrights’ comments on the reigning monarch, anti-Catholic rhetoric could be enacted onstage, offering the same warning in a safely veiled package. Webster was free to attack the papacy and Italy as the seat of the Holy See, utilizing dialogue and visual imagery to portray the pope as the Antichrist. Drawing upon the previous generation’s memory of Mary Tudor’s reign of terror while attempting to realign England with Rome under the papacy of Pope Paul IV, Webster offers his audience a loathed enemy dressed in brilliant white and adorned with a triple crown, an enemy who has excommunicated the English to eternal damnation, an enemy who seats himself equal to God. As a propagandistic tool, Webster’s play becomes a mirror for his audience, for characteristics of this staged enemy can be seen as well in their absolutist king.