Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 7. The White Divel: question of its sources; possibility of originality in the plot

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

VII. Tourneur and Webster

§ 7. The White Divel: question of its sources; possibility of originality in the plot

So ends the period of Webster’s apprenticeship and collaboration. We now pass to the earlier of the two periods which contain his original and unaided work (1610–18). This is the period of The White Divel (afterwards known as Vittoria Corombona) and The Dutchesse Of Malfy. Some three or four years separate their period from the preceding. For The White Divel was printed in 1612; and the repeated borrowings from Rich’s New Description of Ireland, published in 1610, forbid us to place its composition earlier than that year; it may well have been written in 1611. The exact source of this great tragedy is a problem which still remains unsolved. That it is based on events connected with the life of Paolo Giordano duke of Bracciano, and that these events took place in 1581–5, that is, within the lifetime of Webster himself, is certain. Beyond that, all is obscure. The case, so far as our present knowledge goes, is as follows. Many versions of the story, contemporary or nearly so, exist in Italian; one, by François de Rosset, is known if French. All these are in substantial agreement with each other; and all differ, in many crucial points, from Webster’s. The question at once arises: how are Webster’s variations to be accounted for? Had he before him a written account differing from all those which have come down to us? Or had he heard an oral statement substantially agreeing with that given in his play and traceable in the last resort to one who had either travelled in Italy, or come, as visitor, from Italy to the north? Or had he read a version corresponding more or less closely with those accessible to us, and retained nothing more than a confused and indistinct memory of it? Or, finally, having, from written or oral sources, a tolerably accurate knowledge of the true facts, did he deliberately alter them for purposes of dramatic effect?

This is not the place to discuss the question in detail. So much, however, may be said. The first supposition, so far as it relates to any record professing to be historical, may be dismissed as highly improbable. The story, as we have seen, was well known and accurately recorded. The actors in it were among the most marked figures of their times: Francesco, grand duke of Florence, the typical Italian “despot” of his day; Sixtus V, the soul of the League and the Armada, the last of the popes who can fairly be described as great. The heroine of the story was niece by marriage of the latter. The circumstances of her second marriage and her murder had formed the subject of trials—one at Rome, the other at Padua and Venice—familiar to all Italy. It is hardly to be conceived that any chronicler should have departed widely from facts thus generally known. Novels and dramas remain. And it is not impossible that, some day, either a novel or, less probably, a drama may be discovered which criticism will recognise as the source from which Webster drew. None such, however, has hitherto been found; though Tempesti, writing a century and a half later (1754), says that the “story was known all over Europe” and had been told by “hundreds of authors.” The only novel at present known is the “tragic history” of de Rosset; and that, with the exception of the assumed names and minute additions of obviously romantic embroidery, is in complete accordance with the chronicles; so that, even if it can be proved to have appeared before The White Divel was written, it will in no way account for Webster’s departure from the historical facts. Of dramas, previous to Webster’s, still less is to be said. Santorio, indeed, a contemporary chronicler (1562–1635) says: Scio ego apud quosdam actitatum tragœdiœ argumentum, datumque spectantibus haud suppressis personis nominibusque. But in what language this tragedy was written—whether, as we shall see in the analogous case of The Dutchesse Of Malfy, the reference may not even be to The White Divel itself—unfortunately does not appear.

The other alternatives are not mutually exclusive. It is perfectly possible that an oral statement, for which either an English traveller or an Italian visitor was ultimately responsible, may have reached Webster and that some, at least, of his inaccuracies may be due to the natural negligence of his informant. Intercourse with Italy had never been broken off. France was a common meeting ground of English and Italian. We know, for instance, that Vittoria’s own stepson, Virginio Orsini, the Giovanni of the play, had been sent as envoy to England by his uncle Ferdinand, successor to Francesco, at the close of Elizabeth’s reign. We know that the same Virginio was reputed lover to Marie de Medici, and that the attention of English dramatists was at this time keenly directed to the doings of the French court, and not least to the love affairs of the royal house. All this would make it natural enough that rumours, more or less accurate, relating to the Orsini and Medici, should reach the ears of Webster. But, once again, there is no evidence. Some, indeed, of Webster’s inaccuracies are almost certainly du to lapse of memory. For instance, he has given the official name of Sixtus V wrongly, and has inverted the parts of Flamineo and Marcello. Neither of these changes can plausibly be set down to deliberate intention.

There remains the final possibility that Webster had read an account not substantially different from that given by the chronicles, and that most of his variations are made of set purpose; that is, with a view either to suit his own conception of what the leading characters in such a tragedy should be, or to secure a more impressive effect. Among the changes made with the former object would be reckoned the transformation of the characters of Vittoria’s husband and mother, the one for ill, the other for good; the strain of hypocrisy, not, however, very consistenly worked out, in the character of Vittoria; the obvious adaptation of her circumstances to those of her kins-woman, Bianca Capello (the heroine of Middleton’s undated drama, Women beware Women; above all, the change in the character of Lodovico who, in the play, is moved neither by avarice, nor by the desire to assert the honour of his family, but by the fixed resolve to exact vengeance for the murder of an adored mistress, Isabella. Among the alterations made for the sake of effect might be counted the appearance of the “lieger ambassadors” at Vittoria’s trial and the election of Sixtus (the presence of the English envoy is historically impossible), the murders of Marcello and Brachiano, the appearance of Francesco as a direct agent in the latter crime, the ghastly scene at Brachiano’s deathbed and, very possibly, the transference of the riddling Manet alta mente repostum from Lodovico to Isabella. It would clearly have weakened the dramatic force of the tragedy to reserve the final act, or even a closing scene, for the nemesis of Lodovico. And it may well be for this reason that, in defiance of historical facts, Webster placed his death within a few moments of his victim’s. That would at once bar out the situation in which the memorable phrase was actually uttered—the formal questioning of Lodovico by the magistrates of Pauda. And Webster, impressed (as he well might be) by the phrase, was, on this assumption, at the pains to introduce it under circumstances entirely different, but hardly less dramatic.

If this be the true explanation—and many things point that way—it would follow that Webster’s treatment of his subject is far more original than has sometimes been supposed. If we may believe him to have worked on a chronicle such as those embodied in Tempesti’s Vita di Sisto V, or on a novel resembling that of de Rosset, he has, manifestly, made far more sweeping changes in his “source” than seems to be implied by those who speak of his play as drawn from “an Italian novel.” He would, in fact, have breathed a new spirit into the whole train of incidents. The figure of Vittoria, indeed, remains much as we might divine it to have been from the historical records; though the lines are deepened, the colours heightened and harmonised, by the hand of genius. The same applies, though in a less degree, to the defiant figure of Brachiano and the deep dissimulation of Francesco and Monticelso. The last, indeed, is the one case in which the dramatist has fallen short of the model supplied by history. In a drama where he could not be the central figure there was no room for the grand, yet sinister, figure of Sixtus. All else, however, would be the creation of Webster: the tragic resignation of Isabella, the fatuity of Camillo, the pathos of Cornelia, the profoundly interesting and subtle portrait of Lodovico. The crucial change, alike for its own sake and for its bearing on the whole structure of the tragedy, is that in the character and motives of Lodovico. The attribution of his long cherished schemes to outraged love and the thirst for vengeance alters the whole nature of the action. It provides the atmosphere of doom which hangs over the drama from beginning to end, and which is deepened by the scenic effects, the sombre episodes, of which Webster was master without rival.