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2. “The Dyer’s Hand”: Colours in Early Modern England
IV/ Black and White Power

Theatrical Colours: Cosmetics, Rhetoric and Theatre in Webster’s The White Devil



Le démon blanc (The White Devil), titre paradoxal de la pièce de John Webster, a souvent donné lieu à des tentatives d’identification d’un des personnages avec le « diable » en question. Le présent article entend démontrer que cette difficulté n’est pas seulement due au lien paradoxal en apparence qui y est fait entre le « blanc » et le « diable », mais aussi au rôle changeant de la couleur à l’époque jacobéenne. Cette évolution est autant la conséquence du développement des techniques de peinture que des attaques de la rhétorique renaissante contre les cosmétiques et les « couleurs fausses » (Quintilien 8, 3, 7). Vecteur de couleurs tant visuelles que rhétoriques, le théâtre devient ainsi, au XVIe siècle, une institution controversée et la cible d’attaques similaires.
L’étude des trois principaux personnages féminins que sont Isabella, Zanche et Vittoria dans Le démon blanc montre comment ces critiques peuvent être démontées et tournées en dérision. En tant que femmes, ces personnages entretiennent un rapport unique à la couleur, car, en dernière analyse, c’est l’usage supposé de cosmétiques et, par voie de conséquence, l’authenticité de leur couleur de peau qui détermine leur statut social. Il est courant de voir en elles une belle héroïne Pétrarquiste, une scélérate pleine de noirceur, et une femme évoluant dans une zone d’ombre. Pour autant, la manière dont ces personnages utilisent la couleur sous forme de cosmétiques, de rhétorique et de théâtre, est un outil très efficace pour déterminer leur rôle. Ainsi toute catégorisation artificielle des couleurs disparaît, ce qui permet à l’auteur de parer aux allégations contre les couleurs jugées « artificielles » et le théâtre puisque personne, dans sa pièce, ne ressort complètement blanchi.

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  • 1 I would like to thank the staff of the Library and Archive Reading Room at the Shakespeare Birthpla (...)
  • 2 Another reason for identifying her as the “white devil” is the fact that the title of the quarto ed (...)

1No Renaissance play title has drawn such attention to the importance of colour as John Webster’s The White Devil (1612).1 Surprisingly, however, most interpretations of this play have limited themselves to explaining the seeming paradox between “white” and “devil” and identifying one or more of the play’s characters as the titular “devil”. It is thus often pointed out that “white devil” was a fixed phrase in Renaissance England denoting a person who completely hides his or her evil character from society. This was also replicated in the Renaissance proverb that “a white devil is worse than a black” (Bovilsky 628). Of all the potential satanic candidates in the play, Vittoria is generally the favourite because of her highly controversial role and powerful influence.2 Thus, Vittoria and her opponent Monticelso are two of the few characters whose struggle with colour in the play (especially in her arraignment) is often examined. Even though Armelle Sabatier calls this “a highly chromatic play” (135) and sets herself the precise task of exploring the role of colour in the entire play, she rarely looks beyond these two characters’ legal confrontation. What is more, even though she occasionally mentions some important connections of colour with cosmetics, rhetoric and the theatre, its historic roots and Renaissance conversion often more hinted at than explained.

2What has been missing so far is an attempt to recognise the rich cultural background of colour, which manifests itself in Webster’s play in the form of cosmetics, rhetoric and theatre. It is only on the stage that we can see how optical and rhetorical colours combine as theatrical colours. It is because of this threefold use of colour that the stage found itself at the centre of accusations of hypocrisy in the Renaissance, but also utilised these forms of colour to demonstrate its power. The theatre is also a space which allows the presence of people of different colours whose importance has, as explained, been largely marginalised. The three main female characters of the play, Isabella, Zanche and Vittoria, are here analysed to explore the great differences in their use of colour in terms of cosmetics, rhetoric and acting. A historical overview provides an insight into the historic roots and background on which their different forms of female agency with regard to colour are based.

1. Painting and cosmetics in the Renaissance

  • 3 Compare for example “painted, adj.” (OED, b).

3Deciphering the enigmatic title of Webster’s play by attempting to explain the seeming paradox between “white” and “devil” is not the best way to begin. Instead, it is first necessary to explore the role of colours in the Renaissance, especially with regard to the role of black and white in painting and cosmetics. To probe into this historical background, the focus will be put on the new perception of black and white in art theory and on the adoption of new painting techniques, as well as on the controversial use of cosmetics in the Renaissance. That cosmetics and painting are so inherently linked in this era is not only due to the fact that “painting” was the standard term for the use of cosmetics at the time,3 but to the vast overlap in the materials used and the specialised literature often shows an awareness for the two types of “painting”.

4Black and white indeed appear as the most significant colour contrast as early as in the works of Plato, who in this respect fully relied on Empedocles (Papari 41). It was only Newton’s colour spectrum that finally deprived black and white of their status as colours. This remained so until they were revived in the 1920s by artists proclaiming that “black is a colour” (Pastoureau 11-12 and 144-48). However, Newton’s work only marked the end of a long decline for black and white as “natural” colours, i.e. colours within the spectrum, which had been going on since the end of the Middle Ages. In the 1580s, speculation and research on lighting and colouring reached an unprecedented high (Pastoureau 140). Renaissance writers would, however, rely most often on the assumptions of Aristotle, especially in the realm of art. According to him, all colours were mixed out of the “fundamental” colours white and black (Rzepinska 20). All other colours could be arranged on a scale depending on the proportion of lightness/darkness (Bell 113). Aristotle’s theories proved so influential that it took until the beginning of the 15th century for artists to start extensively mixing pigments that were neither white or black (Shapiro 604). Instead, painters preferred to use washes, glazes, mosaic and pointillist techniques (Gage 119). With the introduction of the palette for mixing colours in around 1400, new techniques, such as the chiaroscuro, sfumato or grisaille could be explored. These changes in painting were also reflected in art theory. Alberti was the first to reject black and white as fundamental colours or, in fact, as colours at all: “The painter may be assured that white and black are not true colours but, one might say, moderators [= alteratores] of colour” (46-47). These “moderators”, together with his primary colours (genera), red, green, blue and yellow, were then said to produce all other colours (Shapiro 605). Leonardo occupied an intermediate position between Alberti and Aristotle. He agreed with Aristotle that black and white were indeed colours and so he included them in his palette of six primary colours. However, he accepted Alberti’s notion that they were achromatic. According to Leonardo, black and white “are not reckoned among colours; the one is the representative of darkness, the other of light […]. Yet I will not omit mentioning them, because there is nothing in painting more useful and necessary” (quoted in Rzepinska 22).

  • 4 It must be noted, however, that depictions of St Maurice only acquired their black skin in the 13th(...)
  • 5 Compare “blank, adj. and adv.” (OED, b) with “fair, adj. and n.2” (OED, f).

5Although the status of black and white was debated in the Renaissance, it still carried certain associations like any other colour. Kim Hall’s statement that black triggers an “insistent association [...] as a negative signifier of different cultural and religious practices” (6) suggests that black always carried negative connotations against white carried positive ones. It cannot be denied that, in the Christian tradition, God is generally depicted as the source of light set against the blackness of the devil, a pattern which developed in the Middle Ages mostly under the influence of the Church Fathers (Pastoureau 51-54). Accordingly, all creatures associated with the devil (e.g. witches, prostitutes and certain animals) were painted black (Pastoureau 56-58). However, in the Bible, characters such as Balthasar or the “black, but comely” bride in The Song of Solomon (Authorized King James Bible, Solomon 1,5) and St Maurice4 (Neill 127) are presented in a favourable way. All the same, theories on the origins of blackness, be it through the story of Noah’s son Cham / Ham (Vaughan 47), through the notion of blackness as “some natural infection” (Best 262) or through Phaeton’s blackening of the Ethiopians (S[andys] 46), contributed to associate black skin with sexual transgression and disobedience. Nevertheless, such simplification is problematic. Although Paolo Lomazzo associates black with mourning, madness, folly, evil, destruction, sadness and death, black can also be seen also as a sign of constancy (113-14). Similarly, white is not always viewed favourably, as it is not only the sign of goodness, purity, joy and faithfulness, but also of death, blame and “fooles and despised persons” (Lomazzo 114-16). This double-sidedness of black and white is also reflected in the terminology. As Pastoureau has pointed out, almost all Germanic languages have or have had two different terms for each of these colours which explain their different connotations (28); Middle English distinguished between sward (‘dull black’), blak (‘luminous black’), as well as wite (‘matte white’) and blanke (‘glossy white’). In the Renaissance, sward and blak were still used in their original meanings. However, instead of blanke, ‘fair’ had taken on the meaning of blanke for denoting a brilliant white.5 But Stephen Greenblatt remarks that ‘white’ and ‘fair’ are not synonymous, as ‘fair’ has a “distinct sense of shining” comparable to silver, which whiteness never denoted (25). The fact that ‘fair’ was a relatively new word for ‘light complexion’ and was then seen as equal to ‘brown’ and ‘foul’ in the 1550s, points to the ongoing change that these colour associations underwent.

6The polarity of black and white is also visible in the concepts attached to female beauty. While general standards extolled the fair Petrarchan lady, the paradox that black was also beautiful was ever present. The Queen of Sheba, one of the most famous beautiful black women, often combined fair, blonde hair, with dark features (Authorized King James Bible, 1 Kings 10.10). These “curious hybrids of black and white” (Hall 242) who promised both the riches of their home countries, an excessive sexuality and an inclination to subjection, were far from unappealing to Renaissance men. They compared black and white women in a rather pragmatic way. For example, Thomas Wilson argues in The Rule of Reason (1551) that

As I shal marie for a faire woman, I shal have great pleasure, and coumforte in her: If I marie a browne womanne, she shal not be commune to others, for few menne wil seeke after her. Therefore I shal haue comforte bothe waies. (85)

7In Renaissance attacks on cosmetics, however, black skin clearly stands for ugliness, while white skin is presented as the beautiful skin that Englishwomen damage through the use of cosmetics. For example, Lomazzo describes the effects of mercury sublimate, commonly used to bleach the skin, writing that

if it be put vpon mans flesh it burneth it in a short space, mortifyng the place, not without any paine to the patient. Wherefore such women as use it about the face, have alwaies black teeth, stauching far out of their gums like a Spanish mule; an offensive breath, with a face half scorched, and an uncleane complexion. (130)

8In their attempts to bleach their skin with cosmetics, women thus end up with the opposite of the intended result. The fact that many cosmetic products contained ingredients imported from foreign countries (Poitevin 69-70) only reinforced the idea of equating English women with coloured women. It suggests that black and white women became undistinguishable or, as Stephen Gosson exclaims, “These painted faces, which they weare, / can any tell, from whence they cam” (1595, A42). This reflects Jean-François Lozier’s claim that, along with the traditional explanations for the origin of black skin, Europeans conceptualised black skin as painted (119). He refers to this “meeting of aboriginal and European skin-painting cultures [...] between the early sixteenth and the late eighteenth centuries” as the “transatlantic cosmetic encounter” (ibid.). Despite this conception of black skin as painted, at the same time it was also seen as permanent to its owner. It even produced the common phrase “it is impossible to wash an Ethiop [or blackamoor] white” (Vaughan 6).

9What made cosmetics look even more dangerous to Renaissance writers is that, by using them, women not only destroyed their own bodies, but the whole English race. This “myre of pollution” (Nashe 802) presented itself as a transformation into a foreign body:

No Nation hath any excesse but they haue made it theirs. Certaine glasses there are, wherein a man seeth the image of another, & not his owne: those glasses are their eyes, for in thē they see the image of other Countries, and not their owne. Other Countries fashions they see, but neuer looke backe to the attyre of their fore-fathers, or consider what shape their own Country shold giue them (Nashe 732).

10Through women’s love for exotic excesses,men have also been infected, thus straying away from true English modesty as it was apparently constantly practised in the past. The “fore-fathers” mentioned by Thomas Nashe are envisioned here as a positive historical role model of a time before foreign invasion of the English body. However, these idealized “fore-fathers” could prove problematic, since the English were well aware of their “painted past”, thanks to the likes of antiquary William Camden, who described the Picts as “barbarous Britans” (118) who were “painted with sundrie colours” (117). Such awareness of a connection between historical British barbarians and contemporary non-European barbarians was deeply troubling for Renaissance men. In this respect, it could be argued that women using cosmetics came under attack because their painting recalled the uncomfortable connections between the English and barbarians. Since Renaissance cosmetics indirectly recalled those fears of barbarism, the use of colours is linked with an intrinsic ambivalence attached to aesthetics.

2. “Painted rhetoric”

11Just like cosmetics, “painted rhetoric” (Shakespeare, Love’s Labours Lost, 4.3.236) came under attack in the Renaissance. The roots of this debate stretch back to the foundation texts of rhetoric itself. Socrates, Cicero and Quintilian originally shaped the notion of rhetorical colour, which gave rise to contentious debates in the Renaissance. In the same way as cosmetics, “painted rhetoric” was seen as excessive, misleading and alien. By looking at these three ancient founding fathers of rhetoric and the Renaissance responses to them, the historical background for a rhetoric of colour becomes clearer.

12In Gorgias, Socrates provides his famous criticism of rhetoric as a form of sycophancy (κολακεία). Arguing in a very similar way to the Renaissance cosmetics critics, Socrates sees an inherent connection between the use of sycophancy and the effects for the inner state of the user: “What I’m saying is that that kind of thing occurs both with the body and with the soul. It makes the body and the soul seem to be in good condition, though they are none the more so for all that” (Plato 464b). He even specifies the disadvantages of one of the subcategories of sycophancy, namely fashion:

it is pernicious, illusory, demeaning and slavish, deceiving with shapes and colours, smooth skin and clothes. It makes people import an alien beauty and neglect that beauty of their own which comes from training. I don’t want to be speechifying, so I’ll just say, in the language of geometry […] that as fashion is to training, so cookery is to medicine. (Plato 456b-c).

13As in the Renaissance cosmetics debate, Socrates also rebukes the concept of beauty applied to the body and advocates the merits of changing the body from within. He furthermore describes this application to the body in terms of colours which deceive those who can only see the outside of the person. This passage is also rather telling in that Socrates sees the danger of talking in too elaborate a manner. To avoid this, he claims that his elucidations are due to his use of the “language of geometry” which he sees in contrast to rhetoric, as taught by the newly emerging school of Sophism that Gorgias represents. The need for this justification is even more vital considering that he earlier interrupts Polus, stating: “That preference of yours for lengthy speeches, Polus – you tried to indulge it back at the start – could you just keep that in check?” (Plato 461d). This fear of elaborate speech needs to be seen in the context of ornatus (“ornament”). When looking at this category of rhetoric, the Latin classics often note the close connection between cosmetics and ornatus. To conjure up this association with ornament, both Cicero and Quintilian referred to colours (colores) and the use of cosmetics or dyes (fucare) as the means for creating ornatus. They also refer to the danger of oversaturation in the employment of ornatus. By falling for its appeal as a crowd pleaser, an orator may limit the virtues of correctness (puritas) and clarity (perspicuitas) in his rhetoric.

  • 6 See for example “Asianismus” (Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik 1114).

14As the grand style contains the highest degree of ornatus, this level of style is particularly associated with abundance and excess. Originating in a polemic attack after the publication of Cicero’s Brutus and Orator in 46 BC, this level was ascribed to the literary style of Asia Minor authors who were subsequently called Asianics.6 In contrast to Asianism, those who coined this term presented themselves as the writers of Atticism, which they characterised as being precise, condensed and therefore not indulging in Asian excesses (ibid.). Cicero himself eventually came under attack from the Atticists (Quintilianus 12.10.12-13).

15The notion of distinct Asianic and Atticist styles was still familiar in the Renaissance (Croll 85-93). It was again Cicero who was attacked for having what were perceived as Asianic traits. The Asiatic style, with its high degree of ornatus, is characterised as effeminate, extravagant and overdecorated. In Protestant England, the rejection of Catholicism also entailed a rejection of what was perceived to be an inappropriate amount of embellishment, so that “Protestant reformers thus presented Catholics essentially as diabolic rhetoricians who used their eloquence to persuade people to damn themselves” (Rebhorn 9). What thus emerged was an idealised Protestant plain style which claimed to have stripped away all deluding Catholic accessories and which solely focused on the content – a tendency that was even more prominent in Puritanism (Kretzoi 249-50). Asianism, therefore, was the rhetorical realisation of cosmetics and blackness. Its abundant ornatus carried the cosmetic quality, while the term Asianism already marked it as a “black” version of speech. Despite the fact that Asianism was never an established school in rhetoric, but rather a tag invented for polemic reasons, the concept itself was nevertheless influential.

3. Theatrical colours

16As cosmetics were commonplace among aristocrats, Renaissance drama both reflected and represented its significance. This even increased after an important event:

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth – the most visibly and theatrically painted body – had died, rendering the painted face on the Renaissance stage a living artefact and thereby a functioning memorial of recent political history. Her death inspired plays that would make cosmeticised bodies central to dramatic action. (Karim-Cooper 90-91).

17The loss of the cosmetic patron combined with the introduction of an unparalleled exoticism under James I (Hall 125-29) not only gave rise to a flood of polemics against painting women, but also increased the presence of cosmetics on the Jacobean stage (Lozier 125). By the beginning of the 17th century, in addition to many dark-skinned characters, painted women and beauticians had become stock characters (ibid.).

18The growing complexity of black characters since the 1580s was paralleled in the growing number of methods for using stage cosmetics. Some of the more traditional tools for depicting black characters, such as the vizard or black fabric, significantly limited the actor’s scope and therefore were almost exclusively used in masques and non-speaking roles (Vaughan 10). Medieval recipes for blackface contained mainly soot, burnt cork and stove-blackening (Blunt 222-23). However, these mixtures were unstable, so that actors playing in blackface risked becoming lighter while their fellow actors became darker (ibid.). Renaissance cosmetic recipes were more advanced than this, often using fat and walnuts to help maintain the effect, and could be also adjusted to a lighter and darker level (Blunt 224).

19Many references to blackness are, however, performative. Characters might describe themselves or others as black or white. In this sense, they can be said to use the theatrical colours of cosmetics. Through these references, they attempt to link coloured skin with skin colour through rhetoric. In this respect, they constitute a heavy intertwining of what William J. Thomas Mitchell has called “the image-text structure […] governing the relation of visual and verbal experience” (90). Renaissance theatre can thus be seen as a combination of painting and rhetoric for, as Marguerite A. Tassi has shown, the conventional premises of a bleak and word-centred theatre cannot be upheld (16-17). Instead, “[t]heatre is England’s lively pictorial culture” (Barkan 338). Consequently, Renaissance theatre also suffers from the same accusations addressed at colour and rhetoric. On the visual level, concerns were high, as the human eye was the gateway to the soul, which in turn was presented with the whole inventory of stage devils, witches, Catholics and other “tempting” black forces. Visual and financial excesses, as in the dispute over cosmetics, were thus frowned upon. Gosson bemoans:

How often hath her Majestie with the grave advice of her honorable Councell, sett downe the limits of apparell to every degree, and how soone againe hath the pride of our harts overflowed the chanel? How many times hath access to Theatre been restrayned, and how boldly againe have we reentered? (1579, C6)

20Theatregoers here are basically replicating the behaviour of the painting woman, for it is the pride and the love of ornament which leads them to disregard higher monarchical or male authority. Just as cosmetic painting was deemed to be more deceptive than creative (Reichardt 195), Gosson argues that “[p]lays are no Images of truths” (1972, D5). The stage thus holds the same position as the mirror reflecting the proud painter’s face. The “idolatrous eye” (Tassi 17) of the English theatregoers thus reflects the narcissistic look of the painting woman who commits idolatry by destroying God’s work.

21Both theatre and cosmetics thus embodied the fear of falsehood and mistaken identity. As with a painted woman’s face, on stage “it is very hard to knowe, who is noble, who is worshipfull, who is gentleman [or in this case gentlewoman], who is not” (Stubbes C2v). This fear of overlapping categories is particularly prominent with regard to gender and nationality. Protestant antitheatricalism rejects the intermixing of gender categories as vigorously as men were banned from using cosmetics. Although men did paint their faces (Dolan 231), these men were deemed effeminate. The Book of the Courtier stated that men should not be “so soft and womanish”, ridiculing men who

  • 7 Similarly, Gosson rejects the idea of boy actors because “[t]he Law of God very straightly forbids (...)

not only courle the haire, and picke the browes, but also pampre them selves in everie point like the most wanton and dishonest woman in the world […] These men, seeing nature (as they seeme to have a desire to appeare and to be) hath not made them woman, ought not to bee esteemed in place of good women, but like common Harlots to bee banished, not onely out of princes courtes, but also out of the company of gentlemen. (39)7

22Given the possibility of penetrating the body via the eye, antitheatrical writers portrayed the audience as “hazarded by the contagion of theatrical sight” (Rainolds X3r). Similarly, Rankins saw actors as “vipers […] whose pleasure as poison spreddeth it self into the vains of their beholders […] such is the infectious poison of these men and such danger is it to be neere the view of their vitious exercise” (F1r). These ideas clearly drew on the notion of the theatre as a kind of drug (Pollard 9). Here, actors and their infected audience were not far from the painted women who are as toxic as their ingredients. This infection was often seen as emanating from the player’s mouth (Chalk 13; 85). Thus, there is a connection here between all three branches of art; painting, rhetoric and theatre. For the infection not only penetrated the skin, but also affected verbal capacity.

23In this “theatrical epidemic” (Chalk 13, 89), a whole city is taken in by the rhetoric to such an extent that the people turn into “actor zombies” who can no longer control their speech but must remain within the vocabulary of the play. Being thus transfixed, they also lose control over their bodies, which dwindle away. This dehumanising experience has an eerie effect on their language, which is split between the pathos of the grand style in the play on the one hand and the animal-like “braying” of the citizens on the other.

  • 8 See Nashe 741: “England, the Players stage of gorgeous attyre, the Ape of all Nations superfluities (...)

24Thus, in the attacks on Renaissance theatre, the notions of deception in both painting and rhetoric are combined. However, this did not prevent the theatre from embracing cosmetics as a means for self-representation. The English stages where cosmetics were used in order to depict blackness thus became the culmination point of the transatlantic cosmetic encounter. For not only did theatre present these techniques to a wider audience, it constantly replicated them. As a result, the cosmetic encounter on the English stage came to stand for England’s “culture of cosmetics” (Karim-Cooper 3).8 By the beginning of the 17th century, England herself had become the painted lady darkened by cosmetics.

4. Women of colour

25By briefly looking at the way colour has been utilised in theatre productions of The White Devil, it is very easy to see just how important its role is for the play. When the RSC staged its first production of The White Devil in 1996 (dir. Gale Edwards, costumes by Sue Wilkinson), the colour focus was clearly on Vittoria. Having stepped onto the stage in a flaming red dress with a revealing lace-up corset in the seduction scene with Bracciano, she essentially wore a golden version of the same design for her arraignment and a white version as a wedding gown, which was drenched in blood in the final act. In contrast to this, the other female characters remained in the same dresses, with Zanche dressed in stripy brown and Isabella in royal blue. In the RSC’s second production (2014, dir. Maria Aberg, designed by Naomi Dawson), the Italian courts are transformed into multi-coloured party scenes. Here, only a small number of costumes can be related to the text, for instance Monticelso’s red suit jacket, Flamineo’s black garb of a malcontent and the white Victoria Beckham-style dress worn by Vittoria for her arraignment. This Vittoria is “a petite clothes-horse pictured in a succession of wigs, Lady Gaga-style” (Cavendish n.p.), often sporting white underwear. The only person to stand out from this neon party crowd is Isabella in her turquoise lace peplum dress. All in all, there appears to be a tendency to stage Vittoria in provocative colours when she is part of society and demurely when she is in court. Zanche often appears as her less provocative sidekick, while Isabella is always visually separated from the world around her.

26When it comes to skin colour, it is not surprising that it is Vittoria, the woman accused of adultery, whose skin colour should be most heavily scrutinised. Her illicit meeting with Bracciano unleashes these examinations of female skin. Here, Flamineo seems to be particularly intrigued by the topic in stating to Bracciano, “what is’t you doubt? Her coyness? That’s but the superficies of lust most women have; yet why should ladies blush to hear that named, which they do not fear to handle?” (Webster 1.2.19-21). He argues that because his sister is determined to have extramarital sex and is not deterred by its sinfulness, she does not blush. However, when she later appears, Flamineo sees Vittoria’s blushing as a natural response to the illicit affair: “Come sister, darkness hides your blush. Women are like curst dogs: civility keeps them tied all daytime, but they are let loose at midnight; then they do most good or most mischief” (Webster 1.2.199-202). Here, “blackness” works like a cosmetic layer on top of her white skin. In this sense, she is actually anything but a white devil, but rather an inside out version of it. The term “blackness” here has a dual function, since it refers both to the absence of light at this nightly hour and to Vittoria’s black sin. Bearing in mind that Vittoria is played by a white actor, she is actually coloured more like a dartboard. On the innermost level is the white actor who plays a black-hearted character with white skin who envelops herself in darkness.

  • 9 Bracciano also comments on Vittoria’s features after he suspects her, due to Francisco’s letter, of (...)

27Descriptions of Vittoria’s skin colour constantly oscillate between dark and fair. For example, before the meeting with Bracciano, Flamineo rails that Camillo should “write sonnets to her eyes, or call her brow the snow of Ida or ivory of Corinth, or compare her hair to the blackbird’s bill, when ‘tis like the blackbird’s feather” (Webster 1.2.116-19). Thus, Flamineo confirms the English suspicion of the unreality of the Petrarchan beauty standard in Italy (Bovilsky 641).9

28Set in contrast with her mistress, who is accused of being both white and black, is Zanche’s supposedly permanent blackness. Zanche is one of the major forces which darken Vittoria. She mirrors her behaviour and shows the full extent of unleashed female sexuality, as in her conversation with Francisco, which replicates Vittoria’s infidelity in a heightened form (Callaghan 142). Through blackness and her position both as a servant and as a woman, Zanche certainly is the “culturally most overdetermined Other in the play” (Jones 115). This triple blackness places her at the very bottom of the hierarchy and makes her the target of violent racist attacks (ibid.), as Marcello and Cornelia, horrified by Flamineo’s affair with Zanche, resort to verbal and physical violence against her. Being of the same colour, Mulinassar, on the other hand, is greeted by the Duke himself and invited to the barriers. The combination of physical and verbal violence is also replicated in the death scene, when she is first called “black Fury” (Webster 5.6.227) and then stabbed (Jones 115). The violence of the attack is due to the fact that Zanche’s blackness is seen as permanent; in her case there is no hope of recovery from it. The stain of “shame” (Webster 5.1.91) on the family would therefore also remain. Thus, for Flamineo’s family, she turns out to be some “unequivocal blackness, exempt from the ambiguously positive connotations of white devils” (Bovilsky 644).

  • 10 “Faith, I made to her some such dark promise, and in seeking to fly from’t I run on, like a frighte (...)

29The unlikely candidate to protest against this abuse of Zanche is Flamineo. He appears to relish the very real danger of their liaison and enjoys how Zanche’s skin and supposed behaviour replicate the darkness he sees in himself. His descriptions of her are no less dehumanising than those of his family, the main difference being that Flamineo does not see himself as morally superior to Zanche. He thus strictly refuses the position of the hypocrite, but rather decides to face the “monster” he is subjecting. Moreover, while his family attributes the danger of Zanche to her infectious sexuality and social standing, Flamineo sees the danger arising mainly from the power he has bestowed upon her.10 Though he denies “conjur[ing] for her” (Webster 5.1.87), it is the dark secrets he has shared and the exuberant sexuality he has released with his promise that make her “stick” (Webster 5.1.94). As a result, Zanche’s power is mainly a reflection of the sins and follies which she may now use against him.

  • 11 For example, at her death she states: “I am proud / Death cannot alter my complexion, / For I shall (...)
  • 12 Flamineo attempts to allay her fears by stating: “How? Love a lady for painting or gay apparel? I’l (...)

30While Zanche’s blackness is either a tremendous cause for shame or a sadomasochistic pleasure for others, she herself expresses pride in her blackness.11 The constancy of her skin colour is a comfort to her as it prevents others from seeing her fear. Nevertheless, she expresses the anxiety that Flamineo might prefer white women and that “[a] little painting and gay clothes make [him] loathe” her (Webster 5.1.170-71). Here, Zanche sees other women who can change their skin colour in contrast to her, as her rivals. Thus, she inverts the Renaissance fears of white women who see black women as a threat and choose to exclude them using the black/white dichotomies like Cornelia. In contrast to them, Zanche, bound to one colour, marks European women not as either white or black, but as multicoloured.12 Now, it is questionable whether Zanche is actually the blackest one in the play. Not only is she the dupe and victim of several other (morally) “black” characters, she also shows positive character traits, such as loyalty to her lady. Thus, even a character so openly indulging in her blackness cannot be fully black.

31Situated at the opposite end of the spectrum from Zanche is Isabella, to whom most of the white colour ascriptions refer. As she is the character demonstrating the least malicious behaviour, this observation may seem self-explanatory at first glance. Nevertheless, her connection to white skin is always associated with death. For example, Francisco explains how he “would […] have given / Both [of Isabella’s] white hands to death” rather than have her marry Bracciano (Webster 2.1.64-65). Just before the discovery of Isabella’s body, Bracciano tells a puzzled Francisco “I will not chase more blood from that loved cheek; / You have lost too much already” (Webster 3.2.299-300). Flamineo approves of this statement for “this is a pretext to the discovery of the duchess’ death” (Webster 3.2.303-04). In a similar way, the mad Cornelia offers the “grave-maker” Flamineo “a white hand” (Webster 5.4.82) after Marcello’s death. In none of these cases is white skin ever used to portray beautiful, healthy skin. Instead, the paleness is always seen as the reflection of an imbalance or mark of death on the body.

32It is evident that it is most often women who are described in terms of colour. This results from power struggles between the characters. Ascriptions of the colour black are often used to lower the status of a person, while the colour white as a marker of beauty remains suspiciously absent. Flamineo and Zanche are the only ones to embrace the attributed blackness, while all the other characters constantly reject it. All in all, the question of who the “white devil“ is proves unanswerable, since black and white emerge as unstable colours. In this array of devils, it is only the power of applied cosmetics which counts, rather than what lies underneath.

5. Devilish rhetoric

33To analyse the degree of rhetorical cosmetics used by Vittoria, Zanche and Isabella, the focus here will be on their wooing scenes. Isabella attempts to win back her husband, Vittoria seduces Bracciano and persuades him to murder his wife and Zanche tries to winthe disguised Francisco as her lover.

34Probably the purest character, Isabella, is the female attempting the most difficult wooing in the whole play, since her husband has already decided against their alliance and deliberately and constantly misunderstands her pleas (Webster 2.1.147-54). While her humility seems self-evident, she also shows signs of deception, denying that the attempt to talk Bracciano out of the affair was her idea (Webster 2.1.172-74). Nevertheless, to her brothers she states that her “arms / Shall charm his poison, force it to obeying / And keep him chaste from an infected straying” (Webster 2.1.16-18). These lines seem rather to betray her jealousy, even if she counterbalances this by asking her brothers to be lenient on her husband. However, the fact that she gives up Bracciano to maintain peace, rather than have her brothers increase their pressure on him, seems to point to a genuinely sad, rather than infuriated, wife. Her kissing of Bracciano’s portrait also seems to suggest as much. The rhetoric of humility also shows in Isabella’s speeches. She continually uses low style and hardly any rhetorical ornament. Only after the attack on her brother Monticelso does Isabella finally give up her original position and appeal to higher instances. After Bracciano threatens divorce, her first recourse is to religion: “Forbid it the sweet union / Of all things blessèd! Why, the saints in heaven / Will knit their brows at that” (Webster 2.1.198-200). In another attempt, she appeals to his pity, announcing her own death, by crying “O my winding-sheet / Now shall I need thee shortly” (Webster 2.1.205-06). This change in strategy is also reflected in her rhetoric, as she increases the amount of ornament in her speeches:

O my unkind lord, may your sins find mercy.
As I upon a woeful widowed bed
Shall pray for you, if not to turn your eyes
Upon your wretched wife and hopeful son,
Yet that in time you’ll fix them upon heaven.
(Webster 2.1.210-14).

35Here, she makes frequent use of w-alliterations (“woeful”, “widowed”, “wretched”, “wife”) which replicate her wailing. Her sentence structure, originally rather simple, here becomes more complex. Equally, adjectives are used more frequently. Furthermore, she now also introduces metaphor, in which Bracciano’s gaze comes to stand for pity on his family and penitence for himself. Overall, Isabella, as the purest character, also uses the clearest, almost Atticist style. Through her rhetoric of humility, she continually defers power to her superiors and therefore is easily defeated by Bracciano. Nevertheless, it must be noted that Isabella’s character is not as angelic as it appears to be and that she is also quite capable of altering her style.

36In Vittoria’s first encounter with Bracciano on stage, she attempts not only seduction but persuasion to murder. Immediately, Vittoria’s superiority in the use of language becomes clear when she resorts to witty retorts which leave Bracciano to praise her in a rather clichéd fashion:

VITTORIA: Sure, sir, a loathed cruelty in ladies
Is as to doctors many funerals;
It takes away their credit.

BRACCIANO: Excellent creature!
We call the cruel fair; what name for you
That are so merciful?
(Webster 1.2.210-14)

37She allegedly introduces her dream only “To pass away the time” (Webster 1.2.230). This announcement soon proves to be a ruse to introduce the studied speech that follows. Unlike Bracciano’s punning, this speech is highly ambiguous in ornament. Although Vittoria identifies several characters very specifically, like herself, Isabella and Camillo, she consciously leaves several gaps which provoke an interpretation. One of the most noticeable gaps is clearly the missing identification of Bracciano. Yet, with what should he better identify than the “yew”, a pun on “you” (Brown 46, n. 234-55), under which Vittoria sees herself lying and which ultimately kills the spouses who attempt to murder her? These unsubtle hints steadily increase throughout the speech, and the “goodly yew-tree” or “harmless yew” becomes “that sacred yew” (Webster 1.2.234; 241; 255). Whilst the beginning of the speech is still relatively void of hints2015-05-17T23:22:00Auteur, Vittoria later takes the liberty of calling Isabella “a Fury” and “your fell duchess” (Webster 1.2.247; 246). What also helps to provoke Bracciano’s interpretation is the vivacity of the imagery, which relies heavily on violence and witchcraft. This contrasts with the fact that this speech is presented as “[a] foolish idle dream” (Webster 1.2.232). She is then very careful not to comment on it; a point that should have been of major importance at her trial (Coleman 39). Moreover, she also creates the impression for Bracciano that his final decision is his idea, which consequently enables him to imagine himself as Vittoria’s ingenious saviour.

38The final wooing scene is that between an illicit couple of the black devil Zanche and the disguised Francisco. From the very start, Zanche makes it clear that her blackness places her in entirely different circumstances in wooing compared to white women. For when Francisco approaches, she states: “[Aside] Hence, petty thought of my disgrace! / [To him] I ne’er loved my complexion till now, / Cause I may boldly say, without a blush, / I love you” (Webster 5.1.214-17). According to Zanche, her dark complexion empowers her to do two major things: she can assume the position of the male wooer and she does not have to rely on any rhetorical cosmetics, but can be bold instead. She explains here that this is possible because, thanks to her black skin, her blushing will not show. Her black skin thus prevents male interpretation of this tell-tale sign of a woman’s inner turmoil. As this same quote (5.1.214-17) reveals, Zanche is, however, aware that “normally” she should feel shame, and that it is only thanks to her exceptional status as a black woman that she can disregard such social conventions. She thus actively uses her seemingly inferior status as a source for rhetorical empowerment.

  • 13 See for instance: “I may come to you in the same manner and be better loved for my dowry than my vi (...)

39In her actual encounter with Francisco, Zanche stresses her economic, strategic and sexual power instead.13 Yet all these self-cast roles see Zanche in curious self-subjection. They are all more conforming to, than departing from, a male view of her. It thus seems that the empowerment offered by black skin only provides her with the ability to be blunt, but not with the power to change or rise in status. This also becomes clear from Francisco’s reaction to her. He thinks of her exclusively in strategic terms and how he can use her to “draw strange fowl from this nest” (Webster 5.1.234).

  • 14 “To further our escape, I have entreated / Leave to retire me, till the funeral / Unto a friend’s c (...)

40There is another interesting parallel between Zanche’s and Vittoria’s wooing scene, namely the recurrence of a dream. However, Zanche’s dream differs markedly from that of her mistress. First of all, this dream is not presented by the female and subsequently interpreted by the male, but rather spun between them. Francisco plays along, pretending that “I was a-dreamt on thee too; for methought / I saw thee naked” (Webster 5.3.230). He thus influences the content of the dream heavily. Zanche struggles to maintain her version: “Fie sir! As I told you, / Methought you lay down by me” (Webster 5.3.231-32). Ultimately though, she cannot prevent Francisco from taking on the role of telling the dream. She then relinquishes all of her attempts to do it herself, and presents her intention in simple verse.14 Thus, in contrast to Vittoria’s, Zanche’s dream sequence fails in its initial purpose and is completely rewritten, rather than interpreted, by Francisco. Also, she is clearly not the one in control of this scene, since she is giving away her plan to rob Vittoria and the secret surrounding the deaths of Camillo and Isabella.

41Of the three female wooing characters examined here, Vittoria is certainly the most successful. Her heavily detailed cosmetic rhetoric provokes the male interpretation she desires. At the same time, it cleverly veils her involvement in the murder plan. Zanche and Isabella are both unsuccessful in their use of rhetoric. Isabella does not fully reject cosmetic rhetoric, but sees it as inappropriate in her role as a modest wife. Telling “the truth” and constantly surrendering attention and power to her husband, however, prove highly problematic for her social status and personal happiness. Thus, it is easy for Bracciano to take advantage both of the ambiguities of language and the precarious position that Isabella places herself in. Zanche completely rejects cosmetic speech, which she finds restrictive. However, this rejection makes her predictable and therefore easy for the male characters to take advantage of. Zanche’s “liberation” is also problematic, for her behaviour correlates very well with Renaissance stereotypes about black women. Here, the black woman Zanche and the white Isabella are placed on an equal footing as they both reject cosmetic rhetoric to a large degree, making them more readable and thus easier for male characters to subject. Vittoria, as a white woman making great use of rhetorical cosmetics, thus proves to be the most competent speaker.

6. Devils acting up

42Of the three female characters in The White Devil, only Isabella and Vittoria are involved in major scenes which require self-staging in front of an on-stage audience. Zanche does assist in trying to deceive and kill Flamineo, however, this is mostly under the direction of Vittoria. Because of this, the focus here will be on the two scenes in which Isabella and Vittoria’s fidelity is openly challenged. As far as Isabella is concerned, she tries to convince her brothers she is leaving her adulterous husband, and in Vittoria’s case, she herself is being accused of being an adulteress and murderer in her trial.

43Before Isabella begins her performance, she informs her husband of her intentions:

I will make
Myself the author of your cursèd vow; [...] let the fault
Remain with my supposèd jealousy, –
And think with what a piteous and rent heart
I shall perform this sad ensuing part.
(Webster 2.1.217-25)

44With this speech, Isabella briefs herself for her future role. Through her acting, she attempts to gain control over her own history, which she deems forced to change due to her husband’s refusal to settle. However, the question of agency in the rewriting through acting appears rather doubtful. First of all, it is only through Bracciano’s prompt that she assumes this role. Secondly, she ultimately subjects herself to a role which offers the least inconvenience to her husband. Finally, the influence of her rewriting seems rather doubtful since she instructs her husband to keep her rewriting private. Her rhetoric of humility, however, somewhat contrasts with the pride she exhibits at stressing the importance of her performance. These lines constitute a small emergence that Isabella makes as a self-reliant individual. For, as Waage has so aptly stated, “[f]or Bracciano strength is strength, for Isabella weakness is strength” (34).

45Considering that the options available to Isabella are being locked up as a madwoman by Francisco (Webster 2.1.29) or ending up as the despised and cast-off divorcée of Bracciano, she does find a role in which she can at least see a good cause, namely maintaining peace between the dukedoms. Paradoxically, it is only through the rejection of their marriage that Isabella enlists the support of her husband. For her enactment of the fury, she certainly knows the stereotype well enough and performs it very well. Isabella takes great care to work mainly with rhetorical questions and exclamations, giving herself the appearance of a woman without any sense of decorum. But it is not only rhetorical standards which she challenges. With every new passage, she strips down one of the layers which define her former identity as an aristocratic duchess. Her speech thus moves from the verbal attacking style of Vittoria, to the questioning of her own gender boundary, and then to threats of physical violence. The previously fair skinned female thus transforms into a savage. Her destruction of her rival’s beauty is paralleled with the blackening of her fairness. Thus, by the end of this last speech she opposes snow not only in temperature, but also in colour. Although she is effectively forced into the roles of white martyr and black “Fury” (Webster 2.1.245), Isabella “rises” somewhat to the occasion. Her performance is “successful”, despite the fact that she has two of her own brothers to convince. She even manages to gloss over the only lapse in her performance when she requests a final kiss from her husband (Webster 2.1.253-55). Paradoxically, with these theatrical colours Isabella opens a new role for herself, which eventually leads to her doom.

46In her arraignment, Vittoria is faced with the opposite situation to Isabella. Instead of incriminating herself, her goal is to defend herself first against the accusations of the lawyer and then, against those of Monticelso. While the lawyer attempts to control the proceedings by rendering them completely unintelligible for both the accused and the audience, Monticelso stresses the artificiality of Vittoria’s appearance which he says conceals her “true” abominations. Thus, the two also assign a completely different role to ornament. For the lawyer, ornament is a vital means to produce unintelligibility, for Monticelso it is a sign of Vittoria’s deception. Interestingly, in both cases, Vittoria relies on the same strategy to defend herself, namely by staging her accusers as the source of deceptive artificiality rather than herself. This trial therefore represents a power struggle over who gets cast in the role of the “painted devil”(Webster 3.2.147) in the context of theatrical cosmetics.

47In her confrontation with the lawyer, Vittoria first manages to force him to stop using Latin and unintelligible legalese. According to the lawyer, this ornamental style is justified by decorum: “Exorbitant sins must have exulceration” (Webster 3.2.35). Vittoria, however, refuses the “obscurity of [the] charge to imply the assumption of guilt” (Champion 126), thus arguing against the contamination of cosmetic rhetoric. Her insistence on clarity of language thus gains her support from court and theatre audiences and separates her from becoming “clouded in a strange language” (Webster 3.2.18-19).

  • 15 Especially towards the end, when Monticelso notices that Vittoria manages to deflate most of his at (...)

48Because of the failure of the lawyer’s strategy, Monticelso steps in to “be plainer with you, and paint out / Your follies in more natural red and white / Than that upon your cheek” (Webster 3.2.51-53). Here, the strategy of attack is not to incapacitate Vittoria and the audience, but to cast the accused as deceptive. Vittoria immediately responds to this allegation by stating: “O you mistake. / You raise a blood as noble in this cheek / As ever was your mother’s” (Webster 3.2.53-55). Thus, Vittoria denies using cosmetics and instead attributes the fluctuating colour in her cheek to the emotions caused by Monticelso’s accusations. Indeed, the very fact that Monticelso aims to “paint out” Vittoria for her alleged use of cosmetics already reveals the weakness of his strategy. Especially when he accuses Vittoria of being a whore, his rhetoric is far from plain and more of a “linguistic orgy” (Finin-Farber 233). Furthermore, while he initially identifies a whore as “the true material fire of hell” (Webster 3.2.85, italics mine), she is simultaneously the reflection of the male customer who “first stamps” her (Webster 3.2.100). Thus, the question arises whether the blackness of the whore does not stem from the man who taints her. What renders Monticelso’s speech even more troubling is the fact that he rather clumsily references the corruption of the trial he is overseeing. For if whores “are those brittle evidences of law / Which forfeit all the wretched man’s estate / For leaving out one syllable” (Webster 3.2.89-91), he also indirectly reminds the audience that the court has “nought but circumstances / To charge her with” (Webster 3.1.4-5). As a judge presiding over a trial, his references to the instability of the law seem hardly helpful for his own cause.15

49However, Vittoria’s good performance during her arraignment not only arises from Monticelso’s incompetence. She herself plays an active part in this as well. Her rhetoric is marked by clarity and her tone is frank, often ironic, especially when she challenges the legitimacy of the proceedings. In this manner, she locates Monticelso as the source of black painting: “For your names / Of whore and murd’ress, they proceed from you, / As if a man should spit against the wind, / The filth returns in’s face” (Webster 3.2.148-151). As Monticelso is the one ascribing blackness to her, she also presents him as contaminated by it. She, however, remains clear of all tainting due to her greater strength. She later makes a similar point by responding to Monticelso’s accusations of blackness: “So may you blame some fair and crystal river / For that some melancholic distracted man / Hath drown’d himself in’t” (Webster 3.2.204-06). While she thus casts herself in an immaculate white that is immune to tainting, Monticelso becomes the amateur cosmetic painter. In this version, she is not the source of deception, but rather the embodiment of clarity.

50Initially, she uses the typical feminine rhetoric of humility to stress her submission to regular court proceedings. However, she then presents herself as forced to give up this position due to the corrupt nature of the trial. In her no-nonsense attitude, she thus encourages her accusers to give up their cosmetic rhetoric in favour of her clear version:

Sum up my faults I pray, and you shall find
That beauty and gay clothes, a merry heart,
And a good stomach to a feast, are all,
All the poor crimes you can charge me with.
(Webster 3.2.207-10)

51In this version of herself, she is the one to urge for the cleansing of the proceedings in the face of a court indulging in deceptive theatricality.

52All in all, the three characters at work in the arraignment can be seen struggling over the application of theatrical colours. While the lawyer effectively attempts to make the whole communication descend into blackness, Monticelso tries to apply black to Vittoria’s character. Vittoria, on the other hand, points to the contaminating forces of blackness and reassigns it back to Monticelso while effectively purging herself of all tainting. Isabella, however, stands in strong contrast to these power struggles over colour application. Hers is a self-inscription that attempts to achieve the highest level of darkness, unlike Vittoria’s cleansing. What they both share is the incorporation of strategies and material provided from their adversaries. While Isabella’s theatrical cosmetics is essentially a means of self-destruction, for Vittoria it is a means of self-preservation.


53Colour in The White Devil is realised optically, rhetorically and theatrically. All three female characters, Vittoria, Isabella and Zanche, are confronted with and resort to these different variants of colours to a large extent. It is apparent that whenever they do use them skilfully, they are more successful than without them. Only Vittoria’s arraignment proves to be the exception to the rule because here it is her use of colour which she stands accused of. Due to her own ambiguity in colour, she is the only female character capable of employing or rejecting theatrical colours with relatively high levels of success.

54It follows that the colour ascriptions that these female characters face and use are frequently so unstable that it is impossible to identify the titular “white devil”. Instead, what is presented is an array of devils as seen through a pair of glasses Flamineo tells Camillo about: “I have seen a pair of spectacles fashioned with such perspective art that, lay down but one twelvepence a’ th’ board, ‘twill appear as if there were twenty” (Webster 1.2.100-02). This instability of colour, however, also allows for the great variation and creativity of colour usage in the play. Whether it be related to optics, rhetoric or theatre, there is a smooth transition between these different areas. In this sense, colour is a perfect reflection of and means for the stage. Through its very different female characters, who are marked by colour yet also actively use it, The White Devil demonstrates the power of colour and thereby repudiates the Renaissance allegations against colour and theatre.

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1 I would like to thank the staff of the Library and Archive Reading Room at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon for their assistance in my research into the costume history of past RSC productions of The White Devil.

2 Another reason for identifying her as the “white devil” is the fact that the title of the quarto edition of 1665 was The White Devil, Or, Vittoria Corombona. Nevertheless, this is only a variant of the 1612 title, alternatively titled as The Tragedy of Paulo Giordano Ursini, Duke of Brachiano, With The Life and Death of Vittoria Corombona the famous Venetian Curtizan (Franklin 35). In fact, one early commentator states that “The White Devil is Flamineo” (Genest l. 346).

3 Compare for example “painted, adj.” (OED, b).

4 It must be noted, however, that depictions of St Maurice only acquired their black skin in the 13th century, probably also simply because Maurice recalled the word mauros, i.e. ‘dark’ (Pastoureau 85-86).

5 Compare “blank, adj. and adv.” (OED, b) with “fair, adj. and n.2” (OED, f).

6 See for example “Asianismus” (Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik 1114).

7 Similarly, Gosson rejects the idea of boy actors because “[t]he Law of God very straightly forbids men to put on womens garments are set down for signets distinctive betwene sexe and sexe, to take unto us those garments that are manifest signes of another sexe, is to falsifie, forge and adulterate, contrarie to the express rule of the word of God.” (1972, E3r)

8 See Nashe 741: “England, the Players stage of gorgeous attyre, the Ape of all Nations superfluities, the continuall Masquer in outlandish habilements, great plenty-scanting calamities art thou to await, for wanton disguising thy selfe against kind, and digressing from the plainness of thine Auncesters”.

9 Bracciano also comments on Vittoria’s features after he suspects her, due to Francisco’s letter, of infidelity: “Your beauty! O, ten thousand curses on’t. / How long have I beheld the devil in crystal?” (Webster 4.2.87-88). The term “crystal” could suggest that the blackness on the surface of Vittoria’s skin is invisible, but it could equally refer to its quality of being “bright, shining” (OED, B, 2). As demonstrated above, this notion is not incompatible with the Renaissance notions of a sparkling black. Furthermore, “crystal” is of course a reference to prostitution (Storey 651-52). These jewels were often of foreign origin, as in Thomas Coryat’s account of a Venetian courtesan: “See her decked with many chaines of gold and orient pearle like a second Cleopatra” (1.404). Such precious adornments were always seen as artificial, since they were added to the female body, almost, as in this case, changing the identity of the European woman into an Oriental version of herself. Therefore, jewellery is constantly suspected of signifying a “dissembling trade” (Webster 4.2.95). This also explains why Monticelso accuses Vittoria of being one of “such counterfeit jewels” (Webster 3.2.141). Thus, Vittoria’s beauty is associated with “the disingenuous and culturally alien” (Bovilsky 642) congruent with Renaissance cosmetics.

10 “Faith, I made to her some such dark promise, and in seeking to fly from’t I run on, like a frighted dog with a bottle at’s tail, that fain would bite it off, and yet dares not look behind him. Now, my precious gipsy!” (Webster 5.1.158-61).

11 For example, at her death she states: “I am proud / Death cannot alter my complexion, / For I shall ne’er look pale” (Webster 5.6.227-31).

12 Flamineo attempts to allay her fears by stating: “How? Love a lady for painting or gay apparel? I’ll unkennel one example more for thee. Aesop had a foolish dog that let go the flesh to catch the shadow. I would have courtiers be better diners” (Webster 5.1.172-75). Flamineo thus rejects the “illusory quality of physical attraction” (Brown 127, n. 173-75) in favour of Zanche’s “real” blackness. The irony, of course, is that here cosmetics, rather than Zanche’s darkness, are likened to a dark shadow. Additionally, her blackness is just as false as that of European women using cosmetics, for she is an English actor performing in blackface.

13 See for instance: “I may come to you in the same manner and be better loved for my dowry than my virtue” (Webster 5.1.225); or: “At your better leisure I’ll tell you things shall startle your blood. Nor blame me that this passion I reveal; / Lovers die inward that their flames conceal” (Webster 5.1.229-30).

14 “To further our escape, I have entreated / Leave to retire me, till the funeral / Unto a friend’s company. In coin and jewels / I shall, at least, make good unto your use / An hundred thousand crowns.” (Webster 5.3.255-60)

15 Especially towards the end, when Monticelso notices that Vittoria manages to deflate most of his attempts to incriminate her, his numerous accusations no longer contain any link to evidence. One instance of this is when he attempts to rewrite Vittoria’s biography into one single image of decline (Webster 3.2.235-45). He assigns himself the role of stage manager who is “draw[ing] the curtain” (l. 243), partially revealing Vittoria’s theatrical antics. He thus only hints at the greater monstrosity of Vittoria, still veiled behind the curtain, and leaves the rest to the audience’s imagination. In fact, he declares the very impossibility of a full viewing of such a play, since it “would be played o’th’stage, / But that vice many times finds such loud friends / That preachers are charmed silent” (Webster 3.2.249-51). This metatheatrical reference, however, also points out the shortcomings of Monticelso’s staging, since this very play is being performed in the form of Webster’s play.

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Natascha WANNINGER, « Theatrical Colours: Cosmetics, Rhetoric and Theatre in Webster’s The White Devil », E-rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 28 janvier 2020. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4475

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Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich, Germany
Natascha Wanninger is a student of English, History and German at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität of Munich, Germany. She received her M.A. in 2013. She has already written on Renaissance drama in an essay entitled “Fertility and Witchcraft in The Tempest and Thomas Middleton’s The Witch” (published in REAL 29 [2013]: 79-98).

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