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

A Darker Shade of Pale: Webster’s Winter Whiteness

Annaliese CONNOLLY et Lisa HOPKINS


Cet essai se propose d’étudier la politique de la couleur dans The White Devil et The Duchess of Malfi de John Webster. A priori, ces pièces se caractérisent par une opposition claire et nette entre le noir et le blanc. Comme on pouvait s’y attendre, le noir semble associé au mal, et le blanc au bien. Nous souhaitons toutefois démonter que c’est le noir qui est en réalité représenté comme la teinte la plus inquiétante des deux, pour des raisons relatives au traitement que les deux tragédies font du corps du roi et de son comportement. Webster fait plus spécifiquement allusion à Jacques Ier, à son projet d’annexion de la Russie, ainsi qu’au nouvel enterrement qu’il organisa pour sa mère Marie, Reine d’Écosse.
Relues à la lumière de ces deux événements contemporains, les tragédies de Webster misent sur l’instabilité même du mot « blanc », dévoilant une tension entre le spirituel et le matériel, et laissant ainsi apparaître la face sombre de la blancheur.

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1In the second act of Webster’s The White Devil, there is an exchange between Bracciano and Francisco which might seem to encapsulate the politics of the play’s colour scheme: Bracciano speaks of “that black slander” and Francisco speaks of his virtuous sister’s “white hands” (2.1.65). On the face of it, Bracciano’s and Francisco’s utterances appear to instantiate an absolute opposition between black and white in which black, predictably, is bad, and white, equally predictably, is good. We intend to argue, however, that it is actually white which Webster represents as the more sinister of the two colours, for reasons connected to the plays’ interest in both the bodies and the behaviour of rulers and also in the lands over which they ruled or aspired to rule. In this essay, we shall show how in both his two great tragedies Webster prises open the instability of the term “white” to reveal the darker side of pale and to suggest an opposition between spiritual and material modes of understanding colour. We begin by discussing images of whiteness and blackness in the plays. We then move on to considering the implications of the fact that in both The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil Webster’s imagination gravitates towards the north in general and Russia in particular, in ways which find expression in images of winter and of white-furred animals. Finally we consider the association of whiteness with tombs, specifically that of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose iconography of white mourning is, we argue, echoed in The White Devil in particular, and show that this connects whiteness both to death and to power, and specifically to the power of female rulers, of whom the Duchess of Malfi is of course one. Whiteness for Webster, then, means winter, death, and urgently material forms of power: only faintly and fleetingly, and typically only at the moment of death, can we glimpse even the potential of a more spiritual sense of whiteness.

1. Colour imagery in The White Devil

2The White Devil teems with colour imagery, as indeed befits a play with “white” in its title. In particular, black and white are repeatedly referred to, and the play’s use of them is underpinned and informed by the polarity articulated by Bracciano and Francisco in that it sets up an apparently simple schema in which colours appear to carry metaphorical freight, and then complicates and inverts it. The idea that white is good is certainly present: Cornelia asks “[…] here’s a white hand: / Can blood so soon be wash’d out?” (5.4.81-82), a question in which whiteness clearly connotes innocence. So too is the idea that black is bad. Monticelso calls Lodovico “a foul black cloud” (4.3.99) and speaks of “the black, and melancholic yew tree” (4.3.120); Flamineo says of Bracciano “This shall his passage to the black lake further” (5.2.82); Bracciano himself asks “[…] did you ever hear the dusky raven / Chide blackness?” (5.3.88-89); Zanche refers to “the black deed” (5.3.250); the Spanish ambassador “looks like the claw of a blackbird” (3.1.77), and Hortensio says “There’s some black deed on foot” (5.5.12). Finally, Vittoria and Flamineo both mention blackbirds (5.6.184-86) and both die speaking of blackness, Vittoria declaring that “My soul, like to a ship in a black storm, / Is driven I know not whither” (5.6.248-49) and Flamineo saying “My life was a black charnel” (5.6.270).

3Above all, the idea that black is bad is implicit in the insistent suggestion that the white devil herself, Vittoria Corombona, is black underneath. Vittoria says of her dream,

They told me my intent was to root up
That well-grown yew, and plant i’th’stead of it
A withered blackthorn.

4The logic of the dream is that Bracciano is the well-grown yew (“you”) while Vittoria herself is associated with the blackthorn. In similar vein, Monticelso speaks of Vittoria’s “black lust” (3.1.7) while the lawyer calls her a woman “Who such a black concatenation of mischief hath effected” (3.2.29-30), and though Francisco demurs — “I do not think she hath a soul so black / To act a deed so bloody” (3.2.183-84) -— the audience knows that he is wrong. Indeed, Vittoria is figured as a kind of epitome of blackness:

[…] what an ignorant ass or flattering knave might he be counted, that 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 liker the blackbird’s feather. (1.2.115-19)

5Black is, however, not the only sinister colour. The hallucinating Bracciano thinks he sees someone in a blue bonnet (5.3.98), and Vittoria declares “O poor charity! / Thou art seldom found in scarlet” (3.2.70-71), the colour worn by Monticelso because he is a cardinal and also -— not coincidentally in post-Reformation England -— the colour of sin, of the scarlet woman and Whore of Babylon which was the Church of Rome. Indeed, colour itself is in one sense bad, because it is insistently understood as artificial. Lodovico says “Leave your painted comforts” (1.1.51), in which what is painted is implicitly figured as false, and Monticelso tells Vittoria,

I shall be plainer with you, and paint out
Your follies in more natural red and white
Than that upon your cheek.

6Vittoria in turn derides Monticelso with “Terrify babes, my lord, with painted devils” (3.2.147) and says “I discern poison, / Under your gilded pills” (3.2.190-91), while Flamineo is openly scornful of the idea that he might “love a lady for painting or gay apparel” (5.1.171). “Painted devils”, “gilded pills”, and women who paint all imply one thing: colour deceives, altering the outward appearance of a thing to conceal something dangerous or pernicious and forcing a disjunction not only between appearance and reality but also, by implication, one between the material and the spiritual, since painted ladies and false devils pose a threat to the soul as well as to the body.

  • 1 “Luther, Calvin, and all the great Protestant reformers of the 16th century always had themselves r (...)

7In this play in which colour can be suspect and white is a sign of hypocrisy, black can in fact be “better than another hue”, as Aaron in Titus Andronicus has it: Vittoria says “I will not in my death shed one base tear, / Or if I look pale, for want of blood, not fear” (5.6.225-26), and when Carlo says “Thou art my task, black Fury” (5.6.227), Zanche ripostes “Death cannot alter my complexion, / For I shall ne’er look pale” (5.6.230-31). Blackness wears its badness on its sleeve, but whiteness may be only a veneer to conceal a hidden moral darkness. Emma Rhatigan notes that for Luther, “This white Deuill which forceth men to commit spirituall sinnes, that they may sell them for righteousness, is farre more daungerous then the blacke deuill which onely enforceth them to commit fleshly sinnes” (177), and Michel Pastoureau observes that “Luther, Calvin et tous les grands réformateurs protestants du XVIe siècle se sont toujours fait représenter en noir […] cela signifie que pour la morale protestante un bon chrétien se doit de porter des vêtements sobres, sombres, humbles” (62)1: the implication in both cases is that blackness, by dint of its very association with the material signs of pollution and dirt, paradoxically possesses a spiritual honesty in that it admits a truth about itself, while whiteness appropriates the trappings of the pure and the spiritual only to flatter and deceive.

  • 2 “A colour […] never comes alone; it does not take on its meaning, it does not function fully except (...)

8Moreover, whiteness cannot exist in isolation, because white and black can be understood only in relation to each other, as Pastoureau indicates when he observes that “[u]ne couleur […] ne vient jamais seule; elle ne prend son sens, elle ne fonctionne pleinement que pour autant qu’elle est associée ou opposée à une ou plusieurs autres couleurs” (55),2 or as Flamineo suggests when he declares that when Camillo “wears white satin one would take him by his black muzzle to be no other creature than a maggot” (1.2.140-42). Nor is the effect confined to language: the white devil has a black chambermaid, Zanche, and the two together function as a diptych in which the two colours are effectively symbiotic, since each requires the contrast with the other, inviting us to register the extent to which both white and black have a fleshly and material reality rather than a purely or predominantly spiritual one.

2. Whiteness and the North

9For the early 17th century, one material manifestation of whiteness was particularly insistent and particularly compelling, and it seems to have been of considerable interest to Webster. Daryl Palmer argues that “[t]he idea of winter in Russia gave Englishmen a profoundly concrete way of writing about the yoking of elemental opposites” (1995, 328). The colour scheme of The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi is not simply a question of pigment and paint, but is also conditioned by specific social and geopolitical contexts, one of which, we suggest, was Russia. The first half of James I’s reign saw the first attempted land-grab of the Arctic, and unlike in our own age, it was desired not for its mineral resources but because of the hope that it would offer access to a north-east passage, and also for its wildlife, which was predominantly white, since habitation of a cold climate typically produces whiteness in the animal kingdom. Early English Books Online shows that when a simile for white is sought by English writers published between 1580 and 1620, snow dominates overwhelmingly. There are, however, some other, less predictable comparisons made. Sometimes, the comparison is to a particular kind of snow: Scythian snow or, more surprisingly but found in several texts, “snow in salmon” or “salmon-snow”, as in a 1609 sermon by George Benson which speaks of how God makes sinners “as white as the snowe in Salmon” (70). Something might also be as white as milk, curds, clout, goose feather, lilies, ermine, wool, marble, whale or whale’s bone, white sheep, innocence, lily, heaven, ivory, the light, silver, alabaster, fine wheat flower, lightning, swans, clean, a kerchief, Albion rocks, the hairs that grow on Father Boreas’ chin, the silk that is sold in Tyre and the threads of silk in Arabia, that devil that doth turn himself into an angel of light, bear’s teeth, lime, a whetstone, fine paper, chalk, or Pelops’ shoulder. The prevalence of animal similes here is striking, particularly those that are associated with the north: whales, bears, and salmon, and Boreas too points us northwards. Collectively, these similes reveal the extent to which Webster’s culture took its ideas of whiteness from the north, and also the extent to which icons of whiteness intersected with sources of wealth. Whales, bears and salmon are all noted in Stephen Burrough’s account in Hakluyt as desirable commodities to be had in Russian and Lappish territory (Hakluyt 295), and the early Arctic explorer Sir Hugh Willoughby had been particularly struck by the strangeness of the creatures he encountered (Palmer 2004, 27-28); indeed a polar bear may have been brought onto the London stage in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (Grant 2001), a play which Daryl Palmer specifically relates to Russia (Palmer 1995).

10Webster’s plays too, despite their Italian settings, betray an interest in creatures found in Russia. The Duchess tells of a salmon who “swam unto the sea” (3.5.125), and another animal associated with both Russia and whiteness is also a recurrent motif in the plays’ imaginary. In Of the Russe common wealth, Giles Fletcher, who was the uncle of the dramatist John Fletcher and brought him up, observes that among the commodities of Russia hungered after by the Muscovy company are “white wolfe, and white Beare skin” (7), and if Webster is much possessed by death, he is also much possessed by wolves. In The Duchess of Malfi, Ferdinand says “The death / Of young wolves is never to be pitied” (4.2.257-58); later, he adds, “The wolf shall find her grave, and scrape it up” (4.2.308), and finally he thinks himself a wolf. In The White Devil, Lodovico declares “Your wolf no longer seems to be a wolf / Than when she’s hungry” (1.1.8-9); Vittoria, when Bracciano leaves the court, says “The wolf may prey the better” (3.2.180); Francisco speaks of “tribute of wolves paid in England” (4.1.72); Bracciano observes that “Woman to man / Is either a god or a wolf’ (4.2.91-92); Flamineo says of Zanche “I do love her, just as a man holds a wolf by the ears” (5.1.154-55); Bracciano, on the point of death, thinks of “the hoarse wolf” (5.3.32), while Flamineo thinks any pity of him would be “like a wolf in a woman’s breast” (5.3.56) and muses “the wolf and the raven / Are very pretty fools when they are young” (5.4.35-36); finally, the mad Cornelia sings “keep the wolf far hence, that’s foe to men” (5.4.103-04). Mentally, these characters wander through a lupine landscape in which they not only draw on parallels with wolfish behaviour, but actually figure both themselves and others as wolves (in Ferdinand’s case, literally so).

11Of course, these wolves are not all distinctively Russian. Indeed, some are specifically associated with England, though Stuart Piggott notes that the absence of wolves there was very well publicised: “their recent extermination in England and Wales was, as Keith Thomas has said, ‘a matter of some importance and the occasion of much self-congratulation’ in Tudor England” (58). However, though the plays may be set in Italy, they imaginatively inhabit a much colder climate in which the characters are locked in a perpetual winter.

12In The White Devil, Camillo says “My voyage lies / More northerly, in a far colder clime” (1.2.53-54); Flamineo thinks of “the subtle foldings of a winter’s snake” (1.2.352) and later speaks of “winter plums” (5.6.65); Bracciano improbably scorns Florence as being “like a shav’d Polack” (2.1.184); Isabella compares her pain to “snow-water” (2.1.251); Vittoria thinks of how “in cold countries husbandmen plant vines” (3.2.185), assures the court that when Bracciano wooed her she sent him a “frosty answer” (3.2.202), and tells Bracciano that his “good heart gathers like a snowball” (4.2.186). As to Lodovico, he thinks of “a winter plague” (5.3.160).

13In The Duchess of Malfi, Julia reminds the Cardinal that she has been “a secret to your heart / These many winters” (5.2.238-39) and Bosola, thinking of his own predicament, observes “blackbirds fatten best in hard weather” (1.1.37-38) and imagines himself negotiating an environment in which “In such slippery ice-pavements, men had need / To be frost-nailed well” (5.2.332-33). Antonio speaks of what he has “seen in colder countries” (2.1.130), compares service to “him that in a winter night / Takes a long slumber o’er a dying fire” (3.2.200-01), and says “he’s a fool / That, being a-cold, would thrust his hands i’th’fire / To warm them” (1.1.426-28). Later, he worries that Ferdinand “seems to sleep / The tempest out, as dormice do in winter” (3.1.21-22). Webster’s imagination is drawn particularly to Russia. Keith Botelho argues that “Russia and its imagined landscape are aligned with the internal landscapes or psychologies of the Duchess, Ferdinand, and Bosola” (14). The Duchess speaks of “a Russian winter” (4.1.98), presumably all white, and asks “Must I, like to a slave-born Russian, / Account it praise to suffer tyranny?” (3.5.76-77), and Ferdinand imagines how he might “drive six snails before me, from this town to Moscow” (5.2.47-48). They are, however, not the only characters who think of Russia: Flamineo says ‘”am not in Russia” (4.2.55) and Monticelso compares whores to “Cold Russian winters” (3.2.83). Botelho is thus only half-right: it is not just that three characters in Duchess have internalised ideas of Russianness; Russia is a more pervasive and more general concern in both plays.

14The reason for this, we suggest, is connected to an improbable but seriously advanced proposal that James I should annex Russia. The White Devil was acted in 1612 and The Duchess of Malfi in 1613. Daryl Palmer notes that “when John Merrick, chief agent for the Muscovy Company, returned to England in the autumn of 1612, he asked James I to envision Russia as his own”, adding that “James was still contemplating the project when The Winter’s Tale was performed at court on the occasion of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in February 1613” (1995, 327). Chester Dunning, who has written a considerable amount on this project, points out that the plan was specifically one of “acquiring North Russia and the commercially important port of Archangel’sk” and that the person the king initially consulted about it, and hoped to send on an embassy to Russia, was Sir Thomas Overbury, along with his friend Robert Carr (1989, 206, 221; 1991, 700). However, Overbury declined to go, and at the same time he also fell foul of Carr’s new inamorata, the married Countess of Essex. The result was that, early in 1613, Overbury was arrested and taken to the Tower of London, where he became ill and died on 15 September of that year. Two years later, the Countess of Essex, by then married to Carr and now the Countess of Somerset, was tried for his murder, allegedly by poisoning him with (amongst other things) the colouring agent used for dyeing starch yellow. Although it is not clear how early this had been rumoured, the colour yellow already enjoyed a questionable reputation: it is a badge of humiliation for Malvolio, it was associated with bile, one of the least desirable of the humours, and Jim Murrell points out that

[…] brilliant yellow orpiment is a very poisonous colour made from arsenic and sulphur and, quite apart from its obvious danger to the artist — frequently drawing the brush between his lips to maintain its point — it mixes badly with a number of other pigments, causing discolouration (67).

15In The White Devil, yellow is sinister: Cornelia declares “When yellow spots do on your hands appear, / Be certain then you of a corse shall hear” (5.4.86-87), while Flamineo declares “they that have the yellow jaundice, think all objects they look on to be yellow” (1.2.109-10). The White Devil was written too early for it to be possible to connect yellowness to Overbury’s death, though it was an association which might well occur to later audiences and readers of the play and could serve to remind them that the literal pigmentation of colour could also entail the metaphorical pigmentation of meaning. Webster’s tragedies were however being written and/or acted at the time that the aborted embassy to Russia was being discussed, and Webster knew Overbury and contributed to the second edition of his Characters. It is thus not surprising that the plays should be haunted by thoughts of the white world of Russia, and of both the wealth it might promise and the danger it might threaten. To the Jacobean mind, Russia represented a white land and white animals, and both were seen primarily as sources of wealth. In the context of Russia, whiteness was thus insistently connected to materiality.

3. Alabaster monuments: whiteness, tombs and death

16Overbury’s refusal of the embassy and the consequences thereof were not, though, the only subjects of interest in London in 1612-1613, and to fully explore the meanings of whiteness in Webster’s tragedies we need to turn now to another aspect of James I’s activities at the time, which we shall argue formed a second important context for the plays, and one which again raised the question of whether whiteness spoke of the spiritual or of the material. The whiteness of Russia’s animals signified habitation of a cold climate, but whiteness in animals might also signal other things, such as danger, disturbance, or death. “White horses” at sea are signs of storm: Flamineo, on the point of death, warns “seas do laugh, show white, when rocks are near” (5.6.251), and a concerned Cornelia has already said to Marcello “you never look thus pale / But when you are most angry” (5.2.5-6). Swans, icons of whiteness, often connoted death, and one of the madmen declares: “We’ll sing like swans, to welcome death” (4.2.71). White was also the colour of teeth and of bones, including the skull which according to Eliot Webster saw beneath the skin, and it was too the colour of the marble or alabaster which might ultimately cover those bones. The Duchess says:

This is flesh, and blood, sir;
’Tis not the figure cut in alabaster
Kneels at my husband’s tomb.

17That figure represents a crippling, encasing identity already foisted on the Duchess which is to her a death-in-life, and its memory surfaces again when Antonio recalls how “Anaxarete / Was frozen into marble” (3.2.27-28): for Antonio, the white immobility of marble is associated with the pale stillness of death, which he figures in a way focused on the body rather than the soul.

18The association of whiteness with tombs and hence with death would have been readily available to Webster’s audience. 1612, when The White Devil was first performed, marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, an event which was publicly commemorated by having Mary’s body reburied: the answer to the Duchess’s questions “[…] do we grow fantastical in our death-bed? Do we affect fashion in the grave?” (4.2.153-54) is in fact yes, because in 1606 James decided to have a tomb built at Westminster Abbey for his mother and to have her removed from Peterborough and reinterred. The White Devil, in particular, deliberately alludes to a range of images of Stuart iconography: the white devil of the play’s title has been most often identified by critics with Vittoria Corombona (in the Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2014, Vittoria wore white in the trial scene to spell out the identification), and a number of commentators have identified strong parallels between the story of Vittoria, Brachiano and Camillo and that of Mary Stuart, Henry, Lord Darnley and Bothwell. Lucas points to the “general resemblance’” between the two stories and suggests that this may have been apparent to members of Webster’s audience: “It was, as it happens, only a year after Vittoria’s death that Mary Stuart went to the block at Fotheringay (Feb.8th 1587)” (96, n. 1). It is on the character of Vittoria that critics focus their attention, outlining the similarities between her and Mary Stuart: Marjorie Bowen suggests that in Vittoria we see “the strong evil side of Mary Stewart” whilst the Duchess of Malfi presents “the noble weak side” (447), while Lucas remarks “Indeed Vittoria exerts something of the same spell as Mary Stuart. It is extraordinary how vivid she becomes in the comparatively few words that she speaks” (96).

  • 3 These painted sketches can be viewed online. See for instance the following websites:
    https://s-medi (...)

19In particular, we wish to build on Carol Blessing’s suggestion that the play’s title points to the famous image of Mary En Deuil Blanc. The spelling of the French word “deuil” is suggestive of the English spelling of the word “devil”, where the “v” is often given using a “u”, so that, as Blessing points out, “Although ‘deuil’ in French means ‘mourning’, in the context of mourning attire, its resemblance in print to the English word ‘devil’ may have incited Webster to wordplay”, specifically wordplay of a sort which would, Blessing notes, have been directly relevant to Mary in that “[t]he customary mourning attire of the French court became the trademark of Mary, whose infamous affairs mirror Webster’s provocative heroine Vittoria; virginal white highlights the unchaste state of both women” (86). Diabolical imagery came readily to the minds of those thinking of Mary. Darnley’s mother Margaret Lennox, disclaiming any idea of making her peace with her former daughter-in-law, avowed “I was made of flesh and blood and could never forget the murder of my child […] for if I would, I were a devil” (Borman 295), and the Spanish ambassador alleged that the earl of Shrewsbury thanked Elizabeth for freeing him from “two devils, the Scottish Queen and his wife” (Lovell 312). The most famous contemporary images of Mary are the drawings by François Clouet of the queen in white mourning and the painting of these sketches by an unknown artist.3 They show Mary wearing the white veil of mourning, which is attached to a white cap or hood and hangs down at the back to form a train. Encircling her throat is a tightly gathered white gauze which hangs down over her breast. The whiteness of the veil and Mary’s face suggest an almost ghostly quality against the black background of the painted version of the image (Smailes and Thomson 31): she could indeed be a white devil.

20The tradition of associating Mary with the colour white stems from her time at the French court where she spent her formative years as the intended bride of François II. In a nuptial song as part of the wedding celebrations in 1558, Mary is figured as the white rose of York, while François is figured as the white lily of France. The reference to the white rose of York points to Mary’s claim from Elizabeth of York, the wife of Henry VII and mother of Margaret Tudor, Mary Stuart’s grandmother (Phillips 14), an association that would acquire bitter connotations when Fotheringhay, traditional burial place of the House of York, was chosen as the site of Mary’s execution. At her trial at Fotheringhay, Mary is also reported as wearing a white veil. A contemporary account of her execution by Robert Wyngfield describes the outfit worn by Mary: “On her head she had a dressing of lawn, edged with a bone lace […] a veil of lawn fastened to her caul, bowed out with wire and edged round about with bone lace” (Lewis 114-15). The French historian Brantôme describes the image of Mary dressed in the white veil and describes how the image is also immortalised in a poem by Pierre de Ronsard:

The whiteness of her face rivalled the whiteness of her veils, and in this contest artifice was the loser, the veils paling before the snows of her skin. And so a courtly poem was written, where the queen was pictured wearing the deuil (Smailes and Thomson 33).

  • 4 And Duchess too could be seen as connected to Mary: Sara Jayne Steen has noted a number of parallel (...)

21It seems that the image of Mary wearing the white veil was well publicised outside the French court. In a conversation with Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador in France, Mary discussed her intention of sending a portrait of herself to Elizabeth and remarked “I perceive you like me better when I look sadly than when I look merrily, for it is told me that you desired to have me pictured when I wore the Deuil” (Fraser 98). Even those familiar with the French meaning of “deuil” could easily identify the visual pun and see “devil” and construct their own meaning, so that the queen becomes a white devil, a phrase suggesting a devil disguised by a fair exterior or hypocrite which was well known and used particularly in religious discourse, a contemporary example being Thomas Adams’ sermon preached at Paules Cross in March 1613 called The White Divell, or the Hypocrite uncased (Gunby et al. 259). Whiteness was also a hallmark of the so-called Sheffield portraits of the queen. It was originally believed that these portraits were painted during Mary’s captivity, as they bear the date 1578, but it has since been discovered that they were in fact painted between 1610-15 (Smailes and Thomson 53), exactly the time at which The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi were being written.4 In portraits of Mary, whiteness means death, but it might just possibly mean something even darker and connote the diabolic.

22Whiteness, then, was associated with mourning, with death, and also with wealth and power, and this, we argue, is why there is a general fear and refusal of whiteness in both The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. As the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has shown us, the original performance conditions made The Duchess of Malfi in particular a play of light and shadows. In the televised version of Dominic Dromgoole’s 2014 production, Andrew Marr warns us that no matter how much our particular television set cost us, our screen will go black, and throughout the production candles burn with a pure white flame, white ruffs frame faces and offset the darkness of clothes, and even the Cardinal’s scarlet is relieved by white, while cuffs and stockings are white and slashes in doublets show white linen below. If whiteness is pervasive, though, it is also menacing, as we see when Ferdinand pulls out a handkerchief and compares it to lint to be used for the Duchess’s wounds (2.5.28-31). Ferdinand also says “’Tis not your whore’s milk that shall quench my wild-fire, / But your whore’s blood” (2.5.47-48); whiteness may be beautiful — Bosola speaks to the duchess of “that curious engine, your white hand” (3.2.293) — but it is also sinister.

23The very means of production of the pigment white were dangerous: Jim Murrell points out that there were two white pigments in general use, white lead and ceruse (66), and though the 17th century did not share our knowledge that white lead is poisonous, lead in general is represented in Webster’s plays as connoting danger and death. In The White Devil, Giovanni laments that his dead mother has been wrapped “in a cruel fold of lead” (3.2.334); in The Duchess of Malfi Antonio’s “heart is turned to a heavy lump of lead, / With which I sound my danger” (3.5.91-92), Ferdinand reproaches his sister “thou hast ta’en that massy sheet of lead / That hid thy husband’s bones, and folded it / About my heart” (3.2.112-14), and Julia tells the Cardinal that she will “remove / This lead from your bosom” (5.2.231-32). Other white things are dangerous too. Ferdinand says:

[…] methinks her fault and beauty,
Blended together, show like leprosy,
The whiter, the fouler.

24Most suggestively, the Duchess herself declares:

Methought I wore my coronet of state,
And on a sudden all the diamonds
Were changed to pearls.
Antonio. My interpretation
Is, you’ll weep shortly, for to me, the pearls
Do signify your tears.

25Later, she thinks of being “shot to death with pearls” (4.2.218), and she accuses Bosola “Thou dost blanch mischief, / Wouldst make it white” (3.5.24-25), while Bosola himself asks, “what’s this flesh? a little crudded milk, fantastical puff-paste” (4.2.25-26). In line with its status as a colour of mourning and burial, whiteness thus means danger, sorrow, and death, but some of these images suggest other things too. Leprosy returns us to the idea of colour as deceptive and as masking danger, as too does the idea of blanching. The image of flesh as milk or “fantastical puff paste” suggests a heavy, fleshily material element to whiteness which drags our attention away from any possible spiritual significance in the idea of mortality. Finally, pearls are taken by Antonio to mean tears, but they are also, and more obviously, indicators of wealth, fetishised commodities as well as tiny icons of whiteness, and thus they too pull us towards the material.

4. White queens and black queens

26Pearls were particularly valued by Elizabeth I, and indeed by queens in general. The Duchess thinks of them because she herself is a female ruler, and in that she shares commonalities with other powerful women and with the way they were represented. The Duchess is in many ways reminiscent of Elizabeth. Her injunction to Antonio to “progress through yourself” (1.1.437) recalls the queen’s habit of going on summer progresses to show herself to her people, and her “it wastes me more / Than were’t my picture, fashioned out of wax” (4.1.63) echoes one of the most famous assassination scares of the reign, when a wax image apparently of Elizabeth was found in a barn in 1578; the comparison between her and a “merry milkmaid” (4.2.136) was also one made of the queen. Both wax and milk are white, underlining the strength of the plays’ general interest in the colour and also specifically the extent to which they connect whiteness to female rulers. Elizabeth, though, typically wore not just white but black and white. In 1564 she told the Spanish ambassador that black and white were her colours. She also had gowns of other colours including “bee colour, clay, drake’s colour, horse-flesh, lady’s blush, maiden’s blush, murrey, partridge, and straw” (Arnold 90), but black and white became in effect the personal livery of Virgo-Elizabeth. Thus, Roy Strong comments on a portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh and the sitter of The Young Man Amongst Roses both wearing black and white because those were Elizabeth’s colours (74), and one of her symbols was the ermine, a stoat in its winter livery which, though typically completely white in more northern countries, is flecked with black in England. Other royal or semi-royal women were also associated with black and white: Sheila ffolliott notes that Diane de Poitiers, the widowed mistress of Henry II of France who despite being twenty years over than her royal lover exercised despotic sway over him, chose black and white as her colours (229). Above all, the combination of black and white had an uncanny interconnection with the history of the Medici family. We have already quoted part of the exchange in which Bracciano speaks of “that black slander” and Francisco speaks of his virtuous sister’s “white hands” (2.1.65). The sister of whom Francisco speaks was Isabella de’ Medici, and the Medici story may be remembered in The Duchess of Malfi too, because though its story has no direct connection with the Medici the Duchess does mention the duchess of Florence (2.1.115), and the Cardinal refers to “Galileo the Florentine” (2.4.17). The Medici family had some surprising associations with whiteness and blackness. Caroline P. Murphy points out of Alessandro de’ Medici, who became Duke of Florence in 1513, that “Alessandro’s mother was a Moroccan slave girl, and portraits of him show he was unquestionably black” (9), and English audiences might perhaps have been aware of that because T.S.R. Boase notes that Alessandro’s murder was recounted in Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure and suggests that The Revenger’s Tragedy may reflect some knowledge of Alessandro’s assassination (377 n. 18). Most startlingly, when the historical Isabella’s body was displayed after her murder it was said to be “black in its upper half, but completely white below” (Murphy 326). The particoloured duchess is an astonishing emblem of the ways in which women in power were always already half whitened and half blackened.

27The Duchess of Malfi is a woman in power, and Vittoria too has a brief opportunity of rule after the death of Bracciano. Despite the strong emphasis on the domestic and private life of the Duchess, the play reminds us of her political significance in two principal respects. In the first place, it deploys the woman-land trope so familiar in early modern literature, but it does so in an unusual way. Ferdinand equates the Duchess’s body with land which must be subdued when he says he wishes he could

Root up her goodly forests, blast her meads,
And lay her general territories as waste
As she hath done her honours.

28It is as though Ferdinand wants to act out the colonising process on her body and would control her in terms of land that must first be destroyed. In the case of the Duchess, however, this trope is inverted. As a woman, she needs to be treated as though she is a newly discovered territory, in order for the male characters to exert their control over her. As a widow, they are anxious to police her boundaries and control the question of her remarrying. For this to work the Duchess is cast, not as virgin territory to be occupied, but as an area of land to be subdued using language which points to the violence wrought by an invading force, and this closely reflects the political realities of the Italy of which Webster wrote. Italy in the 16th century was a theatre of war, and our attention is directed to this by the mention of the Leaguer, the second motif underlining the Duchess’s political importance, to which prominence is given as Webster devotes over ten lines to the preparations for the departure of a minor character, Silvio, from the Duchess’s court in Amalfi for Milan. Ferdinand remarks “Do us commend to all our noble friends / At the leaguer” (1.1.220-21). This comment stresses not only the way in which Italian states form part of a chain of Spanish colonies in Europe, but also their contested nature as Ferdinand accurately describes Milan as a “leaguer” which is a military camp, especially that of a besieging army. The Cardinal also refers to Milan as a camp when he gives the hired assassin instructions how to find Antonio:

There is a gentleman, call’d Delio,
Here in the camp, that hath been long approv’d
His loyal friend: set eye upon that fellow.

29In act 3, the cardinal’s investiture as a military leader is prompted by a request from the Emperor Charles V for help with plans for a new fortification in Naples. The cardinal’s exchange of his church robes for armour on stage, in a scene set in Our Lady of Loreto, famously a white marble basilica, symbolises the mixture of religion and military control associated with the Spanish colonialist enterprise, which we now connect particularly to the New World but which, as we see here, also helped shape the destiny of Italy, and also offers the telling image of a white church whose pure façade masks actions concerned with the material rather than the spiritual. These references, apparently incidental to the Duchess’ story, actually serve to help us understand her as a figure of political importance, a great woman whose “Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright, / But, looked to near, have neither heat nor light” (4.2.143-44), but who cannot therefore hope for peace because love, as Ferdinand tells her, is to be found only “’mongst quiet kindred that had nothing left / By their dead parents” (3.2.129-30). The Duchess as a female ruler may give out the white light of power, but it does her no good, and neither does it help anyone close to her.


30Webster lived in a world which saw competition for control of the Arctic and of Russia, homes of winter whiteness, and for which white meant power. In all of these contexts, whiteness is reified, whether as signifier of temporal power or in the shape of material objects such as animal pelts whose value lay in their colour. Almost all Webster’s images of whiteness work in this way, anchoring it within the material, and in so doing they force it loose from any sense that it might have a more abstract or more spiritual power and meaning. The whiteness we see in the world is not a true reflection of spiritual whiteness but only a whitening of the sepulchre, as when Bosola asks the Cardinal “wherefore should you lay fair marble colours / Upon your rotten purposes to me?” (5.2.296-97), or when the Moor Zanche is confident that money can provide a deceptive appearance of whiteness which will make her acceptable to a husband of her choice (5.3.260-62). At the end of The Duchess of Malfi, Delio declares that

These wretched eminent things
Leave no more fame behind ’em than should one
Fall in a frost, and leave his print in snow.

31The whiteness of winter is a whiteness that melts, a material whiteness that has no spiritual resonances. Only briefly, and only at her death does the Duchess become an icon of whiteness of a different sort as Bosola exhorts her “Return, fair soul, from darkness” (4.2.341), figuring her as a candle or beacon who can light his own path, and again later when Antonio is astonished that “a clear light / Presented me a face folded in sorrow” (5.4.44-45). There is light, there is plenty of light, but by its very nature, it is not for us, nor is it of this world, and we cannot trust the pale and sinister shadow that it casts here.

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1 “Luther, Calvin, and all the great Protestant reformers of the 16th century always had themselves represented in black […] this signifies that in the Protestant ethos a good Christian owes it to himself to wear clothes that are sober, dark and humble”. Our translation.

2 “A colour […] never comes alone; it does not take on its meaning, it does not function fully except insofar as it associated with or opposed to one or more other colours”. Our translation.

3 These painted sketches can be viewed online. See for instance the following websites: (Date accessed: 25 February 2015).

4 And Duchess too could be seen as connected to Mary: Sara Jayne Steen has noted a number of parallels between the story of the play and that of Mary’s niece Lady Arbella Stuart (Steen 243, note on line 17).

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Annaliese CONNOLLY et Lisa HOPKINS, « A Darker Shade of Pale: Webster’s Winter Whiteness  », E-rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 23 janvier 2020. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.4483

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Annaliese CONNOLLY

Sheffield Hallam University
Annaliese Connolly is Senior Lecturer in English at Sheffield Hallam University and co-editor of Early Modern Literary Studies ( Her most recent publications include Richard III: A Critical Guide in the Arden Early Modern Drama Guide series (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) and Essex: The Cultural Impact of an Elizabethan Courtier, co-edited with Lisa Hopkins (Manchester University Press, 2013).


Sheffield Hallam University
Lisa Hopkins is Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University and co-editor of Shakespeare, the journal of the British Shakespeare Association, and of the Arden Early Modern Drama Guides ( Her most recent publications include Renaissance Drama on the Edge (Ashgate, 2014) and Magical Transformation on the Early Modern Stage, co-edited with Helen Ostovich (Ashgate, 2014).

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