The White Devil and Old Wives' Tales

By Weil, Judith | The Modern Language Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

The White Devil and Old Wives' Tales


Weil, Judith, The Modern Language Review


When Francisco de Medici begins to plan his revenge for the murder of his sister, Isabella, he closes his eyes and imagines her figure. He assumes that the ghost appearing before him is the creation of his own melancholy ('the quick idea of my mind' (IV. 1. 105)). (1) 'Remove this object', he exclaims: Isabella's ghost exits promptly and Francisco says, 'So now 'tis ended, like an old wives' story' (ll. 112-16). His comment has two obvious functions: it epitomizes contempt for women within the society dominated by Francisco and his brother, Monticelso, and it reminds the audience of what The White Devil is not: an unsophisticated, fabulous tale often intended to entertain children. (2) Except for its deceptively random structure, few elements of Webster's powerful and realistic play seem to invite comparison with 'an old wives' story'.

Yet old wives become particularly visible and audible in the final Act of The White Devil. Bracciano, fatally poisoned, complains, 'How miserable a thing it is to die | 'Mongst women howling!' when Vittoria, her hair probably powdered grey for her second marriage, cries out, 'I am lost for ever' (V.3.35-37). (3) Francisco, disguised as the Moor Mulinassar, tells Flamineo that his mother Cornelia is 'grown a very old woman in two hours' (V.4.54). As she and her attendants wind the corpse of Marcello, the brother Flamineo has just murdered,

there is such a solemn melody

'Tween doleful songs, tears, and sad elegies:--

Such, as old grandames, watching by the dead,

Were wont t'outwear the nights with.

(1. 56)

Flamineo reveals 'their superstitious howling' (1. 65) by drawing a curtain; instead of howls, the episode he introduces features Cornelia's beautiful lamentation, 'Call for the robin-red-breast and the wren'. Cornelia describes her lament as 'a saying which my grandmother | Was wont, when she heard the bell toll, to sing o'er | Unto her lute' (V.4.92-94). Later, Flamineo echoes his dead master, Bracciano, when he mocks the deceit of the 'howling wives' (in this case, new wives such as Vittoria and the daughters of Danaus (V.6. 163-65)), by whom death-beds are 'haunted' (ll. 155-56). His dying speech includes a warning to the agents and dependents of 'great men': 'Remember th'old wives' tradition, to be like the lions i'th'Tower on Candlemas day, to mourn if the sun shine, for fear of the pitiful remainder of winter to come' (V.6.265-68).

How could this group of references to old wives be expected to enhance an understanding of The White Devil? Appearing late, its significance might seem to be more local than comprehensive. Webster's images often entangle, then disperse like a 'bed of snakes', the metaphor used by the assassin Lodovico for the secret murders of Camillo and Isabella, revealed to Francisco by Vittoria's maid, Zanche (V.3.248). Indeed, what single word could be more susceptible to promiscuous punning and phantasmagoric, serpentine variation than 'tale'? When Duke Ferdinand parts from his sister in Webster's later tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, he tries to frighten her with a question: 'What cannot a neat knave with a smooth tale I Make a woman believe?' Ferdinand's innuendo twists knavish verbal and sexual power together with the implications of his lather's 'poniard', which he wears, and of a 'lamprey', boneless like that 'part' preferred, he sneers, by women (I.1.331-40). (4) Such ensnarled analogies can provoke contrary responses from characters as well as from audiences. The Duchess of Malfi says to herself, nine lines later, 'Let old wives report | I wink'd and chose a husband' (ll. 348-49). But she then admits to her maid, Cariola, 'I am going into a wilderness, I Where I shall find nor path, nor friendly clew | To be my guide' (ll. 359-61). An old wives' tale without a 'friendly clew' to explain its perplexities would be a contradiction in terms.

My argument below depends upon a sense that the 'clew' of references to old wives expressed near the end of The White Devil is unfriendly. …

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