Academic journal article Criticism

Ethics, Individualism, and Class in John Webster's the White Devil

Academic journal article Criticism

Ethics, Individualism, and Class in John Webster's the White Devil

Article excerpt

One of Kathleen McLuskie's more disturbing judgments in her influential feminist account of Shakespearean criticism was that the pleasures afforded by great art might be bad for you.1 That such an ethical problematic remains unsettled was witnessed in recent scuffles over the status of religious violence in Milton's Samson Agonistes. John Carey, in a widely read Times Literary Supplement piece characterizing Stanley Fish's work on the play as an apology for terrorism, insisted that, as a great and subtle work of literature, Milton's closet drama of course humanely criticizes Samson's suicidal violence; Feisal Mohamed, taking issue with this logic in an award-winning PMLA essay, recognized that Samson Agonistes could be both a great work of art and complicit in a history of Western violence.2 I raise this problematic to introduce John Webster's disturbingly violent The White Devil (1612) because few early-modern plays so relentlessly portray moral debasement without providing any effective ethical guideposts. What is the ethical status of the pleasures twenty-firstcentury readers might take in such a morally bankrupt Jacobean tragedy? How might this play's ethical value, or lack thereof, be understood with reference to a history that has not merely passed, but, as Mohamed might insist, is our past?

Without ignoring moral or ethical issues, recent scholarship on The White Devil has tended to focus on acute, local questions, whether historical or performance related, rather than the moral questions that previous critics found imperative.3 Grand moral evaluations in the style of George Bernard Shaw, who condemned the play for having "no ray of noble feeling, no touch of faith, beauty or even common kindness . . . from beginning to end," hardly seem germane to late-modern criticism.4 The main exception to this tendency has been the work of feminist critics, such as Catherine Belsey, who have often presented an ethically based criticism of the play's treatment of its "radically discontinuous" heroine, Vittoria.5 Perhaps a reason more recent critics have shied away from addressing the ethical morass in which The White Devil is mired, and the resulting imperative to judge Webster's play, is the tendency to assume a universal humanism underwriting such judgments. Even Belsey's powerful reading is underpinned by the commonsensical idea that, however much the individual is an historical construction, access to the unified, coherent "I" of the universal liberal subject was a source of power in practice denied to women.6

The following reading seeks to reengage fundamental ethical questions and to do so from the vantage Belsey has opened of how the play represents subjects. In reopening these ethical questions, I find it useful to approach them not from a standpoint of universal moral principles, but rather from the standpoint of subj ect formation or, following phenomenology, being. This essay sets ontology in relation to historicism by focusing on intersections of class friction, ethical being, and emergent individualist ideology. In terms of representing the subject, the ethics of Webster's play are inseparable from its representation of the social formation of the early-modern court. The relations between theory and history - complex, imperfect, confusing - must be wrestled with, not as a relation of the universal or abstract to the particular or concrete, but to prevent precisely such slippage, which would begin to make of Theory another in a long line of immanent subjects (History, Science, the Individual).

As this language invoking relations and immanent subjects may indicate, lingering in the background of this effort is Jean-Luc Nancy's formulation of a nonessential relationality as the defining characteristic of being in "The Inoperative Community," a formulation that locates ethics at the heart of ontology.7 Although in what follows I will lean heavily on Jean- Paul Sartre's analysis of concrete relations with others from Being and Nothingness (1956), I do so from the critical vantage on Sartrean individualism afforded by Nancy's dissection of individualism 's insoluble contradictions - contradictions that leave their mark on Sartre's own distressing account of all interpersonal relations as at heart a form of conflict growing from the impossible attempt to attain self-sufficiency. …

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