CHAPTER TWO: John Webster & The White Devil (1612)

My tragedy must have idle mirth in’t,

Else it will never pass…”

Francisco, The White Devil, 4,1,119 (1612)

2.1 Introduction: Jacobean Times

We princes are set on stages in the sight

and view of all the world duly observed”

Queen Elizabeth 1st, 1586

“The notion of protean identity, social flux and geographic confusions would be very familiar refrains to the British population at large particularly after the 1603 death of Queen Elizabeth 1st. Out of political necessity, her accession speech 45 years earlier – which claimed, “I am but one body, naturally considered, through by God’s permission a Body Politic to govern” – had consciously fashioned a simultaneous dual sense of mortal and immortal self that, as justified in supportive legislation (Axton, 1977), implicates even present holders of the Throne. Thus, for Greenblatt (1980),

Her visible being was a hieroglyphic of the timeless corporate being with its absolute perfection…She was a living representation pf the immutable within time, a fiction of permanence. Through her, society achieved symbolic immortality and acted out a myth of a perfect stable world, a world which replaces the flux of history”(Greenblatt, 1980, p. 167)

Drawing on both theatrical and religious allusion, and, of course, the insinuating poeticisms of her court admirers, Elizabeth would henceforth appropriate the role of defensive ‘Virgin Queen’ and yet, to the disparate nation, become, as well, its own protective ‘Virgin Mother’. Ring-fencing mutual power relations into gendered erotic relations further advanced,

“…an appreciation of the queen’s ability at once to fashion her identity and to manipulate the identities of her followers” (Greenblatt, 1980, p. 169)

The programme of mystification was, however, notably hinged upon one controlling single public persona as unequivocally introduced on her accession and that confirmed, “… in the end, this shall be for me sufficient, that a marble stone shall declare that a Queen, having reigned such a time, lived and died a virgin” (Neale, 1965, p, 119). Re-fashioning the role of monarch began almost on the day of that death, not on a marble stone, but with the publication in 1603 of Basilicon Doron (in Sommerville, 1994). What Piesse describes as a gentle, thoughtful” text (1998, p. 154) is a rhetorical re-fashioning of the core persona and function of a new monarchy in relation to the people, from multiplicity and diffraction to one – still noticeably gendered – of unity and singularity of purpose. Of interest, its author was none other than Elizabeth’s nephew, son of executed Mary Queen of Scots, and the late Monarch’s own, very recently, appointed successor, James. As the book’s author, James had an understandable and urgent remit to quickly and carefully stress for his English audience and his future London court,

“…his role as both inheritor and reformer of the Elizabethan hegemony by assimilating some of Elizabeth’s symbolism whilst asserting his re-establishment of the hierarchical norm with a make lead of state providing a line of heirs…at once associating himself with the divine justice paraded by Elizabeth and disassociating himself from her barrenness” (Piesse, 1998, p. 153)

However, despite his laudable claims, and a failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot, James was to reign for 22 years, as an “…unsuitable and unpopular king…notorious for his ‘rioting’ with young men and his passion for pursuits such as hunting” (Hadfield, 2001, p. 4). Such disquiet and disillusionment manifested itself in thetheatrical turn of the day in plays that, for all their vivid theatricality, nevertheless operated “obliquely, guardedly, in coded languages” (Burnett, 1997, p. 177). Burnett’s (1997) account of Marston’s The Dutch Courtesan (1604-5) – that, “…delineates a crumbling, phantasmagoric world of bewildering transformations in which stable points of reference are unavailable and in which persons are subject to violent alterations in manner and appearance” (in McMullan, p. 171) – alerts us to that trend towards deformation, uncertainty and contradiction which Webster shared with the prevailing zeitgeist as it anticipated and degenerated into the Civil War in 1642. The vicious and twisted Italian courts, founded in Machiavellian distortion and as depicted in Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606/7), The Changeling (1622/3) and Women Beware Women (1625), all share with Webster’s own Duchess of Malfi (1612/13), for example, that grim tendency to confront their audience with that,

“…human inability to distinguish between appearance and reality, and this confusion leads to the perversion of all positive values, social, moral and religious…” (Dallby, 1985, p. 162)

Our singular focus on Webster’s The White Devil (1612) does not therefore preclude or ignore the relevance to Hitchcock studies of the corpus of texts that make up the Jacobean theatrical tradition (Middleton’s depiction of Vindici/revenge would be a case in point, as would Webster’s own interst in the workings of the law). His first play is foregrounded in its present leading role, in part, because of its relative minor status but, more fully, as it serves as an emblematic ‘tool’ to argue for our overall comparative agenda.

Lust, murder & betrayal in gaudy times

The comparison between a Twentieth Century Hollywood film from 1958 and a Jacobean play written in 1612 would appear to strain aesthetic credibility if it weren’t for the number of common thematic and structural strands shared by both dramatists as outlined in the previous Chapter and which will inform the studied account of Hitchcock’s own oeuvre in the next Chapter. Indeed, Andrew Hadfield’s (2001) own Introductory remarks on Jacobean Tragedy should quickly alert us to certain if obvious parallels in both content and style, wherein,

Jacobean Tragedy conjures up a number of disturbing and potent images for the contemporary reader or theatregoer…powerfully gloomy, containing a multiple of ghoulish scenes and images, relying at crucial points on supernatural forces, showing a general obsession with madness, death and decay, centred around stories of lust, murder and betrayal, with the constant sense that just below the gaudy surface of Renaissance splendour with the fine and impressive objects and skills on display lies a horror which will remain unexplained at the end of the play.” (Hadfield, 2001, vii)

While we are generally accustomed to Hadfield’s (2001) overall description, it might take a slight shift in perspective to quickly appreciate, as well, how Hitchcock, too, worked within a celebrated surface – the Hollywood studio institutional practice which constantly applauded its own ”fine and impressive objects and skills” of leading actors, technology and Technicolor splendour and which combined to mirror the booming consumer culture that, by the late 1950s, could be readily regarded as “gaudy”.”