Thursday, July 22, 2021

Webster's Siblings

John Webster loved portraying disturbing sibling relationships in his plays. His first tragedy, The White Devil, is notable in that the beautiful adulteress Vittoria (the titular White Devil of the piece) is aided in her crimes by her brother Flamineo.

When all their plans go sour, Flamineo even proposes a suicide pact with his sister, suggesting she shoot him with a pistol and then kill herself. Vittoria dutifully shoots her brother, but not herself, only to be surprised when Flamineo rises from the ground, announcing he had not loaded the pistols he gave her.
This darkly comic twist turns tragic, though, when the enemies of the sister and brother arrive to dispatch them. Vittoria goes bravely to her death, and Flamineo quickly forgives her betrayal of him, remarking “Thou’rt a noble sister: / I love thee now.” United in life by their sinful actions, they unite in death, as Vittoria’s stoic resolve helps reconcile Flamineo to his fate.
The siblings in Webster’s next play, TheDuchess of Malfi, instead are at odds from the very beginning. In the first scene, the title character’s twin brother Ferdinand places a spy in the duchess’s household. He also sternly warns his sister, who is recently widowed, that she shouldn’t remarry. “They are most luxurious / Will wed twice,” he tells her, though he appears to be most concerned with losing her inheritance should she have children with a second husband.

Ferdinand schemes together with his elder brother, the Cardinal of Aragon, who also seeks to prevent their sister from marrying. The cardinal’s moralizing about the lusts of women is contradicted by the fact that he keeps a mistress himself. When the still youthful countess arranges a secret marriage to her steward, the play portrays it as the most natural thing in the world, and the murderous obsessions of the brothers with their sister’s sex life appear sick and perhaps even quasi-incestuous.

After completing The Duchess of Malfi, Webster wrote a third tragedy, The Guise, which sadly has been lost. Presumably, the play was about recent French history, so it might have resembled Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris. Fashions were changing, though, and tragicomedy was on the rise. Webster’s fourth and final solo play (he also had written and would continue to write numerous collaborative works) was one such tragicomedy, The Devil’s Law Case.

Like The White Devil and the Duchess of Malfi, the tragicomedy The Devil’s Law Case features siblings with a problematic relationship. Romelio, the villain of the piece, might have a name that resembles Romeo, but unlike Shakespeare’s hero, Romelio simply wants to use love and marriage to advance his own material ends. His sister Jolenta (whose name echoes Juliet) is courted by two different men, the noble Contarino and the valiant Ercole. However, Romelio can’t even fathom that they could be interested in her for love.

Romelio disparages Contarino in the opening scene, declaring: “He makes his colour / Of visiting us so often, to sell land, / And thinks, if he can gain my sister’s love, / To recover the treble value.” Other characters can recognize Contarino’s honest motives, but being a villain himself, Romelio can only see villainy in other men. He arranges for Jolenta to marry Ercole instead, though she clearly returns Contarino’s affections.

In the second act, the two rivals for Jolenta’s love quarrel and fight a duel, both receiving grievous injuries. Ercole appears to die, and Contarino, on the verge of death, writes his will, naming Jolenta his heir. Learning this, Romelio resolves to kill Contarino before he can recover, hoping to secure the inheritance for himself. As in The Duchess of Malfi, a scheming brother is more concerned with his sister’s property than her happiness.
Romelio’s villainy goes even further though, since he has gotten a nun pregnant, and is hoping to pass off his bastard as Jolenta’s child by Ercole. That way, Jolenta will receive not just Contarino’s estate, but through her child, Ercole’s estate as well. Though he badgers Jolenta into cooperating at first, she ultimately flees from him, attempting to escape to Rome together with the poor nun her brother got knocked up.
Because this is a tragicomedy, Ercole turns out to still be alive, and Contarino recovers from his wounds (ironically, because of Romelio’s assassination attempt). Romelio’s villainy is so great, though, that his own mother files a law suit claiming (falsely) that she cheated on her husband. This could get Romelio declared a bastard, ensuring that all inheritances stay with Jolenta.

That isn’t necessary in the end, and order and justice are restored in the fifth act. Still, if this is how Webster portrays siblings in his plays, one hopes he was an only child!