‘The White Devil’ is a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Webster (1584-1634). Featuring a convoluted plot and a cast of murderous Italians, it might seem unlikely to have much appeal for a modern audience, and yet, come to think of it, those same ingredients didn’t stop the TV drama ‘The Sopranos’ from being a runaway success, and certainly the twentieth century saw a renewed appreciation of Webster’s dark poetry. One thing’s for sure: he had that Elizabethan knack of handling a strong, flexible blank verse line in a way that has never been surpassed or indeed equalled since. Here is the Italian nobleman Giovanni in conversation with his uncle Francisco de Medici, Duke of Florence, lamenting the death of Giovanni’s murdered mother Isabella.
Giov. What do the dead do, uncle? do they eat,
Hear music, go a-hunting, and be merry,
As we that live?
Fran. No, coz; they sleep.
Giov. Lord, Lord, that I were dead!
I have not slept these six nights. When do they wake?
Fran. When God shall please.
Giov. Good God, let her sleep ever!
For I have known her wake an hundred nights,
When all the pillow where she laid her head
Was brine-wet with her tears. I am to complain to you, sir;
I’ll tell you how they have us’d her now she ‘s dead:
They wrapp’d her in a cruel fold of lead,
And would not let me kiss her.