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The Democritean Universe In Webster’s The White Devil Norma Kroll Ha, Ha, 6 Democritus thy Gods That governe the whole world¡1 The allusion to Democritus in the opening lines of John Webster’s White Devil, like much else in the play, has long puz­ zled his critics; yet it provides us with the cornerstone of his aesthetic theory and practice.2 Attempts to deal critically with Webster’s drama have failed principally because of a predisposi­ tion to search for structural unity in terms of Christian human­ ism. But in Christian or even anti-Christian terms none of the events and characters are consistent. Once we realize that the philosophy of Democritus serves as Webster’s unifying prin­ ciple, however, we have the key to resolving the apparent para­ doxes in the play. Basing his metaphors on Democritean mate­ rialism, Webster creates a universe where events are caused, not by cosmic intention, but by an indifferent chain of random ac­ tion and reaction. Thus Webster’s imagery reflects a vision of human behavior motivated neither by ethical precept nor en­ lightened self-interest, but by an inherent, irrational tendency toward self-destruction. I In effect, The White Devil derives its life and art from a world view shaped about five centuries before Christ. Although this view had been obscured for about twenty-two centuries by prevailing belief in a rational God and ordered cosmos, Demo­ critus’ physical theories had been adopted by Epicurus (341270 BC) as the material basis of his ethical philosophy. During the Latin Middle Ages, these Democritean principles were pre­ served in manuscripts of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius’ synthe­ sis of Epicurean thought. Medieval scholars occasionally studied 3 4 Comparative Drama Lucretius, but solely for his poetry; his atomistic, materialistic theories were either ignored or refuted. Not until the Renaissance did good editions of Lucretius become generally available, but even then, discussions of his philosophic principles consisted largely of attempts to disprove them.3 Montaigne, for example, quoted and discussed Lucretius’ Epicurean system only to de­ ride its basic concepts.4 Yet, Montaigne might well have sparked Webster’s imagination and sent him to seek further, for Web­ ster borrowed widely from the Essays, although they do not treat atomism fully or accurately enough for us to consider them Webster’s only source.5 As it happens, Webster’s careful use of Epicurean-Democritean physics suggests that he derived the philosophy of his play either from an accurate account of Lucre­ tius or from the De Rerum Natura itself. In fact, the elemental stuff of literature, the letters of the alphabet, provided Lucretius with an apt analogy for his basic vital substance, the atoms. Just as a limited number of letters could be artificially com­ bined into innumerable words, so a limited number of ele­ mental atomic forms could combine and recombine into an ap­ parently infinite number of natural forms.6 The crucial princi­ ple for both organic and architectonic constructs is that of arrangement. We need but look at the imagery of the play’s opening lines to discover how aptly the Democritean principle of creation ap­ plies to the way Webster worked: Lod. Banisht! Anto. It greev’d me much to heare the sentence. Lod. Ha, Ha, 6 Democritus thy Gods That governe the whole world! Courtly reward And punishment. Fortun’s a right whore. If she give ought, she deales it in smal percels, That she may take away all at one swope. This tis to have great enemies, God quite them: Your woolfe no longer seemes to be a woolfe Then when shees hungry. Webster begins by having Lodovico invoke, with more truth than the bitterly mocking tone of the speech indicates, the “Gods” of Democritus. But Lodovico does not proclaim them to be the principles of reward and punishment or link them to the problem of justice, as is mistakenly done in Guevara’s Diall of Princes, the probable source of the play’s image.7 Instead, Web­ ster makes the phrase, “Courtly reward and punishment,” an Norma Kroll 5 unpredicated, strongly ironic exclamation implying that justice is just what these Democritean gods do not supply. Next, Lodovico indicates...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 3-21
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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