The Democritean Universe in Webster's The White Devil


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Ha, Ha, ô Democritus thy Gods

That goveme 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 puzzled 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 predisposition to search for structural unity in terms of Christian humanism. 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 principle, however, we have the key to resolving the apparent paradoxes in the play. Basing his metaphors on Democritean materialism, Webster creates a universe where events are caused, not by cosmic intention, but by an indifferent chain of random action and reaction. Thus Webster's imagery reflects a vision of human behavior motivated neither by ethical precept nor enlightened self-interest, but by an inherent, irrational tendency toward self-destruction.

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