We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Isabella di Morra (c. 1520-1545?) · 7 May 07

Dear Ann,

Tonight the Admiral, I, and Yvette went to a dramatic reading of Webster’s The White Devil.

It’s a superb play, very difficult and expensive to do I should think; it was a privelege to experience it even in just a dramatic reading from chairs. It’s “pay what you want” at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre at the Clark playhouse (a garage) so we give $5 each.

I read the play a couple of times while a graduate student,and have read The Duchess of Malfi since a few times and taught it once (plus I’ve seen a filmed BBC stage production on PBS): the great character of The White Devil is (as is so common) the bitter disillusioned secondary male (a court flunky sometimes, younger son or brother, in this play Flamineo) who speaks startlingly perceptive lines about morality and ethics and metaphysics and is utterly amoral and ruthless in his behavior.

For the first time I became aware how vile was the behavior of just about everyone, but the only person to go to trial and be imprisoned (in a penitential nunnery) was Vittoria, the heroine, and for what? Not being chaste. No crime at all insofar as comparison goes and something everyone in the court but her cuckold husband wants from her, and even he was willingly bought. Also Flamineo’s morality does not cover women: when he thinks about women he sees them purely in sexual and rather ugly terms. The Duchess of Malfi was murdered by her brothers for presuming to marry (marrying a steward was not the central objection. It is a revenge play and after Flamineo, Vittoria, and her fierce lover, Duke Bracciano, the strongest character is the avenger (Ludovico): he does avenge the murder of his sister, Isabella, by Bracciano.

I regretted not having thought to bring my own copy of The White Devil with me. Since it went on for so long, and I grew tired, I did blank out now and again; and so missed some; also the speeches were not easy to follow. Had I had a copy in front of me the way the actors did, I’d have gotten more out of the reading. I think from now on, when they do an old play I own a copy of, I’ll bring my own along. No use being embarrassed. As I said to Jim, in a way it can be seen as somehow calling attention to ourselves, embarrassing (as we are not part of this group of people) were we to go regularly each week. So what? Yvette made a good remark New Year’s Eve about losing one’s self-consciousness so one can enjoy life insofar as it we find ourselves invited (or asked to pay moderately) to join in.

All this brought to mind a poet about whom I wrote a foremother posting to Wompo a couple of Fridays ago. I have her poetry in xeroxes from the time I used to go to the Library of Congress twice and more a week during the 1970s. I haven’t got the time and energy to scan the poems in in Italian and haven’t faith enough Italian readers come to this blog to want to read them. Probably they’re online somewhere as it’s easy to find a brief potted life of this unfortunate (but not spectacularly atypical) woman.

Four sonnets:


I write about the fierce assaults of Fortune,
The cruel one, and mourn my hapless youth.
Living in such a base and ugly country,
I waste my life without all recognition.
I seek a worthy sepulcher, though lowly
My cradle was, by following the Muses,
And hope to find somewhere some sympathy
In spite of Fate, so cruel, harsh and blind.
And with the favor of those goddesses,
Even without my body, with freed soul,
I hope on happier shores to be acclaimed.
Perhaps there lives a high king in this world
Who may preserve in everlasting marble
This mortal shroud in which I am confined.


From a high mountain top, where one can see
The waves, I, your sad daughter Isabella,
Gaze out for sight of any polished ship
Coming to bring me news of you, my father.
But my adverse and cruel destiny
Permits no solace for my aching heart,
But, enemy to any thought of pity,
Turns all my firmest hopes into laments.
For I see neither oar cutting the sea,
Nor any sail that billows in the wind,
So solitary is this dismal shore.
So I can only curse my evil Fortune
And hold in hatred this unhappy place
The only source of my tormented life.


Here once again, infernal rocky valley,
Apine rivers, ruinous high peaks,
O broken spirits stripped of every virtue,
You will now hear my plaints, my endless sorrow.
And every mountain, every cave shall hear me
Wherever I may stop, wherever go,
For Fortune, never stable, does not tarry,
But everlastingly adds to my pain.
While I lament, forever, night and day,
O beasts, o rocks, o melancholy ruins,
Uncultivated woods, o lonely caves,
Howl still with me, unriddling my grief,
And weep with me; in high continuous voices
Bewail my misery, worse than all others.


0 turbid Siri, careless of my grief,
Now that I feel so close to my life’s end,
Make known my sorrow to my loving father
If ever bitter Fate lets him return.
Tell him how, by my death, I will escape
My harsh misfortune and my niggard fate,
And, as a rare and piteous example,
I will entrust my sad name to your waves.
As soon as he regains your rocky shoreline
Why do you make me think of this, fierce star?
How I am robbed and shorn of every good!
Stir up your restless currents with great storms
And say, “I grew so great while she was living,
Through — not the eyes — rivers of Isabella.”


Unfortunately Isabella di Morra’s fame (such as it is) derives from her having been beat to death (it’s said in more than one source) by 3 of her brothers “to cleanse the family honor.” They had discovered her correspondence with a Spanish nobleman, Don Diego Sandoval de Castor (married to Donna Antonia Caracciolo of Naples). They murdered the tutor who had facilitated the correspondence. They then ambused and killed Diego. They did have to flee Italy for a time after that.

She was born to one of these powerful Italian families during an era of fierce brutal conflict over who would control Italy: French powerful people, Charles V and his gangs, or Spain, or local baron types. Her family’s territories were located in Favale, between Calabria and Basilicata, and after her father emigrated to the French court of Francois I (having sided with the French at one point), she was left to the untender mercies of her six brothers who distrusted culture and kept this sister isolated from social contact. When she speaks of an infernal landscape, she is literally accurate as the castle of Favale was located high up in a very arid region, near a small river, the Siri (now called Sinni).

She managed to educate herself through reading, and her books included Petrarch and Dante. The third sonnet (above, No. 7) shows her familiarity with Dante’s Inferno. Thirteen poems survived, and her poetry appeared in early anthologies (the second half of the 16th century) as well as her life story. The early history of the publications of her poetry (which allowed it to come down to us today) is told in Women Poets of the Renaissance: Courtly Ladies and Courtisans, from which I took the poems in translation by Laura Anna Stortoni and Mary Prentice Lille. They provide a good bibliography of recent scholarly articles and books. Attention was again called to her in the early 20th century by Benedetto Croce, who edited her Rime with a selection of poems by Diego Sandoval de Castro and provided a critical essay. In 1975 a convention on poetry was held in the Bailicata region to honor.

Her style is described by herself “amaro, aspro e dolente” (bitter, harsh, and grieving). So too is Vittoria Colonna’s style often “amaro.” She writes strongly, directly, simply. Stortoni and Lille also include Morra’s second canzone which contains lines like “I shall speak out, though rough and weak my style,/And tell a little of my inner pain … among the uncouth ways/Of people lacking reason, short of wit,/Where robbed of any help,/I am constrained to live a narrow life,/Placed her alone, in blind oblivion.”

I first read about her and her poetry in a long essay by Benedetto Croce (Scritti di Storia letterarai et politica: Vite di adventure di fede e di passione, 1936) & Domenico Bronzini, Isabella di Morra, con l’edizitioni del canzoniere (Matera: Montenmorro Edition, 1975). Another booklength study is Giovanni Caserta, Isabella Morra e la societa: Meridionale del Cinquecento (Matera: Edizioni Meta, 1976). I recommend Juliana Schiesari’s The Gendering of Melancholia: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Symbolics of Loss in Renaissance Literature.

As I recall (I speak from memory of the books just above, as this morning I’ve only consulted Stortoni and Lille), there is hardly anything clear said of her mother. She is mentioned as someone who did reach a “fragile age.” Isabella’s poems talk of her longing for her father as the one person she can imagine who might help her. So I wonder who Isabella’s mother was and what was her fate. Erased? Indifferent (hardened)? Frightened? Like so many women. Perhaps it was safest (ironic joke alert). At any rate Isabella couldn’t reach anyone who would help her and no one did any thing for her for real.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Sam on ECW:

    “Ellen. This is great! I’ve never read it, but as soon as I’m finished with grading I will. Flamineo sounds like he fits into the libertine tradition (you’re probably familiar with Gillian Manning’s categorization of the three types of libertine (extravagant, vicious, and judicious) in her introduction to Libertine Plays of the Restoration Would you say Flamineo is a “judicious”

    At the end of a semester teaching a course on representations of women in the “long” eighteenth century, it’s become even more clear to me how problematic this issue of the rake is in evaluating women characters. Not only is there the sexual double standard so patently rendered that we wonder how we ever made the progress we’ve made, but also there’s the issue of how much these men appeal to women. Margaret Doody has made the point that it is both libertines and women who talk about freedom.

    I think there’s an interesting connection there (the whole issue of querying of authority and its legitimacy), but I’m still left with plays like The Rover in which men who haven’t a redeeming quality except a sort of animal good spirits and relish for having their appetites satisfied are the objects of obsession for more than one rich, talented, intelligent woman. Is Behn saying that the opportunities society provides to women leave them with nothing better than to chose a man like Willmore when circumstances allow?

    Elinor    May 9, 8:47am    #
  2. Dear Sam,

    Your question brings up an interesting strong problem still in women’s books. How can we account for the presented attraction of women to inadequate, awful, and repressive men, even when these men do not bring with them power and money? In a recent reading and discussion of a 20th century classic novel by a woman on WW (WomenWritersthroughtheAges) repeatedly Lessing has her heroine long for and succumb to a “real” man without in the least ironizing the idea. A real man appeared to be someone with no effeminate characteristics on the outside, who seeks power and is aggressive; there seemed to be nothing else wanted and in two of the novel’s central stories the heroine is treated very badly by this man (who is not powerful in any case as in the third story the man is and so the heroine enjoys power vicariously).

    This is often explained by the deep and mysterious theory of masochism (I make fun of it as I do most deep and mysterious theories). It certainly flatters men (my husband makes fun of it as wet dreams: he says how come he’s never been followed about the way books show women following just about any male about).

    It seems to me your idea is more probable: “Is Behn saying that the opportunities society provides to women leave them with nothing better than to chose a man like Willmore when circumstances allow?” In two stories we read last and the week before on WW by Alice Munro (from Runaway, “Runaway” and “Chance”), the woman has hardly any connections that will do her any good, no hope of a good job or power and ends up clinging to a man who in the first case is literally dangerous to her health and in the second she hardly knows anything about to start with except he’s a liar. In the first instance he’s presented as this physically attractive he-man (macho male horse-rider).

    The second story in particular but also by indirection the first made me recall Mary Astell’s famous Reflections on Marriage, which she wrote after she read Hortense Mancini’s memoir justifying herself from fleeing a very abusive (frighteningly so, the man took an axe to a bunch of erotic statues in his garden) husband and refusing to return to him when the judges in a court ordered her back. Astell’s argument is that marriage as then practised was the problem, not the solution for wome, and along the way threw out some remarkable perceptions. Among them is the comment that many women are in effect made into (treated like, end up being) stray animals who wander about until some kind and potential dog-owner picks them up. She is thinking of women not like Mancini who had a powerful uncle (though once Mazarin paid the dowry and then died Hortense was in trouble), but rather women like Munro's heroine, Juliet, fatherless, people without families which can protect and provide a decent life for them; she asks what
    are such women to do and suggests they in effect fall to all men who happen by: the famous line runs:

    “Do we then fall as strays, to the first who finds us.”

    In Possession, Val, who ends up the kept mistress of a kind gentleman modelled on Margaret Allingham’s hero, calls herself a stray kitten who has found a kind master.

    Astell’s insight is to suggest men want the situation to be this way and that’s why it is this way—“possessed of all places of power, trust, and profit, they make the laws … ” Etc.

    As to Flamineo I think I should have been more careful to tell the date of The White Devil and describe Flamineo. The first edition of Webster's play is 1612 so it occurs before the libertine rake type male becomes a predominant figure in drama. Flamineo is more like Bosola in Duchess of Malfi, not her brother but a court flunky who will do anything for his masters to make money and whom they carelessly scorn, use, but also show their totally amoral behavior to without reservation; or say DeFlores in Middleton’s Changeling, who is very ugly and also a court flunky and murders and does what is necessary to get along (“anything for a quiet life”) and who is scorned by the heroine who nonetheless hires him to help her commit adultery with a superhandsome early libertine type; DeFlores gets a handle on the heroine and forces her to go to bed with him and she actually begins to lust for him and becomes his instrument.

    Flamineo in other words is a kind of Iago type (the closest we find in Shakespeare) or maybe Enorbarbus in A&C: bitter, disillusioned, a murderer because that’s what he’s been paid to do and what gets him anywhere, but also caustic and continually exposing the truths about human nature and life all about him. Like Bosola, he is implicitly an atheist (“Look you the stars shine still” says Bosola to the Duchess after her brothers have tortured her and she lays dying).

    This type belong to the corrupt world of court literature – and is found throughout Beaumont and Fletcher though much debased and not used for serious metaphysical satire. B & F's portrayals connect to libertines though because their court flunkys tells the truth about religious hypocrisy (especially cardinals). He often dies at the end of the play; women are occasionally attracted to him though usually from desperation—as women of the court without money and family are as desperate as anyone else and sell what they can when they can. Beaumont and Fletcher do make much of the incest factor: in some of their plays, this court flunky for sale is, like Flamineo, the brother to the heroine, and while he wants to sell his sister, he also loathes he for being unchaste. A King and No King and The Maid's Tragedy play on this as the regicide is done by the woman whom the brother sold to the king for favors. A really sexually debauched bitter play of this type is A Husband for a Month. The closest the 18th century gets to this kind of truth is autobiographical novels by women (e.g., the Duchess of Devonshire's The Sylph or Epinays Montbrillant where the woman writer show men bullying their wives to go to bed with someone in order to further their career or pay their debts. Edgeworth has Leonora who does this sort of thing willingly to get her husband position and pay her own debts.

    I was very bothered by a paper I heard at the ASECS which was about a libertine French novel where a woman is treated abominably; the speaker was herself a woman and ignored the whole misogynistic aspect of the story herself identifying with the chief character, a libertine. So here’s a suggestion: the women readers identify themselves with this amoral type because they long for power on any terms. This is the same conversation we had a little while back about why people who marry someone they don’t expect to love marry them: they don’t seek this companionship perhaps not because they don’t believe in it but that they value power and the world’s admiration so much they sell up the rest to get that. This is one of moral feminism’s problems.

    Elinor    May 9, 9:21am    #
  3. "Dear Ellen,

    I’ll venture a comment here, even though it is a dangerous field to tread in because so many do not like to hear ideas that don’t agree with their ideology, and because many simply prefer to lie about these things.

    Remember the Janet Jackson song: Bad, bad boys, why do you make me feel so good ? Both women and men make bad choices because despite social conventions and the veneer of civilization we react to each other on a very primitive level rather than rationally. We like people not because they are good, but because they look good. GBS would explain this as The Life Force in action. After all we’ve evolved over millions of years simply as animals for whom aggressiveness and brute courage was far more important than sensitivity, and other qualities that, as civilized people for the last few thousand years,we have come to value as much and more. Millions of years of evolved sensitivities as opposed to a few thousand ! I don’t think masochism is the root of it, but in some cases it may be the fruit of it (pardon the unintended rhyme). As an attorney I’ve presided over many divorces and assisted more than one battered woman. I do not recall any of these clients ever telling me that they were forced to marry the man who mistreated them.Usually the problems emerged after some period of time had elapsed when the woman ceased to be admiring and submissive and began showing signs of assertiveness, particularly when this assertiveness suggested a real or implied threat to leave the marriage. Being married to the toughest guy on the block is a survival mechanism in many societies even today, being married to the nicest guy is not (unless he has other characteristics as well). That’s true even if the tough guy is neither well-to-do in terms of econmic or politicalpower. He has the power of physical strength and personality.A John Wayne type, for example. You’ll recall in one of his films he spanked Maureen O’Hara, who in the end liked him the better for it. One of my writing partners,herself Irish, and at least as angry as Rosie ODonnell conjures up characters that make John Wayne look like scholarly, well mannered wimp, and confides to me that secretly women like that sort of man. (I didn’t say that, she did !!!) . In addition to these considerations, there’s also the element of challenge. Both men and women like to think they can tame the untamable. Sometimes they can and sometimes they cannot.When they cannot, both men and women tend to act as if they were somehow enticed into the relationship and awoke one day to find themselves in the company of an unspeakable monster, and are completely baffled as to how they got there. Usually you will find they were warned and wild horses couldn’t stop them. Alpha males and females are usually not abundant in a population, there are plenty of non-alpha types to mate with, but they are not in such high demand.

    It’s been too long since I read Webster to comment on the plays themselves, beyond saying I found them remarkable at the time I read them. There’s an unblinking honesty about them that has rarely, if ever, been matched by other dramatists.

    Elinor    May 10, 10:19am    #
  4. I completely agree, unfortunately. I’ve been distressed for many years now about the popularity of bodice-rippers and what it says about human desires. I’ve discussed with other women what accounts for the appeal of these terrible books and the best we’ve come up with is that fantasies are very different from reality; to fantasize about a misogynist John Wayne type (and have you ever seen ‘Donovan’s Reef’? It’s even WORSE than the spanking scene with O’Hara) and< actually to be involved with one are two different things because in the former situation the woman is in control, whereas in the latter the man is. That doesn’t account for why women end up in abusive relationships, though.

    This whole issue of masochism is deeply disturbing, but I agree that while it’s not politically correct to acknowledge its existence among women, I think in the interests of honesty (and attempting to improve the situation) we ought to admit that it can be a problem. Feminism is about taking women seriously; we can’t do that if we can’t talk about women as responsible agents who sometimes make mistakes and who need to figure out how to avoid doing so.

    As a side note, I had an older friend of mine tell me that young people today are “flimsy,” and that there’s no point in getting married. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I wonder if there’s truth to the assertion and, if so, if that accounts (at least partially) for the exaggerated fantasy life in bodice-rippers? We live vicariously because we can’t satisfy ourselves? Does the Life Force always have to be animalistic? Surely Stanley Kowalski can’t be the answer to happy relationships!

    While I think admitting masochism can be a problem is important, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold society accountable,too. Especially for the 18th century when women were SO debilitated by the laws governing marriage, lack of education and minimal employment opportunities. About the prostitution of wives—Bernard Mandeville has an interesting vignette about that in “The Virgin Unmask’d” (in fact, if memory serves, I think the character of the wife is called Leonora…). So, too, does Wollstonecraft in “Maria.” I wonder if it’s meaningful that the potential customers are more horrified at the prospect of forced prostitution than the husbands are? So then, it would be a critique of institutionalized gender relations (as you point out with Astell) on the part of the authors, and of a specific kind of masculinity, rather than of men per se.

    Thanks to everyone for their perspectives—and for the info on how to situate

    Elinor    May 10, 10:22am    #
  5. In response to Frank and Sam,

    It’s such a complicated topic and I have so little time. I’ve never been an attorney and so the closest I’ve gotten is in books and Frederick Wiseman’s film, Domestic Violence which is eye-opening. Like Austen I’m tempted to say I won’t let books prove much (she says anything) as they often represent fantasy life of an individual (who will also have an agenda of some sort, however private) and would like Sam talk of fantasy life. As I’m not attracted to cruelty myself I have a hard time imagining others doing this (though if men are violent, while less so so are women—Wiseman’s film shows women’s predilection to violence in these relationships too). Those few people I’ve talked frankly too (and this includes a couple of abused women), when it came to hard violence, the woman did not like it, oh no, but found herself stuck, unable to leave psychologically (fearful of what the world would demand of her, having lost her self-possession and connections beyond the male, being shamed). I have also seen in my father's family how drunkenness can lead to men inflicting violence on women. I am attracted to Frank’s intriguing counterintuitive theory that women marrying violent men is a survival mechanism: the woman seeks someone to beat up others on her behalf, thinking of course he’ll make an exception to his rule for her. Then no such thing. This can connect to the idea voiced in novels women kid themselves they’ll “reform” that rake (as in Clarissa). In stories of racial and ethnic and class clashes in marriage, the intermarried couple assumed the other was not racist/ethnicist/classistic towards them, but discovers the hatred can easily turn on them—and in the case of class (marrying down) the shame.

    There is Mill’s famous treatise on Subjection of Women. He too has the idea Astell and Behn (if she does have) which is women are pushed towards such men and that’s who they find. He also says the way women’s imaginations work is constructed by society. He doesn’t use the word constructed, but means that and says we are not in a position to know what women are. This is dismaying if you realize he thought that mass education, opening up jobs, higher education and other things which have been done since his time would change things.

    Not as long as the power structure remains the way it is.

    Webster is caustic and I think there is much satire so I would not call his picture a truthful one in the sense of being a mirror. He castigates; he’s been accused of deep morbidity, and he is certainly fascinated by sexuality which is not conventional (as is Middleton—The changeling is not MIddleton’s only play with a DeFlores character). Both of you mentioned John Wayne; I find him a supposed good guy which of course justifies his behavior. He is the one who cleans up the town and makes it safe. The actor who comes to mind for me is Bob Hoskins who played DeFlores magnificently: very scary, far more malevolent than any Iago I’ve ever seen. The deep hatred of another person who has humilaited you, treated you as an inferior is an important motive throughout Jacobean drama (Othello fits it here).

    Karen Horney’s classic book on women’s psychology in modern society remains relevant: “The Problem of Masochism” is one of the essays in it.

    Elinor    May 10, 10:22am    #

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