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The trial in John Webster's The White Devil: Italy in the reenactment of a Renaissance English drama.

Early modern English figurations of the Italian draw on a tradition of
English veneration for Italy, imagined as a culture which exports
humanism, Petrarchism, courtiership, and literary sophistication; but
alongside veneration, these figurations express English fascination and
contempt. (Bovilsky, 2003: 626)

People have long been fascinated by crime, now as in the past, and in Renaissance England murder was an intriguing subject. 'Murder was a crime that ordinary people were intimately affected by, and one in which they were expected to intervene, in terms of capturing culprits, giving evidence and witnessing the punishment' (McMahon, 2004: XIV). It may be argued that beside crimes of heresy or treason against the crown, common people were fascinated by murders, to which they were drawn by a sort of morbid fascination. If we connect the pleasurable thrill experienced in the narration of a crime with the ambiguous attraction for Italy, we may understand why the famous trial held against Vittoria Accoramboni inspired John Webster and enticed the curiosity of Elizabethan audiences: 'What Italy mainly signified in Renaissance England was another country, a country of others, constructed through a lens of voyeuristic curiosity through which writers and their audiences explored what was forbidden in their own culture' (Jones, 1987: 101).

English playwrights were fascinated by Italy both in a positive and a negative way: they were drawn to Italy as a symbol of culture and refinement, but also as a nest of corruption and bloody conspiracies. Italy had the function of offering a foreign background in which dramatists could safely address their hostility against the English court. The accusation of corruption against Italian society, Italian government and the Italian justice system was a not-too-veiled allusion to the misdeeds of the English upper society of the time.

This fascination with the darker side of Italy is evident in the revision of the trial of Vittoria Accoramboni that John Webster re-reads in The White Devil (2008 [1612]).
The White Devil graphically enacts an ample number of similar English
stereotypes of Italianness--of which adultery, consummated onstage, is
hardly the most dramaturgically outrageous. The play also features the
ascension of a Cardinal to the Papacy, acts of sorcery, betrayal,
murder, and arcane poisoning--in this case, a painting poisoned so that
a faithful wife dies upon kissing the lips of her painted husband in a
ritual which, for all its marital devotion, is redolent of Catholic
image worship. These plot elements certainly present and further a view
of Italy as steeped in religious, sexual, and criminal license, that
is, as a world in which Catholicism, atheism, and 'nigromancy'
seamlessly blend through their manifestation in homologous sexual and
violent crimes. (Bovilsky, 2003: 638)

Vittoria Accoramboni (1557-1585) was born of an Italian noble family in Gubbio, a small Italian town in Umbria (a region annexed to the Papal States). She was given in marriage to Felix Ferretti, a nephew of Cardinal Montalto. But Prince Paolo Giordano Orsini, Duke of Bracciano, fell in love with her and seduced her. Having perceived how profitable this new relationship could be, her family, together with the Duke, plotted the slaughter of her first husband and of the Duke's wife, so as to clear the way for Vittoria's new marriage with the Duke. The story was so famous that many subsequent writers appropriated it and re-wrote it centuries after the fact: Stendhal, among others, reproduced the records of the time to offer a historical narration of the events in his Chroniques Italiennes--Vittoria Accoramboni, une oeuvre du domain public (Stendhal, 1855).

In his turn Webster seized the story, changing some elements such as the setting (he replaced Gubbio with Venice, probably because this town was better known to the audience), fictionalizing the love relationship between Vittoria and Duke Brachiano, emphasizing the pandering influence of her brother Flamineo and especially adding his own view of the trial and how it was conducted.

This event in the Italian chronicles was not the only one that influenced Webster. In the same period another famous trial against a young woman of a noble family echoed all over Italy, the trial of Beatrice Cenci. Together with her mother, Beatrice (1577-1599) was accused of having killed her father, a violent and brutal nobleman who had frequently raped her and kept her a prisoner. The conviction and unjust execution of Beatrice has been considered across the centuries as an example of inequitable application of the law. In the case of Beatrice Cenci the trial also had recourse to torture, which is not the case in Webster's play. So there are differences between the two cases: Beatrice really did commission the murder, even if she did not commit it herself, while Victoria Accoramboni had no direct involvement in the killing of her husband and of Brachiano's wife, even if she reported to Brachiano a dream she had where the two spouses came to a bad end. These are two notorious cases of murder where the fault fell upon the women.

Penal trials have always had a strong impact on literature: this is especially evident in our time where major literary production is centred on thrillers, murders, trials and on how the law operates to redress the violation of social order. In the Renaissance these two notorious murder cases created a kind of penal mythology. Literary myths may develop out of law courts and legal narrations. In fact, the trial and execution of Beatrice Cenci caused the rise of a number of myths concerning the structure of penal law both within the Church and in general during the Renaissance, which greatly contributed to the creation of a dark legend of Italian sadistic justice as an aftermath of the Counter-Reformation (Mazzacane, 2010). Beatrice is actually the protagonist of an endless series of literary and theatrical works across the centuries, including recent cinematic adaptations.

The Accoramboni trial is therefore at the centre of Webster's play as it was at the centre of the historical events cited above. How was it conducted? Was it a fair trial? Did justice prevail? From his text the trial emerges as biased, initiated on false premises, rooted in religious and social prejudice. Moreover the trial is misrepresented even in its formal procedure: the judge and the prosecutor are the same person; arbitrary decisions remained (for a long time) a regular feature of foreign judicial processes (Schott Symes, 2012). The Court is intrinsically and structurally flawed. The lack of a jury, typical of the Common Law's way of doing justice, probably serves the function of creating a foreign background to the trial. 'The Common Law procedure functions less as a marker of nationality [...] than as an abstract signifier of judicial righteousness' (Schott Symes, 2012: 75).

Reaching incontrovertible truth was the king's duty, which he delegated to a judge as his alter ego. The judge had to reach the truth by examining the evidence and by a formal demonstration of the premises. The juridical system tried to establish fixed rules for judgment, but in reality the whole penal process was rooted in arbitrium iudicis. The arbitrary nature of Victoria's trial is evident in the fact that the judge in the play is a Cardinal: Victoria is directly judged not by the State but by the Church, which particularly stigmatizes sexual sin. We have the impression that the actual murder itself is secondary compared to the accusation of whoredom. Let us consider the long debate on the term 'whore' in Act III, Scene 2, v. 80 ff.:
Monticelso: shall I expound whore to you?
They are first
Sweetmeats which rot the eater: in man's nostril
Poisoned perfumes....
The true material fire of hell....
They are those brittle evidences of law
Which forfeit all a wretched man's estate...
They are worse,
Worse than dead bodies, which are begged at gallows
And wrought upon by surgeons, to teach man
Whereon he is imperfect. What's a whore?
She's like the guilty counterfeited coin
Which whosoe'er first stamps it brings in trouble
All that receive it. (III, 2, 80 ff.)

The detailed description aims at misogynistically throwing all the fault of man's corruption on the woman, as Eve's sin constantly reenacted. But the terms are hinged also on property and money, on the fact that a whore brings man to the material dissolution of his property because of women's lustful and extravagant attitude. At the end of the speech the woman becomes money itself, but false money that does not bring wealth, but only legal problems. That is to say that the woman is once more, as constantly stressed in Elizabethan plays, a commercial object, her main fault consisting exactly in economic damage. Indeed lust, only the woman's lust, brings about man's downfall not only from a religious perspective, but also and mainly from an economic standpoint.

Victoria's trial begins, as it should, as a judgment about a slaughter, but there is no evidence that it was Victoria who committed the crime; as Victoria herself correctly stresses during the debate, we have the impression that the murderers are not on this side of the court but on the other, on the judge's side. What is slaughtered is Victoria's good name, her own personhood. The Cardinal is the key to the situation: as he cannot prosecute her for murder, because no irrefutable evidence can be brought against her, he swerves the accusation to her moral conduct. In other words, justice fails because the real cause of the trial is forgotten for the sake of an abstract and vague accusation of immorality. So much so that it can be argued that the real punishment of the culprit takes place outside the court when finally the real culprit, Brachiano, is killed by her revengers. Justice is done, but outside the court.

Justice is a vain shadow, and the court only triggers private revenge, unleashes personal resentment and gives voice to the judge's own prejudices. The Cardinal stigmatizes Victoria's adulterous action because he is fascinated by the sin itself and is sexually drawn towards Victoria. His harshness exposes his own sinful tendencies, which he wants to attribute to the woman. In the play, this is what the trial actually represents. The true history of these murders, for instance, shares this aspect with the case of Beatrice Cenci: the extenuating circumstances of her being raped by her father are not taken into consideration. Sexual abuse of a woman is part of her fate: being a pawn for her family's commercial interests (representing the means of a profitable marriage) annuls her rights as a legal person, who has her own dignity and need for protection.

So, after all, what is the function of this trial? In The White Devil the trial is the means through which society gives vent to its superstitious hatred of women. As the woman cannot be eliminated physically, she is eliminated morally: the attempt is to bar her from the world by imprisoning her into a House of Convertites. Her metaphorical assassination is here evident. Therefore the trial reveals that the actual murderers are not considered guilty: they are not the ones who stand on trial; indeed they stand for the law.

The structure of this trial is still very much rooted in the practice of torture (here moral rather than physical), as an inquisitio peccatorum: the discovery of truth represents grounds for expiation of the sin and a condition for the culprit's redemption. In other words, it is a negotiated and personalized justice, rooted not in the centralization of public power, but in the circulation of values and prejudices acting as discipline and punishment, a control system that exposes its own weakness and instrumentalization (Mazzacane, 2010: 958). The trial represents an attempt at a legal murder. Here the judge, rather than embodying the law and applying it, uses the law for his own personal aims, for the application of his own prejudices.

To stress the importance of the trial in The White Devil I will have recourse to what Salvatore Satta (1949) asserted concerning the mystery of the trial as far back as 1949. Given the turmoil of the events in the play, with two murders, the scheme being plotted by different villains, the adulterous love affair bringing about an acceleration of events, the trial marks a break. The action turns upon itself and becomes focused on the sentence. Indeed, the whole of our existence revolves around a judgment, in particular the final verdict when Christ will come back to judge humankind. The concept of nulla poena sine iudicio is not only a practical necessity of justice, but it is an ontological necessity (Satta, 1949: 281). So judgment becomes its own payment, its own reward. Satta correctly reverses the concept with the folmula nullum iudicium sine poena. As in The White Devil the trial is ambiguous, mixing penal law with religious law; we may even argue that religious law takes the place of penal law. The trial fails. The aim of punishing murder is substituted by a moral judgment against a woman's wrongdoing. Certainly the decision to imprison Victoria in a House of Convertites is an unjust verdict, whereas the real culprit of the murders goes unpunished by the trial. Judgment therefore becomes ineffective: it is a judgment without punishment, or at least, without the expected or right punishment. At this point anyone can feel entitled to punish, and in fact Brachiano--the real culprit--will be penalized outside the trial, when the revengers will rely on action and ignore judgment.

At any rate, the trial is a conflict: the lawyer against the judge, the judge against both the lawyer and the prosecuted, the prosecuted against the judge. In Webster's play this agonistic perspective is underscored because Victoria does not even have a lawyer to defend her: all the characters involved in the trial are against her. The lawyer's jargon makes the events even more obscure, so much so that Victoria rejects the magistrate's intervention and decides to speak for herself. Indeed the vicious side of the trial comes to the fore in the text: it does not judge guilt, but constructs it. The trial results in an act of shaming and public humiliation: it does not represent the restoration of a disrupted order. The aspiration of the common man to see a trial as the place of neutral judgment, almost as a metaphysical place where justice materializes in a sort of religious rite (see Carpi, 2007, 2010; Garapon, 2001), is baffled here by the exploitation of the court as a place where one can vent one's own personal, selfish and subjective enmity, staging someone's shame as a public spectacle. The iconic ritual of the trial seems to aim at defeating sin in a collective act of purification: in this way the real story of Vittoria should be transformed into a warning paradigm of the dissonance between human and divine justice, while leading to the rise of ancestral archetypes, such as viewing woman as evil, being a descendant of Eve.

However, the suggestive power of both historical figures, Vittoria Accoramboni and Beatrice Cenci, is strongly re-echoed in Webster's play. Beatrice Cenci's fame spread among the people: she became the symbol of a beautiful and victimized young woman who died heroically, without complaining, setting the example for a sense of dignity and will-power. In the same way Webster's Victoria shows manly fortitude in adversity, fighting skillfully and courageously against a patriarchal society, trading word for word, refusing to be crushed by an inimical legal situation, by the power structures aligned against her.
Generally, the Italian settings of Jacobean tragedy and tragicomedy
allow the English to depict disturbing tendencies toward immorality,
religious errancy, and sexual license as the native province of
national others. [....] Webster's The White Devil presents just such a
dense combination of dis- and cross-identification, English and
Italian, nation and race. (Bovilsky, 2003: 637)

The complexity of Victoria's female character is evident from the very title where she is defined as 'white devil'. By convention the devil is depicted black, so the oxymoronic association of black and white suggests that Victoria is a duplicitous character connecting male and female, good and evil, innocence and experience. She is young, white, beautiful and cultured, but also lustful, corrupt and cunning: a modern woman, aware of her power. We can argue that she embodies the Italian and English perspectives on woman, as expressed in Bovilsky's statement quoted above.

As for the trial itself, how is it conducted? From the very opening of the process, Monticelso asserts:
... we have nought but circumstances
To charge her with, about her husband's death;
Their approbation therefore to the proofs
Of her black lust, shall make her infamous
To all our neighbouring kingdoms. (III, 1, 3-7)

Therefore the accusation cannot be for murder, because there is no direct proof; it is aimed instead at destroying her good name. This is why the judge is not the King, but an emissary of the Pope. The power will be a religious one. The Cardinal sent by the Pope will be the judge; the lawyer is only a prosecuting lawyer (Victoria has no lawyer to defend her)--but what about the jury?

The jury is the most typically English aspect of penal trials. The presence of the petty jury in trials goes back to the 13th century: the petty jury consists mainly of witnesses; their verdicts (vere dictum) are used by the King's judges as means of proof and the judges conform their sentences to those verdicts. The petty jury implies the presence of neighbours who are acquainted with the events. To reach its verdict the jury can use the information it has acquired concerning the crime and can debate with the judge, being allowed to speak as well as to listen. But this medieval system entailed a static and organized society. In the course of time, and particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries, the jury could ignore the facts and its members could no longer be considered witnesses. The fact that the jury is a neutral organ, silent and passive, that must base its verdict only on the proofs presented and discussed during the trial happens much later, during the 18th century and in full in the 19th century. It is at the end of the 18th century that the modern configuration of the jury, with its particular relation with the judge, takes place (see AAVV, 2012; Dezza, 2009; Sorrentino, 1999).

Do we have a jury in Webster's play? Literally not, but Victoria, rejecting the lawyer's jargon, explicitly mentions the impossibility for the audience to understand and judge the accusations against her:
Victoria: Pray my Lord, let him speak his usual tongue.
I'll make no answer else.
Francisco: Why you understand Latin.
Victoria: I do sir, but amongst this auditory
Which comes to hear my cause, the half or more
May be ignorant in't...
I will not have my accusation clouded
In a strange tongue: all this assembly
Shall hear what you can charge me with. (III, 3, 12-20)

The audience therefore takes the place of the modern jury, that listens and judges but does not interact with the judge. So it is necessary to understand fully what Victoria is charged with.
One explanation for the absence of onstage juries is that the period
conceived of the theatre itself as following the structure of a
quasi-legal process, with the audience adopting the part of the jury
[...] [it] plays the jury's role in the early modern theatre:
witnessing some of the crimes, and hearing some of the evidence,
theatregoers were encouraged to engage in probabilistic thinking and
pass moral judgment. (Schott Symes, 2012: 78)

The similarity between theatrical performances and courts of law is strong. An in-between situation exists where the jury is no longer the medieval one, the petty jury, and not yet the modern one that reaches verdicts according to proofs, but it is still there to take part in the trial, even if merely being a silent listener. They will spread the news and communicate the moral humiliation undergone by the woman. Evidently Victoria counts on their moral participation in the trial, on their being emotionally moved by the injustice of her situation: in other words, they should be made to side with her.

The judge focuses his accusations mainly on the violation of customary behaviour: a widow should be in mourning attire, her attitude subdued and not 'armed with scorn and impudence', with cunning. 'She scandals our proceedings', Monticelso asserts (III, 2, 129). So all the judge can do is to stigmatize the rebellious attitude in the woman who does not conform to the socially required behaviour. The modernity of her outlook, demonstrating the woman's very independent character, is actually taken from history, because historical documents describe a similar demeanour both in Beatrice Cenci and in Vittoria Accoramboni.

Victoria is sentenced by a prejudiced judge, who had beforehand decided what sort of punishment to inflict upon her. The trial attempts to corner her, to degrade her and deprive her of any dignity, thus 'disarming her'. This trial demonstrates the unpredictability and uncontrollability of judgments; the verbal ignorance of lawyers who love to stand out as 'famous' and 'cunning', losing sight of the dignity of the profession; the difficulty of knowing the res judicata; the impotence of the individual before the law and its process.
Victoria: So entangled in accursed accusation
That my defence, of force, like Perseus
Must personate masculine virtue to the point.
Find me but guilty, sever head from body:
We'll part good friends; I scorn to hold my life
At yours or any man's entreaty [...]
These are but feigned shadows of my evils,
Terrify babes, my lord, with painted devils. (III, 2, 135-147)

Victoria is aware that the attempt is to undermine the basis of her identity: her personal life and her very essence as a woman are at issue.

The law has always been an important tool of government. Trials very often stage political matters: the central authority wants issues to be solved in a way that does not damage society. In a penal trial the whole community is called into question because some social order has been violated. Therefore in the penal trial the social equilibrium is particularly evident, as well as the balance between authority/repression and freedom. In the case of Webster, Brachiano is present at the opening of the trial but as he belongs to the powerful aristocracy nobody dares accuse him of murder or involvement in the crime. He is beyond judgment or, if necessary, at least he should be judged by his peers: the Magna Carta of 1215, having been produced by a medieval hierarchical society, stated exactly this principle. Therefore, as the crime cannot be traced back to Brachiano, the judge attributes it to the woman, a weaker subject: a responsible agent must be found, the people must be satisfied. This is why if revenge is achieved, it must happen outside the court: Brachiano will be killed clandestinely, according to a medieval, private and family law. People must be reassured that if an upheaval takes place, order will be restored: they need reassurance and truth. In the Renaissance the world still seems intelligible. However, the fact that the involvement of Victoria in the murder cannot be proven and that the trial fails in ascertaining truth anticipates the problematization of justice that is theorized nowadays.

Another element that is called into question in Webster's play is the concept of mens rea (evil intent). This became an issue of great importance during the Early Modern period. It was generally connected to actus reus (the criminal act), but as Victoria's actual involvement in the murder cannot be demonstrated, she is accused of whoredom, which suggests mens rea. Adulterous behaviour shows an evil intent, a murderous act in potentia, a mental intent to commit the crime.

'There is little evidence that, until the seventeenth century, anything but moral turpitude was considered in determining mental guilt in felonious endeavours' (Barleben, 2017: 34). The fact that the Renaissance era saw the emergence of a class of legal professionals and of the increasing significance of the Inns of Court is made evident by the presence of a lawyer on the scene, with all the specialized language pertaining to the profession. Crime began to be considered as a threat to the whole society; trials became an instrument of class dominance. The principle of mens rea implies that which might endanger public interest; therefore the judgment against Victoria is focused on this principle. Her immoral behaviour can pave the way for an actus reus.
The mens rea was [...] a prominent characteristic of modes of criminal
enquiry for English Courts as far back as the Sixteenth century[...] It
was the movement towards delineating [...] the inferiority of the civil
subject on trial with which modern courts [...] became so preoccupied.
(Barleben, 2017: 35)

Justice was rooted in the morality of the time, so Victoria has no possibility of a fair judgment: what is protected is not so much the individual as the morality of the day. Morality is the driving force of society and corresponds to majority rule. The weak individual (and Victoria, being a woman, suffers from the double standard operating against her) is silenced and she becomes the moral scapegoat. A similar aspect is prominent in the Italian trials against Vittoria Accoramboni and Beatrice Cenci: being women, and by definition weak individuals, the law destroys in them the rebellion against the patriarchal morality of the time. They suffer from a simulacrum of truth, a false reconstruction of the events: their actions are described as unnatural and as a danger to society. Here the law's invasive power is particularly evident: the treatment of an individual is based solely on sexual behaviour.

The violence of the courtroom trial against the individual, who is made to appear more guilty than he/she really is, is also underscored by the lawyer's obscure jargon, as argued earlier: the lawyer's intent is to turn Victoria into a criminal, thus violating her ontological status as a civil subject. The attempt at a forced confession fails; she demonstrates a strong character, as strong as that of Beatrice Cenci, who died a noble death, robbing fate of its victory against her (in the Aeschylean sense).

Another interesting aspect of the failure of justice in the trial is the psychological torture of Brachiano's mind in Act V, Scene 2, v. 140 ff. Gasparo and Ludovico undertake the action of destroying Brachiano, who had gone unpunished from the trial against Victoria: they disguise themselves as capuchin monks in order to be able to approach Brachiano's death bed. This pseudo-juridical judgment must be set within the realm of private revenge taking on a religious perspective. Brachiano is threatened with spiritual damnation and metaphysical death.
The Church's economic exploitation of peoples' hopes and fears about
the afterlife was merely one particularly scandalous aspect of an
entirely self-contained legal and penal system, administered through
the Church courts and the confessional, with limitless reach beyond
this life into the next. (Hutson, 2002: 297)

The lawyer in court did not succeed in coercing Victoria to confess so as to be able to decide her punishment (as argued above, here we are dealing more with a religious judgment than a legal one); the revengers fully exploit the religious side of Brachiano's case. The religious law is used sadistically to torment a dying soul. The act of revenge and private punishment trespasses on one of the sacraments of the Church, the sacrament of penance.
In their explorations of ways to distinguish the punishment due to sin
from the state of mind of the sinner, theologians established a
difference between the guilt (culpa) that might be forgiven through
contrition and confession and the punishment (poena) that remained
payable to God in the form of penance. (Hutson, 2002: 309)

The revengers bypass contrition to go directly to punishment without allowing for the suspected culprit to repent. A Church rite is changed and translated into an act of private revenge: a religious sin is not paid to God but to the state, through capital punishment. The violation of the internal forum of confession, represented by the disguised capuchin monks, becomes the judicial ordeal that takes the place of the Common Law's failed justice. The afterlife is conceived both as trial and punishment, with the addition of the damnatio memoriae, which for the Elizabethans meant the deletion from history of one's very name (Carpi, 2002). This final threat is what terrifies Brachiano, who calls out to Victoria for help.
Gasparo: Brachiano
Lodovico: Devil Brachiano, Thou art damned.
Gasparo: Perpetually.
Lodovico: A slave condemned and given up to the gallows
Is thy great lord and master.
Gasparo: True for thou
Art given up to the devil.
[...] Gasparo: This is count Lodovico
Lodovico: This Gasparo.
And thou shalt die like a poor rogue.
Gasparo: And stink
like a dead fly-blown dog.
Lodovico: And be forgotten
Before thy funeral sermon.
Brachiano: Victoria! Victoria! (V, 3, 148-165)

In the play the trial appears to be the result of a 'viral infection', a 'perennial illness' (Cavallone, 2002: 581), which is life at court: 'O happy they that never saw the court /Nor ever knew great man but by report', Victoria cries out at the end. Justice loses its abstract metaphysical perspective to be transformed into a 'human, too human an action' (in Nietzschean terms), that can be 'tasted': 'All that have hands in this shall taste our justice' are Giovanni's last words. Verging on its poisonous aspects the physicality of the verb underscores the devaluation of justice we have witnessed all through the play.


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Daniela Carpi

University of Verona, Italy

Corresponding author:

Daniela Carpi, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Verona, Lungadige Porta Vittoria 41, 37129 Verona, Italy.


DOI: 10.1177/0014585819831646
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Author:Carpi, Daniela
Publication:Forum Italicum
Geographic Code:8AUVI
Date:Aug 1, 2019
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