The Devil's Law-Case | Study Guide

John Webster

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The Devil's Law-Case | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

The play begins with an introduction to Romelio. Romelio is a wealthy merchant who chats with his close friend and colleague Prospero. Prospero asks about a recent business deal between Romelio and Contarino who is a wealthy lord in the area. Romelio shares his plan to break the contract and find more success through another deal. Contarino enters just as the conversation finishes hoping to update Romelio on the process of their deal. Contarino reveals that he is engaged to Romelio's sister Jolenta and hopes that Romelio will bless the engagement. He also plans to share the news with Romelio's mother Leonora. Romelio congratulates Contarino on the engagement but remarks to himself that there are other arrangements in the works. Smiling slyly Romelio leaves and Leonora enters. Contarino and Leonora strike up a somewhat veiled conversation. During this exchange Leonora flirts overtly and Contarino responds politely. Leonora is sure Contarino is in love with her so much so that Contarino is unable to tell her about his engagement to Jolenta. Leonora leaves confident in her perception and Contarino receives a letter from Jolenta. In the letter Jolenta is distressed and begs Contarino to visit her at midnight to discuss some issues. Contarino is worried but looks forward to the midnight meeting with his fiancée.

Sometime before midnight Romelio calls upon Jolenta. Jolenta enters the room and is introduced to her second fiancé Ercole. Romelio tells Jolenta that he has arranged everything and she will marry Ercole in a few days' time. Jolenta is shocked and immediately rejects the arrangement. Her rejection offends Ercole who moves to leave immediately. Romelio begs Ercole to stay and everything will be fixed soon. Leonora enters to help encourage Jolenta toward the engagement with Ercole in the midst of this confusion. Leonora even crafts a lie about Contarino's gambling debts and hopes to make Ercole look more appealing. Ercole then attempts to woo Jolenta but is unsuccessful. Romelio puts his foot down, forces the engagement, and places Jolenta's hand in Ercole's. Jolenta is placed into the hands of her lady's maid Winifred and told to stay in her room away from all visitors.

As midnight approaches Contarino joins Jolenta. Jolenta breaks the news of her forced engagement with Ercole and breaks down crying. Contarino can't believe Romelio's backhanded actions and decides that he and Jolenta will marry tomorrow before Ercole returns. Jolenta agrees but makes Contarino promise he will forgive Romelio for all this once they are married. Contarino happily agrees.

Act 2

The action resumes the following morning at the docks. Crispiano is a well-known judge and lawyer and arrives in town dressed in a disguise. He discusses the purpose of both his trip and the disguise with his law clerk Sanitonella. Crispiano explains that he has chosen to spy on his son Julio who has been spending too much money. Sanitonella is angry that Crispiano is not more upset with his son for spending so frivolously. Crispiano explains the loss of this money is nothing compared to all the wealth he has. In fact, Crispiano tells Sanitonella about his underhanded law practices that have made Crispiano incredibly rich. Crispiano even hints at a bigger reason for his visit but is interrupted by Julio, Romelio, and another man. Sanitonella doesn't recognize the third man in the party but Crispiano does. The third man is an honest, justice-seeking lawyer named Ariosto. Crispiano knows Ariosto but Crispiano's disguise keeps his true identity hidden.

Crispiano joins the group and states that he brings news for Romelio about some of his trade ventures. Julio had hoped this disguised gentleman had brought news of his father's death. Julio jokes further that he will be incredibly wealthy when his father does die. Romelio interrupts Julio's ramblings to introduce Ariosto. Ariosto uses the introduction to scold Julio and his life choices. Romelio joins in the scolding and helps outline Julio's offenses and failings. Then Ariosto leaves the group. Crispiano takes the opportunity to take Romelio aside and share the news of Romelio's lost ships and cargo from the East Indies.

Nearby Ercole is preparing to board his ship to leave. Contarino finds Ercole and confronts him aggressively. Contarino tells Ercole that Jolenta is already engaged and Ercole must admit defeat. Ercole is shocked but tells Contarino that Leonora was the main encourager for the engagement between Jolenta and Ercole. Contarino decides the disagreement must be settled with a duel to which Ercole agrees. The time is set for a half hour later and they both leave to prepare for the fight.

Romelio rejoins Julio and is obviously upset. Romelio shares that he has lost three ships at sea. This loss is huge and will cost Romelio a lot of money. Julio responds by telling Romelio that Contarino and Ercole met for a strange discussion. Romelio realizes the two men will fight and he sets off with Julio to stop the duel.

Ercole and Contarino meet in a secluded spot to duel. Contarino offers Ercole one more chance to end his engagement with Jolenta and leave. Ercole refuses and they begin fighting. Ercole is badly wounded during the scuffle. Contarino offers him a chance to surrender but Ercole refuses again. They continue fighting and Ercole is wounded a second time. Contarino sees these wounds are fatal and again begs Ercole to surrender. Ercole wounds Contarino in response and they both fall bleeding and unconscious. Romelio arrives with Prospero, Ariosto, and Julio to see the injuries. Prospero believes both Contarino and Ercole are dead but Romelio declares both will be taken to St. Sebastian's Monastery to be seen and treated. Contarino speaks and everyone is left to believe he may still live as the men are being taken to the hospital.

Romelio and Ariosto return to Romelio's house and discuss the three ships that were lost. Ariosto advises Romelio to be patient and not act in haste. Romelio does not take this advice well and gets angry. Ariosto encourages Romelio to be patient once again and leaves. Leonora joins Romelio to complain about the ringing of the church bells. The bells are loud and obnoxious but no one is sure why they are ringing. At that moment a local monk named Capuchin brings news that both Contarino and Ercole have died from their injuries. Prospero hurries in just after Capuchin and explains that Contarino is not yet dead but he has written a will leaving everything he owns to Jolenta. Everyone is shocked but Leonora is happy. She says she is hopeful that Contarino will survive so that he can be charged with Ercole's death. Leonora even demands that Romelio go to Contarino's bedside and make sure he makes it through alive.

Capuchin leaves Romelio and is later seen talking with Ercole. Ercole has left the hospital mostly recovered from his injuries. The two discuss a legal matter. Contarino will be charged with the murder of Ercole if Ercole is believed to be dead and Contarino survives. Ercole understands but does not blame Contarino for what happened. In fact, Ercole believes Romelio is to blame for everything that has happened and plans to make everything right. Then Ercole tells Capuchin that Romelio has made a nun pregnant and added to this mess.

Act 3

Ariosto and Crispiano meet to discuss why Crispiano is in town. Crispiano shares that he has been commissioned by the King of Spain to investigate Romelio. It has been rumored that Romelio found a goldmine and plans to make himself rich. There are other rumors that suggest Romelio has trouble with a number of ladies as well. Crispiano is supposed to gather information on Romelio and then sit as judge over the case against him. Ariosto takes in all this information and simply states he hopes to be a judge and would readily take any position.

The action jumps back to Romelio who has disguised himself as a Jew. Romelio is attempting to see Contarino in the hospital but is met by two surgeons. Romelio asks about Contarino and the surgeons share that it is not good. Romelio then asks about the will Contarino had written when he arrived at the hospital. Both surgeons affirm that a will was written and explain that they were both witnesses to it. Shocked, Romelio realizes his luck and asks about the specifics of the will. He wonders if the surgeons would like a portion of the money from Contarino's will. The surgeons are suspicious of this and ask how that would even be possible. Romelio lies and says he is a physician with specific expertise. Romelio claims he can bring Contarino back to consciousness and will get him to write a new will noting a new heir. Romelio claims this new heir is a close friend and will give both surgeons a handsome sum for their time and cooperation. The surgeons agree and leave Romelio to work. As the door closes, the surgeons discuss their suspicion of Romelio and decide to return to the room shortly.

Alone Romelio is able to disclose his full plan. Romelio wants to ensure Jolenta remains Contarino's heir because that would mean Romelio has full control over this new wealth. The only way to make sure that happens is Contarino must not recover from his wounds. Romelio stabs Contarino near his wound and believes he has successfully killed him. The surgeons return to the room before Romelio can escape. Romelio is caught red-handed and must confide in the surgeons. The surgeons readily accept payment to keep quiet and Romelio leaves. Romelio realizes he has made a mistake by bringing the surgeons into his plan. Simultaneously the surgeons discuss plans to further extort Romelio. They are interrupted by a sudden gasp from Contarino. The surgeons realize the attempted murder by Romelio actually helped save Contarino's life. Quickly the surgeons work to save Contarino but pledge to keep Contarino's surprise recovery secret.

Jolenta has received word of Contarino's supposed death. She mourns the life she thought she would have and the loss of her beloved fiancé. Romelio attempts to cheer her up and says he has a plan to use the death of both Contarino and Ercole to advance their household. At first Jolenta is confused but Romelio explains that Contarino named Jolenta as his heir. All of Contarino's wealth and property is left to Jolenta but that's not all. Romelio also plans to steal Ercole's wealth and property by claiming Jolenta was secretly married to Ercole before his death and is pregnant with his child. Romelio explains further that he has made a nun pregnant and they can pass that child off as Jolenta and Ercole's. Jolenta responds to this grand plan by saying she is already pregnant with Contarino's child. Romelio is unfazed by this announcement. He decides they will say she is pregnant by Ercole as planned, and Jolenta will go away to have her child, but when she returns she will have twins. With this plan Romelio will have access to both Contarino and Ercole's wealth and can easily explain away the child he has with the nun. Jolenta is skeptical and believes Romelio will use his child to cheat Jolenta out of Ercole's wealth. Romelio tells Jolenta that Contarino and their mother planned to have an affair after Jolenta and Contarino were married instead of reassuring Jolenta. Jolenta does not believe this at first and asks how Romelio could know all this. Romelio lies by saying a surgeon overhead talk about it before Contarino died and shared it with Romelio. Jolenta is outraged and agrees to Romelio's devilish plan.

When Jolenta leaves Romelio decides there are too many loose ends in his plan. He must force Jolenta to become a nun once the babies are born and the surgeons he paid off must be sent far away. He is thinking about the final pieces of his plans when Leonora enters. Romelio shares the news of Jolenta's pregnancy by Ercole. Leonora simply asks about Contarino. Romelio does not answer but instead asks Leonora to look after Jolenta. Leonora whispers about her hatred for her son but loudly asks Romelio to pray for Contarino. Romelio says nothing and leaves the room. Leonora launches into a long tirade against her son. She too blames Romelio for everything. Leonora wishes she had told Contarino how she felt but now believes she is too late. She falls to the floor sobbing.

At that moment Capuchin and Ercole enter. Capuchin tells Ercole to hide in the shadows for a moment while Capuchin consoles Leonora. Capuchin approaches Leonora and begins telling her about a miraculous recovery. Leonora believes he is talking about Contarino but Ercole steps out from the shadows. Leonora begins sobbing again and tells Ercole that Jolenta is pregnant with his child. Ercole knows immediately that isn't true and believes Jolenta must be pregnant with Contarino's child. Acting chivalrously, Ercole says he is so happy and can't wait to raise the child. Ercole then grabs Capuchin to leave. Both Ercole and Capuchin believe Romelio is behind this new lie as well.

Leonora is left alone and begins plotting against her son. She calls for the lady's maid and shares her plan. Leonora has a picture of an old lover whom she knew before her husband and will use that picture against Romelio to claim he is illegitimate. Leonora will be left with all the family's money and Romelio will be left with nothing if she is successful.

Act 4

Leonora sets out to put her plan into action. Leonora takes the lady's maid and goes to Ariosto to ask him to represent her in this bogus lawsuit. Sanitonella has gotten all the paperwork together and helps present it to Ariosto. Ariosto sees it for what it is and is immediately angry. He refuses to have any part in helping Leonora and stalks off. Sanitonella is a little taken aback but sees another lawyer named Contilupo. Contilupo has fewer morals and readily accepts the lawsuit Leonora has created. Sanitonella pays Contilupo and tells him to disregard any element of truth he may find in the paperwork. Contilupo agrees and begins studying the case.

An officer shows Ercole into the courtroom before the others arrive. Ercole takes position in a small closet so that he can hear the proceedings but won't be seen. After Ercole hides Contarino and his two surgeons all enter in disguise. They all plan to watch quietly as everything unfolds. Next to enter is Crispiano who is still not recognized. Crispiano will be the judge presiding over the court case between Romelio and Leonora. Romelio rushes in and is followed closely by Ariosto who demands to know what is happening. Crispiano suggests the charges be read and then the court be dismissed until Romelio can find appropriate representation. Romelio rejects this idea and asks for the case to go ahead.

Contilupo and Leonora enter the room ready to start the proceedings. Contilupo steps up and begins attacking Romelio's character but he is quickly told to stick to the charges at hand. Contilupo agrees and accuses Romelio of being a bastard. Romelio is shocked and Crispiano asks Contilupo to explain. At that point Contilupo launches into a long tale about a secret affair between Leonora and a mystery man while Leonora's husband was away. Immediately Crispiano is suspicious and asks for the identity of this mystery man. Leonora claims it was Don Crispiano. To everyone's disbelief Crispiano reveals himself and discredits Leonora's fanciful story. Crispiano pledges to be Romelio's lawyer and offers the judge's bench to Ariosto. Ariosto takes it readily. Leonora immediately begs for mercy and suggests her punishment should be to become a nun.

Contarino considers revealing himself but Ercole steps out from his closet first. Ariosto places Ercole under arrest for the murder of Contarino as Romelio rejoices in seeing Ercole. Ercole rejects Romelio's call to friendship and accuses him of murdering Contarino to ensure the will was unchanged. Ariosto decides a duel will settle this nasty dispute. Contarino hears of the duel and offers to be Ercole's second. Ercole doesn't recognize Contarino because he is still in disguise but Ercole accepts the offer. Romelio is joined by Julio and asks that Jolenta be guarded until after the duel.

Act 5

Jolenta discusses pregnancy with Angiloella who is the nun pregnant with Romelio's child. Both are ashamed of the choices they have made in life and want to escape the consequences. They agree to run away together and start life over. Each woman leaves to prepare for their escape.

At the same time others are preparing for the duel. Contarino decides to discuss Jolenta with Ercole again. Contarino asks how Ercole feels about Jolenta. In response Ercole shares a letter Jolenta wrote to him. In the letter Jolenta tells Ercole that she is not pregnant and that it was all thought up by Romelio. This further infuriates Contarino and he begins selecting his weapons for the duel.

Before the duel Winifred is asked to tell Leonora that Contarino is still alive. Winifred objects to the idea because Leonora never wants to hear that name again. Winifred knows this is important information so she goes to Capuchin. Capuchin takes this information to Romelio but is not able to tell him. Romelio believes Capuchin is trying to preach religious jabber so Romelio locks Capuchin in a closet. Capuchin yells that Contarino is still alive and that Leonora is locked in the closet too. Romelio doesn't listen but leaves for the duel. In contrast Leonora is shocked by the news that Contarino is still alive and desperately wants to save him.

Everyone arrives at the duel. Before it begins Romelio tells a servant that Capuchin and Leonora are locked in a closet and should be released soon. Then the duel begins. Not long after Capuchin and Leonora arrive to reveal that Contarino is still alive and fighting alongside Ercole. Ercole hugs Contarino, Contarino declares his love for Leonora but Ariosto is disgusted by the mockery that has taken place. Ariosto describes the abuses that have taken place and one of the surgeons brings in Jolenta and Angiolella. At this point Ariosto dispenses punishments for all: Romelio must restore Contarino's fortune and marry Angiolella, Julio must go fight the Turks, and the three women must build a monastery to pay for their sins.

The Devil's Law-Case Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Contarino tells Romelio of his engagement to Jolenta.

Rising Action

2 Romelio forces an engagement between Ercole and Jolenta.

3 Romelio is told he has lost three ships at sea.

4 Contarino and Ercole duel and are assumed dead.

5 Contarino names Jolenta as his heir in his will.

6 Romelio attempts to murder Contarino.

7 Jolenta claims she is pregnant and agrees to Romelio's plan.

8 Ariosto refuses to represent Leonora in case against Romelio.

9 Leonora takes Romelio to court.

10 Crispiano reveals himself and vacates his position as judge.


11 Ercole arrives and charges Romelio with Contarino's death.

Falling Action

12 Ercole and Romelio arrange a duel.

13 Contarino reveals himself.

14 Jolenta and Angiolella attempt to run away.


15 Ariosto hands down punishment for all involved.

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