The next play I just finished is John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. This is the one play by John Ford that is usually included in anthologies of Elizabethan Plays. Interestingly, John Ford got lots of attention at the start of the millennia when A Funeral Elegy was identified as being by Shakespeare (note that the link to MITs site still lists it as being by Shakespeare). The Elegy was even included in the 2nd edition of the Norton Complete Shakespeare as by Shakespeare until scholarly opinion finally converged on John Ford as the actual author. The poem, needless to say, is not in the 3rd edition and Norton took some heat for including it. To my credit, I never thought that it was by Shakespeare and even proposed (though I was roundly ignored because I’m a nobody) that the poem was by John Ford. There’s proof on the Shaksper Listserv somewhere—if they still call it that.
John Ford was born some 20 years after Shakespeare and so didn’t really get started until Shakespeare was at his peak. Around 1601 when he would have been 15 or 16, he joined the Middle Temple, an institution that was considered a prestigious law school. Whether he studied law is debatable but he was obviously well educated, a man of letters, and must have had literary ambitions. After being kicked out of the Middle Temple due to financial issues, he set about looking for patronage by writing an elegy and a prose pamphlet. Yet it isn’t until 1620, four years after Shakespeare’s death (though Ben Jonson was still alive and active) that he appears as an active playwright. What can be said for Ford is that he became one of the Elizabathen era’s finest dramatists and collaborated with other dramatists like Dekker (with whom he co-authored The Witch of Edmonton), Webster and Massinger. That said, while Ford had a fine instinct for drama and could write some of the most pellucid blank verse of the era, he was a mediocre poet at best (which makes the mis-identification of his Funeral Elegy as Shakespeare’s all the more baffling).
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is generally thought to be the finest incest tragedy of the Elizabethan Era, a highly popular genre in its day, that continued to be performed through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Not only that, but according to Wikipedia, the 20th century saw the play adapted into two movies: My Sister, My Love (Sweden, 1966) and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Belgium, 1978). The genre remains popular for all the obvious titillating reasons.
So what was my impression? Once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. This though I knew it was all going to end tragically—and that’s probably the point. The dramatic tension is not in wondering how the play will end, but in the spectacle of its unraveling—as one character after another is stabbed and/or poisoned. Before they even stepped foot in the theater, Elizabethans knew matters were going to go spectacularly bad. The only question was how bad. Ford handles it all beautifully, disappointing no one when, in the final scenes, a bloody Giovanni steps into the banquet hall with Annabella’s heart impaled on the tip of his phallic dagger. Has there ever been a more brutally symbolic manifestation of incest?
But is there anything for the modern reader beyond an Elizabethan fondness for incest, bloody denouements, and murderous spectacle? First to be said is that Annabella is really little more than the shiny object around which all the men plot and scheme; which is to say, Annabella’s own agency is slim to none. When she takes Giovanni as her lover, there’s little to no deliberation on her part. While Giovanni is wracked with doubts throughout Act I, essentially deliberating for both of them, Annabella confesses her love after the briefest of conventional and clichéd Elizabethan tropes. In short, Giovanni claims that if his love is not requited, he would rather die. Of course, this symbolically makes Annabella responsible for Giovanni’s fate. To drive home the point, Giovanni “offers his dagger to her“. That’s Annabella’s one moment of agency. Take her brother as lover or murder him. The correct response would have been obvious to any self-respecting Elizabethan play-goer: she should have murdered him and taken her own life forthwith. Instead, after a series of pro-forma objections, she blows it:
...what thous hast urged
My captive heart had long ago resolved.
I blush to tell thee—but I'll tell thee now—
For every sigh that thou hast spent for me
I have sighed ten; for every tear shed twenty:
And not so much for that I loved, nor scarcely think it.
And so let the play begin. Would that the Elizabethans had had popcorn.
Once the secret tryst between Giovanni and Annabella is sealed, the other suitors, none the wiser, court Annabella with all the gusto of horse-traders. Annabella’s father Florio, meanwhile, makes a somewhat modern concession:
My care is how to match her to her liking:
I would not have her marry wealth, but love...
One often reads that marriage in those days, especially among the aristocracy, was a bleak market wherein marriageable women were used as currency, to be “bedded”, buying peace between warring families, buying social status, securing extravagant endowments which would be promptly gambled away by profligate husbands, etc… The desire of women, and men, to marry for love wasn’t a foreign concept. Some one hundred and fifty years later Jane Austen would make marrying for love (among the aristocracy) the centerpiece of her novels. And don’t forget that Giovanni and Annabella’s love is an ironic commentary on Florio’s statement coming, as it does, immediately after Annabella and Giovanni have gone off to make love for the first time. Such is Ford’s dramatic art.
At any rate, immediately after Florio has stated that he would not have Annabella marry for wealth, Donado (the father of one of Annabella’s suitors) reassuringly states:
Sir, you say well, Like a true father, and for my part I, If the young folks can like ('twixt you and me), Will promise to assure my nephew presently Three thousand florins yearly during life, And after I am dead, my whole estate. [Act I, Scene iii]
La! Wink wink. Nudge nudge. Florio responds approvingly, to which Donado adds:
Well, Here's hope yet, if my nephew would have wit; But he is such another dunce, I fear He'll never win the wench. [Act I, Scene iii]
And that’s the tone with which the suitors discuss Annabella—wench this and wench that—though it should be said that the appellation ‘wench’ didn’t carry the same negative connotations then as now. One could use ‘wench’ as as term of endearment, but it was more commonly used as shorthand for a sexually available young female. “Wenching” was used in the sense of lecherous, and Elizabethan playwrights, including Shakespeare, did seem to take a certain relish and discussing women. Bergetto, Donado’s nephew has taken to a different wench, Philotus, and comments:
O, the wench! Uda sa' me, uncle, I tickled her with a rare speech, that I made her almost burst her belly with laughing.
The sexual innuendo wouldn’t have been lost on Elizabethan audience. He tickled her (penetrated her) with a rare speech (intercourse) and almost burst her belly (impregnated her) with laughing (their mutual orgasm). And if you suppose I’m reading too much into this, Ford clears up any confusion when Donado, Poggio (Berghetto’s servant) and Berghetto are later discussing Annabella:
Donado What’s the news now? Bergetto Save you Uncle save you, you must not think I come for nothing Masters, and how and how is ’t? what you have read my letter, ah, there I — tickled you i’ faith. Poggio But ’twere better you had tickled her in another place. [Act II Sc. vi]
So, Donado’s use of the word wench is both an endearment and a mutual acknowledgement as to the purpose to which his daughter should be put. Who wins the right to conceive in a female? You may think that’s a crass way to put it, but the seriousness of the question will be what leads to the play’s bloody denouement. In general, the lascivious way in which Annabella and other women are discussed, given the play’s central theme and the way in which incest takes that objectification to its extreme, no doubt contributed to the play’s popularity.
Modern readers might be more taken with the early inklings of humanism, atheism and enlightenment rationalism in Ford’s play. When one read’s Christopher Marlowe’s Faust, a modern reader gets that sense that Marlowe, though he dutifully damned Faust, was sympathetic. Likewise, though Ford no doubt would have condemned incest without the Master of the Revel’s prompting, one does get the sense that he was sympathetic with the humanistic impulse behind the arguments made (by Giovanni) in defense of his relationship with Annabella. The very first words of the play begin thusly:
Enter Friar and Giovanni.
Friar Dispute no more in this, for know (young man)
These are no Schoolpoints; nice Philosophy
May tolerate unlikely arguments,
But Heaven admits no jest; wits that presumed
On wit too much, by striving how to prove
There was no God; with foolish grounds of Art,
Discovered first the nearest way to Hell;
And filled the world with devilish Atheism:
Such questions youth are fond; For better ’tis,
To bless the Sun, than reason why it shines;
In other words, like any perplexed parent when too cleverly challenged by their child: The Friar’s response is: Do it because God said so. And this was an absolutely legitimate theological argument in the medieval era (of which the Elizabethans were still a part). Even so, you will find strikingly modern thought.
What Judgement, or endeavors could apply
To my incurable and restless wounds,
I thoroughly have examined, but in vain:
O that it were not in Religion sin,
To make our love a God, and worship it.
I have even wearied heaven with prayers, dried up
The spring of my continual tears, even starved
My veins with daily fasts: what wit or Art
Could Counsel, I have practiced; but alas
I find all these but dreams, and old men’s tales
To fright unsteady youth...
Love to God or love to one another? The passage could have been written as a critique of arranged marriage, rather than incest. Do we owe primacy to love, to ourselves, or to societal norms and conventions? While incest might be the “libertarian ethicist’s” most extreme provocatoin, the tension between individual liberty and societal conventions is fiercely ongoing especially as regards gender, marriage, adultery, erotic fantasy and even pornography. At any rate, hundreds of years later Steinbeck will take up the same question in Grapes of Wrath, only this time it will be the “Friar” himself, in the shape of an old preacher, who loses religion.
An’ I got to thinkin’ like this—’Here’s me preachin’ grace’. An’ here’s them people gettin’ grace so hard they’re jumpin’ and shoutin’. Now they say layin’ up with a girl comes from the devil. But the more grace a girl got in her, the quicker she wants to out in the grass [have sex].’ An’ I got to thinkin’ how in hell, s’cuse me, how can the devil get in when a girl is so full of the Holy Sperit that it’s spoutin’ out of her nose an’ ears. ¶ Finally it give me such pain I quit an’ went off my myself an’ give her a damn good thinkin’ about. [….] I says to myself, ‘What’s gnawin’ you? Is it the screwin’?’ An’ I says, ‘No, it’s the sin.’ An’ I says, ‘Why is it that when a fella ought ot be just about mule-ass proof against sin, an’ all full up of Jesus, why is it that’s the time a fella gets fingerin’ his pants buttons?’ ¶ And it come night, an’ it was dark when I come to. They was coyotes squawkin’ near by. Before I knowed it, I was sayin’ out loud, ‘The hell with it! There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do. It’s all part of the same thing. And some things folks do is nice. and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say.” ¶ “I says. ‘What’s this call, this sperit?’ An’ I says, ‘Don’t you love Jesus?’ Well, I thought an’ thought, an’ finally I says, ‘No, I don’t know nobody name’ Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people. An’ sometimes I love ’em fit to bust, an’ I want to make ’em happy.’
Compare Ford’s “old men’s tales” to Steinbeck’s “just a bunch of stories”. The humanist questions are the same. Is it intrinsically wrong to sleep with ones sister? Is it intrinsically wrong to sleep with girls in the grass after baptizing them? Why shouldn’t we take pleasure in lust and love? Giovanni will make other ingenious arguments defending his incestual love, all while obliquely criticizing the absurdity of the religious arguments on which they’re based:
Giovanni Father, in this you are uncharitable;
What I have done, I’ll prove both fit and good.
It is a principle (which you have taught
When I was yet your Scholar) that the Fame
And Composition of the Mind doth follow
The Frame and Composition of Body:
So where the Body’s furniture is Beauty,
The Mind’s must needs be Virtue: which allowed.
Virtue itself is Reason but refined,
And Love the Quintessence of that, this proves
My Sister’s Beauty being rarely Fair,
Is rarely Virtuous; chiefly in her love,
And chiefly in that Love, her love to me.
If hers to me, then so is mine to her;
Since in like Causes are effects alike.
[Act II, Sc. v]
The friar’s impotent response is to call him a madman, though that would certainly have been sufficient for the censor. Likewise, many Elizabethans would have deemed Giovanni’s argument so absurd as to merit no other retort but madman. And what do the women say? Ford leaves that to Annabella’s older nurse and servant:
Putana Nay what a Paradise of joy have you passed under?
why now I commend thee, charge, fear nothing, sweetheart;
what though he be your Brother? Your Brother’s a
man I hope, and I say still, if a young Wench feel the fit upon
her, let her take anybody, Father or Brother, all is one.
[Act II, Sc. 1]
And that’s no argument at all. So frank and extreme is Putana’s amorality that I have to suppose it’s to make her later treatment, when her eyes are gouged out and she’s ordered to be burnt to ashes, more just and palatable.
Ford’s awareness of the hypocricies at work will make itself felt in the final scenes of the play when Soranzo, who has married Annabella unaware of her affair with her brother, demands to know who has already conceived a child in her—essentially robbing him of his prize.
Soranzo Tell me his name.
Annabella Alas, alas, there’s all
Will you believe?
Annabella You shall never know. Soranzo How!
If you do, let me be cursed.
Soranzo Not know it, Strumpet, I’ll rip up thy heart,
And find it there.
Soranzo’s servant will interrupt Soranzo and Annabella:
Vasques Now the gods forefend! And would you be her executioner, and kill her in your rage too? O ’twere most unmanlike; she is your wife, what faults hath been done by her before she married you, were not against you; alas Poor Lady, what hath she committed, which any Lady in Italy in the like case would not? Sir, you must be ruled by your reason, and not by your fury, that were unhuman and beastly. Soranzo She shall not live. Vasques Come she must; you would have her confess the Authors of her present misfortunes I warrant ’ee, ’tis an unconscionable demand, and she should lose the estimation that I (for my part) hold of her worth, if she had done it; why sir you ought not of all men living to know it: good sir be reconciled, alas good gentlewoman.
And what does Vasques mean by “you ought not of all men living to know it”? Vasques knows that Soranzo has slept with another man’s wife, Hippolita; and did so shortly before courting and marrying Annabella. Soranzo is a hypocrite of the first order, but ultimately Vasques’s efforts are also hypocritical. He only means to calm Soranzo long enough to trick Annabella’s servant, Putana, into revealing who it was that impregnated Annabella.
Before it’s all said and done, Annabella is murdered by her brother, another of Annabella’s suitors is mistakenly murdered by the servant of the man whose wife Soranzo has slept with. The wife, Hippolita, in attempting to exact revenge, is tricked into drinking from her own poisoned cup. Putana, Annabella’s servants, has her eyes gouged out and is burned as a heretic, Vasques is banished to Spain and poor Florio, the well-meaning, decent and honorable father of Giovanni and Annabella, dies of a heart attack during the death and blood-letting of the final banquet.
My final thought is to remark on the one passage that offers anything like poetry, and this is Ford’s Dante-esque description of Hell. Ford’s poetic muse seems to wake right up when it comes to Hell:
Friar I am glad to see this penance; for believe me,
You have unripped a soul, so foul and guilty.
As I must tell you true, I marvel how
The earth hath borne you up, but weep, weep on,
These tears may do you good; weep faster yet,
Whiles I do read a Lecture.
Annabella Wretched creature.
Friar Ay, you are wretched, miserably wretched.
Almost condemned alive; there is a place
(List daughter) in a black and hollow Vault,
Where day is never seen; there shines no Sun,
But flaming horror of consuming Fires;
A lightless Sulphur, choked with smoky fogs
Of an infected darkness; in this place
Dwell many thousand, thousand sundry sorts
Of never dying deaths; there damned souls
Roar without pity, there are Gluttons fed
With Toads and Adders; there is burning Oil
Poured down the Drunkard’s throat, the Usurer
Is forced to sup whole draughts of molten Gold;
There is the Murderer forever stabbed,
Yet can he never die; there lies the wanton
On Racks of burning steel, whiles in his soul
He feels the torment of his raging lust.
And that’s that. I leave you with a famous description of Ford by a contemporary:
Deep in a dump alone John Ford was gat,
With folded arms and melancholy hat.