Francis Beaumont & The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle is another one of those plays one always sees in anthologies of Elizabethan plays. So I had to read it. It’s one of the few plays currently thought to be written entirely by Francis Beaumont though one also finds it included in collections of plays by Beaumont & Fletcher. They were, in terms of their reputation, the Lennon & McCartney of their day. It was said that they lived together in the same room, share their hats and cloaks, and shared a “wench” between them. Beaumont was born in 1584, some 20 years after Shakespeare, but died the same year as Shakespeare. He lived a short life, aged only 31 or 32, but in the decades that followed, especially during the Restoration, his collaboration with Fletcher was thought to represent the pinnacle of Elizabethan drama. Reading Beaumont & Fletcher, it’s hard to fathom why they were ever considered Shakespeare’s superior, but both Beaumont and Fletcher’s poetry were more immediately accessible than Shakespeare’s.

It’s an interesting footnote that the Restoration era may have been responsible for mucking up, once and for all, one of Shakespeare’s lost plays—Cardenio. The play was a cause for excitement in the early 1700’s when Lewis Theobald, a lawyer by training with aspirations to write professionally, announced the discovery of a lost play by Shakespeare. Interestingly, he stated that one of his copies (he claimed to have three) was “in the handwriting of the prompter to Sir William D’avanant’s Duke’s company in the 1660’s”. This was exceedingly bad news because Sir William D’avenant, along with other restoration poets like Dryden and the infamously bungling Nahum Tate, couldn’t resist bringing Shakespeare up to the august standards of the Restoration. As an example of D’avenant’s “improvements”, consider the following from his rewrite of Measure for Measure:

Shakespeare

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: 'tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

And D’avenant:

Oh Sister, 'tis to go we know not whither.
We lie in silent darkness, and we rot;
Where long our motion is not stopt; for though
In Graves none walk upright (proudly to face
The Stars) yet there we move again, when our
Corruption makes those worms in whom we crawl.
Perhaps the spirit (which is future life)
Dwells salamander-like, unharmed in fire:
Or else with wandering winds is blown about
The world. But if condemned like those
Whom our uncertain thought imagines howling;
Then the most loathed and the most weary life
Which age, or ache, want, or imprisonment
Can lay on nature, is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

Let’s just take a little detour from Beaumont to explore all the ways that D’avenant goes wrong. You could also think of this as a brief lesson in the difference between great poetry and mediocrity.

Right away, and for some inexplicable reason, D’avenant has Claudio address his sister rather than the subject at hand. This is supremely ironic given the Restoration’s obsession with “manliness” because rather than Claudio turning the audience’s attention to the subject of death—”Aye, but to die”—D’avenant’s Claudio turns to his sister with something like a frightened cry or sigh for comfort: Oh Sister, he says.

Next comes D’avenant’s change of “To lie in cold obstruction and to rot” to “We lie in silent darkness, and we rot”. This is just wrong on so many levels. The genius of Shakespeare’s “lie in cold obstruction” resides in his contrasting “lie” with the implied inability to move—”cold obstruction”. It’s not that we just lie there, but that we are horrifically trapped by the cold, indifferent obstruction of the earth, earth that had erstwhile been warm and nurturing. This is the genius packed into Shakespeare’s horrific and kinesthetic imagery. D’avenant inexplicably strips out the kinesthesia, opting for the bland and mediocre “silent darkness”. But who doesn’t put babies down to sleep in “silent darkness”. D’aventant’s imagery utterly loses the horror of Shakespeare’s original. Not only that, but whereas Shakespeare’s cold obstruction is the cause of our body’s decomposition, D’avenant’s “and we rot” is only related to “silent darkness” by a comma. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lain down at the end of the day, having accomplished nothing with my life and thought to myself: “we lie in silent darkness, and we rot”. But morning brings a new day. Not so with Shakespeare. That cold obstruction is nothing you or I will ever escape.

In the next few lines Shakespeare doesn’t let up:

This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison'd in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world...

Shakespeare’s thought process, just have to say, is beautiful to observe. And one sees it over and over again. He reminds me of JS Bach in that he takes a single theme or idea, like a fugal subject, states it, than develops with an almost contrapuntal ease and precision. The theme that tantalizes Shakespeare’s imagination is “cold obstruction”—the implication of trapped motion. He immediately expands this thematic idea into “This sensible warm motion to become/A kneaded clod”. Do you see how this is just a restatement of “cold obstruction”? And it’s not enough to say that motion becomes a clod. The contrast of motion and immobility is constant. The word “sensible” implies motion and inquisitiveness, warmth contrasts with the cold of “cold obstruction”, while motion contrasts with “clod”. But describing our body as a lifeless clod isn’t enough. With the theme of motion and immobility working in Shakespeare’s mind, he writes “kneaded clod”. Kneaded implies motion, but paradoxically the kneading is the motion of earth’s obstruction, kneading our bodies, having become clay-like, with a cold indifference to our erstwhile “sensible warmth”.

From there, Shakespeare’s imagination moves from body to soul which, no less than the body, contends with contrasts—opposites always in the dramatist’s mind—with motion and immobility. It’s not enough to say that the “spirit is tormented by fire”, but Shakespeare combines opposites, applying the imagery of water to fire, by describing the soul as bathing in floods of fire. And it’s not enough that it’s the soul, but Shakespeare echoes the earlier imagery of the “sensible warm motion” with “the delighted soul”. On other words, the soul, capable of delight and warmth and motion, is tormented by just those qualities in the “warmth” of the firea and “motion” of the floods. And yet for all that, the soul, like the kneaded clod, is trapped, not in the earth, but in the floods of fire; the “thrilling”—again riffing on sensible—thick-ribbed ice, like the bars of a jail cell; and paradoxically imprisoned in the violent, restless, viewless—in the sense of both blind and without purpose—winds. Not even the earth is still in this paradox of the grave’s imprisonment and the soul’s violent motion. The earth is pendent, ceaseless in its cruel forward motion, burying all it gives birth to, like a remorseless clock.

It’s all there. This is why Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer who ever lived, because he could pack into a few lines of verse who paragraphs of meaning.

And then there’s D’avenant.

All of this is lost on D’vaenant. All of it. Like a Salieri revising Mozart, he tosses all of that out for the towering mediocrity of the following lines:

Where long our motion is not stopt; for though
In Graves none walk upright (proudly to face
The Stars) yet there we move again, when our
Corruption makes those worms in whom we crawl.
Perhaps the spirit (which is future life)
Dwells salamander-like, unharmed in fire:
Or else with wandering winds is blown about
The world.

He retains, as a faint echo, the driving force of Shakespeare’s imagery, the claustrophobic entrapment of the body and soul in the never ceasing motion and torment of death. But whereas Shakespeare drives Claudio’s thoughts forward in a single, driven, obsessive sentence, D’avenant turns Claudio’s cry into a pendantic disquisition interrupted by “for though”, and “yet there” and “perhaps” and “or else”, “but if”, turning Shakespeare’s Claudio into Rowen Atkinson’s Blackadder.

D’avenant first interrupts the cascading terror of Shakespeare’s speech by essentially putting a period after “Where long our motion is not stopt”. D’avenant understands that small part of Shakespeare’s imagery, that our motion doesn’t stop, but utterly misses the the paradoxical horror of both entrapment and violent motion captured by Shakespeare. Instead he makes the comically trite observation that no one walks upright in the grave whilst proudly facing the stars. Whereas Shakespeare draws us into the experience of death, appealing to our sense sight, organic and kinesthetic sensation, D’avenant draws us out of the experience by making us observers: “yet there we move again, when our Corruption makes those worms in whom we crawl”. The imagery is entirely visual. But then, most egregious of all (and probably the entire reason for D’avenant’s monkey-Jesus) is the following: “Perhaps the spirit (which is future life)/ Dwells salamander-like, unharmed in fire”. One has to assume that D’avenant’s religious and Restoration sensibilities were offended by the decidedly un-Christian fate of Shakespeare’s soul and worried for the sensibilities of the audience. D’avenant utterly undercuts the terror of Shakespeare’s passage by reassuring the audience that the soul remains our “future life” and nothing, after all, can harm it. In short, D’avenant sacrifices the dramatic effectiveness of Elizabethan Drama for the sake of 17th century religious prudery and propriety. It was a strain of piousness that would ruin much poetry in the 18th and 19th century. Finally, D’avenant closes this disastrous revision with the utterly bland and clichéd “wandering winds” rather than the powerful “viewless winds”—the latter suggesting both the invisibility of the winds but also the soul’s helplessness and purposelessness in such aimlessness.

Finally, whereas Shakespeare offers no hope, adding that the fear of death even drives us to imagine fates—too horrible!—worse than the worst we already imagine howling, D’avenant piously reassures us that such a fate only applies to the “condemned” by writing—”if condemned”. We can all relax. The Claudio of D’avenant’s play indulges in a mere rhetorical aside.

So, getting back to Beaumont and Fletcher, whose speed of thought and temperaments were much more congenial to the fastidious and pious Restoration poets, if a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher were to fall into their hands, which poet do you think they would edit out of the play? Well, it’s a curious thing, about Cardenio (or Double Falsehood) as it comes down to us through Theobald. The portions of the play that appear to be intact are Fletcher’s, whereas all those portions of the play that hint at Shakespeare:

I do not see that fervour in the maid
Which youth and love should kindle. She consents,
As 'twere, to feed without an appetite;
Tells me she is content and plays the coy one,
Like those that subtly make their words their ward,
Keeping address at distance. This affection
Is such a feign'd one as will break untouched;
Die frosty ere it can be thawed; while mine,
Like to a clime beneath Hyperion's eye,
Burns with one constant heat.

Or:

O do not rack me with these ill-placed doubts,
Nor think though age has in my father's breast
Put out love's flame, he therefore has not eyes,
Or is in judgement blind. You wrong your beauties.
Venus will frown if you disprize her gifts
That have a face would make a frozen hermit
Leap from his cell and burn his beads to kiss it,
Eyes, that are nothing but continual births
Of new desires in those that view their beams.
You cannot have a cause to doubt.

Bear all the marks of having been butchered by a poet like D’avenant or Tate. In short, the instinct of Restoration poets was to edit out the Shakespeare and to keep intact the Fletchers, Beaumonts and Massingers. And that’s why, for a period of time, the folios of Beaumont and Fletcher were more highly praised than those of Shakespeare.

Perhaps the only lines of Shakespeare that survive intact in Double Falsehood are the following:

Violante ...Home, my lord.
What you can say, is most unseasonable; what sing
Most absonant and harsh, nay, your perfume,
Which I smell hither, cheers not my sense
Like our field-violet's breath.
Henriquez Why this dismission
Does more invite my staying.

And why a D’avenant, a Tate, or possibly Theobald saw fit to leave these lines unmolested remains a mystery.

But getting back to Beaumont, most every discussion of Beaumont involves Fletcher to the same degree that discussions of Lennon involve McCartney. Beaumont is generally considered the greater poet, wrote the tragic and comic-satiric portions of any given collaboration and possessed greater insight into personality. Whereas Fletcher’s character’s were often plot driven, Beaumont’s plots were character driven. In A Short View of Elizabethan Drama, Thomas Marc Parrott and Robert Ball put it this way:

Fortunately the work of Beaumont is marked by such individual characteristics that it is comparatively easy to distinguish his hand from Fletcher’s, although when they worked together it is not always possible to assign a play scene by scene to one of the other. Beaumont’s verse is more regular than Fletcher’s, patterned apparently on the verse of Shakespeare in the The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar. It is marked by an abundance of run-on lines, and a frequent use of rhyme. As his mood changes from grave to gay, he shifts from verse to prose, which Fletcher seldom uses. A stronger mind, apparently, though younger than his friend, he seems to have been the guiding force in their collaboration. The serious, tragic, and pathetic scenes in their joint work are as a rule his: so too are the comic-satiric scenes, for Beaumont was a disciple of Jonson as well as a lover of Shakespeare.

p. 185-186

And it’s Beaumont’s comic-satiric gifts that shine in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The play is the first full length satire in the history of English drama. In it, Beaumont, ever the aristocrat at heart, lampoons and satirizes the tastes of the common London playgoers. What strikes me as applicable to our modern day? Anyone who watched the dramatization of Game of Thrones is probably aware of the fan-criticism that attended the close of series. Some fans went so far as to altogether rewrite the closing season. The Star Wars series has also been shaped by criticism from its audience—and to its detriment according to other fans and critics.

Some things never change. It was far from uncommon for Elizabethan audiences to interfere in the progress of the play and even confuse, then as now, the play with reality. Larry Hagman, who played JR on Dallas, was often accosted by fans who treated him as though he were the character. Elizabethan acting troupes, accustomed to such audiences, were always prepared to change the endings of scenes and plays on the spot. It was also
“not uncommon for an aspiring amateur to take over a leading part.” Ibid. 187. Authorial integrity mattered less to them than the income of a successful performance (unless you were Ben Jonson, who complained incessantly about the fools to whom he was forced to subject his plays ).

Beaumont’s play satirizes this impulse by having two characters, playing members of the audience (a citizen grocer and his wife), immediately interrupt the play, demanding that their own preferences and subject matter be adopted.

Enter Speaker of the Prologue. 
S. of Prol. From all that's near the court, from all that's great, 
Within the compass of the city-walls— 
We now have brought our scene—" 

Citizen leaps on the Stage. 

Cit. Hold your peace, goodman boy ! 
S. of Prol. What do you mean, sir ? 
Cit. That you have no good meaning : this seven years 
there hath been plays at this house, I have observed it, you 
have still girds at citizens; and now you call your play " 
The London Merchant." Down with your title, boy ! 
down with your title ! 
S. of Prol. Are you a member of the noble city? 
Cit. I am. 
S. of Prol. And a freeman? 
Cit. Yea, and a grocer. 
S. of Prol. So, grocer, then, by your sweet favour, we intend no 
abuse to the city. 
Cit. No, sir ! yes, sir : if you were not resolved to play 
the Jacks, what need you study for new subjects, purposely
 to abuse your betters? why could not you be contented,
 as well as others, with "The legend of Whittington," or "The
 Life and Death of Sir Thomas Gresham, with the building
 of the Royal Exchange," or "The story of Queen Eleanor, with
 the rearing of London Bridge upon woolsacks?
S. of Prol. You seem to be an understanding man : what
would you have us do, sir ?

And so it begins. The citizen and his wife (his wife who constantly mistakes the play for real events) ceaselessly interfere in the progress of the play going so far as to force the acting troupe to include their prentice, Ralph, as the character of the the Knight of the Burning Pestle. Now, if you read the opening above and scratched your head, saying to yourself—Well, I guess you had to be there—you’re in luck. Listen to this performance of the opening scene and tell me you don’t laugh:

It’s worthy of Monty Python, and this was written by Beaumont in 1608. And here’s Part 2.

Apparently, the play didn’t go ever well with Elizabethan playgoers. While playgoers may not have appreciated being the butt of the joke, I more suspect that they didn’t like the illusion of reality being constantly undermined. Audiences, then as now, probably wanted to forget themselves, to be swept up in the story, not constantly reminded that the play was just a put on and that they were all the dupes. Alas that Beaumont died at such a young age. Twenty years later the play was revived by the Queen’s Company with great success.

Being satire, and being primarily comedic, the play doesn’t give much scope for flights of poetry, but there’s a fun and charming moment when the grocer’s wife demands that Ralph Dance the Morris, at which Ralph randomly appears on stage dressed as a May-lord:

London, to thee I do present the merry month of May;
Let each true subject be content to hear me what I say : 
For from the top of conduit-head, as plainly may appear, 
I will both tell my name to you, and wherefore I came here. 
My name is Ralph, by due descent though not ignoble I 
Yet far inferior to the stock of gracious grocery ; 
And by the common counsel of my fellows in the Strand,
With gilded staff and crossed scarf, the May-lord here I stand. 
Rejoice, oh, English hearts, rejoice! rejoice, oh, lovers dear! 
Rejoice, oh, city, town, and country! rejoice, eke every shere! 
For now the fragrant flowers do spring and sprout in seemly sort, 
The little birds do sit and sing, the lambs do make fine sport; 
And now the birchen-tree doth bud, that makes the schoolboy cry; 
The morris rings, while hobby-horse doth foot it feateously; 
The lords and ladies now abroad, for their disport and play, 
Do kiss sometimes upon the grass, and sometimes in the hay; 
Now butter with a leaf of sage is good to purge the blood; 
Fly Venus and phlebotomy, for they are neither good; 
Now little fish on tender stone begin to cast their bellies, 
And sluggish snails, that erst were mewed, do creep out of their shellies
The rumbling rivers now do warm, for little boys to paddle; 
The sturdy steed now goes to grass, and up they hang his saddle; 
The heavy hart, the bellowing buck, the rascal, and the pricket, 
Are now among the yeoman's peas, and leave the fearful thicket: 
And be like them, oh, you, I say, of this same noble town, 
And lift aloft your velvet heads, and slipping off your gown, 
With bells on legs, and napkins clean unto your shoulders tied,
With scarfs and garters as you please, and " Hey for our town ! " cried.
March out, and show your willing minds, by twenty and by twenty,
To Hogsdon or to Newington, where ale and cakes are plenty; 
And let it ne'er be said for shame, that we the youths of London
Lay thrumming of our caps at home, and left our custom undone. 
Up, then, I say, both young and old, both man and maid a-maying, 
With drums, and guns that bounce aloud, and merry tabor playing!
Which to prolong, (Sod save our king, and send his country peace, 
And root out treason from the land ! and so, my friends, I cease.

I can’t help but hear a touch of Shakespeare, much admired by Beaumont. And that’s that. There’s much more one could write about The Knight of the Burning Pestle, including its parallels with Don Qixote (which by that time was just beginning to reach the wider populace in a new English language translation) but maybe that gives just a little taste.

The only other observation might be the relationship between the grocer and his wife. The wife’s enthusiasm and the grocer’s indulgence of his wife’s whims and enthusiasms bespeaks a relationship as loving and fun-loving as any portrayed in an Elizabethan play before or after—when it seems that all Elizabethan men and women could think of was killing each other. One gets the sense that we loved each other then just as much as now.

And with that I leave you with a lovely little line, a little piece of pure poetry, by Beaumont:

Sorrow can make a verse without a muse.

April 25th 2020 ❧ upinVermont

John Ford & ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

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.

Giovanni.
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?
Soranzo What?
Annabella You shall never know. Soranzo How!
Annabella Never,
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.

La!

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.