‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 2000
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 7. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Character overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 19
Content Level: (Level 4)

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‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore


First published in 1633, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is perhaps the most popular and frequently performed play by John Ford, whom many scholars consider the last major dramatist of the English renaissance.

As a dramatist, Ford faced a difficult challenge. He wrote ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore during the reign of King Charles (hence the term “Carolinian”) and worked to entertain audiences who had grown up on some of the greatest plays in the English language, those of Jonson, Marlowe, and Shakespeare, among others. According to some critics, since audiences thought they had already seen everything, it was incumbent on Ford to try to show them something they had not seen. This in part accounts for the extreme behavior we see in the characters in Ford’s plays.

’Tis Pity She’s a Whore tells the tale of an incestuous love between Giovanni and his sister Annabella that ends in disaster and death. Set in Parma, Italy, the story takes place against a background of lust, vengeance, and greed that serves as a critique of contemporary culture and morality.

Ford’s interest in aberrant psychology figures prominently in many of his plays. Influenced by the renaissance psychology of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Ford created characters with powerful emotions, strong intellects, and unbridled appetites.

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Critics have noticed the parallels between Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: both plays feature young lovers, forbidden love, a meddling nurse and friar, and a tragic ending—though Ford’s incestuous lovers added an extra twist not found in Shakespeare’s play. While some scholars criticize the violence in Ford’s plays as excessive, others praise him for realistically portraying profound—if disturbing—psychological truths.


John Ford, the second son of Thomas and Elizabeth Ford, was born in Ilsington, Devonshire, England, in 1586. The Fords were an old, well-to-do country family. While there is little information about Ford’s early life, it is known that he attended Exeter College, Oxford, from 1601-1602. At the age of sixteen, in 1602, he was admitted to London’s Middle Temple, where he studied law for several years, though there is no record of his having been called to the bar. The inns of court served as law schools as well as residences for young gentlemen, who also learned there the fine points of fashionable city and court life. During the years of Ford’s residence, such major literary talents as dramatists John Marston and William Davenant, and metaphysical poet Thomas Carew were affiliated with Middle Temple. Literary scholars believe Ford circulated among them, and through them knew poet John Donne’s family.

Between 1606 and 1620, Ford wrote several prose works, including Love Triumphant (1606), The Golden Mean (1613), and A Line of Life (1620). During his dramatic apprenticeship, he wrote and contributed to as many as eighteen plays, though seven have been lost.

Ford’s period of major collaboration, from 1621 to 1625, included writings with various playwrights. He worked with Thomas Dekker on The Fairy Knight (1624), The Bristow Merchant (1624), and The Sun’s Darling (1624). Ford, Dekker, and Rowley composed The Witch of Edmonton, which was produced at the Phoenix Theatre in 1621, while Ford, Dekker, Webster, and Rowley authored the nowlost A Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother; or, Keep the Widow Waking (1624).

Working independently, Ford wrote his major plays after 1625. He wrote for several theatrical companies, including the King’s Men at the Blackfriars and the Queens’ Men and Beeston’s boy-company at the Phoenix.

Robert Burton’s enormous The Anatomy of Melancholy, a Renaissance treatise detailing classical ideas about “humour” psychology, influenced Ford’s first independent play, The Lover’s Melancholy (1629). His other major dramatic works include Love’s Sacrifice (1633), The Broken Heart (1633), Perkin Warbeck (1634), and The Lady’s Trial (1638).

Ford’s interest in aberrant psychology figures prominently in many of his plays. In general, his most successful characters evidence dignity, courage, and endurance in the face of suffering. Though Ford’s plays deal with controversial themes such as incest and torture, he does so without being judgmental, neither condoning nor condemning, but rather, striving to offer an understanding of what a person experiencing such actions might think or feel.

Dating the performance history of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore proves difficult. Published in 1633, the play’s title page indicated that it had been “Acted by the Queenes’s Maiesties Seruants, at The Phoenix in Drury- Lane.” Quite logically, then, critics believe the play to be performed after the founding of the Queens’ company in 1626 and before its publication in 1633. Though published late in Ford’s career, however, some critics believe it may be the first play he wrote alone.

The details surrounding Ford’s death remain unknown, though most critics believe he died shortly after the 1639 publication of The Lady’s Trial.


Act I, scene i

The Friar and Giovanni discuss Giovanni’s incestuous love for his sister, Annabella. The friar, formerly Giovanni’s teacher when he studied at the university of Bologna, warns him of the seriousness of his sin, but Giovanni claims his passion remains beyond his control. The Friar believes that Giovanni, a good student of logic, uses logic to prove something sinful to be virtuous. The friar warns him that others who used logic “to prove / There was no God . . . /Discover’d . . . the nearest way to hell.”

When Giovanni begs for his advice, the Friar urges him to fast and pray, which Giovanni agrees Page 299  |  Top of Articleto try, though it fails to rid him of his incestuous love. He believes himself fated to love his sister and to pursue her love.

Act I, scene ii

Grimaldi and Soranzo are both wooing Annabella. Soranzo believes that Grimaldi is speaking badly about him to their mutual love. For this reason, he urges his servant, Vasques, to insult Grimaldi and pick a fight. Grimaldi refuses, recognizing the dishonor of dueling with someone of a lower social class, but Vasques presses his case and a duel ensues. As Vasques bests Grimaldi, Florio and Donado break up the fight. Soranzo explains his grievance against Grimaldi, all of which Annabella and Putana, her tutoress, witness. They compare Annabella’s various suitors, and Putana indicates she prefers Soranzo, though Annabella reveals no preference.

Bergetto, Donado’s foolish nephew, and his servant Poggio enter, and it is revealed that Bergetto too seeks Annabella’s hand. The scene ends as Giovanni enters and, after a soliloquy which reveals his incestuous infatuation, confesses his love to his sister Annabella. She replies that she loves him too, saying “Love me or kill me, brother” and they go off to consummate their incestuous relationship.

Act I, scene iii

Florio, Annabella’s father, discusses with Donado, Bergetto’s uncle, Annabella’s possible marriage with the foolish Bergetto. Florio looks favorably on Bergetto’s money but admits the choice lies with Annabella, saying “My care is how to match her to her liking.” After Florio leaves, Bergetto and his servant Poggio enter, talking nonsense about a magical mill and strange horse. Bergetto’s gullibility is revealed when he explains that he believes this nonsense to be true, because the barber swore so. Florio has sent Bergetto off to woo Annabella, but instead of winning her love, Bergetto shows himself to be a fool. Florio suggests he will write a love letter from Bergetto to Annabella, sending it along with a jewel.

Act II, scene i

Giovanni and Annabella, having made love, enter as though coming from their chamber. Giovanni discusses her possible marriage, while she replies that “all suitors seem to my eyes hateful.” He leaves and Putana enters. When Annabella confesses her incest with Giovanni, Putana condones it, explaining that “if a young wench feel the fit upon her, let her take anybody, father or brother, all is one.”

Florio enters with Richardetto and his niece Philotis, who carries a lute. Richardetto pretends to be a doctor from Padua because he suspects his wife Hippolita of being unfaithful—she has been conducting an affair with Soranzo. Richardetto sent word of his death, then returned in disguise to witness his wife’s behavior; the reason for Richardetto’s disguise is not disclosed in this scene, however. He introduces his niece to Annabella, who leaves to have a conference with Florio, her father.

Act II, scene ii

Soranzo enters, reading a book about love and pondering his affection for Annabella. Hippolita, Richardetto’s wife, and Vasques enter. Soranzo breaks off his affair with Hippolita. While her husband lived, Soranzo promised that in the event of her husband’s death, he would marry Hippolita. Now, however, hearing reports of Richardetto’s death, Soranzo reneges on his vow. Furious, Hippolita offers to reward Vasques financially and sexually if he helps her take her revenge on Soranzo. The servant pretends to agree.

Act II, scene iii

Richardetto explains to his niece Philotis that he has disguised himself as a doctor to discover his “wanton” unfaithful wife Hippolita’s “lascivious riots” with Soranzo.

After Philotis leaves, Grimaldi tells Richardetto of his love for Annabella, and Richardetto informs him that Soranzo stands in his way. Richardetto, pretending to be a doctor, offers to supply poison to help Grimaldi kill his rival, an action that would also serve Richardetto’s vengeful feelings toward Soranzo.

Act II, scene iv

Donado, Bergetto, and Poggio enter, discussing the love letter designed to help Bergetto win Annabella’s love. Bergetto, however, insists not only on writing his own letter, but also reading it to Annabella. Donado forbids this, and Bergetto and Poggio go off to see the fantastic horse which the barber described to him earlier.

Act II, scene v

The Friar listens to Giovanni’s confession of incest with his sister and tells him his actions threaten “eternal slaughter” (damnation). Giovanni Page 300  |  Top of Articlewittily misuses logic in an argument that proves his incestuous love to be virtuous. The Friar condemns his former student’s misuse of reason, and urges Giovanni to persuade his sister to marry another man. When Giovanni refuses, the Friar asks permission to talk with Annabella and, if he cannot convince her of the sinfulness of her relationship, at least to hear her confession.

Act II, scene vi

Donado hands Annabella a letter, with a jewel enclosed, which he has written, though the letter appears to be from his foolish nephew Bergetto. Annabella refuses the jewel, but Donado urges her to accept it; she then refuses the proposal of matrimony. She indicates that she gave Giovanni the ring her dead mother intended as a gift for her husband.

Bergetto and Poggio enter. Bergetto explains how he was beaten in a fight, aided by the “doctor” Richardetto, and flirted with by his niece Philotis. When Donado informs Bergetto that Annabella has refused him, he says, “what care I for that? I can have wenches enough in Parma for half-acrown apiece.”

Donado, Bergetto, and Poggio exit as Giovanni enters. Florio explains his pleasure that Annabella has refused Bergetto, as Florio prefers Soranzo. Left alone, Giovanni, jealous, orders Annabella to return Bergetto’s jewel.

Act III, scenes i-iii

Bergetto tells Poggio that he will woo Richardetto’s niece and “beget a race of wise men and constables.”

Florio offers Annabella to Soranzo, encouraging their marriage. Soranzo swears he loves Annabella, but she says she loves another, “as the fates infer.” She prefers to remain unmarried, but she promises that if she does marry, it will be to Soranzo. Annabella swoons and Florio sends for a doctor.

Putana tells Giovanni that Annabella’s not sick, but pregnant with his child and experiencing morning sickness. To protect her virtuous reputation, she must be kept from the doctor.

Act III, scenes iv-v

The “doctor” Richardetto pretends Annabella’s sickness is due to eating melons, but Florio knows what he implies when he urges her marriage to Soranzo.

Giovanni brings the Friar to see Annabella, to hear her confession. Florio urges the Friar to convince her to marry.

The “doctor” Richardetto gives Grimaldi the poison with which to kill Soranzo, who prepares to marry Annabella.

Richardetto prepares to marry Philotis to Bergetto for his money.

Act III, scenes vi-vii

The Friar meets with Annabella, describing to her the horrors of hell and urging her repentance. He tells her to break off her relationship with her brother and to marry Soranzo. She agrees. Giovanni looks on distraught as Annabella agrees to wed Soranzo.

Grimaldi enters, prepared with his poisoned rapier to murder Soranzo, when Bergetto and Philotis also enter. Grimaldi, mistaking Bergetto for Soranzo, stabs him fatally.

Act III, scenes viii-ix

Vasques informs Hippolita of Soranzo’s impending wedding. She offers Vasques an erotic reward for his help in revenging herself on his master, Soranzo.

The officer investigating Bergetto’s murder tells Florio and Richardetto that he saw the murderer, whom they identify as Grimaldi. Grimaldi tells the Cardinal of his mistake, however, and the Cardinal offers him papal protection.

Act IV, scene i

At the wedding feast, Giovanni refuses the drink a toast to celebrate Annabella’s marriage with Soranzo. Hippolita, disguised as a local maiden, enters with a group of ladies, who dance in celebration. Hippolita reveals herself and offers a toast to the newlyweds. She intends to offer Soranzo a poisoned cup, but Vasques, Soranzo’s loyal servant, switches the cups. Hippolita drinks the poisoned wine and dies.

Act IV, scene ii

Richardetto laments his wife’s death but expects justice to punish Soranzo as well, for “there is One / Above begins to work.” He orders his niece Philotis to return to Cremona and enter a convent as a nun.

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Act IV, scene iii

Soranzo, realizing Annabella is pregnant, confronts her and demands the name of her lover. She refuses, and they argue. Vasques enters, calms his master and secretly councils him to plot revenge and let him discover the child’s father. Annabella believes Soranzo and kneeling, begs his forgiveness.

Vasques convinces Putana that Soranzo will forgive Annabella if he knows her lover’s name, and Putana reveals that Giovanni is the child’s father. The Banditti enter and take Putana away to blind her.

Act V, scene i

Annabella repents and prays for someone to appear to hear her confession, just as the Friar passes. She gives him a letter to bring to Giovanni, “bid him read it and repent” and tells him that, because Soranzo has discovered the truth, Giovanni’s life is in danger.

Act V, scene ii

Soranzo and Vasques plot revenge against Annabella; they plan to have the Banditti murder her and Giovanni.

Act V, scene iii

The Friar gives Giovanni Annabella’s letter, written in her blood, which warns her brother that their secret has been discovered.

Vasques enters to invite Giovanni to Soranzo’s birthday party. The Friar warns Giovanni not to attend, but he insists he will go. The Friar decides to leave Parma.

Act V, scene iv

Soranzo and Vasques plan to allow Giovanni to encounter Annabella in Soranzo’s bedroom, then, hoping to catch them in the act of love-making, to have them killed by the Banditti.

Act V, scene v

Lying in bed, Giovanni talks with Annabella. Realizing the impossibility of their situation, he kills her and exits with her body.

Act V, scene vi

At Soranzo’s party, Giovanni enters with Annabella’s heart on his sword. He kills Soranzo, then fights the Banditti. Giovanni, wounded by Vasques, dies. Donado describes this turn of events as a “Strange miracle of Justice,” but instead of punishing Vasques for plotting Giovanni’s murder, the Cardinal banishes him. The Cardinal then confiscates all the “gold and jewels, or whatsoever . . . to the Pope’s proper use.” Richardetto puts aside his disguise and reveals himself. The Cardinal describes Annabella with the words of the title, ‘“Tis pity she’s a whore,” making no mention of Giovanni’s role in the incestuous affair.



Florio’s daughter, in love with her brother, Giovanni. In the course of her affair with Giovanni, she becomes pregnant and agrees to marry Soranzo to cover her transgression. Annabella confesses her incest to the Friar and writes a repentant letter to Giovanni. Soranzo discovers her pregnancy and vows to revenge himself on Annabella and her brother Giovanni at his birthday party. Before he can, however, Giovanni murders his sister, kills Soranzo, and dies fighting Vasques.


Donado’s nephew, Bergetto is dense and vulgar. Much of the play’s comic relief comes from his efforts to sue for marriage with Annabella. He is murdered by Grimaldi, who mistakes him for Soranzo.

Friar Bonaventura

A friar and Giovanni’s professor when he studied a the university. Bonaventura urges Giovanni to fight his incestuous feelings for his sister. When Bonaventura eventually encounters Annabella, he convinces her to repent and to break off the erotic relationship with her brother. When Giovanni refuses to listen to his advice, Bonaventura leaves.

The Cardinal

Nuncio to the Pope, the Cardinal protects Grimaldi though he knows he’s guilty of Bergetto’s murder. At the play’s end, the Cardinal confiscates the lovers’ property in the name of the church.


A citizen of Parma, Donado is Bergetto’s uncle. He hopes to marry his foolish nephew with Annabella by writing a love letter for him, but Bergetto insists on writing—and reading—his own letter. When

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  • The 1973 film version by Giuseppe Patrone Griffi, released by London’s Miracle Films, stars Oliver Tobias. While not an entirely faithful adaptation of the play, the film does retain the spirit of Ford’s original.
  • In 1962, BBC radio’s Third Programme presented a radio version of the play.
  • The BBC produced a second radio adaptation on Radio 3 in 1970.
  • Roland Joffe directed an adaptation of the play for BBC2 television in 1980. Joffe’s adaptation portrays Giovanni and Annabella, somewhat sympathetically, as rebels and condemns the hypocrisy of the mercantile, courtly, and religious society in which they live.

Bergetto’s wooing fails and she rejects him, he seems unfazed and goes off to find prostitutes.


A citizen of Parma, father to Giovanni and Annnabella. While he seems to have his children’s best interests at heart, telling a friend that he will not force Annabella to marry someone she does not want to, his ideas of “what is best” for his daughter are ultimately financial rather than emotional.


The son of Florio, Giovanni loves his sister, Annabella. They have an incestuous affair, by which she becomes pregnant. To conceal her affair, she agrees to marry Soranzo. In the end, Giovanni murders Annabella, enters Soranzo’s birthday feast with her heart on his sword, and fights the Banditti and Vasques, who ultimately kills him.


A Roman gentleman who loves Annabella, he conspires with Richardetto to murder Soranzo with a poisoned rapier. Richardetto, disguised as a doctor, agrees to help Grimaldi. Richardetto, who knows his wife Hippolita is having an affair with Soranzo, hopes to get revenge on his wife’s lover. When they carry out their plot, however, Grimaldi mistakenly kills Bergetto instead of Soranzo. He escapes justice for this crime when the Cardinal grants him immunity.


Richardetto’s unfaithful wife who is having affair with Soranzo. When rejected by Soranzo, she plans revenge with the help of his servant Vasques, offering him the reward of sexual favors and wealth for his help. In the event, he betrays her and remains loyal to his master Soranzo. Hippolita ends up killed when Vasques hands her the poisoned cup she intended for Soranzo.


Richardetto’s naive, subservient niece, she obeys her uncle in everything. First, he hopes she will marry Soranzo, then, he decides she must enter a convent. Without protest, she agrees.


Bergetto’s relatively loyal servant, Poggio seems to be smarter than his master, which under the circumstances is not that difficult. Also providing comic relief, he accompanies Bergetto on his fanciful adventures.


Annabella’s tutoress, she accepts the news of her mistress’s affair with her brother agreeably, saying she believes it is acceptable to have affairs with brothers, fathers, or anyone if the mood strikes. Tricked by Vasques into revealing the paternity of Annabella’s child, he has her bound and blinded.


Hippolita’s husband and Philotis’s uncle, Richardetto disguises himself as a physician in order to uncover his wife’s infidelities with Soranzo. He plots with Grimaldi to help him murder Soranzo. His motivation is revenge for Soranzo’s affair with Hippolita, but Richardetto, cold and calculating, does not get very upset when his wife dies.


A nobleman in love with Annabella, Soranzo is having an affair with Richardetto’s wife Hippolita. Soranzo marries Annabella, discovers she’s pregnant by her brother, and plans revenge for this Page 303  |  Top of Articlehumiliation. Before he can punish them, however, Giovanni kills Soranzo at his birthday party.


Soranzo’s loyal servant and formerly servant of his father, Vasques proves central to his master’s plan for revenge. Vasques pretends to plot with Hippolita to help her revenge herself on Soranzo in exchange for her money and sexual favors, but in the end he remains loyal to his master. He lies to Putana to discover the identify of the father of Annabella’s baby, then has Annabella’s tutoress bound and blinded. At the play’s end, the Cardinal exiles him instead of punishing him for his role in the plans for revenge and murder.



’Tis Pity She’s a Whore’s action revolves around love and marriage, though for Ford, the two are not necessarily synonymous. Florio indicates that his daughter Annabella may choose any suitor she loves. He encourages her match with Soranzo, however, for financial reasons rather than emotional ones. The same seems true of Richardetto, who hopes to marry his niece Philotis to Donado’s foolish but wealthy nephew Bergetto. Again, his aim is marriage not for love but for money. Ironically, the close family ties of the only two people who do seem to love each other—Giovanni and Annabella—prevent their incestuous love from being validated by society in marriage.


The play presents examples of many kinds of love. First, the obviously forbidden but powerful incestuous love—which may be better described as lust—between Giovanni and Annabella. Next is the adulterous love between Soranzo and Hippolita. Richardetto does not seem like either a loving husband or caring ward for his niece. His wife Hippolita’s love for Soranzo turns to murderous revenge. Her extreme passions lead to disaster, foretelling the play’s ending and the destruction of Giovanni and Annabella.

The play also offers examples of love for financial reward, a kind of mercenary love. Gimaldi and Bergetto want to marry Annabella, primarily for her money. Bergetto shows the presence of bawdy love in his discussion of prostitution. Finally, Soranzo and Giovanni, among other characters, discuss the ideals of “Neoplatonic” and “Courtly Love.” Their understanding of the ideals of love function ironically to elucidate their imperfect characters. Soranzo is overheard reading a courtly love sonnet, subsequently revealing that his attitudes toward love are not in the least courtly. Giovanni’s disingenuous arguments in favor of consummating his incestuous relationship with his sister stem in part from Neoplatonic ideas.


As in any story of crime and punishment, law and justice figure prominently in Ford’s tragedy. Complicating things here, though, is the fact that while the lovers may be wrong, no one else in their world seems right. The play offers no ethical standard or admirable role model. It is impossible not to see the irony when, at the play’s end, Donado describes the tragic turn of events as “strange miracle of justice.” After all, Annabella, who has repented, has been murdered. Vasques, who plotted the lovers’ murder, is freed by the Cardinal, who also grants a reprieve to Grimaldi, whom he knows to be guilty of murder. The Cardinal then confiscates the lovers’ property. While in the first act, the Friar says that “heaven is just,” there appears to be little justice in the world Ford presents.


Religion in the sense of sin and ethics plays a central role in the play, though religion as spirituality seems to offer no solutions to the lovers’ problems. While Bonaventura, the Friar, appears a relatively positive figure, his prayers and advice seem largely ineffectual and go unheeded by all save Annabella. Religion condemns the lovers’ actions, but the Friar’s advice offers little help and the actions of the other clerical figures seem overtly hypocritical—the Cardinal offers sanctuary to Grimaldi, a known murderer, and at the play’s end, takes possession of the lovers’ land in the name of the church. Overall, the play reveals religion not as spiritual and ethical but as worldly and corrupt.


Revenge Tragedy

As the name implies, a Revenge Tragedy is a play in which desire for revenge results in tragedy. Made popular in the Elizabethan period with plays

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  • Ford’s play can be read as a commentary on the corruption of the court and courtiers of his time. Analyze the play’s themes and characters in the context of late- Renaissance history. What do you believe Ford is saying about the politics of early- seventeenth century Britain? About contemporary kingship? Love? Ethics?
  • While it seems to some readers that Giovanni and Annabella freely choose to consummate their incestuous love, others believe—as does Giovanni himself—that they are fated to do so. Do you believe the lovers actions to be the result of free will or determinism? Cite evidence from the play to support your position.
  • While some may condemn the lovers’ actions, it is possible to partially sympathize with their plight. After all, they seem to exist in a world without ethical values: family, court, and church seem corrupt and greedy. In a world without ethics, where can individuals go to decide what is right and wrong, how to live their lives?
  • The case can be made that Ford’s dramatic literary style resembles the baroque style evident in the fine arts of the period. Research of the art history of the time will reveal many examples of these stylistic resemblances. You might begin with artists like Bernini, Carvaggio, and Gentileschi. Compare their visions with Ford’s.
  • How do Ford’s representations of incest compare with contemporary accounts? You might research psychologists or sociologists working with sexually abused children and compare their experiences with those related by Ford. In what ways does he present an accurate picture? What important details does he omit?

like Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, a sophisticated example of the form is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This dramatic subgenre is modeled on the Roman plays of similar themes, particularly the tragedies written by Seneca.

Courtly Love

The concept of courtly love first appears in the medieval period in the poetry of the Provencal troubadour poets. The idea is for the lover to woo the most worthy woman in the land, though this often was the queen or wife of a powerful man. Scholars debate as to whether this love ever was consummated, but an elaborate code of erotic language and practices grew up around it. The stereotypes of lovers losing sleep and appetite, are found in courtly love. A medieval example is Sir Gowain and the Green Knight, in which the lord’s wife attempts to seduce Sir Gowain. Other examples are the various Arthurian romances and sonnet sequences by such renaissance writers as Sidney, Surry, Wyatt, Shakespeare, and Spenser.


Neoplatonism refers to elaborations of Greek philosopher Plato’s ideas which develop from late classicism into the nineteenth century. Though complicated, in general they suggest (1) that this physical world is not real but a fallen reflection of an ideal world of “Forms” which exists beyond it; and (2) that a relationship exists between beauty and ethics, that the reason humans seek beauty in this physical world is because it reminds them of the good they experienced in the ideal world. Examples of these notions pervade Medieval, Renaissance, Neoclassical, and even Romantic philosophy and literature.

The Four Humours

According to Humour psychology, the balance of four bodily fluids determines human personalities. Unusual or “humourous” people have an imbalance in either blood, phlegm, yellow bile, or black bile. Too much blood makes a person sanguine, Page 305  |  Top of Articlehappy and amorous; yellow bile makes a person choleric, stubborn, and impatient; too much phlegm results in a phlegmatic personality—dull and cowardly; while excesses of black bile made a person melancholy, introspective, and sentimental.

Robert Burton, whose Anatomy of Melancholy explores the relationship between love and the humours, strongly influenced Ford. The theory also aids in the categorization of various Renaissance characters (in Shakespeare, for example, Hamlet is melancholy, Hot Spur is choleric, etc.). In time, the Comedy of Humours developed, which pokes fun at characters driven by one aspect of their personalities, resulting in the meaning of the word humor today.


When Ford’s drama is read, there is frequently the suspicion that the playwright is exaggerating, that no society could be as unstable and corrupt as that of the Parma he depicts. While parts of the play—particularly Annabella’s death at the end—seem extravagant (and, as some critics might say, “baroque”), the historical moment which produced Ford’s dramas was a contentious one. To better understand the reign of King Charles I, who ruled when Ford wrote his “Caroline” dramas, a history of England’s earlier kings is necessary.

When Henry VII died in 1509, he left England on relatively sound financial footing, but his son, Henry VIII, through expensive foreign wars and uninhibited personal spending, began the dangerous trend of running a deficit. The question arose as to who would pay off the deficit. Those paying the increased taxation soon wanted more say in how the king spent their money. By the seventeenth century, a split developed between the king and elements of the landed classes—the land owners represented in Parliament—that, during the reign of King Charles I, resulted in civil war in 1642 and the king’s beheading in 1649.

During this tempestuous period, when people discussed political theory, it frequently took the form of a debate between Royalism and Republicanism. The Royalists believed in monarchical absolutism

The title page from a publication of John Fords Tis Pity Shes a Whore The title page from a publication of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

(the absolute power of the king), while Republicans, influenced by the relatively democratic examples of classical Athens and contemporary Italian city states like Florence, Sienna, and Venice, argued for a balance of power between the executive branch—the king—and the legislature—the Parliament—in a form of representative democracy. Interest in Italy in part accounts for Ford’s setting the play in Parma.

Religion complicated these economic and political considerations. In 1517, Martin Luther’s “Wittenberg Theses” began the Protestant Reformation, which lead to breaks with the Catholic Church. In 1534, Henry VIII himself broke with Rome (the seat of the Catholic Church), primarily because of the Pope’s failure to annul the king’s childless marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In the 1534 Act of Supremacy, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the English Church. Religion remained a divisive issue, though, as Henry’s son Edward VI continued England’s move toward Protestantism, a trend violently reversed after his death by the Catholic Queen “Bloody” Mary.

In 1558, Queen Elizabeth took the throne, steering a militantly centrist path between English Catholics

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  • 1633: The wealthy have more access to official outlets of justice like the law courts than the poor. Wealth is no guarantee of power, though, and court politics play a significant role in who receives punishment for which crime. For the poor, riots offer the most popular means of protesting issues like rising food prices or rent. Since Britain will not have a police force until the mid- nineteenth century, vigilantism and revenge are popular avenues to justice.

    Today: Revenge still remains a prominent theme in popular books and films, particularly those featuring a vigilante hero or heroine. Generally, however, most people tend to believe in institutional justice, expecting that the courts will decide on issues of crime and punishment. This in part accounts for the popularity of films and television shows about police departments or lawyers.

  • 1633: The church did not officially define and condemn incest until the thirteenth century, but because large families shared small quarters and often beds, incest still occurred. In Britain, however, as many as 60% of the boys and 75% of the girls between puberty and adulthood grew up living with employers, relatives, or family connections rather than with their parents. This may have been one way of minimizing the temptation to commit incest.

    Today: Incest is viewed as a form of child sexual abuse often related to broader family problems. Most sexual abusers were themselves abused as children; while as adults they may be sexual predators, as children they were victims. This does not mitigate their offense, but it does help psychologists treat sexually abused children in hopes of helping them avoid abusing their own children when they become adults.

and traditional “High Church” Anglicans on one hand, and reformist “low church” Dissenters and Puritans on the other. While all these religious issues seem complicated, they help explain Ford’s negative representations of the Catholic Friar and Cardinal. It also helps explain why within the play, religion itself—about which different people may hold different beliefs—fails to offer any absolute standard of ethical conduct.

Ford himself was born in 1586, one year before Protestant Elizabeth’s execution of Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and two years before Protestant England’s invasion by Catholic Spain’s Armada. In 1601, when Ford was just fifteen, the rebels involved in Essex’s rebellion against Elizabeth captured one of Ford’s relatives. After the queen’s death and the coronation of James I in 1603, Ford and his fellow law students would have followed the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh. This grossly unfair proceeding, actually a referendum on Raleigh’s belligerent aggression toward Catholic Spain in the New World, ended with his execution in 1618. In 1605, Catholic conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot attempted to blow up the king and Parliament.

Decker Roper provided another example in which the history of the moment is not much stranger than the fiction of Ford’s drama. The new Earl of Essex married Francis Howard, but the marriage was annulled to enable Frances to marry the Earl of Somerset, a favorite of King James. Thomas Overbury, who attended the Middle Inns with Ford and who condemned these actions, found himself imprisoned in the Tower, where Somerset and his new wife poisoned him. Some think Ford contributed to a collection of elegiac poetry marking Overbury’s death.

The religious and political conflicts of Ford’s day prove as dramatic as his fiction. While critics Page 307  |  Top of Articlehave not been able to identify exact historical sources for Ford’s characters, the anxieties about marriage and power, about religion and ethics, about the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie play significant roles in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.


As might be expected of a play that deals with incest, critical response to Ford’s drama was often intense. Contemporary critical views that paint ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore as decadent or psychological follow the opinions of two important nineteenth century critics, William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, according to Mark Stavig in John Ford and the Traditional Moral Order. For Hazlitt, Ford was “a decadent romantic who delighted in melodramatic plots, licentious scenes, and revolt against the established moral order.” Lamb focused less on Ford’s ethics, believing that “at his best he is a profound and objective analyst of human behavior who portrays a higher morality that stresses the elevating effect of love and the nobility of endurance in time of adversity.”

It is easy to see why the Hazlitt school sees Ford as decadent. After all, most critics believe ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore to be the first play in English to take incestuous lovers as its main protagonists and treat them with some sympathy. The question becomes, why does Ford choose this kind of subject matter? In The Problem of John Ford, H. J. Oliver believed that after generations of powerful drama, Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences (those who lived during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James) had become jaded to the dramatic conventions of the time, requiring Caroline dramatists (who wrote during the reign of King Charles) to present bolder plots and characters. “That is why the Caroline dramatist turned more and more for his subject matter to the daring, the immoral, the unnatural; that is partly why Ford, among others, sought subjects like incest and adultery and was content to have Giovanni appear with Annabella’s bleeding heart on his dagger.”

Elizabethan dramatists influenced the writers who came after them, and William Shakespeare’s influence looms large in Ford’s major dramas, particularly Othello, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. In ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the accidental murder of the foolish Begatto instead of Soranzo is reminiscent of Hamlet’s accidental killing of the foolish Polonius instead of Claudius. Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius as he prays for forgiveness but does not, wanting instead to enact his revenge at a moment when the murderer’s sins on his soul will damn him to hell. A similar action occurs at the end of Ford’s drama, when Soranzo allows Giovanni to be alone with Annabella, hoping they will act lustfully and then be killed by Soranzo in the midst of an incestuous act.

To many critics, though, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore seems in many ways an incestuous retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Comparing the two plays, many of the same characters and conflicts arise: young lovers, forbidden love, a meddling nurse and friar, and tragedy all around.

Paul Cantor wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Ford takes the potentially hackneyed theme of star-crossed young lovers and gives it a new twist by making the Romeo and Juliet of his play brother and sister.” One difference, though, is that “Annabella’s father, unlike Juliet’s, makes it clear that he will not force her into a marriage against her wishes.” Because contemporary society is largely a world which endorses marriage for love, “Ford must search for a form of love that will not have the endorsement of society,” in this case, incest. Other critics believed that Annabella’s father Florio only gives lip-service to her marrying for love, for he actually urges her to love the richest and most socially elevated suitor, Soranzo.

As indicated above, popular demand in part explains Ford’s technique of offering controversial reworkings of familiar plots. Cantor wrote that “Ford’s attraction to normally taboo themes, such as incest, may be accounted for by his need to get the attention of audiences who thought they had already seen everything there was to see on the stage.” Another reason Ford may have selected such controversial subject matter for his dramas is that such powerful characters and emotions allowed him to explore the sometimes dark and dangerous depths of the human psyche. This generally follows the Lamb school’s opinion of Ford, a dramatist who to Leech reveals a “preoccupation with strange and perilous human conduct.”

This moral interrogation and psychological introspection seems a product of the times. In Elizabethan and Jacobean, F. P. Wilson wrote that what “distinguishes the Jacobean age from the Elizabethan is its more exact, more searching, more detailed inquiry into moral and political questions and its interest in the analysis of the mysteries and Page 308  |  Top of Articleperturbations of the human mind.” As Oliver noted, “inquiry, analysis—these interest the Jacobean writers, these rather than incident.”

What audiences see in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, according to Clifford Leech in John Ford, is that Ford “had a profound understanding of suffering, and an ability to present it in dramatic poetry; he had a deep interest in abnormal conditions of the mind . . . he had a high ideal of human conduct, a reverence for love and fidelity and the relation of man and women in true marriage.”

This understanding and reverence leads Ford to allow “Giovanni to make an unusually spirited and eloquent defense of forbidden love,” according to Cantor. “Moreover, Giovanni and Annabella are by far the most vibrant characters in the play, and, even though their love destroys them, there are strong suggestions that they have in the process attained an intensity of experience from which the crassly conventional characters in the play are barred.” So the line separating the rewards and evils of the lovers’ incestuous transgression becomes blurred; physically and emotionally, their love offers powerful satisfactions, but society sees it as sinful and it precipitates their mutual destruction. That society, though, is emotionally decadent, morally corrupt, and spiritually bankrupt. The play offers not positive example of true love or happy marriage.

This raises points of similarity between Ford’s play and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, wrote Cantor. In both plays, “the protagonists are overreachers and perish in their attempt to go beyond the limits of normal humanity, but the forces which oppose them in the scheme of the play hardly have a solid moral basis in their opposition, being involved as they are in a shabby web of sexual intrigue and assassination plots.”

What then does a viewer make of Ford’s dramatic choices? Is he presenting audiences with a decadent world in order to endorse or condemn adherent behavior? Another way to ask this question is: what did Ford really believe? Derek Roper, in his introduction to the play, traced Ford’s ideas to his early writing, which reveal three tendencies: “romantic and Platonic love, a Calvinistic kind of Protestantism, Stoic beliefs and the cult of honour.” All of these concepts figure prominently in the characters and conflicts in Ford’s later dramas.

In John Ford, Leech usefully identifies the playwright’s debt to Queen Henrietta Maria’s cult of Platonic Love. According to Leech, Ford saw Platonic love as a logical impossibility, realizing that “the courtly code was at odds with human nature and its demands . . . Ford’s plays are commonly studies of a passion which is inclusive and destructive. . . . His lovers may talk of their passion in ideal terms, but there is always in them a full drive toward coition: it is this which commonly destroys them.”

For Stavig, a reading of Ford’s early works offers insight into his Christian humanist morality. Ford’s writings, drawing heavily on the classical ethics of such writers as Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca, urges people to trust virtue more than fortune. Ford’s stoicism demands a balance between reason and passion, with love being the most difficult passion to control. Roper, however, warned about the difficulty in ascertaining Ford’s beliefs, as opposed to those of his characters. “His dedications may suggest some sympathy for those noblemen who felt deprived of their rightful influence in government by royal favorites; and some plays show admiration for aristocratic attitudes, particularly dignified defeat.”

Finally, several critics praised Ford’s use of language and skillful creation of poetry itself. Leech for one believed that Ford wrote “in a time when poetic drama was in decay, and he shows what could be done by a playwright whose purpose needed poetry but would have been ruined by an ostentatious display of the merely ‘poetic.’” Poet T. S. Eliot, writing in Selected Essays, continued in this strain, admiring Ford’s poetry, particularly “that slow solemn rhythm which is Ford’s distinct contribution to the blank verse of the period. . . . The varieties of cadence and tone in blank verse are none too many, in the history of English verse; and Ford, though intermittently, was able to manipulate sequences of words in blank verse in a manner which is quite his own.”


Arnold Schmidt

In this essay, Schmidt examines ethics, particularly in regard to the concepts of incest and greed, as they are presented in Ford’s play.

In many ways, Ford’s play is a difficult one with which to come to terms. On one level, that of plot, it seems rather obvious and scandalous at that. The play tells the tale of Giovanni and Annabella, a

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  • Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1594) tells the tragic tale of a gifted man who rejects social and moral boundaries and ends in destruction. In the same way that Giovanni flaunts social mores and commits incest with his sister, Faustus sells his soul to the devil in exchange for forbidden knowledge and power. Both plays critique the ideal of Renaissance individualism; in both, excessive independence and intellectual pride lead to death.
  • Mathilda (written in the nineteenth century but first published in 1959) a short novel by Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, also treats the incest theme boldly, though the act itself remains unconsummated. The novel tells the story of a father whose wife dies and who begins to have erotic feelings for his daughter, who reminds him so much of his dead wife. Fearing he may succumb to temptation, he leaves the daughter and dies.
  • Director John Sayles offers another representation of incest in his 1995 film Lone Star. Sayles tells the story of policeman investigating a murder which may have been committed by his father, a former police officer. Here, though the incest is consummated, its significance becomes symbolic of relationships between the United States and Mexico.
  • Other Renaissance revenge tragedies. These plays, as their name suggests, begin with a deed—a crime or injustice—which must be revenged. The most famous of these are Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, though there is also what critics call the “Tragedy of Blood” seen in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and The White Devil.

brother and sister, who consummate an incestuous relationship which ultimately destroys them, as well as others. Problems for the audience arise when we start to consider the characters’ actions in the context of the play itself. For one thing, while the lovers may appear to be villains—after all, their actions are condemnable—the play offers heroes. No character seems entirely worthy of our admiration, and even those who have some good qualities—Friar Bonaventura, for example—remain ineffectual and unable to change things for the better. Most of the other characters are greedy and unscrupulous, even murderous! How then are we to understand the meaning of transgression and ethics in Ford’s play?

We can begin by considering ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore in light of Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, as laid out in his Poetics. By now, his theory may be familiar: tragedy tells the story of the fall of a socially or morally elevated person, through a combination of fate and flaw. The “tragic flaw” may be desire for power, as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which leads the title character and his wife to murder and destruction; or revenge, as in such “revenge tragedies as Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Giovanni’s tragedy, however, more closely resembles that of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, whose intellectual pride leads him to believe that he can outsmart the Fates and avoid his destiny of murdering his father and marrying his mother. A closer parallel, though, might be Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, in which the highly educated doctor sells his soul to the devil in exchange for greater knowledge and power.

While Giovanni believes his predicament to be the product of his fate, he actually seems to use fate as an excuse to justify his tragic flaws of uncontrollable lust and intellectual pride. A brilliant student trained in logic, Giovanni’s scholastic intellect leads him to atheism. In a conversation with Annabella, Giovanni reveals how his faith in reason has undermined

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his religious faith: “The schoolmen teach that all this globe of earth / Shall be consum’d to ashes in a minute / . . . But ’twere somewhat strange / To see the waters burn: could I believe / This might be true, I could believe as well / There might be hell or Heaven.” We see that he has faith, not in the power of God but the power of reason, which leads him to atheism, pride, and, ultimately, death.

In part, Giovanni’s problems stem from his wilful misreading of Renaissance ideas about Platonic love, which posits an equality between the beautiful and the good. Things that seem physically beautiful on the surface merely manifest a deeper, spiritual goodness. This explains our attraction to physical beauty: we seek the beautiful as a way of reaching the good. Consider the ideas presented in one of the most influential Renaissance texts, Baldesar Castiglione’s broadly Neoplatonic The Courtier: “Gracious and sacred beauty is the supreme adornment of everything; and it can be said that in some manner the good and the beautiful are identical . . . the proximate cause of physical beauty is . . . the beauty of the soul. . . . Therefore beauty is the true trophy of the soul’s victory.”

Giovanni’s inability to control his lust, as Castiglione might explain, lies in the fact that the largely reasonable soul finds itself trapped in the “earthly prison” of the body. There, “deprived of spiritual contemplation, the soul cannot of itself clearly perceive the truth when it is carrying out the duties of governing the body,” which can be manipulated by passion. Beauty attracts admiration, but “the mind is seized by desire for the beauty which it recognizes as good.” Guided by the senses, the body “falls into the gravest errors” and mistakenly believes that beauty results from the beautiful body, rather than the ethical soul within. By the play’s end, the unrepentant Giovanni still has not learned this lesson, though Annabella has come to associate beauty and ethics, saying, “Beauty that clothes the outside of the face / Is cursed if it be not cloth’d in grace.”

Earlier in the play, Giovanni and Annabella make this mistake, justifying their error by believing that Fate has created their tragic situation. As Giovanni says, denying at least in part the truth, “’tis not, I know, / My lust, but ’tis my fate that leads me on.” While their mutual attraction may have been fated, though, their acting on that attraction clearly requires at least in part some exercise of free will. Fate drives their love, but they make the disastrous choice of consummating it. As the earlier Castiglioine writes, while young lovers may fall victim to their passions, the desires of “mature lovers . . . [are] guided by rational choice . . . [and so] possess completely the beauty they love.”

Giovanni and Annabella’s immaturity prevents them from restraining their unreasonable passion. Worse, where Giovanni’s reason should control his passion, instead his reason makes matters worse. In his initial discussion with Friar Bonaventura, Giovanni justifies the superiority of incestuous love over socially accepted forms of affection. He says, “Say that we had one father, say one womb / . . . gave both us life and birth; / Are we not therefore each to other bound / So much the more by nature, by the links / Of blood, of reason—nay, if you will have’t, / Even of religion.” Giovanni’s intellectual pride drives him to employ logic and argument to justify his incestuous desires, rather than to inhibit them.

Giovanni’s misuse of “natural” reason to justify his “unnatural” love for his sister raises the play’s key issue: what might the incest itself symbolize? If love in the broadest sense indicates a relationship of connection and responsibility, then there are resemblances between and among the various kinds of love: parental love of children, filial love of siblings, erotic love, and the “love” of a ruler for his people. Considering the play in the context of contemporary events sheds light on the significance of the “unnatural” in social relations.

First, how does Ford represent the love of parents for children? While some critics believe Annabella’s father Florio truly wants her to marry for love and happiness, others argue that he merely offers lip-service to a love match, actually urging her union with the richest and most socially elevated suitor, Soranzo. Significantly, Ford’s play dramatizes the conflict between romantic marriage for love and mercenary marriage for profit. Overall, marriage seems a poor option of Annabella, whose Page 311  |  Top of Articlebad luck leads to being pursued by a host of undesirable suitors: the unfaithful Soranzo, the cowardly Grimaldi, and the foolish Bergetto. Only Giovanni, her brother, seems to love her truly, and society prohibits their attractions. And Florio is not the only parent urging marriage on a child for solely monetary gain. Donado too actively tries to marry Annabella to Bergetto, whom he knows to be a fool.

Throughout the play, reason is the target and paradox the tool, as the foolish act reasonably and the reasonable act foolishly. Bergetto, whose uncle wants him to marry for money, is refused by Annabella, but he says he can buy women any time he wants—he speaks truly about loveless mercantile matrimony, which, like prostitution, exchanges money for sex. Her uncle, who prefers she marry the honorable Soranzo, is foolish were he to know what we the audience knows, that Soranzo is unfaithful and vindictive. Throughout the play, however, Ford presents examples of tainted love: Hippolita’s for Soranzo is adulterous, Hippolita’s offer of sex as payment to Vasques resembles prostitution. Grimaldi’s woos Annabella primarily because of money. The only love that seems true, at least in part, is that between Giovanni and Annabella; though incestuous, it is, after all, based on a long-term friendship, real emotional contact, and passion.

The “unnatural” love of Giovanni and Annabella extends, at least symbolically, to the corrupt love of parents for children, which they express solely in terms of monetary gain, rather than emotional happiness. We can extend that metaphor even further and see that corruption disrupted the “natural” relations people had from the Middle Ages come to expect between their court and their king. As we will see, due to the Carolinian court’s corruption, the ideal courtier did not receive reward, while the well-connected, manipulative one did.

According to D. M. Loades’s Politics and the Nation, 1450-1660, by the early- seventeenth century, a “‘conspiracy of rich men’ now consisted in the swarm of favourites and parasites who swarmed around the king . . . the court in many respects resembled a market [for royal patronage], where prices and profits were both high and the competition fierce and unscrupulous.” It is this courtly world which Ford satirizes: corrupt, mercenary, unethical. Though these groups of influential men did not make up political “parties” in the modern sense, they did create a divisive sense of “faction”—high church, low church, old money, and new—among the courtly classes. These divisions ultimately contributed to the civil war in 1640 and King Charles’s beheading in 1649.

As we have seen, when parents urge their children to marry, not for happiness, but for money, those parents violate their responsibility and corrupt their love. The same seems true when the court reeks of corruption and the king rewards, not good deserving men, but those with political connections. All of these corruptions of paternal, filial, and social “love” are “unnatural” in that they violate the “natural” emotional, ethical connections and responsibilities each love requires. In this way, they resemble incest, which some might say also violates the “natural” order.

As Derek Roper pointed out in his introduction to ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the play’s “overt narrative . . . tells of the downfall of two guilty lovers, but inscribed within this narrative is another telling of the destruction of love and trust in a world where such things are rare.” While the play does not forgive the lovers’ incest, it emphasizes the corruption of the society which condemns the lovers. Parma’s commercial interests, personified by Donado and Florio, behave in a greedy and underhanded manner. The noble classes, represented by Richardetto, Soranzo, and Grimaldi, also appear vain and manipulative. Members of the clergy fare little better. Because of Grimaldi’s court connections, the Cardinal hypocritically protects the Roman, who has just committed murder. At the play’s end, when the Cardinal condemns the lovers’ incest as sinful, he also takes their property.

All of these corruptions share one thing in common: they all prefer material gain to emotional connection. As merchants, nobles, clergy, or parents, they consistently value money over love. If marriage for money is a form of socially sanctioned prostitution, on what ethical basis can a hypocritical and mercenary society condemn true love that is incestuous? While the play certainly does not justify incest, it does challenge the conventional organization of social and sexual relations. Giovanni and Annabella’s love may be called sinful and lust, but they willingly face social condemnation in order to consummate it. Through seriously flawed, in some ways they seem superior to those around them who never act for love but only for material gain.

Source: Arnold Schmidt, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Robert Brustein

Brustein is one of the best-known theatre critics of the late twentieth century. In this essay, he Page 312  |  Top of Articlereviews a 1992 production of Ford’s play. While finding that there is much to recommend in the production, the critic ultimately finds fault with director Joan Akalaitis’s efforts to contemporize the play.

JoAnne Akalaitis’s first production as the New York Public Theater’s artistic director displays her virtues in abundance—alas, the defects of those virtues too. Her version of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is undeniably terrific to look at. Set in Fascist Italy during the ‘30s, the production has a design by John Conklin that proves to be the best performance on stage—a compound of futurist and surrealist elements that ravish your eye while demonstrating how easily art can become a slave to tyranny. As interpolated cries of “Duce” fill the air and posters extolling God, Country, and Family materialize between the Roman arches of the stage, Conklin rolls out huge cutouts of a child’s hands, anonymous nude women, and tearful faces inspired by de Chirico, Marinetti, Dali, and other artists of the time.

Akalaitis shows no squeamishness about exploring the sanguinary aspects of ’Tis Pity—a repertory staple in Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. Her finest moment, along with the blinding of Putana, is the culminating blood bath, when Giovanni, arriving with his sister’s heart impaled upon his dagger, participates in another three or four deaths, including his own. The stage is literally awash in gore, the impact so full of horror that, for once in the history of this play, the audience refrained from laughing.

She is less successful in extracting the theme of the work, which is offered as an object lesson in the brutalization of women by macho males (including Giovanni—who writes an anti-female obscenity in blood on the wall of Annabella’s room). Women are certainly treated badly in ’Tis Pity, but so is everyone. Ford wrote this incestuous version of Romeo and Juliet less to make a feminist point than to demonstrate (years in advance of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky) that when God is dead, anything is possible. The abnormal love of Giovanni and Annabella is about the only redeeming feature in a world of social, political, and religious corruption, and when he takes her life at the end, Giovanni is taking the only course left to him, monstrous though it is.

Missing from Akalaitis’s interpretation is not only Giovanni’s towering intellect (the Friar describes him as a “miracle of wit”), but his motivating narcissism. He loves his sister largely because she’s his twin—as one commentator says, they make love in a mirror and take identical vows. As played by Val Kilmer, however, he is simply an edgy, sulky, shambling boy, while Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Annabella, befitting her victim status, is too subdued. Neither of these characters evokes much pathos, though the greatness of the play lies in the way the playwright redeems their corruption from an even more corrupt time. Their last scene together has virtually no love, warmth, or reconciliation, when it should be breaking your heart. Because these are actors well trained for the stage (and not just for close-ups in The Doors and Basic Instinct), one has to conclude that Akalaitis has misdirected them, especially since virtually all the other roles—with the intermittent exceptions of Erick Avari’s Vasques and Jared Harris’s Soranzo—are indifferently performed. No one on stage reveals an interior life, and the comic scenes are execrable. “This part has been scurvily played,” says one of the characters about another in the play, and he might have been indicting almost the entire cast.

Still, the event is well worth seeing just for the brilliance of its colors and the boldness of its approach. Akalaitis may be wrongheaded and reductive to make this great seventeenth-century classic conform to contemporary feminist views, but the force of her commitment and her remarkable imagination must compel respect. Much more thought, preparation, and sweat went into the making of this blood-soaked masterpiece than hasty opinions can do justice to.

Source: Robert Brustein, review of ’Tis a Pity She’s a Whore in the New Republic, Vol. 206, no. 19, May 11, 1992, pp. 32-33.

Mimi Kramer

Kramer reviews a 1992 production of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which updates the setting to Fascist Italy. The critic offers praise for the cast and production as well as for the director’s interpretation of Ford’s portrayal of male and female values.

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Source: Mimi Kramer, “Victims,” in the New Yorker, Vol. 68, April 20, 1992, pp. 78-79.

Sharon Hamilton

In this essay, Hamilton examines a particular facet of Ford’s play that she feels many critics ignore: the nature of the relationship between Soranzo and Annabella.

’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1633), John Ford’s tragedy of brother-sister incest, is his best known work. Yet in the welter of commentary on the play, critics have ignored a puzzling taunt that the heroine flings at her newlywed husband. The situation is briefly this: in order to conceal the fact that she is carrying her brother Giovanni’s child, Annabella has been compelled to marry the rake Soranzo. He knows nothing of her condition and is delighted at her sudden acceptance of his proposal. But Ford wastes no time in showing that the match is unhappy. In their first scene together after the wedding banquet, Soranzo comes in dragging Annabella by the hair, shouting insults and brandishing his sword. He describes her adultery in extravagant and graphic terms: she is a “strumpet, famous whore,” entirely given up to her “hot itch and pleurisy of lust” (IV.iii.1-8; all quotations are from the Regents Renaissance Drama text, edited by N. W. Bawcutt). What enrages Soranzo is not only that he has purchased damaged goods but that he is the dupe chosen to conceal their true worthlessness: “could none but I/Be picked out to be cloak to your close tricks, /Your belly-sports?” (11.10-12). Now Annabella expects him to pretend to be “the dad/To all that gallimaufry that’s stuff d/In thy corrupted, bastard-bearing womb”(11.12-14).

But Annabella is undaunted. She tells him in no uncertain terms how little he means to her:

had not this chance fall’n out as’t doth, I never had been troubled with a thought That you had been a creature...

It would be hard to think of a more devastating dismissal of Soranzo’s human worth. Yet instead of stopping there, she adds with still greater scorn: “but for marriage, /I scarce dream yet of that” (11.46-49). This is an odd thing to say to one’s legal spouse, and it points up a larger problem of interpretation: how has Soranzo discovered the truth? Annabella is obviously pregnant; a bit later in the scene, the lewd servant Vasques marvels at the “quickness” of her “stomach’s” swelling (11.169-72). But since the marriage took place so soon after Annabella realized her condition, why doesn’t he assume that the child is his? One explanation is the technical one that the time scheme of the play is indefinite; there is no sure measure of how many months pass between II.vi, when the incestuous love is apparently only a few days old, and Ill.ii, when Annabella feels the first symptoms of pregnancy. A more intriguing possibility is that Annabella and Soranzo have never consummated their marriage. In fact, Annabella’s taunt makes sense only if she is equating “marriage” with consummation. What is clearly implied is that out of revulsion or spite, Annabella has not kept her marriage bargain.

A likely setting for the quarrel is just after Annabella has refused Soranzo once again—he enters “unbrac’d.” In his notes to the Penguin edition, John Ford: Three Plays, Keith Sturgess reminds us that this term usually signified “mental turmoil,” but he too thinks that in this case it is meant to indicate that Soranzo has just gotten out of bed (p. 369). He even speculates that Ford originally intended this scene to take place on the wedding night, although he notes the problems in chronology that this reading would entail. In any case, it is at this point that Soranzo is struck for the first time by his bride’s swollen shape. He has put up with a good deal from her. Vasques recalls her “scurvy looks,” and “waspish perverseness and loud fault-finding,” all of which, he claims, Soranzo bore meekly (11.166-69). The discovery of Annabella’s infidelity wounds Soranzo at his most vulnerable point: his pride of possession. He has purchased a “most precious jewel” (IV.i.10) perversely determined to shine only for another man’s pleasure.

Source: Sharon Hamilton, “Ford’s ’Tis a Pity She’s a Whore” in the Explicator, Vol. 37, no. 4, Summer, 1979, pp. 15-16

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Cantor, Paul A. “John Ford” in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 58: Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists, edited by Fredson Bowers, Gale, 1987, pp. 91-106.

Eliot, T. S. “John Ford” in Selected Essays, Faber and Faber, 1934, pp.193-204.


Leech, Clifford. John Ford, Longmans, Green, 1964.

Leech usefully situates Ford’s dramatic achievement within the historical context of the Jacobean and Caroline theatre traditions. He sees Ford as influenced by Fletcher and earlier dramatists, and identifies a debt to Queen Henrietta Maria’s cult of Platonic Love.

Oliver, H. J. The Problem of John Ford, Melbourne University Press, 1955.

Offering a fine overview, Oliver opens with chapters discussing Ford’s times, non-dramatic writing, and collaboration before spending a chapter on each of the major plays. A good place to begin research.

Roper, Derek. Introduction to ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Manchester University Press, 1997.

This is an excellent edition of the play, with extensive notes and scholarly apparatus, a twenty-two page introduction, and a bibliography for additional research.

Sensabaugh, G. F. The Tragic Muse of John Ford, Benjamin Blom, 1944.

Sensabaugh’s influential work reads Ford’s drama in the context of Renaissance thinking about ambition, science, and individualism. Particularly good are his discussion of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and his ideas about humour psychology.

Stavig, Mark. John Ford and the Traditional Moral Order, University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

Stavig offers strong introductory chapters on Ford’s world and ideas, with a chapter on each of the major plays, including ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Stavig relies on Burton and other sources for outlining a series of character and personality types, which he believes appear in Ford’s dramas.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693200028