Ford: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

December 1, 2022

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore
John Ford
(Methuen, 2003) [c.1630]
176 p.

“Peace! Thou hast told a tale whose every word
Threatens eternal slaughter to the soul.”

I don’t know if Romeo and Juliet was a reference point for John Ford when he wrote this play, but it’s a convenient one for us. Those star-crossed lovers violate the wishes of their parents, and so are, in that sense, in the wrong. But Shakespeare, at least in the most common interpretation of the play, brings us around to their side, so that we hope their love succeeds. Imagine, though, how it looked to Signor Capulet: the whole romance was grotesque and intolerable, a sin against filial piety, headstrong and very probably wanton, and so impulsive and uncontrolled that it was likely to lead to destruction.

John Ford has written Signor Capulet’s Romeo and Juliet. There are two young lovers pursuing a forbidden tryst. There is an intelligent and enterprising Friar who gives them counsel. Our Juliet character — here called Annabella — even has a serving lady who is in on her secret. But Ford ensures that we, like Capulet senior, oppose the young lovers with all the opprobrium at our command, and he does it by one neat change: instead of our lovers coming from warring families, they come from the same family. Giovanni and Annabella are brother and sister.

This disturbing premise plays out in about as disturbing a manner as you would expect. The attraction between the two is portrayed as overwhelming and irresistible. When Giovanni first reveals his feelings to his sister, he confesses that he cannot help it:

O, Annabella, I am quite undone:
The love of thee, my sister, and the view
Of thy immortal beauty hath untuned
All harmony both of my rest and life.

And she, for her part, puts up no resistance whatsoever, for she too has fought in vain against her feelings:

Thou hast won
The field, and never fought: what thou has 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, as that
I durst not say I loved, nor scarcely think it.
(I, ii)

Overlooking the family ties between the two, this is not so different from what we find in Romeo and Juliet, nor indeed in a thousand other romances, and maybe that is the point. Plato saw being “in love” as a kind of madness likely to lead a man astray while he suffered under its influence, and this “anti-romantic” view has a distinguished tradition, albeit a minor one in our culture since the chivalric tradition triumphed in medieval Europe. I think it’s plausible that John Ford belongs, at least in this play, to that anti-romantic tradition: look, he says to us, at these wanton fools, out of their minds.

I didn’t do much in the way of background reading on the play, but I did come upon the claim that Ford presents this incestuous plot without passing judgement on it. This is true in a way; there is no Don Giovanni-like epilogue in which the lovers are dragged to Hell. But there is one character in the play who condemns the lovers in the strongest terms, and that is the Friar. He is the first person to speak in the play — indeed, the play opens in medias res with him denouncing Giovanni’s infatuation:

Alone within thy chamber, then fall down
On both thy knees, and grovel on the ground,
Cry to thy heart, wash every word thou utter’st
In tears, and, if’t be possible, of blood.
Beg Heaven to cleanse the leprosy of lust
That rots thy soul. Acknowledge what thou art,
A wretch, a worm, a nothing.
(I, i)

The Friar is presented throughout as a wise, thoughtful man who has enough distance from the situation to judge it fairly and disinterestedly.  As in Romeo and Juliet, I think his response guides ours.

Despite the Friar’s warnings, Giovanni and Annabella pursue their fateful course, and it appears, for a time, that perhaps no reckoning will come. Giovanni even hazards a few attempts at self-justification, arguing, for instance, that posterity will approve of their actions because, as they say, love wins:

If ever aftertimes should hear
Of our fast knit affections, though perhaps
The laws of conscience and of civil use
May justly blame us, yet when they but know
Our loves, that love will wipe away that rigour
Which would in other incests be abhorred.
(V, v)

But the actual responses of the play’s other characters, when they learn the truth, belie this rosy future. Judgement, when it comes, is swift.

*

The plot is complicated by a number of subplots involving double-crossing servants, a bevy of suitors, and jilted, vengeful lovers. (One character, contemplating revenge on the man who seduced and abandoned her, says at one point, “On this delicious bane my thoughts shall banquet.”  A nice line.) In all cases, lust and infidelity lead to suffering and destruction. It gets pretty gruesome, and, naturally, the play ends with bloodied bodies lying everywhere.

*

So extreme is the premise that I think there must be a particular point to it. Nobody sits down to write an incest play just because they are interested in the scenario. I’ve suggested above that maybe it can be seen as a kind of re-do of Romeo and Juliet, or of any number of other, similar romances, but done in such a way that we are forced into disapproval. Or maybe it was an attempt to write a reductio ad absurdum of the wayward-lust play. Or maybe, I guess, it was just an attempt to provoke and scandalize the public and earn notoriety for the author. If the latter, then it has had a certain amount of success.

At the level of craft, it’s a well-written play with generally fine verse, and I expect it would work effectively on the stage. Not that I’m especially eager to see it.

***

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: