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The Adaptation of a Shakespearean Genre: Othello and Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Raymond Powell, University of Reading

Othello's popularity in the early seventeenth century is indicated both by the frequency of its revival and by its influence over many of the dramatists of the period.1 It seems to have exerted a lasting hold over Ford's imagination, the effects traceable in three plays written at different stages in his career: The Queen, published anonymously in 1653 but now generally reckoned to be an early work, Love's Sacrifice (1633), and The Lady's Trial (1638). The extent and significance of the influence of Othello on Love's Sacrifice has been much discussed.2 In the words of one commentator, "So close are the parallels with Othello in the middle scenes of the action that it is tempting to imagine that Ford wrote with a copy of the play at his side."3 Ford's Shakespearean borrowings are not, however, confined to Othello, and there is even more general acknowledgment of the influence of Romeo and Juliet on the structure, characterization, and detail of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.4 What I want to argue here is that 'Tis Pity owes some of its distinctive qualities not merely to Romeo and Juliet but also to the Shakespeare play that occupied Ford's mind throughout his career, and that 'Tis Pity received from both plays an important creative stimulus. In the progression from Romeo and Juliet to Othello, Shakespeare greatly enlarged the scope of the tragedy of love, emphasizing the tendency in romantic love to an unbalanced destructive excess. In taking the visible imprint of both plays 'Tis Pity became both a record and an extension of what Ford had learned from Shakespeare.

Evidence of a line running through from Romeo and Juliet and Othello to 'Tis Pity She's a Whore can be detected in Ford's presentation of the relationship of Annabella and Putana. This portrayal, it is often pointed out, derives from that of Juliet and her Nurse. What needs adding is that in Othello Shakespeare, with characteristic economy, reworked his earlier creations; as a result the relationship of Annabella and Putana looks back not merely to Juliet and the Nurse—and since these are stock characters, more distantly to a host of earlier versions—but also to Desdemona and Emilia. There is a similar contrasting pattern in all three: between, on the one hand, a high-minded, self-authenticating romantic idealism that defies both worldly prudence and the constraints of family and social position, and, on the other hand, the voice of a coarser-grained, pragmatic realism in varying degrees sympathetic, skeptical, and compromised.

Elsewhere the influence of Othello is traceable in the characterization of Bergetto and Vasques and, with greater significance for the play as a whole, of Giovanni and Annabella. Bergetto, as well as deriving in part from the gross and simple-minded Ward of Women Beware Women,5 has a clearer origin in Shakespeare's Roderigo. Like his predecessor, Bergetto is shallow and foolish, but he is both more comic and more gently humanized than Roderigo; for all his gaucheries he seems genuinely to win the love of Philotis, and his death prompts from Donado the tearful comment, "Alas poor creature, he meant no harm, that I am sure of (3.9.8-9). The main structural similarity between Bergetto and Roderigo is that each is linked with ludicrous inappropriateness to a woman who, even without the counter-attraction of respectively Othello and Giovanni, would scarcely have favored him with a second glance. The situation is one with considerable potential for comedy of social embarrassment that, although no more than hinted at textually in Othello, is often exploited in performance; Robert Lang's lugubrious face and Andrew Aguecheek-like wig in Olivier's film version is a memorable example. Ford develops Shakespeare's sketch of a comically inept suitor in Bergetto's unconsciously self-revealing narration of his first meeting with Annabella, an account that leaves Donado holding his head in his hands ("O gross! … This is intolerable," 1.3.64, 68). Both dramatists dismiss them to...

(The entire section is 4,521 words.)