The Adaptation of a Shakespearean Genre: Othello and Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore
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 same fate: each is killed ignominiously in a brawl.
Vasques's malignity, although not motiveless, is something of a puzzle, and its origin lies in the not-fully-absorbed influence of Shakespeare's Iago. Vasques is set apart from Soranzo, Hippolita, and Grimaldi, all of whose murderousness is readily explicable in terms of sexual jealousy. His dominating passion, by contrast, as he himself tells us in the final scene, is his devotion to Soranzo and before that to Soranzo's father (5.6.115-21). A combination of loyalty to Soranzo and some excessive zeal may explain much of what he does on his master's behalf; it does not account for the evident pleasure he takes in his ingenious stratagems and the gleeful self-hugging delight in what they reveal ("Better and better … Why, this is excellent," 4.3.217, 236). The dominant impression is less that of devoted loyalty than of a man who, like Iago, is shrewd, without scruple, and above all self-contained. He keeps his own counsel, confides in no one, and, like Iago, his greatest pleasure derives from the fact that he is an extremely deft, plausible, and successful manipulator. Just as Iago wins the confidence of those he seeks to entrap, so too does Vasques, with the result that Hippolita is betrayed to her death and Putana to a vicious blinding. The pleasures of the puppet-master seem to affect even his exertions on Soranzo's behalf. He instructs his master how to feign reconciliation with Annabella; and later, as part of his plan to "tutor him better in his points of vengeance" (4.3.240), he inflames Soranzo's imagination against his wife in exactly the same way that Iago does Othello's. There is even the suggestion of a malicious pleasure in goading his master further than his purposes strictly require:
Vasques: Am I to be believed now? First, marry a strumpet that cast herself away upon you but to laugh at your horns? To feast on your disgrace, riot in your vexations, cuckold you in your bride-bed, waste your estate upon panders and bawds?
Soranzo: No more, I say no more!
Vasques: A cuckold is a goodly tame beast, my lord.
Soranzo: I am resolved; not another word.
Vasques is not an entirely satisfactory dramatic creation, less successful on the whole than Ford's unambiguous Iago-figure D'Avalos in Love's Sacrifice, for whom in some respects Vasques may have constituted a preliminary sketch.7 The reason is that Iago calls into play the tradition of the murderous machiavel, scheming, self-delighting, wittily inventive in his villainy; and such a conception is difficult to harmonize with the even more familiar but dramatically less arresting stereotype of the virtuous, loyal servant. Iago's devotion to Othello is a façade, a part of his comprehensive wickedness; Vasques's to Soranzo is meant to be genuine. Because Vasques's dedication to his master's wellbeing is never more than an inert donnée of the plot, the theatrical emphasis is all on his monstrous villainy, and he departs the play on what is, in the circumstances, a justified note of triumphant self-assertion: "this conquest is mine, and I rejoice that a Spaniard outwent an Italian in revenge" (5.6.145-46). If Vasques was indeed motivated all along by no more than a disinterested concern for his master's best interests, all one can say is that his concern proved to be a means of achieving an enviably high level of job satisfaction and personal fulfillment.
It is in the handling of the love theme, where the effect of Romeo and Juliet has long been acknowledged, that the further influence of Othello is detectable. There are suggestions, mainly though not exclusively in the closing movement of the play, of a correspondence between Giovanni and Othello and between Annabella and Desdemona. The last scene contains several verbal echoes, the clearest one accompanied by a partial correspondence in terms of physical action. Giovanni's words when he stabs his sister echo in syntax, rhythm, rhyme—indeed in choice of rhyme—those of Othello when he stabs himself:
Giovanni: One other kiss, my sister.
Annabella: What means this?
Giovanni: To save thy fame, and kill thee in
Othello: I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee. No
way but this—
Killing my self, to die upon a kiss.
The correspondence here is sufficiently strong to lend weight to others in the same scene which might otherwise seem tenuous or coincidental:
Giovanni: Fair Annabella, should I here
The story of my life …
Othello: Her father lov'd me, oft invited me;
Still question'd me the story of my life.
Giovanni: Give me your hand; how sweetly
life doth run
In these well-coloured veins! how constantly
These palms do promise health!
Othello: Give me your hand. This hand is
moist, my lady …
This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart.
Verbal correspondences of this closeness point to a deeper level of connection between the two protagonists: both, in their different ways, love not wisely but too well. The phrase is, of course, a benign understatement of the nature and consequences of Giovanni's passion, but that is precisely the point. With its connotations of excess and imbalance, loving not wisely but too well was the initial stimulus that Ford derived from Othello and exploited and enlarged in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.9
Othello's manhood, life as a soldier, and deepest sense of self now rest on the absolute nature of the love between himself and Desdemona. "When I love thee not, / Chaos is come again" (3.3.92-93), and if not Chaos, then at least the certainty that "Othello's occupation's gone" (3.3.361). Giovanni's feelings for his sister are not just inherently unbalanced; they are also of such all-consuming intensity that nothing else merits attention, least of all his studies. Both protagonists believe themselves betrayed, and the effect on them of this realization is as extreme as their earlier love. After a descent into a temporary distraction in the case of Othello, or as part of a deeper and more lasting derangement in the case of Giovanni, they each decide to kill the woman they love. The circumstances of the killing are similar in both cases. They both pause, momentarily affected by her beauty.10 Both indeed weep at what they feel constrained to do, and both seek to conduct the murder at a level of high-minded disinterestedness ("To save thy fame" ['Tis Pity 5.5.84]; "else she'll betray more men" [Othello 5.2.6]). The reality is very different. Othello's invocation of "Justice" conceals only briefly a craving for personal vengence, and though he claims he "would not kill your soul" (5.2.33), he in fact smothers Desdemona before she has time to pray. Giovanni's mind is darkened in even greater moral confusion, and his motive for murder seems less that of saving Annabella's fame than the combination of a desire to preserve eternally in death their early love ("If ever aftertimes should hear …" [5.5.68-73]), of bitterness at her proving "treacherous / To your past vows and oaths" (5.5.4-5), and of a triumphant fore-stalling of his hated rival ("Soranzo, thou hast missed thy aim in this, / I have prevented now thy reaching plots" [5.5.99-100]). Finally, the element of posturing and self-dramatization, arguably present in Shakespeare's depiction of Othello, is a discernible feature of Giovanni's view of himself at the close ("this act / Which I most glory in … and boldly act my last and greatest part" [5.5.90-91, 106]). His "last and greatest part" turns out to be his entrance into Soranzo's feast with the heart of Annabella impaled on his dagger.
In his portrayal of Annabella, Ford seems to have taken over from Othello the heroine's rejection of the social conventions and expectations that bear upon an unmarried, attractive, well-born young woman. Desde-mona has turned down all the eligible Venetian bachelors—just as Juliet, though with rather more reason, turned down Paris—and in the end, prompted by her own judgment and feelings, she contracts a clandestine marriage with a black man. As an act of social defiance based on love, it is surpassed only by Annabella's love affair with her brother. The difference is that Desdemona's act is an affront to propriety and fatherly authority, whereas Annabella's is a defiance of morality and religion. In one respect at least the effect is the same. Both daughters' actions eventually cause their fathers' deaths of a broken heart, Brabantio's unobtrusively reported (5.2.207-209), whereas Florio's takes place on stage in the final scene.11 For the bulk of the play Desdemona and Annabella's paths diverge, and while one remains a chaste and loving wife, the other progresses from incest to adultery. At the end of the play, however, Ford's treatment of Annabella seems to have the purpose of preparing for a death scene that will echo Desdemona's both in its manner and in the emotions aroused.12 Act 5, scene I reveals Annabella as remorseful and penitent, and in her last meeting with Giovanni she displays a self-forgetful tenderness and concern as she urges him to save himself while at the same time talking to him in the sisterly tones of their earlier affection, delicately attempting to establish the necessary distance between them. As with Desdemona, the innocence, selflessness, and piety of Annabella's feelings make the murder, when it comes, particularly dreadful. Fearful of death at the hands of one they love, both women seek refuge in their religious faith ("Ye blessed angels, guard me!" ['Tis Pity, 5.5.67]; "Then Heaven / Have mercy on me" [Othello, 5.2.34-35]). Both die forgiving their murderer, Desdemona implicitly in her vain attempt to take the blame for her death upon herself and Annabella explicitly ("Forgive him, Heaven—and me my sins" [5.5.92]), though one may add that, unlike Desdemona, Annabella does not attempt to deny what Giovanni has done (she is given no opportunity to do so), and her religious pieties at the moment of death combine with a final rebuke and even occusation ("Brother, unkind, unkind" [5.5.93]).13 The threat to her very life that Giovanni has come to represent is shadowily anticipated in a further echo from Othello. The moment at the beginning of 'Tis Pity when Giovanni and Annabella kneel to each other in mutual dedication is a distant reworking of that other quasi-religious ceremony in Othello, itself sometimes referred to as a symbolic marriage, in which Othello and Iago kneel together and Iago makes his sinister pledge, "I am your own for ever" (3.3.483).14
For the full significance of all these apparently opportunistic and ad hoc echoes and borrowings from Othello, one needs to view 'Tis Pity She's a Whore in the context of the rest of Ford's work. What sets him apart from his contemporary dramatists is an interest in genres and their potential for transformation. Anne Barton has discussed Perkin Warbeck and The Broken Heart as modifications and reconstitutions of, respectively, the history play and the revenge tragedy.15 In 'Tis Pity She's a Whore Ford, drawing upon Othello as well as Romeo and Juliet, appears to be rethinking the Shakespearean tragedy of love. He is doing more than effecting a shift from an idealized romanticism to a love that is corrupted and sinful, a view that is generally accepted as the main significance of his reworking of Romeo and Juliet. What seems to have struck him about the depiction of romantic love in both Shakespeare plays—the later even more than the earlier—is its fragile instability, the way its narrow intensities can so easily be diverted into hysteria, derangement, and destructive monomania.
The nature of the progression from Romeo and Juliet to 'Tis Pity can be traced most economically by looking backwards and forwards from Othello's lines, quoted earlier: "I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee. No way but this— / Killing my self, to die upon a kiss" (5.2.361-62). In these lines Othello recalls the beginning of the final scene when he kissed the sleeping Desdemona ("O balmy breath" [5.2.16]), a kiss he repeats now as his final act. Romeo, too, had kissed Juliet as he killed himself: "Here's to my love! [Drinks] O true apothecary! / Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die" (5.2.119-20). The poignancy of this moment, however, is that although, like Othello, Romeo believes his wife to be dead, in reality Juliet is still alive. She is sleeping, just as Desdemona is when Othello kisses her at the beginning of the last scene. Romeo here kisses his wife simultaneously alive and "dead," whereas in Othello's farewell to Desdemona, what the earlier play had concentrated in one stage action is now expanded into two, linking the beginning and end of the final scene. The similarities and differences go further. Othello's death, like Romeo's, is a suicide, and he too flings himself in despair across the body of his dead wife. But it is the body of a wife innocent and chaste like Juliet whom he has murdered. His own death expresses not just grief but also belated horror, remorse, and the need for self-punishment to expiate a terrible wrong. What meager consolation this act of restitution may represent for the audience is completely absent from the corresponding scene in 'Tis Pity. Othello's repeated kisses on the sleeping Desdemona occur here too, but Giovanni's are received by the now-penitent Annabella in a different spirit from that in which they are offered, and the coercive insistence that informs them causes her increasing apprehension about what they portend. Romeo's—and Othello's—lines undergo their final transformation, this time as an accompaniment not to suicide but to murder:
Giovanni: One other kiss, my sister.
Annabella: What means this?
Giovanni: To save thy fame, and kill thee in
Unlike Othello's, this killing leads to no remorse; Giovanni is triumphant to the end in the absoluteness of his sexual conquest and control; and Annabella's / "sad marriage bed" (5.5.97) becomes the site of the final atrocity of her evisceration.
There is one final aspect of the murder that is perhaps worth briefly remarking on. Ford took from Othello a hint of what was to become a familiar theme of seventeenth-century tragedy, the conflict of love and honor.17 As he kills Annabella, Giovanni asserts that "honour doth love command" (5.5.86), and in this he is echoing Othello's claim to be an "honourable murderer" (5.2.297). Othello's blend of self-deluding moral elevation and savagery is grotesquely magnified in the circumstances of Giovanni's murder and mutilation of Annabella. As in Othello, it is both the notion of honor and the quality of that love that Ford's play calls in question.
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1 Frost, 110. See also "Ford's admiration for [The Duchess of Malfi] is a matter of record: he contributed encomiastic verses upon its publication in 1623; and that it was among the many plays in his mind as he worked on 'Tis Pity has already been demonstrated through the various verbal echoes noted by Dorothy Fair." Neill, 169. It is possible, therefore, that Othello, in addition to bearing directly on 'Tis Pity, may have had a second, more indirect effect as a result of its earlier absorption by Webster. See note 14 below.
2 Sargeaunt, 127; Oliver, 80-81; Leech, 78, 110, 119; Stavig, 89, 133; Frost, 160-63; Anderson, 110-11; Farr, 58-78; Putt, 161-63; Butler, 216-19.
3 Farr, 67.
4 In addition to the critics above passim, see also ; ; The fullest discussion is contained in Smallwood, 49-70.
5 Noted by Roper in Ford, xxxiii. Smallwood, 52, sees Bergetto as a reworking of Mercutio, "the principal comic character of Romeo and Juliet." In presenting "the horrible accident of the death of Bergetto, the principal comedian of his drama, [Ford] removes the comic element from the play and points unequivocally toward its tragic conclusion." Although there is a parallel here in terms of dramatic structure, Mercutio (as Smallwood later acknowledges) is no buffoon, unlike Roderigo and Bergetto; and the tragic outcome of Othello and 'Tis Pity scarcely requires the removal of either Roderigo or Bergetto to signal something that is apparent from the very start.
6 An example of someone who is trapped into marrying a prostitute and is gleefully mocked for his pains is Old Hoard in Middleton's A Trick to Catch the Old One. A less genial instance of malicious taunting, which conceals itself behind a mask of servantlike concern, is that of Mosca in Jonson's Volpone.
7 Dating is still to some extent uncertain, but Gurr, 93, has made a strong case for 1630 as the date for 'Tis Pity and 1631 as that for Love's Sacrifice.
8 Recorded without comment by Roper in Ford, 114. Lomax, 171, suggests "Ford fuses metaphor and stage action in a reversal of Othello's 'Killing myself, to die upon a kiss' (V.ii.360). In 'Tis Pity, Giovanni stabs Annabella 'To save thy fame, and kill thee in a kiss' (V.v.84) which recalls the friar's words to Annabella, describing hell: 'Then you will wish each kiss your brother gave / Had been a dagger's point,' (III.vi.27- 8)."
9 Brodwin provides an extensive treatment of the tragic confusions of romantic love from Romeo and Juliet to 'Tis Pity. While her categorization of love tragedies in terms of Courtly Love, False Romantic Love, and Worldly Love makes possible certain suggestive connections, the terminology used, involving three different modes for each category, forms a complex schema which is not readily transferable to the discussion pursued here.
10 There is a transformation here of a common source: Romeo's final pause as he contemplates Juliet's beauty for the last time before he kills himself. An echo of a different sort, which has nevertheless a greater direct kinship with that of Othello and Giovanni, is Tarquin's delay before his assault on Lucrece: "Here with a cockatrice' dead-killing eye / He rouseth up himself, and makes a pause" (The Rape of Lucrece, 540-41).
11 Lomax, 173, relates the death of Florio to those of Romeo and Juliet. "The discovery of their forbidden relationship also occurs when it is too late to save it, but their deaths bring about understanding and reconciliation between the two families. In 'Tis Pity the opposite occurs—a previously loving father dies renouncing his children in horror."
12 "In that scene Annabella's wry reference to her 'gay attires' (V.v.20) makes it clear that she faces death in the bridal robes which Soranzo commanded her to put on (V.ii.10-11); like Desdemona's wedding sheets, they provide a bitterly ironic visual commentary on a murder." Neill, 163.
13 Bradbrook, 259, has argued, not entirely convincingly, that Annabella's dying words here are an inversion of the last words of Desdemona, "Commend me to my kind lord." More plausibly, she draws attention to the way that variations of this striking phrase occur in The Broken Heart and The Lady's Trial, the significance of which is further developed in Gurr, 92.
14 This moment in Othello may have been recalled by Ford directly. It is equally possible, however, that its effect may have been transmitted indirectly through a work which had been itself influenced by Othello, Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. "Bradbrook notes that the improvised marriage ceremony in The Duchess of Malfi might have been the model for Ford's ritual. She does not comment further, but in both cases the couples kneel, the ritual is quickly improvised in an atmosphere of tension, and a kiss plays a significant part in the ceremony. If Ford is deliberately recalling Webster's scene, the kiss with which Giovanni and Annabella seal their relationship can also be seen as a Quietus est—not only sealing their relationship, but also their doom." Lomax, 170.
15 Barton, 1977 and 1980.
16 These lines constitute a link in a process of influence from Romeo and Juliet to 'Tis Pity that would not otherwise be readily apparent, and it is therefore unsurprising that Smallwood, the fullest and most assiduous commentator on the relation of Romeo and Juliet to 'Tis Pity, makes no mention of them.
17 The characteristic form of the conflict between love and honor in seventeenth-century heroic drama involved a generally different emphasis in terms of plot from that in either Othello or 'Tis Pity. Nevertheless, the theatrical fate of Othello suggests that with only modest editing it could readily gratify the taste of the time as a play about a man of absolute honor experiencing the tragic consequences of passionate love. The cuts in the one surviving Restoration text have the consistent purpose of emphasizing the hero's dignity, nobility, and poise. Rosenberg, 24-25, notes, "After Othello has killed Desdemona and learned how wrong he was, in his volcanic outburst, after 'Cold, cold my girl' (338), lines are cut that we know offended a century later by their 'extravagance,' and apparently were already in bad taste: 'Even like thy chastity. O cursed, cursed slave! Whip me, ye devils! Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! …' (339-43) … The altered text tries to make him die as it made him live: somewhat less human than Shakespeare's Othello, even greater of heart, closer to Decorum's idea of a hero." That this conception of Othello survived well into the eighteenth century is indicated by the following comment in Gentleman, 149: "There is something very noble in reminding the state of Venice with almost his last words, that he finished his life in the same manner, which he had once used to vindicate the public honour of his masters."
Source: "The Adaptation of a Shakespearean Genre: Othello and Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore," in Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1995, pp. 582-92.