'Tis Pity She's a Whore Critical Evaluation
by John Ford

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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While summoning up echoes of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1585-1589) and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597),’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, by John Ford, the last distinctive playwright in English Renaissance drama, offers new attitudes toward sex, death, and immortality. This play also provides evidence that Elizabethan and Jacobean theater had exhausted itself, even before the theaters were closed in 1642.

Without question, choosing incest between brother and sister was a daring choice of subject matter, one that was not ignored by other playwrights. In John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (pr. 1614, pb. 1623), there is the obsessive, incestuous love of Ferdinand, duke of Calabria, for his twin sister, the duchess of Malfi. There is incest in Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (pr. 1606-1607, pb. 1607) between stepmother and stepson, and also between uncle and niece in his Women Beware Women (c. 1621-1627), a play directly analogous to ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. However, nowhere except in Ford’s play is there serious examination of the complex emotions that a love between brother and sister may involve. There is little evidence that Ford’s plays were popular in his time, but’Tis Pity She’s a Whore has been produced many times in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The play does not condone a love between brother and sister. Annabella’s reputation is sullied from the start, even though it is her brother, not she, who initiates their intimacy. Lest anyone imagine otherwise, note that Ford gives her tutor the name of Putana, or whore. While Annabella confesses that she loves Giovanni, she dare not to say so or even to think it. The friar is immediately aware that Giovanni’s love is a heinous sin. Even Vasques, the Spanish servant to Soranzo, who scruples not at murder (Hippolita) or torture (Putana), and who exits the play congratulating himself that he, a Spaniard, outdoes an Italian in revenge, is horrified to discover that Annabella is pregnant by her own brother: “To what height of liberty in damnation hath the devil trained our age. Her brother!” (act 4, scene 3). Finally, the father of this brother and sister drops dead, of a heart attack, when he hears of his children’s incest.

Ford’s essentially nonmetaphorical dialogue can be very powerful, but too often the language of his characters, who do not have their own distinct modes of speaking, recalls other plays. Ford borrows much from Shakespeare, for example. Ford’s comic subplots are virtually pointless. Even so, Ford’s characterization of the two lovers is multifaceted, and Giovanni, although he is a criminal, must be seen as a sympathetic character.

The play begins with Giovanni confessing his love for his sister to the friar. By the second scene of the first act, he is confessing his love to Annabella, to whom he lies, maintaining that the church sanctions his love. In the last scene of the play, the audience learns from Giovanni that he and his sister were lovers for nine months. Giovanni becomes increasingly possessive of his sister as the play progresses; Annabella’s love for him remains constant. Having confessed her love to her brother, she knows she fell into mortal sin; she simultaneously savors her love and wants to do penance for it. Ford presents her as superior to Putana and to Hippolita, who is guilty of adultery with Soranzo and of plotting to kill her husband. Philoitis, Richardetto’s niece, a minor character, serves to remind the audience that taking refuge in a nunnery is always an option for a young woman of the time—Annabella, although less of a hypocrite than other women characters in the play, is still a sinner who has a way to escape her predicament.

Friar Bonaventura is Lawrence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet . Friar Lawrence, who...

(The entire section is 992 words.)