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

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Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

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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...

(The entire section is 1,443 words.)