Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1443

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...

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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 allowed him to explore the sometimes dark and dangerous depths of the human psyche. This generally follows the Lamb school's opinion of Ford, a dramatist who to Leech reveals a "preoccupation with strange and perilous human conduct."

This moral interrogation and psychological introspection seems a product of the times. In Elizabethan and Jacobean, F. P. Wilson wrote that what "distinguishes the Jacobean age from the Elizabethan is its more exact, more searching, more detailed inquiry into moral and political questions and its interest in the analysis of the mysteries and perturbations of the human mind." As Oliver noted, "inquiry, analysis—these interest the Jacobean writers, these rather than incident."

What audiences see in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, according to Clifford Leech in John Ford, is that Ford "had a profound understanding of suffering, and an ability to present it in dramatic poetry; he had a deep interest in abnormal conditions of the mind ... he had a high ideal of human conduct, a reverence for love and fidelity and the relation of man and women in true marriage."

This understanding and reverence leads Ford to allow "Giovanni to make an unusually spirited and eloquent defense of forbidden love," according to Cantor. "Moreover, Giovanni and Annabella are by far the most vibrant characters in the play, and, even though their love destroys them, there are strong suggestions that they have in the process attained an intensity of experience from which the crassly conventional characters in the play are barred." So the line separating the rewards and evils of the lovers' incestuous transgression becomes blurred; physically and emotionally, their love offers powerful satisfactions, but society sees it as sinful and it precipitates their mutual destruction. That society, though, is emotionally decadent, morally corrupt, and spiritually bankrupt. The play offers not positive example of true love or happy marriage.

This raises points of similarity between Ford's play and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, wrote Cantor. In both plays, "the protagonists are overreachers and perish in their attempt to go beyond the limits of normal humanity, but the forces which oppose them in the scheme of the play hardly have a solid moral basis in their opposition, being involved as they are in a shabby web of sexual intrigue and assassination plots."

What then does a viewer make of Ford's dramatic choices? Is he presenting audiences with a decadent world in order to endorse or condemn adherent behavior? Another way to ask this question is: what did Ford really believe? Derek Roper, in his introduction to the play, traced Ford's ideas to his early writing, which reveal three tendencies: "romantic and Platonic love, a Calvinistic kind of Protestantism, Stoic beliefs and the cult of honour." All of these concepts figure prominently in the characters and conflicts in Ford's later dramas.

In John Ford, Leech usefully identifies the playwright's debt to Queen Henrietta Maria's cult of Platonic Love. According to Leech, Ford saw Platonic love as a logical impossibility, realizing that "the courtly code was at odds with human nature and its demands ... Ford's plays are commonly studies of a passion which is inclusive and destructive.... His lovers may talk of their passion in ideal terms, but there is always in them a full drive toward coition: it is this which commonly destroys them."

For Stavig, a reading of Ford's early works offers insight into his Christian humanist morality. Ford's writings, drawing heavily on the classical ethics of such writers as Aristotle Cicero, Plutarch, and Seneca, urges people to trust virtue more than fortune. Ford's stoicism demands a balance between reason and passion, with love being the most difficult passion to control. Roper, however, warned about the difficulty in ascertaining Ford's beliefs, as opposed to those of his characters. "His dedications may suggest some sympathy for those noblemen who felt deprived of their rightful influence in government by royal favorites; and some plays show admiration for aristocratic attitudes, particularly dignified defeat."

Finally, several critics praised Ford's use of language and skillful creation of poetry itself. Leech for one believed that Ford wrote "in a time when poetic drama was in decay, and he shows what could be done by a playwright whose purpose needed poetry but would have been ruined by an ostentatious display of the merely 'poetic.'" Poet T. S. Eliot writing in Selected Essays, continued in this strain, admiring Ford's poetry, particularly "that slow solemn rhythm which is Ford's distinct contribution to the blank verse of the period.... The varieties of cadence and tone in blank verse are none too many, in the history of English verse; and Ford, though intermittently, was able to manipulate sequences of words in blank verse in a manner which is quite his own."

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