Ethics

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875

In many ways, Ford's play is a difficult one with which to come to terms. On one level, that of plot, it seems rather obvious and scandalous at that. The play tells the tale of Giovanni and Annabella, a brother and sister, who consummate an incestuous relationship which ultimately destroys...

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In many ways, Ford's play is a difficult one with which to come to terms. On one level, that of plot, it seems rather obvious and scandalous at that. The play tells the tale of Giovanni and Annabella, a brother and sister, who consummate an incestuous relationship which ultimately destroys them, as well as others. Problems for the audience arise when we start to consider the characters' actions in the context of the play itself. For one thing, while the lovers may appear to be villains—after all, their actions are condemnable—the play offers heroes. No character seems entirely worthy of our admiration, and even those who have some good qualities—Friar Bonaventura, for example—remain ineffectual and unable to change things for the better. Most of the other characters are greedy and unscrupulous, even murderous! How then are we to understand the meaning of transgression and ethics in Ford's play?

We can begin by considering 'Tis Pity She's a Whore in light of Aristotle's theory of tragedy, as laid out in his Poetics. By now, his theory may be familiar: tragedy tells the story of the fall of a socially or morally elevated person, through a combination of fate and flaw. The "tragic flaw" may be desire for power, as in Shakespeare's Macbeth, which leads the title character and his wife to murder and destruction; or revenge, as in such revenge tragedies as Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, or Shakespeare's Hamlet. Giovanni's tragedy, however, more closely resembles that of Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, whose intellectual pride leads him to believe that he can outsmart the Fates and avoid his destiny of murdering his father and marrying his mother. A closer parallel, though, might be Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, in which the highly educated doctor sells his soul to the devil in exchange for greater knowledge and power.

While Giovanni believes his predicament to be the product of his fate, he actually seems to use fate as an excuse to justify his tragic flaws of uncontrollable lust and intellectual pride. A brilliant student trained in logic, Giovanni's scholastic intellect leads him to atheism. In a conversation with Annabella, Giovanni reveals how his faith in reason has undermined his religious faith: "The schoolmen teach that all this globe of earth / Shall be consum'd to ashes in a minute /... But 'twere somewhat strange / To see the waters burn: could I believe / This might be true, I could believe as well / There might be hell or Heaven." We see that he has faith, not in the power of God but the power of reason, which leads him to atheism, pride, and, ultimately, death.

In part, Giovanni's problems stem from his wilful misreading of Renaissance ideas about Platonic love, which posits an equality between the beautiful and the good. Things that seem physically beautiful on the surface merely manifest a deeper, spiritual goodness. This explains our attraction to physical beauty: we seek the beautiful as a way of reaching the good. Consider the ideas presented in one of the most influential Renaissance texts, Baldesar Castiglione's broadly Neoplatonic The Courtier: "Gracious and sacred beauty is the supreme adornment of everything; and it can be said that in some manner the good and the beautiful are identical... the proximate cause of physical beauty is ... the beauty of the soul.... Therefore beauty is the true trophy of the soul's victory."

Giovanni's inability to control his lust, as Castiglione might explain, lies in the fact that the largely reasonable soul finds itself trapped in the "earthly prison" of the body. There, "deprived of spiritual contemplation, the soul cannot of itself clearly perceive the truth when it is carrying out the duties of governing the body," which can be manipulated by passion. Beauty attracts admiration, but "the mind is seized by desire for the beauty which it recognizes as good." Guided by the senses, the body "falls into the gravest errors'' and mistakenly believes that beauty results from the beautiful body, rather than the ethical soul within. By the play's end, the unrepentant Giovanni still has not learned this lesson, though Annabella has come to associate beauty and ethics, saying, "Beauty that clothes the outside of the face / Is cursed if it be not cloth'd in grace."

Earlier in the play, Giovanni and Annabella make this mistake, justifying their error by believing that Fate has created their tragic situation. As Giovanni says, denying at least in part the truth, "'tis not, I know, / My lust, but 'tis my fate that leads me on." While their mutual attraction may have been fated, though, their acting on that attraction clearly requires at least in part some exercise of free will. Fate drives their love, but they make the disastrous choice of consummating it. As the earlier Castiglioine writes, while young lovers may fall victim to their passions, the desires of "mature lovers ... [are] guided by rational choice ... [and so] possess completely the beauty they love."

Giovanni and Annabella's immaturity prevents them from restraining their unreasonable passion. Worse, where Giovanni's reason should control his passion, instead his reason makes matters worse. In his initial discussion with Friar Bonaventura, Giovanni justifies the superiority of incestuous love over socially accepted forms of affection. He says, "Say that we had one father, say one womb /... gave both us life and birth; / Are we not therefore each to other bound / So much the more by nature, by the links / Of blood, of reason—nay, if you will have't, /Even of religion." Giovanni's intellectual pride drives him to employ logic and argument to justify his incestuous desires, rather than to inhibit them.

Giovanni's misuse of "natural" reason to justify his "unnatural" love for his sister raises the play's key issue: what might the incest itself symbolize? If love in the broadest sense indicates a relationship of connection and responsibility, then there are resemblances between and among the various kinds of love: parental love of children, filial love of siblings, erotic love, and the "love" of a ruler for his people. Considering the play in the context of contemporary events sheds light on the significance of the "unnatural" in social relations.

First, how does Ford represent the love of parents for children? While some critics believe Annabella's father Florio truly wants her to marry for love and happiness, others argue that he merely offers lip-service to a love match, actually urging her union with the richest and most socially elevated suitor, Soranzo. Significantly, Ford's play dramatizes the conflict between romantic marriage for love and mercenary marriage for profit. Overall, marriage seems a poor option of Annabella, whose bad luck leads to being pursued by a host of undesirable suitors: the unfaithful Soranzo, the cowardly Grimaldi, and the foolish Bergetto. Only Giovanni, her brother, seems to love her truly, and society prohibits their attractions. And Florio is not the only parent urging marriage on a child for solely monetary gain. Donado too actively tries to marry Annabella to Bergetto, whom he knows to be a fool.

Throughout the play, reason is the target and paradox the tool, as the foolish act reasonably and the reasonable act foolishly. Bergetto, whose uncle wants him to marry for money, is refused by Annabella, but he says he can buy women any time he wants—he speaks truly about loveless mercantile matrimony, which, like prostitution, exchanges money for sex. Her uncle, who prefers she marry the honorable Soranzo, is foolish were he to know what we the audience knows, that Soranzo is unfaithful and vindictive. Throughout the play, however, Ford presents examples of tainted love: Hippolita' s for Soranzo is adulterous, Hippolita's offer of sex as payment to Vasques resembles prostitution. Grimaldi's woos Annabella primarily because of money. The only love that seems true, at least in part, is that between Giovanni and Annabella; though incestuous, it is, after all, based on a long-term friendship, real emotional contact, and passion.

The "unnatural" love of Giovanni and Annabella extends, at least symbolically, to the corrupt love of parents for children, which they express solely in terms of monetary gain, rather than emotional happiness. We can extend that metaphor even further and see that corruption disrupted the "natural" relations people had from the Middle Ages come to expect between their court and their king. As we will see, due to the Carolinian court's corruption, the ideal courtier did not receive reward, while the well-connected, manipulative one did.

According to D. M. Loades's Politics and the Nation, 1450-1660, by the early-seventeenth century, a "'conspiracy of rich men' now consisted in the swarm of favourites and parasites who swarmed around the king . . . the court in many respects resembled a market [for royal patronage], where prices and profits were both high and the competition fierce and unscrupulous." It is this courtly world which Ford satirizes: corrupt, mercenary, unethical. Though these groups of influential men did not make up political "parties" in the modern sense, they did create a divisive sense of "faction"—high church, low church, old money, and new—among the courtly classes. These divisions ultimately contributed to the civil war in 1640 and King Charles's beheading in 1649.

As we have seen, when parents urge their children to marry, not for happiness, but for money, those parents violate their responsibility and corrupt their love. The same seems true when the court reeks of corruption and the king rewards, not good deserving men, but those with political connections. All of these corruptions of paternal, filial, and social "love" are "unnatural" in that they violate the "natural" emotional, ethical connections and responsibilities each love requires. In this way, they resemble incest, which some might say also violates the "natural" order.

As Derek Roper pointed out in his introduction to 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, the play's "overt narrative ... tells of the downfall of two guilty lovers, but inscribed within this narrative is another telling of the destruction of love and trust in a world where such things are rare." While the play does not forgive the lovers' incest, it emphasizes the corruption of the society which condemns the lovers. Parma's commercial interests, personified by Donado and Florio, behave in a greedy and underhanded manner. The noble classes, represented by Richardetto, Soranzo, and Grimaldi, also appear vain and manipulative. Members of the clergy fare little better. Because of Grimaldi's court connections, the Cardinal hypocritically protects the Roman, who has just committed murder. At the play's end, when the Cardinal condemns the lovers' incest as sinful, he also takes their property.

All of these corruptions share one thing in common: they all prefer material gain to emotional connection. As merchants, nobles, clergy, or parents, they consistently value money over love. If marriage for money is a form of socially sanctioned prostitution, on what ethical basis can a hypocritical and mercenary society condemn true love that is incestuous? While the play certainly does not justify incest, it does challenge the conventional organization of social and sexual relations. Giovanni and Annabella's love may be called sinful and lust, but they willingly face social condemnation in order to consummate it. Though seriously flawed, in some ways they seem superior to those around them who never act for love but only for material gain.

Source: Arnold Schmidt, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Review of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

JoAnne Akalaitis's first production as the New York Public Theater's artistic director displays her virtues in abundance—alas, the defects of those virtues too. Her version of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is undeniably terrific to look at. Set in Fascist Italy during the 1930s, the production has a design by John Conklin that proves to be the best performance on stage—a compound of futurist and surrealist elements that ravish your eye while demonstrating how easily art can become a slave to tyranny. As interpolated cries of "Duce" fill the air and posters extolling God, Country, and Family materialize between the Roman arches of the stage, Conklin rolls out huge cutouts of a child's hands, anonymous nude women, and tearful faces inspired by de Chirico, Marinetti, Dali, and other artists of the time.

Akalaitis shows no squeamishness about exploring the sanguinary aspects of 'Tis Pity—a repertory staple in Artaud's Theater of Cruelty. Her finest moment, along with the blinding of Putana, is the culminating blood bath, when Giovanni, arriving with his sister's heart impaled upon his dagger, participates in another three or four deaths, including his own. The stage is literally awash in gore, the impact so full of horror that, for once in the history of this play, the audience refrained from laughing.

She is less successful in extracting the theme of the work, which is offered as an object lesson in the brutalization of women by macho males (including Giovanni—who writes an anti-female obscenity in blood on the wall of Annabella' s room). Women are certainly treated badly in 'Tis Pity, but so is everyone. Ford wrote this incestuous version of Romeo and Juliet less to make a feminist point than to demonstrate (years in advance of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky) that when God is dead, anything is possible. The abnormal love of Giovanni and Annabella is about the only redeeming feature in a world of social, political, and religious corruption, and when he takes her life at the end, Giovanni is taking the only course left to him, monstrous though it is.

Missing from Akalaitis's interpretation is not only Giovanni's towering intellect (the Friar describes him as a "miracle of wit"), but his motivating narcissism. He loves his sister largely because she's his twin—as one commentator says, they make love in a mirror and take identical vows. As played by Val Kilmer, however, he is simply an edgy, sulky, shambling boy, while Jeanne Tripplehorn's Annabella, befitting her victim status, is too subdued. Neither of these characters evokes much pathos, though the greatness of the play lies in the way the playwright redeems their corruption from an even more corrupt time. Their last scene together has virtually no love, warmth, or reconciliation, when it should be breaking your heart. Because these are actors well trained for the stage (and not just for close-ups in The Doors and Basic Instinct), one has to conclude that Akalaitis has misdirected them, especially since virtually all the other roles—with the intermittent exceptions of Erick Avari's Vasques and Jared Harris's Soranzo— are indifferently performed. No one on stage reveals an interior life, and the comic scenes are execrable. "This part has been scurvily played," says one of the characters about another in the play, and he might have been indicting almost the entire cast.

Still, the event is well worth seeing just for the brilliance of its colors and the boldness of its approach. Akalaitis may be wrongheaded and reductive to make this great seventeenth-century classic conform to contemporary feminist views, but the force of her commitment and her remarkable imagination must compel respect. Much more thought, preparation, and sweat went into the making of this blood-soaked masterpiece than hasty opinions can do justice to.

Source: Robert Brustein, review of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore in the New Republic, Vol. 206, no. 19, May 11, 1992, pp. 32-33.

Victims

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812

The production of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore that opened at the Public Theatre the first week of April, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, is surprisingly engrossing. Like the production of "Pericles" that Michael Greif directed earlier this season, it features a company of capable actors, two able stars, a consistent vision of the play, and a couple of tour-de-force performances from actors in secondary roles. The stars in this instance are Val Kilmer and Jeanne Tripplehorn, who play the siblings Giovanni and Annabella—Giovanni being the young man who, against some of the best advice in Jacobean tragedy, enters into an incestuous relationship with his sister at the beginning of the play and, at the end of it, appears at a banquet with her heart on a stake.

Mr. Kilmer, who played Jim Morrison, the lead singer for the Doors, in Oliver Stone's movie of that title, also played a rock star in one of those Abrahams' Zucker spoofs. An actor like that, who knows how to play a rock star's temperament—whether in earnest or in jest—as opposed to one who merely possesses a rock star's temperament (like the young actors in the Brat Pack school), isn't a bad bet to play a Jacobean revenge hero. Callowness and a deceptive air of durability are the key here, for Giovanni is Hamlet without a conscience or an intellect. Watching him in the grip of something larger and stronger than himself, we have to believe that he thinks he is in control.

In the case of Annabella, we have to believe that she could go from thinking incest unthinkable to thinking it no big deal, and in very short order. If Annabella is too degenerate or too simple, her seduction will fail to be interesting, and that's why it isn't a bad idea, either, to cast an actress who knows how to play a victim without playing a sap. Miss Tripplehorn, who appears in the controversial date-rape scene in the new slasher movie "Basic Instinct," and who got browbeaten and slathered with Vaseline in the last John Shanley play at the Public, manages to seem both intelligent and vulnerable. Watching Mr. Kilmer come on to her, you feel that if he were your brother you'd put out, too.

Unlike Mr. Kilmer, Miss Tripplehorn has trouble with the poetry, but she makes intelligible a particular brand of female naïveté, which the play, especially in Ms. Akalaitis's production, proves to be about. Yes, Jacobean revenge tragedy amounts to little more than a seventeenth-century version of "Basic Instinct," but even cheap thrills command a subtext, and Ms. Akalaitis's production suggests that the subtext of Ford's play is the phenomenon we call sexual harassment—the process by which predatory men prevail with women by trading on the very customs and laws that make women feel safe. In Ford's play, women of all sorts (vulgar, innocent, elegant, corrupt) are turned against and punished for allowing themselves to be seduced— punished by the very men who lured them into their beds or their confidence. What this production skillfully brings out is that Giovanni's seduction and murder of Annabella—the play's paradigm for feminine trust elicited and betrayed—has more to do with sexual politics than with sex.

Ms. Akalaitis has updated the play to the Fascist Italy of the nineteen-thirties, to create the sense of an ossified, decadent, and repressive moral order, and in dealing with the violence she has opted for all-out realism, which is the only way to approach these plays. John Conklin's scenic design employs an idea of art-through-the-ages: a system of de Chirico archways, in which characters can eavesdrop or take shelter from the rain; sculpture fragments—a foot, an armless statue—that prefigure some of the violence; scenes in the Mannerist style appearing aloft behind a scrim; a Dadaist design on the cyclorama; and, here and there, surrealist distortions of humanity.

I liked Erick Avari's Alan Rickman turn in the Iago role, and Deirdre O' Connell’s Putana and Ross Lehman's Bergetto—particularly the way their performances marshalled contempt, affection, and pity. Less popular with me were the dumb-show wedding at the beginning of Act II and the poisoning scene— two sequences that find Ms. Akalaitis up to her old pseudo-avant-garde tricks (twitching and slo-mo). I could also have done without Jan A. P. Kaczmarek's incessant electronic music and Daniel Oreskes' Mussolini impression, and without Jared Harris, who plays Soranzo—or, anyway, without his bluster and mannerisms and speech impediment. And Ellen McElduff' s portrayal of Hippolita as a raving, scheming villainess—which is how she is described—seemed at variance with Ms. Akalaitis's insightful interpretation: the whole point is that what the men say of the women and what we see of them are two different things.

Source: Mimi Kramer, "Victims," in the New Yorker, Vol. 68, April 20, 1992, pp. 78-79.

Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 657

'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633), John Ford's tragedy of brother-sister incest, is his best known work. Yet in the welter of commentary on the play, critics have ignored a puzzling taunt that the heroine flings at her newlywed husband. The situation is briefly this: in order to conceal the fact that she is carrying her brother Giovanni's child, Annabella has been compelled to marry the rake Soranzo. He knows nothing of her condition and is delighted at her sudden acceptance of his proposal. But Ford wastes no time in showing that the match is unhappy. In their first scene together after the wedding banquet, Soranzo comes in dragging Annabella by the hair, shouting insults and brandishing his sword. He describes her adultery in extravagant and graphic terms: she is a "strumpet, famous whore," entirely given up to her "hot itch and pleurisy of lust" (IV.iii.1-8; all quotations are from the Regents Renaissance Drama text, edited by N. W. Bawcutt). What enrages Soranzo is not only that he has purchased damaged goods but that he is the dupe chosen to conceal their true worthlessness: "could none but I / Be picked out to be cloak to your close tricks, / Your belly-sports?" (11.10-12). Now Annabella expects him to pretend to be "the dad / To all that gallimaufry that's stuffed / In thy corrupted, bastard-bearing womb" (11.12-14).

But Annabella is undaunted. She tells him in no uncertain terms how little he means to her:

had not this chance fall'n out as't doth, I never had been troubled with a thought That you had been a creature...

It would be hard to think of a more devastating dismissal of Soranzo's human worth. Yet instead of stopping there, she adds with still greater scorn: "but for marriage, / I scarce dream yet of that" (11.46–49). This is an odd thing to say to one's legal spouse, and it points up a larger problem of interpretation: how has Soranzo discovered the truth? Annabella is obviously pregnant; a bit later in the scene, the lewd servant Vasques marvels at the "quickness" of her "stomach's" swelling (11.169-72). But since the marriage took place so soon after Annabella realized her condition, why doesn't he assume that the child is his? One explanation is the technical one that the time scheme of the play is indefinite; there is no sure measure of how many months pass between II.vi, when the incestuous love is apparently only a few days old, and III.ii, when Annabella feels the first symptoms of pregnancy. A more intriguing possibility is that Annabella and Soranzo have never consummated their marriage. In fact, Annabella's taunt makes sense only if she is equating "marriage" with consummation. What is clearly implied is that out of revulsion or spite, Annabella has not kept her marriage bargain.

A likely setting for the quarrel is just after Annabella has refused Soranzo once again—he enters "unbrac'd" In his notes to the Penguin edition, John Ford: Three Plays, Keith Sturgess reminds us that this term usually signified "mental turmoil," but he too thinks that in this case it is meant to indicate that Soranzo has just gotten out of bed (p. 369). He even speculates that Ford originally intended this scene to take place on the wedding night, although he notes the problems in chronology that this reading would entail. In any case, it is at this point that Soranzo is struck for the first time by his bride's swollen shape. He has put up with a good deal from her. Vasques recalls her "scurvy looks," and "waspish perverseness and loud fault-finding," all of which, he claims, Soranzo bore meekly (11.166-69). The discovery of Annabella's infidelity wounds Soranzo at his most vulnerable point: his pride of possession. He has purchased a "most precious jewel" (IV.i.10) perversely determined to shine only for another man's pleasure.

Source: Sharon Hamilton, "Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore" in the Explicator, Vol. 37, no. 4, Summer, 1979, pp. 15-16.

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