'Tis Pity She's a Whore Essays and Criticism
by John Ford

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Ethics

(Drama for Students)

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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...

(The entire section is 3,991 words.)