Historical Context

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When Ford's drama is read, there is frequently the suspicion that the playwright is exaggerating, that no society could be as unstable and corrupt as that of the Parma he depicts. While parts of the play— particularly Annabella's death at the end—seem extravagant (and, as some critics might say, "baroque"),...

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When Ford's drama is read, there is frequently the suspicion that the playwright is exaggerating, that no society could be as unstable and corrupt as that of the Parma he depicts. While parts of the play— particularly Annabella's death at the end—seem extravagant (and, as some critics might say, "baroque"), the historical moment which produced Ford's dramas was a contentious one. To better understand the reign of King Charles I, who ruled when Ford wrote his "Caroline" dramas, a history of England's earlier kings is necessary.

When Henry VII died in 1509, he left England on relatively sound financial footing, but his son Henry VIII through expensive foreign wars and uninhibited personal spending, began the dangerous trend of running a deficit. The question arose as to who would pay off the deficit. Those paying the increased taxation soon wanted more say in how the king spent their money. By the seventeenth century, a split developed between the king and elements of the landed classes—the land owners represented in Parliament—that, during the reign of King Charles I, resulted in civil war in 1642 and the king's beheading in 1649.

During this tempestuous period, when people discussed political theory, it frequently took the form of a debate between Royalism and Republicanism. The Royalists believed in monarchical absolutism (the absolute power of the king), while Republicans, influenced by the relatively democratic examples of classical Athens and contemporary Italian city states like Florence, Sienna, and Venice, argued for a balance of power between the executive branch—the king—and the legislature—the Parliament—in a form of representative democracy. Interest in Italy in part accounts for Ford's setting the play in Parma.

Religion complicated these economic and political considerations. In 1517, Martin Luther's "Wittenberg Theses" began the Protestant Reformation which lead to breaks with the Catholic Church. In 1534, Henry VIII himself broke with Rome (the seat of the Catholic Church), primarily because of the Pope's failure to annul the king's childless marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In the 1534 Act of Supremacy, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the English Church. Religion remained a divisive issue, though, as Henry's son Edward VI continued England's move toward Protestantism, a trend violently reversed after his death by the Catholic Queen "Bloody" Mary.

In 1558, Queen Elizabeth took the throne, steering a militantly centrist path between English Catholics and traditional "High Church" Anglicans on one hand, and reformist "low church" Dissenters and Puritans on the other. While all these religious issues seem complicated, they help explain Ford's negative representations of the Catholic Friar and Cardinal. It also helps explain why within the play, religion itself—about which different people may hold different beliefs—fails to offer any absolute standard of ethical conduct.

Ford himself was born in 1586, one year before Protestant Elizabeth's execution of Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and two years before Protestant England's invasion by Catholic Spain's Armada. In 1601, when Ford was just fifteen, the rebels involved in Essex's rebellion against Elizabeth captured one of Ford's relatives. After the queen's death and the coronation of James I in 1603, Ford and his fellow law students would have followed the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh. This grossly unfair proceeding, actually a referendum on Raleigh's belligerent aggression toward Catholic Spain in the New World, ended with his execution in 1618. In 1605, Catholic conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot attempted to blow up the king and Parliament.

Decker Roper provided another example in which the history of the moment is not much stranger than the fiction of Ford's drama. The new Earl of Essex married Francis Howard, but the marriage was annulled to enable Frances to marry the Earl of Somerset, a favorite of King James. Thomas Overbury, who attended the Middle Inns with Ford and who condemned these actions, found himself imprisoned in the Tower, where Somerset and his new wife poisoned him. Some think Ford contributed to a collection of elegiac poetry marking Overbury's death.

The religious and political conflicts of Ford's day prove as dramatic as his fiction. While critics have not been able to identify exact historical sources for Ford's characters, the anxieties about marriage and power, about religion and ethics, about the nobility and the wealthy bourgeoisie play significant roles in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.

Literary Style

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Revenge Tragedy
As the name implies, a Revenge Tragedy is a play in which desire for revenge results in tragedy. Made popular in the Elizabethan period with plays like Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, a sophisticated example of the form is Shakespeare's Hamlet. This dramatic subgenre is modeled on the Roman plays of similar themes, particularly the tragedies written by Seneca.

Courtly Love
The concept of courtly love first appears in the medieval period in the poetry of the Provencal troubadour poets. The idea is for the lover to woo the most worthy woman in the land, though this often was the queen or wife of a powerful man. Scholars debate as to whether this love ever was consummated, but an elaborate code of erotic language and practices grew up around it. The stereotypes of lovers losing sleep and appetite, are found in courtly love. A medieval example is Sir Gowain and the Green Knight, in which the lord's wife attempts to seduce Sir Gowain. Other examples are the various Arthurian romances and sonnet sequences by such renaissance writers as Sidney, Surry, Wyatt, Shakespeare, and Spenser.

Neoplatonism
Neoplatonism refers to elaborations of Greek philosopher Plato's ideas which develop from late classicism into the nineteenth century. Though complicated, in general they suggest (1) that this physical world is not real but a fallen reflection of an ideal world of "Forms" which exists beyond it; and (2) that a relationship exists between beauty and ethics, that the reason humans seek beauty in this physical world is because it reminds them of the good they experienced in the ideal world. Examples of these notions pervade Medieval Renaissance Neoclassical, and even Romantic philosophy and literature.

The Four Humours
According to Humour psychology, the balance of four bodily fluids determines human personalities. Unusual or "humourous" people have an imbalance in either blood, phlegm, yellow bile, or black bile. Too much blood makes a person sanguine, happy and amorous; yellow bile makes a person choleric, stubborn, and impatient; too much phlegm results in a phlegmatic personality—dull and cowardly; while excesses of black bile made a person melancholy, introspective, and sentimental.

Robert Burton, whose Anatomy of Melancholy explores the relationship between love and the humours, strongly influenced Ford. The theory also aids in the categorization of various Renaissance characters (in Shakespeare, for example, Hamlet is melancholy, Hot Spur is choleric, etc.). In time, the Comedy of Humours developed, which pokes fun at characters driven by one aspect of their personalities, resulting in the meaning of the word humor today.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Cantor, Paul A. "John Ford" in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 58: Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists, edited by Fredson Bowers, Gale, 1987, pp. 91-106.

Eliot, T. S. "John Ford" in Selected Essays, Faber and Faber, 1934, pp. 193-204.

Further Reading
Leech, Clifford. John Ford, Longmans, Green, 1964.
Leech usefully situates Ford's dramatic achievement within the historical context of the Jacobean and Caroline theatre traditions. He sees Ford as influenced by Fletcher and earlier dramatists, and identifies a debt to Queen Henrietta Maria's cult of Platonic Love.

Oliver, H. J. The Problem of John Ford, Melbourne University Press, 1955.
Offering a fine overview, Oliver opens with chapters discussing Ford's times, non-dramatic writing, and collaboration before spending a chapter on each of the major plays. A good place to begin research.

Roper, Derek. Introduction to 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Manchester University Press, 1997.
This is an excellent edition of the play, with extensive notes and scholarly apparatus, a twenty-two page introduction, and a bibliography for additional research.

Sensabaugh, G. F. The Tragic Muse of John Ford, Benjamin Blom, 1944.
Sensabaugh's influential work reads Ford's drama in the context of Renaissance thinking about ambition, science, and individualism. Particularly good are his discussion of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and his ideas about humour psychology.

Stavig, Mark. John Ford and the Traditional Moral Order, University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.
Stavig offers strong introductory chapters on Ford's world and ideas, with a chapter on each of the major plays, including 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Stavig relies on Burton and other sources for outlining a series of character and personality types, which he believes appear in Ford's dramas.

Bibliography

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Bradbrook, M. C. Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1960. Argues that Ford deals with a single subject, a personal human love, and that T. S. Eliot is quite mistaken in stating that the relationship between Giovanni and Annabella is only carnal.

Eliot, T. S. Essays on Elizabethan Drama. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960. Eliot asserts that the two lovers have nothing except a physical relationship. Eliot’s influential criticism is often a starting point for later critics, and so needs to be read as a reference.

Ellis-Fermor, Una Mary. The Jacobean Drama: An Interpretation. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. Argues the importance of aristocratic virtues to Ford, including courage, chivalry, and chastity, with chastity being the greatest of those virtues. Index.

Ornstein, Robert. The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965. The chapter on Ford’s plays is excellent. Argues that only the most ethically dogmatic should be offended by this play.

Compare and Contrast

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1633: The wealthy have more access to official outlets of justice like the law courts than the poor. Wealth is no guarantee of power, though, and court politics play a significant role in who receives punishment for which crime. For the poor, riots offer the most popular means of protesting issues like rising food prices or rent. Since Britain will not have a police force until the mid-nineteenth century, vigilantism and revenge are popular avenues to justice.

Today: Revenge still remains a prominent theme in popular books and films, particularly those featuring a vigilante hero or heroine. Generally, however, most people tend to believe in institutional justice, expecting that the courts will decide on issues of crime and punishment. This in part accounts for the popularity of films and television shows about police departments or lawyers.

1633: The church did not officially define and condemn incest until the thirteenth century, but because large families shared small quarters and often beds, incest still occurred. In Britain, however, as many as 60% of the boys and 75% of the girls between puberty and adulthood grew up living with employers, relatives, or family connections rather than with their parents. This may have been one way of minimizing the temptation to commit incest.

Today: Incest is viewed as a form of child sexual abuse often related to broader family problems. Most sexual abusers were themselves abused as children; while as adults they may be sexual predators, as children they were victims. This does not mitigate their offense, but it does help psychologists treat sexually abused children in hopes of helping them avoid abusing their own children when they become adults.

Media Adaptations

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The 1973 film version by Giuseppe Patrone Griffi, released by London's Miracle Films, stars Oliver Tobias. While not an entirely faithful adaptation of the play, the film does retain the spirit of Ford's original.

In 1962, BBC radio's Third Programme presented a radio version of the play.

The BBC produced a second radio adaptation on Radio 3 in 1970.

Roland Joffe directed an adaptation of the play for BBC2 television in 1980. Joffe's adaptation portrays Giovanni and Annabella, somewhat sympathetically, as rebels and condemns the hypocrisy of the mercantile, courtly, and religious society in which they live.

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