John Ford and Tis Pity

HideShow resource information

John's life

1606 - JF started writing his works. In spring 1606 he was expelled from middle temple due to financial problems. He wrote after this but the works are a clear bid for patronage. 

Prior to start of playwright career, F wrote non-dramatic works. After 1620 he began active dramatic writing with more experienced playwrights (John Webster, William Rowley) 

Major Carolian writer. Plays dealt with induviual passion and conscience, law and morals of society. JF had intrest in abnormal pyschology, expressed in his dramas. Plays often show influence of Robert Burtons 'Anatomy of Melancholy'. 

Virtually nothing is known of JFs personal life. 

known of Ford's personal life, one reference suggests that Ford's interest in melancholia may have been more than merely intellectual. The volume Choice Drollery (1656) asserts that

Deep in a dump alone John Ford was gat,

With folded arms and melancholy hat.

The play was entirely omitted from an 1831 collected edition of Ford's plays;

1 of 15

Fords challenge

As a dramatist, Ford faced a difficult challenge. He wrote 'Tis Pity She's a Whore during the reign of King Charles and worked to entertain audiences who had grown up on some of the greatest plays in the English language, those of Jonson, Marlowe, and Shakespeare etc. According to some critics, since audiences thought they had already seen everything, it was incumbent on Ford to try to Tis Pity She's a Whore 1show them something they had not seen. This in part accounts for the extreme behavior we see in the characters in Ford's plays.

Ford's interest in aberrant psychology figures prominently in many of his plays. In general, his most successful characters evidence dignity, courage, and endurance in the face of suffering. Though Ford's plays deal with controversial themes such as incest and torture, he does so without being judgmental, neither condoning nor condemning, but rather, striving to offer an understanding of what a person experiencing such actions might think or feel.

2 of 15

Frequenter of Knowledge

Ever since Brian Morris remarked in his introduction to the New Mermaids edition of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore that „the word “blood”...occurs more than thirty times in the course of the play‟, critical attention has been paid to Ford‟s complex uses of the term.

   In terms of sheer frequency, however, there is another word which figures far more prominently than „blood‟ in the play, yet which has received much less sustained examination, and that is the verb „know‟ and its related forms. „Know‟ itself occurs seventy-six times, „knowledge‟ three, „know‟t‟ six, „known‟ four, „knows‟ three, „knew‟ five, and „know‟st‟ four, giving a total of a hundred and two instances. Such frequency of use should certainly alert us to the fact that knowledge, and indeed epistemology itself, as well as their literal and metaphorical corollaries blindness and ignorance, form an important part of the play‟s thematic structure

As Bruce Boehrer argues, „Ford drew the intellectual conflict of ’Tis Pity from the very issues that were beginning to distinguish modern European society from its medieval origins‟.

3 of 15

Putana and her eyes

The female servant whose role is explicitly referred to as an

educational one is surely a rare phenomenon in Renaissance drama - I can think of no

other example - and serves further to underline the idea of the importance and

imparting of knowledge. Ironically, however, this particular „tut‟ress‟, ominously

named Putana, proves disconcertingly like Juliet‟s nurse in her farmyard morality:

what she teaches Annabella is nothing more than a radically debased view of human

sexuality. Her eventual punishment for this is a fitting one: like Oedipus and like

Gloucester, she pays the price for her sexual sin by forfeiting her eyes.

4 of 15

Giovanni and carnal knowledge

Of his eight uses of „know‟, one of „knew‟, four of „know‟t‟ and two of „know‟st‟ (giving an overall total of fifteen), several hover around the love / knowledge pun. „‟Tis not, I know, / My lust, but ‟tis my fate that leads me on‟, he says at I.ii.153-4. The statement is in various ways a highly dubious one. Giovanni is always anxious to allocate responsibility for his own actions to fate; here his rationale seems especially suspect, since our awareness of the habitual secondary meaning of the word „know‟ serves merely to reinforce the suggestion of lust.

Later, whenAnnabella, showing him the jewel given her by Donado and playfully terming its donor „a lusty youth‟ (, asks him if he is jealous, he replies:

 That you shall know anon, at better leisure.

Welcome, sweet night! The evening crowns the day.


The evening crowns the day, presumably, because it brings with it the promise of sexual activity, which is what will make the night sweet; what Annabella will know, then, is carnal knowledge.

5 of 15

Giovanni and the intrusion

For nine months‟ space in secret I enjoyed

 Sweet Annabella‟s sheets; nine months I lived

 A happy monarch of her heart and her.

 Soranzo, thou know‟st this; thy paler cheek

 Bears the confounding print of thy disgrace,

 For her too fruitful womb too soon bewrayed

 The happy passage of our stol‟n delights,

And made her mother to a child unborn.

Soranzo‟s knowledge here is, envisaged as having a physical basis. Manifesting itself in the bodily sign of the pale cheek, what he „knows‟ seems to be profoundly connected with what is „bewrayed‟ by Annabella‟s womb, which Giovanni has himself so recently „ploughed up‟. His need to uncover its secrets by direct contact with it raises the whole issue of what Luke Wilson has called „the problem of knowledge about the inside of the body‟, and a more rarely dissected female body at that: Jonathan Sawday has observed that „[t]he womb or uterus was an object sought after with an almost ferocious intensity in Renaissance anatomy theatres.'

This may well be seen as lending a similarly experiential colouring to his use of „know‟ here, as it perhaps did to his earlier demand to Putana,„With child? How dost thou know‟t?‟ (III.iii.9); Giovanni in his quest for knowledge will violate not only the traditionally female, private space of the birth chamber, but the secrets of the womb itself, making of himself „a tragicall midwife‟.

 His act echoes and ironically inverts our first glimpse of Hippolita, who enters, as Nathaniel Strout points out, „having forced her way into her lover Soranzo‟s private room‟;

6 of 15

The Friar and knowledge

The Friar is responsible for two of the three uses of the word „knowledge‟ in the play (and also, at I.i.75, for an occurrence of its near homonym „acknowledge‟). To him - appropriately given his recent position at Bologna - knowledge appears to be an absolute, unquestionable good; and yet his actual use of the words „know‟ and „knowledge‟ often works to undercut the very certainties he apparently articulates. His first use of „knowledge‟ has him crying:

 O Giovanni, hast thou left the schools

 Of knowledge to converse with lust and death?


Here the proximity of „knowledge‟ to „lust‟ threatens to pull the word in precisely the direction so markedly favoured by Giovanni, tending to merge the two rather than sustaining the opposition ostensibly created between them. His second use of the word destabilises it even further, as he stigmatises Giovanni‟s reasoning as „O ignorance in knowledge‟ (II.v.27). Here knowledge is not an absolute at all, but something that can, with alarming rapidity, be seen to contain its own opposite.

7 of 15

Friar and knowledge 2

The Friar uses „know‟ only three times in the play, „knowledge‟ twice, and „known‟ once. Moreover, two of these uses are actually within the specific context of denying or refusing knowledge: I must not stay/ To know thy fall; back to Bononia I/ With speed will haste, and shun this coming blow./ Parma, farewell; would I had never known thee,Or aught of thine.

This reluctance to know is prefigured in his opening speech:

 Dispute no more in this, for know, young man,/ These are no school-points; nice philosophy/ May tolerate unlikely arguments,/But Heaven admits no jest: wits that presumed/ On wit too much, by striving how to prove/ There was no God, with foolish grounds of art,/ Discovered first the nearest way to hell,/ And filled the world with devilish atheism./ Such questions, youth, are fond; for better ‟tis/ To bless the sun than reason why it shines;/ Yet He thou talk‟st of is above the sun./No more; I may not hear it.

For all the Friar‟s status as educator, the entire speech is imbued with an aesthetic and indeed an ethic of ignorance; all that can be known is that it is better not to know, and beyond this it is better not to hear, and the whole is reinforced by the condescension of the „young man‟ which disables Giovanni‟s entire perspective by suggesting accumulated (although presumably strictly circumscribed) experience rather than ratiocination as the appropriate basis for knowledge.

8 of 15

Friar and Putana

A similar desire not to know powers the Friar‟s admonition to Giovanni in II,v:

 Peace. Thou hast told a tale, whose every word

 Threatens eternal slaughter to the soul.

 I‟m sorry I have heard it; would mine ears

 Had been one minute deaf, before the hour

 That thou cam‟st to me.


Here it is not only Giovanni‟s actual deeds but his very words which are seen as having the power to defile, and the Friar ends his gesture of recoil by a wish for deafness which provides a clear counterpart to the literal blindness eventually inflicted on his educative counterpart, Putana

9 of 15

The Friar and Vasques

It is gloriously ironic that one of the very few occasions on which the Friar does assume knowledge and pronounce with certainty should be such a ludicrous one: he pontificates that „that marriage seldom‟s good, /Where the bride-banquet so begins in blood‟ (IV.i.109-110), asserting a wide experience of bloody bride-banquets which neither he nor very many other people can seriously be expected to possess.

 Admittedly, he has a larger part: of the play‟s total of 2,281 lines, Vasques speaks 296 and the Friar 181 (figures which are complicated by the fact that all Vasques‟ lines are in prose, and may therefore be either significantly longer or significantly shorter than an iambic pentameter, and all the Friar‟s in verse).

10 of 15

Friar and Vasques 2

For the Friar, to know is to be irrevocably tainted; for Vasques, though, knowledge is not a permanent enlightenment but a temporary acquisition, a process that is valued for its own sake rather than for what it represents. It is interesting to plot Vasques‟ trajectory through the play in these terms. Seeing through Hippolyta, suspecting Annabella, anticipating Giovanni, Vasques is „knowing‟ indeed, and his confidence in his own knowledge may well seem justified when he departs the play alive, unpunished, and with an exit line which expresses nothing but self-satisfaction: „‟Tis well; this conquest is mine, and I rejoice that a Spaniard outwent an Italian in revenge" ( The Friar leaves in order that he may not know; Vasques stays until he is in full possession of all the facts, so that he shares with the audience the possession of narrative satisfaction at least, even if events have not unfolded entirely in accordance with his wishes

11 of 15

Knowledge and others

Bergetto may be simple, but he is wise enough to realise that what he needs to know is the social and political origin of any claim to knowledge rather than the veracity of its content. Donado‟s oxymoronic coupling of knowledge and simplicity serves to reinforce our sense of the lack of wisdom that may be entailed in society‟s privileging of the status of the knower over the status of what is known, while Bergetto‟s blunt reference to a „dry beating‟ merely offers a simple statement of the power relations governing knowledge which are expressed so much more knowingly by the Cardinal. 

12 of 15

Politics and truth

The inescapability of politics is something which Ford himself underlines when he gives the Cardinal the closing speech of the play and allows that final summing-up to stand as his own title. Although the greater part of the play has been concerned with the domestic affairs of Parma, the dramatist shows himself acutely aware that however peripheral the Cardinal may be to the events of the plot, his social position is enough to ensure that though his experiences may correlate only indirectly with those of the rest of the characters, the language in which he chooses to describe events will always be what passes for the normative and formative. The Cardinal is also allowed to dispense justice on Putana,and chooses a punishment which seems to label her crime as witchcraft when he decrees that she shall be burned to ashes.31

 His epistemological counterpart Vasques, has, however, perhaps acted more judiciously when, on his own initiative, he inflicted on Putana the traditional mythological punishment for inappropriate and particularly sexual knowledge, the blinding which was the fate of Gloucester and the choice of Oedipus.

13 of 15

Blinding and Tis Pity

Oedipus is a figure with whom Orgilus in The Broken Heart explicitly compares himself - „Dark sentences are for Apollo‟s priests; / I am not Oedipus‟ and the connection here is made particularly potent in the terms of Vasques‟ instruction, „You shall know presently. Come sirs, take me this old damnable hag, gag her instantly, and put out her eyes‟ (IV.iii.224-5). With its obvious literal and symbolic links to the processes and politics of knowing, this literal disablement also bodies forth the symbolic disabling strategies which have punctuated the attempts of the Friar and the Cardinal to maintain control over knowledge, and thus serves to align the Cardinal with his religious confrere as well as with Vasques. 

14 of 15

The implications of the play

Such a doubling of doublings serves as a powerful emblem for the radical instability with which Ford has imbued his complex depictions of knowledge, its cognitive mechanisms, and its social meanings. If we agree with Giovanni, we are forced to recognise that our own responses to the play must always be devalued because of our merely vicarious experience of it; if we agree with the Friar, we may well conclude that the very act of viewing the story has been an essentially corrupting one, and that vicarious experience, far from being insufficient, is therefore in itself too much. Paradoxically, the perspective we are most likely to adopt is in fact that shared by the two characters whom we may well like the least, the Cardinal and Vasques, whose awareness of the uses of knowledge we are surely likely to share. As our „discovery‟ of that initial allusion to Marlowe suggests, a play which concentrates so much on dramatisation of the dangers of knowledge never ceases to remind us that we are always already implicated in it.

15 of 15


No comments have yet been made

Similar Business resources:

See all Business resources »See all kllj hjh h resources »