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The Incest Paradox in Ford’s 'TIS PITY...

On Monday, April 20, we're reuniting the company of artists that brought Tis Pity She’s a Whore to life with our 2015 Off-Broadway production for a livestream benefit occasionWe hope you will tune in for what promises to be a fun and rare opportunity to hear this delicious, decadently dangerous play. Below is Jean Howard's program note for our production.

The Incest Paradox in Ford’s 'TIS PITY SHE'S A WHORE

Tis Pity She’s a Whore is one of the most lurid and compelling dramas of the seventeenth-century stage, a hyped up revenge drama permeated by sex, treachery, and lyrical passion. Its hero, Giovanni, and heroine, Annabella, are brother and sister, but they are also lovers. Incest, then, lies at the play’s scandalous center, and yet the play does not allow the audience entirely to forfeit its sympathy for this unusual pair. How is this possible?

Part of the answer lies in the remarkable way Ford, working several theatrical generations after Shakespeare, exploits the stage traditions he inherited. On the one hand, 'Tis Pity has the urban setting and the satiric point of view familiar from London city comedies like Middleton’s Chaste Maid in Cheapside or Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. In this kind of play, the main characters are often ordinary citizens with vice and follies that makes them objects of ridicule. 'Tis Pity’s main characters are citizens of Parma, and Parma is certainly peopled by unattractive social types. But the emotional stakes are considerably higher than in city comedies because Ford is also drawing heavily on revenge tragedies like The Spanish Tragedy in which in a quest for justice people commit hideous acts of vengeance on their enemies, often going mad in the process. In 'Tis Pity, to get revenge, characters hire assassins to ambush and murder; employ poison or disguise; and leave a trail of bodies in their wake. At the end of 'Tis Pity, nearly half the characters named in the dramatis personae are dead.

Amid the mayhem, deceit, and folly that compose the world of Ford’s Parma, Annabella and Giovanni stand apart. Their story is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Like that famous pair, they are star-crossed lovers whose very lives depend on keeping their passion a secret; and they are often shown separate from other stage figures—withdrawn into private bedrooms or watching the action from a balcony. Moreover, Annabella and Giovanni are given a lyricism that recalls Shakespeare’s famous pair of young lovers and somewhat elevates them above the muck that surrounds them. Here is Annabella, describing, but not naming, her brother, father of her unborn child, to her frantically jealous husband, Soranzo ((IV.iii,30-33, 36-39)):

The man, The more than man, that got this sprightly boy,-- For ‘tis a boy, and there glory, sir, Your heir shall be a son- …………………… This noble creature was in every part So angel-like, so glorious, that a woman Who had not been but human, as was I, Would have kneeled to him and begged for love.

The audience hears the pregnant Annabella speak this enraptured praise of her brother while watching Soranzo drag her across the stage, pulling her by the hair and threatening her with his sword.

In this context, incest emerges as both a taboo act, condemned by the friar and increasingly felt as sin by Annabella, and as a relationship that seals brother and sister off from the contaminations of Parma. Convention compels brother and sister to marry outside the family unit, and yet from the play’s opening scene Giovanni argues against this logic, pressing for their union to make the two of them “one soul, one flesh, one love, one heart, one all” (I.i.34). Giovanni’s is the logic of the tragic over-reacher who obsessively seeks a forbidden prize and pursues it even at the cost of his own and his beloved’s destruction. Yet the intensity of their unconventional passion and the sordidness of the alternative unions that surround them in Parma compel audience sympathy and show Ford to be one of the period’s best analysts of passion’s extreme and unpredictable forms.


Professor Jean Howard is the George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She began teaching at Syracuse in 1975, where she received the first University-wide Wasserstrom Prize for excellence as teacher and mentor of graduate students; she has also received Guggenheim, NEH, Mellon, Folger, Huntington, and Newberry Library Fellowships. In 2010 she gave the Columbia University Schoff Memorial Lectures on 'Staging History: Imagining the Nation' on playwrights William Shakespeare, Tony Kushner, and Caryl Churchill. Her teaching interests include Shakespeare, Tudor and Stuart drama, Early Modern poetry, modern drama, feminist and Marxist theory, and the history of feminism. Prof. Howard is on the editorial board of Shakespeare Studies and Renaissance Drama. She has published essays on Shakespeare, Pope, Ford, Heywood, Dekker, Marston, and Jonson, as well as on aspects of contemporary critical theory including new historicism, Marxism, and issues in feminism. Her books include Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration (1984); Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited with Marion O'Connor (1987); The Stage and Struggle in Early Modern England (1994); with Phyllis Rackin, Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories (1997); Marxist Shakespeares, edited with Scott Shershow (2000); and four generically organized Companions to Shakespeare, edited with Richard Dutton (2001). She is a co-editor of The Norton Shakespeare (2nd ed. 2007) and General Editor of the Bedford Contextual Editions of Shakespeare. A recent book, Theater of a City: The Places of London Comedy 1598-1642 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), won the Barnard Hewitt award for Outstanding Theater History for 2008.  She has just published, with Crystal Bartolovich, a monograph on Shakespeare and Marx in the Great Shakespeareans series for Continuum Press (2012) and is currently completing a book entitled Staging History that uses Shakespeare's history plays as a starting point for considering Tony Kushner and Caryl Churchill's use of history in framing debates about current political issues. A book on early modern tragedy is in the works.  From 1996 to 1999 Professor Howard directed the Institute for Research on Women and Gender  at Columbia; in 1999-2000 she was President of the Shakespeare Association of America;  from 2004-2007 she served as Columbia's first Vice Provost for Diversity Initiatives; and from 2008-2011 she was Chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature. Currently, as a Trustee Emerita of Brown University, she chairs the Brown University President's Diversity Advisory Council and serves on the Advisory Board of the Pembroke Center; she is also a Senator of Phi Beta Kappa. | B.A. Brown (1970); M.Phil., University of London (Marshall Fellow 1972); Ph.D., Yale (Danforth Fellow 1975).


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