Saturday, 30 June 2012

Gender and Power in 'Tis a Pity She's A Whore'


For my A-level English we studied love in English literature and one of the texts we looked at was the John Ford play 'Tis A Pity She's A Whore'. As the title might suggest it is quite an offensive play, but also very interesting. I might have to warn the reader unfamiliar with this work: it deals with an incestuous love and ends in death.
Giovanni has returned from studies and finds himself passionately in love with his sister, Annabella. Although Friar Bonaventura tells him it is wrong, Giovanni convinces Annabella the church condones their love and she requites his love. They sleep together and Annabella finds out she is pregnant. She is forced to decide to marry one of her many suitors, Soranzo, since she cannot be with her brother. Soranzo finds out she is pregnant and locks her up. When her nurse reveals to Soranzo's friend it was Giovanni who impregnated Annabella, Soranzo and his friend plan their revenge. Although Annabella warns Giovanni of the danger, by writing a letter in her own blood, he accepts a dinner invitation. Before the dinner, he kills Annabella and enters the dinner with her hearts skewered onto his dagger. In true tragedy fashion, everyone except one dies at the end. The last line of the play says of Annabella 'who could not say, 'Tis pity she's a whore?'
Well, I think everyone can imagine how awkward it was to read parts of this play during the lesson. Critics have usually been very harsh in their comments on this play, not only because it deals with an incestuous love, but also because there seems to be no condemnation of Giovanni and his actions. According to critic Mark Stavig:  "Instead of stressing the villainy, Ford portrays Giovanni as a talented, virtuous, and noble man who is overcome by a tumultuous passion that brings about his destruction." Giovanni is the one who courts Annabella, who tells her the church agrees when it does not, who eventually murders her. Yet it seems that Ford believes that a man can do nothing against passion and that what he does when in love is not his fault. Annabella however is clearly judged in the play. 


Ford dedicates his final line to her being blamed for everything. There seems to be a tradition in the literature of love that presents women as both powerful and weak at the same time. Sexual and passionate women are presented as dangerous to men and society. What men do under passion is therefore not their fault, but the fault of those women they are passionate for. Had Annabella not been so beautiful, Giovanni would never have loved her and therefore everything is her fault. This places women in an impossible position in literature. On the other hand, to modern audiences, it is clear that Annabella has no control or power whatsoever. 


In the second scene, where Giovanni and Annabella confess their love, it is very clear that Giovanni has the upper hand. Giovanni takes her by the hand and talks of their love, still fraternal, yet quickly changes into a passionate love declaration. He says her 'lips would tempt a saint', again implying that women have the power to corrupt men. He then offers her his dagger, so she cans tab him if she will not love him. Not only is this dramatic irony because he stabs her eventually, but it also shows, surprisingly, the lack of power that Annabella has. Never could she, a woman, stab her brother, a man. Not only because she loves him, both as a brother and a man, but also because all her life she has been taught to be obedient to men. She doesn't even reach for the dagger, but only asks him more questions, as if she needs him to tell her what she is supposed to say. There seems to be some kind of resistance from Annabella when she says: 'You are my brother Giovanni.' She seems to realize that it is wrong, yet when he lies to her saying that the church approves, she completely caves in. 


Society has trained Annabella to accept authority. Here we have her brother, clearly an authority figure since he is male, but he enforces his argument by bringing in the Church, even though he lies about it. The Church is another source of authority for Annabella. 'Tis a Pity' is very much a reflection of its time. Another play from the early 1600s, 'The Duchess of Malfi' shows the same kind of power struggle between a sister against her brothers supported by the Church. The widowed Duchess marries a man she loves, yet her brother is obsessed with her and together with the Cardinal, he plots her death. The Duchess herself has no control over her own destiny and is punished for following her love, whereas the men aren't. 


What do you think? Do you think that in a modern play Giovanni would be the one who is condemned or would blame still fall on Annabella?

7 comments:

  1. What a thought provoking story.

    When I read The Family by Mario Puzo I was horrified by the incestous relationships too. But in today's world this might be considered a.form of abuse and that's a long discussion but I think Annabella might not take the fall but she'd still be held accountable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I do think both should be held responsible for their own actions!

      Delete
  2. Wow. That's quite a story there.

    I definitely think that Giovanni would be condemned because he coerced Annabella into thinking that it was acceptable for them to be together even though they were siblings. Annabella would also be condemned because she did not challenge the views of men that she is presented with, rather she accepts them without question, much like Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Daisy knows that Gatsby loves her however, she favours her social status and security so she decides to marry Tom. Even though she knows that Tom is an abusive man, she condemns herself because she is too selfish to consider anything else, even Gatsby whom she loved.

    But I think there would be people who would think that Giovanni is a villain and didn't deserve to be free and without the burden of facing society's insults and hard judgements and there are those people who would think that Annabella should have been stronger and that because of her submissiveness to men, it was inevitable for her to land such a fate. Either way, I think that they're idiots and they deserve each other! ^^ (Like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love your parallel to Daisy, it's a great link! And I do agree that their end is their own fault! Thanks for commenting!

      Delete
    2. Any time! I love your posts.

      Delete
  3. I don't understand. Why would he kill his own lover/sister who is pregnant with his baby?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Reply to Rashika Shukla:
    Giovanni kills Annabella ultimately because if he cannot have her then he believes no one else should. He is so in love with her, or more rightly obsessed with the power he holds over her, he cannot bear for her to be with anybody but him.

    (I'm also studying this play this year, trying to get to grips with the plot and themes - only my opinion taken from my lessons in class)

    ReplyDelete