Patriachal Double Standards in John Ford’s ‘Tis A Pity She’s a Whore

tis_pity_posterSo apparently John Ford is not just a director of western films during Hollywood’s golden age; he is also a Jacobean playwright!  Well, the two shared at name at the very least, even if they were born centuries apart.  We of course are concerned here with the playwright and more specifically his controversial play ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore; the tale of an incestuous love affair.  The title is sadly a little misleading as there aren’t any actual ‘whores’ in the play, but the play does work on several levels, one of which demonstrates that chastity is not the only definition of virtue for women, and while it doesn’t display the kind of double standard for sexual promiscuity that we see in The Honest Whore, it does demonstrate the lack of virtue present in the men who accuse an unchaste woman of being morally corrupt.

 

Lena Headey plays one half of an incestuous couple in the popular program "Game of Thrones".

Lena Headey plays one half of an incestuous couple in the popular program “Game of Thrones“.

The play tells the story of Giovanni, an Italian nobleman who falls in love with his own sister: Annabella.  A friar discourages him from this love, but he confesses it to Annabella who returns his affection and the two consummate their love.  There are a host of suitors to Annabella and a web of jealousy arises as a result.  Annabella is forced marry, but her new husband learns of her past indiscretions and the play ends in a tragedy whose death count rivals Hamlet.

 

 

 

Charlotte Rampling played the title character of 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore in the 1971 film adaptation of the play.

Charlotte Rampling played the title character of ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore in the 1971 film adaptation of the play.

The play is interesting in that it portrays virtue as an element that is not necessarily absent in unchaste women.  While there is a certain social stigma for incestuous relationships that that heightens judgements regarding Annabella’s lack of chastity, once her sexual activity is excluded, it becomes clear that Annabella is the model of virtue.  For example, when threatened with violence, Annabella refuses to name her lover, displaying loyalty.  When offering her life in place of her lover’s identity, one character notes that “this… shows the nobleness of a gallant spirit”.  Annabella also display a loyalty to her father and marries when he requests it of her, though she is troubled by her loyalty to her brother/lover.  In sharp contrast the male antagonist, Annabella’s husband Soranzo, speaks of revenge upon both Annabella and her lover.  It is important to note the Soranzo does not wish for ‘justice’, but rather ‘revenge’, which is a sin.  Soranzo also lacks the loyalty present in Annabella both because he spurns Hippolita, a woman he has had sexual relations with, but also because Hippolita is the wife of a friend, who he intentionally sent on a journey which he expected would end in his friend’s death.  Juxtaposing Annabella with Soranzo, it becomes clear that both sexes fail to meet standards of chastity, but the unchaste Annabella is still very much capable of being a virtuous person whilst her male counterpart fails to do this.

 

 

Cherie Lunghi portrayed Annabella in the 1980 film adaptation of 'Tis a Pity She's a Whore.

Cherie Lunghi portrayed Annabella in the 1980 film adaptation of ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore.

For his part, Annabella’s brother/lover Giovanni challenges social norms.  He is initially racked with guilt over his romantic love for his sister, but comes to realize that this guilt is a social contrivance.  In confronting the friar who served as a mentor to him, Giovanni says: “The hell you have oft prompted is nought else/ But slavish and fond superstitious fear”.  Giovanni recognizes that it is an imagined fear that has motivated him to contest his love for Annabella and seeks practical reasons outside of arbitrary law prescribed by a socially accepted religious convention.  While it is perhaps difficult from a Western perspective to make allowances for incest, in challenging the arbitrary law of religion, Giovanni encourages those around him to think to the purpose of certain social conventions, rather than blindly adhering to them.

 

 

The theme of incest is not one that has receded, as evidenced by he popular program "Game of Thrones".

The theme of incest is not one that has receded, as evidenced by he popular program “Game of Thrones“.

As far as tragedies, the play is pretty standard fair.  A high death count, several fight scenes, double-crosses and forbidden love, all whilst challenging certain moral standards.  It is perhaps not compelling as Othello, Titus Andronicus or Macbeth, but it is entertaining and certainly worth the read.

 

If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, on Facebook, and add me to your RSS feed.

 

 

 

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php