History

But A Plot To Train You To Your Ruin

swords03So I read ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, and posted some thoughts over at EMU’s collaborative reading. There’s a great deal to say about the play, which I consider to be not just Ford’s masterpiece but one of the English Renaissance more generally. But following what I said last week about looking for historical clues in literary sources, one of the things which struck me was its depiction of sexuality.

No doubt about it, ‘Tis Pity is a racy play. From Soranzo’s penchant for virgins to the central incestuous pairing, Ford’s is a play which spares few blushes. And yet, remarkably for the age, Ford treats his transgressive couple with a good deal of tenderness. Giovanni and Annabella, brother and sister but also lovers, are not merely vehicles for titilation, as they might have been in a less writer’s hands. They are given rather moving speeches of love, and share equal responsibility for their dangerous relationship: though it is Giovanni who first confesses his love, it is Annabella who first pledges her troth, as it were.

‘Tis Pity is the first English play to deal so baldly with incest (as far as I know); it’s fair-mindedness – in a play busting outwards with other examples of sexual deviancy – is thus even more surprising. Its setting, however, might hold the clue – Catholic Italy is removed from Protestant England. It is ‘other’ and distanced, and for English audiences of the time Catholic carnality was a source of some fascination: through Queen Henrietta Maria, for whom this play was first performed, it was at the very heard of the monarchy of the time (the play was first performed around the 1630s). As Richard Cust puts it in his Charles I: A Political Life, “[Charles I] was the first English monarch for well over a hundred years to enjoy anything approaching a happy and fulfilled family life and it did much to define his kingship.” [pg. 148] His virility, and his wife’s fecundity, bestowed upon England a quite unprecedented royal line, subverting the tenuous stability of a virgin queen and a homosexual king before him.

Yet this stability was the product of a Catholic womb. This, as Michael Braddick shows in God’s Fury, England’s Fire, “could become the basis of a conspiracy theory” [pg. 23]: namely that England was being converted by stealth, by dynastic usurpation. The wranglings over Catholic counsellors in the Long Parliament would follow right through to James II’s fall forty years later. I started this latest literary/historical train of thought on the back of Thomas Corns’s The Royal Image, in which Ann Baynes Coiro convincingly argued that, “Charles’s reign introduced the possibility of over-whelming dynasty, on the one hand, and of a feminized king dominated by a woman, notably a papist woman, on the other.” [pg. 28] Ford plays a woman, and a papist woman, at the heart of Giovanni’s fall from grace, whilst the rest of Parma falls apart around him.

‘Tis Pity is no political allegory – it is a profoundly literary piece, reaching out to other classics of the English Renaissance (Romeo and Juliet, Doctor Faustus, The Spanish Tragedy). And yet its deep concerns about retribution and power politics, about rebellion against both state and Church, and its concern with marriage – as Cust argues, central to Charles’s public image – and its role in reproduction, all resonate in the politics of the day. Everyone is corrupt in ‘Tis Pity, and the polity is heading for self-annihalation: “To what a height of liberity in damnation,” Vasques, the selfless but ruthless servant, opines towards the end of Act IV, “hath the devil trained our age.” [IV.iii, ll 268-269] The complex and benighted tensions of Ford’s time are all too present in his play.

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