"This Idol Thou Ador'st": The Iconography of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.' (John Ford)

By Amtower, Laurel | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

"This Idol Thou Ador'st": The Iconography of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.' (John Ford)


Amtower, Laurel, Papers on Language & Literature


What if it were not "in religion sin / To make our love a god, and worship it"? John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore poses an interesting test-case for what happens when an individual is allowed to make precisely such moral judgments. The play, while implicitly acknowledging the horrifying nature of the incestuous relationship between its main protagonists, Giovanni and his sister Annabella, nevertheless allows Giovanni to pursue the logical ends of his own teleological confusion. In doing so, the play invites questions not only about the role of religion itself, but more specifically about the role of the individual who negotiates religious law in the quest of his own satisfaction.

The play posits Giovanni as a gifted character left little recourse for expressing the desires that divide him. Once a scholar but now disgusted by the corrupt society that surrounds him, Giovanni is torn between voices and urges within himself that demand competing responses to his unlawful desires. These desires isolate him intellectually, leaving him unable to engage in that moral and discursive order in which he had hitherto invested his life's study and devotion. Driven to distraction by desire for his sister, yet unwilling or unable to abandon completely those social and conventional forces that have shaped his intellect, Giovanni finds himself in that uneasy situation that occurs when the human subject's desires are incompatible with the ideological dictates of his or her cultural traditions. His mournful complaint above (I.ii.145-46), attesting to Annabella's transfiguring capacity to elevate him beyond the cold logic and rules of his traditional religious education, articulates the desire to find a new moral space, where human love and desire might be acknowledged for their capacity to translate the self into a higher spiritual realm.

Unfortunately, 'Tis Pity, as an exploration not only of the socially subversive potential of incestuous love but of the intellects that justify it, raises troubling questions about the capacity for re-envisioning such a moral order in early baroque society. As a "rational" agent, Giovanni rejects his society's religious and moral structures, finding within them a power that too much denies the dramatic and transfiguring forces of intense love. Yet though he seeks another, better moral order, one which will appropriately venerate and sustain the love that seems to him a transcendent power, Giovanni finds that his own intellectual and moral projections can little escape the logic of his inadequate cultural traditions. Thus in re-envisioning "the good" through platonic concepts that attempt to bypass the Christian insistence on God as the appropriate end of all contemplation, Giovanni finds not another, better world, but rather a circular and gratuitous reenactment of the logic and rituals of the very Catholic paradigm he rejects.

This paper explores how an ostensibly well-meaning character, misguided largely by the corruption of his society, transforms medieval and scholastic theories of signification into a unique iconography that at one and the same time subverts and exploits humanistic notions of a figurative "good." This subversion, I shall argue, comments upon what Ford posits as an analogous religious and political situation: namely, Jacobean and Caroline England's own implication in the appropriation and subversion of Catholicism in the advancement of the Church of England. Though Ford's own religious affiliations are difficult to trace, recent studies on Ford's dedicatees and their sympathies, as well as on Ford's own education in the well-known "recusant" enclaves of Exeter College, Oxford, and the Middle Temple, indicate that an interest in the old religion may inform many of the more difficult themes of Ford's works (Hopkins 27-29). In 'Tis Pity, a play about an entire society that collapses under the social and moral inadequacy of the discursive system that supports it, this interest becomes paramount. …

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