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How Does Desire Disrupt the Representation of Unified Identity in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pit She’s a Whore?’ Essay

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Representations of sexuality in Early Modern literature reveal a variety of attitudes, but they can be characterised by the ambivalence which they display towards the subject of desire and its consequences for the self. The destructive potential of desire is revealed in John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s A Whore, widely considered to be one of the most radical works of Jacobean theatre, not only for its frank and nuanced portrayal of incest, but for its reworking of the theme of ill-fated love from Romeo and Juliet into a dark rumination on the fundamental incommunicability of desire and the impossibility of mutual understanding.

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Arguably the most radical aspect of ‘Tis Pity is the degree of sympathy that Ford affords his two protagonists; unlike other Renaissance plays in which characters’ incestuous desires are portrayed as extensions of their villainy or political greed, Ford’s tragedy makes the love of a brother and sister its central subject, and could be conceived as doubly radical in that this relationship is supposedly based on mutual affection rather than the norms of economic necessity and caste which governed marriages during this era.

However, over the course of the play this relationship is shown, as Ronald Huebert attests, to be a ‘fantasy of constancy’; Giovanni is unable to control his all-consuming passion, asserting his authority over his sister in increasingly patriarchal terms and finally butchering her and his unborn child in the gory coup de theatre of the play’s denouement[1]. If Giovanni’s fantasy of possession demonstrates how the need to represent desire can distort one’s sense of self, Annabella seems to present an alternative: the possibility of fashioning one’s identity and retaining control of one’s desires.

Stephen Greenblatt argues that ‘Self-fashioning is achieved in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile’, and that ‘One man’s authority is another man’s alien. ’[2] An examination of Giovanni and Annabella’s identities should thus consider how these characters are constructed in relation to the figures of authority in the play, as well as how their transgressive desire manifests itself in spite of these authorities. Finally, the question of how desire constitutes, or disrupts, he identity of these characters could be informed by a psychoanalytical approach; the work of Jacques Lacan provides a compelling reading of a play so concerned both with loving ‘too well’ and loss. The problem of representing a ‘unified identity’ is immediately apparent in the first scene of ‘Tis Pity, when Giovanni tells Friar Bonaventura: ‘to you I have unclasped my burdened soul’ (I, 1. 13-15). [3] Michael Neill observes that that the play here seems to challenge the notion of essentialist ‘distinction’, which the movements of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism have soundly disproven[4].

Discussing the identity of these characters is problematic, because they cannot be regarded as having some transhistorical human essence which makes them readable as characters in the modern sense. Nevertheless, Neill writes, Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists characteristically wrote as though the self were a distinct entity[5]. By opening his play just after a confession, Ford establishes the issue of revealing psychological ‘truths’, of discovering someone’s secret essence, as seen in the metaphor of the soul as a book which can be ‘unclasped’.

In his use of the popular intellectual discourse of the Renaissance and his flagrant blaspheming, Giovanni would recall another hubristic figure for Jacobean audiences. As Rowland Wymer asserts, like Faustus, his ‘nice philosophy’[6] (I. 1. 2. ) disguises fundamental confusions and inconsistencies, as when he misappropriates neoplatonic concepts such as the understanding of love as the quintessence of reason[7]: ‘Virtue itself is reason but refined/And love the quintessence of that’ (II. 5. 19-21).

Friar Bonaventura’s response of ‘O ignorance in knowledge’ (II. 5. 27) is crucial, since it reveals the nebulous authority of Giovanni’s learning. The way in which Giovanni’s arguments invalidate themselves as mere ‘school-points’ when confronted by the play’s admittedly questionable moral authority is where his character is most similar to Faustus. Throughout the play, Giovanni draws attention to the transgressive nature of his actions: ‘So did it me, who, ere my precious sister Was married, thought all taste of love would die

In such a contract; but I find no change in this formal law of sports’. (V. 3. 4-7) Giovanni revels in the freedom from ‘formal law’ which he and Annabella enjoy, yet it is precisely this ‘sweet pleasure’ of having ‘got there first’ that was operative in the obsession with a woman’s chastity during this period. Here Greenblatt’s argument that Marlowe’s heroes ‘imagine themselves set in diametrical opposition to their society where in fact they have unwittingly accepted its crucial structural elements’ seems pertinent[8].

Just as Faustus’ ‘whole career binds him ever more closely to that Christian conception of the body and the mind’, so Giovanni participates in the masculine discourse of exchange by defining himself at odds with it[9]. Giovanni’s sense of self is entirely bounded against the hierarchical elements of society which he seeks to challenge. Annabella could also be considered to be defining herself by her transgression against what Marcel Mauss deemed the system of ‘gift exchange’ to which she is subject.

Before she and Giovanni announce their love for one another, she is presented with a parade of suitors, Bergetto, Grimaldi and Soranzo, all of whom wish to take her hand in socially sanctioned marriage. Her tut’ress Putana draws attention to her lack of agency in the matter, to her status as mere object in a society which valued economic necessity and kinship ties over affection: ‘you’ll be stolen away sleeping else shortly’ (I. 2. 70. ). Annabella’s response: ‘such a life gives no content to me’ (I. 2. 1-2) indicates her wish to avoid this system entirely, which the prospect of a mutually loving relationship with Giovanni seems to offer. When Soranzo interrogates her on the father of her child, as Lisa Hopkins has pointed out, she compares her unborn child to the immaculate conception, and by inference herself to the Virgin Mary, describing Giovanni as ‘angel-like’ and worthy of ‘true worship’(IV. 3. 37-41)[10]. While she takes pleasure in teasing Soranzo here, her real intent is to express the communion which she feels in her relationship with Giovanni that the strictures of conventional marriage cannot offer.

Susannah Mintz writes: ‘the fact that Annabella and Giovanni occupy unequal social positions… suggests that their motivations toward incest may also be different’[11]. The very different ways in which the two characters are constructed by society inescapably shapes their desire as much as their desire shapes them. Annabella’s expectations for her incestuous relationship are no more evident than in the moment, when, following a long period of separation, she glimpses her brother as though for the first time: ‘But see Putana, see – what blessed shape /Of some celestial creature now appears? (I. 2. 140-41). That Annabella pictures Giovanni not for who he is but as a ‘celestial creature’ could be regarded as a emblematic of the connection between loss and desire which the play enacts. Greenblatt has denied the compatibility of New Historicism with psychoanalysis, asserting that psychoanalysis is ‘causally belated’ by the Early Modern period and that the eternal mythology of the subconscious on which Freud founded his ideas is irreconcilable with a critical strategy which rejects the possibility of a transhistorical self.

Yet the revisions of Freud by Jacques Lacan seem applicable here, especially as the concept of the imaginary Other has concurrence with Greenblatt’s idea that individuals fashion themselves as fictions through their relations to external authorities[12]. Annabella’s glimpse of her brother is reminiscent of Lacan’s concept of the mirror-stage, a point in which the infant discovers his or her wholeness in the image reflected in the mother’s gaze.

In this instant, self-recognition coincides with a desire that is impossible to distinguish from the desire of the other, so that one’s sense of self is inseparable from the knowledge that the self is a possessed object. Yet, because this self-recognition is also dependent on the realisation by the infant that it is not the sole object of the mother’s desire, it is consequently defined by the fact of this loss. As Nestor Braunstein writes, ‘desire lack in being…its concrete expression is the fantasy’[13].

Annabella’s desire for Giovanni is predicated on a false sense of spiritual connection, evoked by the language of divinity that she uses to describe him. If Annabella’s desire is a fantasy of communion, the extent to which Giovanni’s differs is shown at the end of this scene when the two siblings vow to love or kill each other. The vows, which Annabella initiates, are made on the ashes of their mother, and are identical, save for one detail: Giovanni’s subtle modification of Annabella’s possessive ‘our’ to ‘my’. By having the siblings swear by their mother’s ashes, Ford creates what Susan J.

Wiseman refers to as a series of ‘uncanny doublings’, in which brother and sister, son and daughter confuse these relations with their roles as lovers[14]. According to Bruce Boehrer, the incestuous individual ‘aspires to absolute being’[15]. Giovanni’s use of the possessive noun could thus be seen as an indication of his fantasy to possess and display his control of all these relations, collapsing the distance between Subject and Other. Earlier in this scene we see evidence of another fantasy of Giovanni’s: the neoplatonic idea of lover’s hearts as mirrors of one another’s being.

Evoking the Petrarchan image of ‘Love’s cruelty’, Giovanni commands his sister: ‘Rip up my bosom; there thou shalt behold/ A heart in which is writ the truth I speak. ’(I. 2. 234). Giovanni’s literal interpretation of this trope is not unusual, since as, Neill notes, the passions were believed to leave a physical imprint on the heart[16]. Nonetheless, this moment indicates the way in which his needs to both represent his desire and possess Annabella’s become dangerously intertwined. Over the course of the play Giovanni’s language becomes increasingly patriarchal, characterised by attempts to display his mastery over his sister.

From the moment they consummate their love, he refers to her as ‘Sister no more’ (II. 1. 1), proclaiming himself to be greater than a king in possessing her: ‘I envy not the mightiest man alive, But hold myself in being king of thee More great than were I king of all the world’. (II. 1. 19-21) In spite of his insistence that Annabella marry to avoid suspicion, Giovanni is intensely watchful over the signs which other men use to signify their desire for her, telling her to remove Donado’s ring (3. . 4). He also participates in the Blazon tradition, boasting of the ‘world of variety’ which may be observed in Annabella’s face (II. V. 50. ). While his knowing comment at the end of his descriptive catalogue that ‘what is else for pleasure framed… shall go unnamed’ (I. V. 57-58) may appear to be but a bawdy send-up of a poetic form that had already been extensively parodied by the time Ford was writing, it could also be construed as a further assertion of dominance over her sexuality[17].

Giovanni’s obsessive verbal anatomization of his sister is shockingly realised in the play’s final tableau, in which he violently inverts ‘Love’s cruelty, presenting Annabella’s bleeding heart ‘trimmed in reeking blood’(V. 6. 9-10) on the tip of his dagger to the feast at which all the remaining characters are present. Neill sees in this gory display ‘an appalling blankness… a sign of semantic annihilation’[18]. Despite his attempt to present himself here as ‘the oracle of truth’ (V. 6. 1), Giovanni’s cryptic explanations suggest a dizzying array of alternate meanings for his symbol, including martyrdom, sacrament and cannibalism. Vasques’ question ‘What strange riddle’s this? ’(V. 6. 28. ) is not answered, and the scene could instead be regarded as emblematic of the problems of representing desire, and by the same token identity, throughout the play[19]. Roland Barthes notes ‘what is characteristic of desire, proper to desire, can produce only an impropriety of the utterance’[20]. Desire, and especially incestuous desire, with its surfeit of contradictory meanings, evades signification.

The ‘absolute being’ to which Giovanni aspires by representing his heart as ‘entombed’ (V. 6. 26) within Annabella’s is impossible. Yet, paradoxically, he is compelled to attempt this representation, since as Lacan declares, ‘man’s very desire… is constituted under the sign of mediation: it is the desire to have one’s desire recognized’[21]. Zenon Luis Martinez regards this terrifying semantic gap as the ‘dramatic singularity’ of ‘Tis Pity, since what is for Giovanni the ultimate proof of his desire and identity is for the audience only a place of semantic collapse, a ‘horror vacui’[22].

While Giovanni’s trophy is the primary example of the disastrous consequences of representing desire, these are stressed throughout the play; Annabella’s gaze is compared by Giovanni to ‘Promethean fire’, a myth which is later blurred with the story of Oedipus when Putana’s eyes are ordered to be put out by Vasques. Wiseman observes here how the incestuous lovers escape proper punishment for their unnameable act, which is instead ‘translated’ down the social order to Putana, whose only misdemeanours are ‘seeing, knowing and above all telling’.

Knowing and naming desire is continually shown to be fatal, as when Hippolita is poisoned after revealing her adultery with Soranzo: ‘Tis now no time to reckon up the talk/When Parma long hath rumoured of us both. ’ (V. 2. 42-43). [23] Despite the fact that Annabella is fatally committed to portraying her desire, she also seems to present a way of negotiating her desire with society that allows her to fashion an identity, reversing some of the power relations to which religion, society and Giovanni subject her.

As Gillian Woods asserts, Annabella’s two confessions are the primary instances in which she achieves this[24]. In her first formal confession with the Friar, Annabella’s tone is one of abject penitence, her responses of ‘Mercy, oh mercy! ’(III. 6. 23. ) seemingly demonstrative of the passive receptiveness which the confessional process was intended to create in the confessant[25]. Yet in the next act her blasphemous glorification of Giovanni is evidence of quite how little contrition she has achieved at this point, and that she has only heeded the Friar’s pragmatic advice to marry for ‘her honour’s safety’ (III. . 36. ).

However, her second confession, which begins as a soliloquy before the Friar’s entrance, demonstrates both agency and formal contrition. While she finally recognises the illicit nature of her desire: ‘My conscience now stands up against my lust/With depositions charactered in guilt’ (V. 1. 9-10), and is granted the Friar’s blessing, she also clearly still loves her brother, wishing to absolve him from guilt: ‘Oh, would the scourge due to my black offence/Might pass from thee’ (V. 1. 1-22). Simultaneously, by referring to her life as ‘a wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy’ (V. 1. 8. ) during this speech, she accords herself a literary identity that is distinct from the reductive appellations that the corrupt Cardinal and Giovanni give her. In achieving repentance which is both independent of, and approved by, the church, Annabella temporarily offers an alternative model of representing oneself in relation to the overbearing forces of desire and society dramatised by the play.

Cite this How Does Desire Disrupt the Representation of Unified Identity in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pit She’s a Whore?’ Essay

How Does Desire Disrupt the Representation of Unified Identity in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pit She’s a Whore?’ Essay. (2016, Nov 04). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/how-does-desire-disrupt-the-representation-of-unified-identity-in-john-fords-tis-pit-shes-a-whore/

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