John Ford



Go to "Source information"
full synopsis available, click here
Go to "Notes of Interest"
Go to "Plays to be Compared"


Annabella is a strange female of the Renaissance stage. She enters into her incestuous deflowering eagerly unlike the many virgins of other plays who fight for their honor. She does repent the act after time, but her repentance serves mainly to juxtapose Giovanni, her brother-lover, who remains unrepentant to the end.


Bergetto is a simple fool. His desires for Annabella are quickly shifted to love for Philotis. His mistaken murder by Grimaldi works only to rid the play of the both of them.


Friar Bonaventura is in the mold of R&J's Friar Lawrence. He is the voice of reason and morality, but he goes almost entirely unheeded. Unlike Lawrence, who encourages lovers in order to bring families together, Bonaventura discourages the lovers in order to keep the families from falling apart.


The Cardinal is everything bad in the Caroline view of the Roman church. He condones murder by protecting Grimaldi after the death of Bergetto. He mercilessly condemns Putana to the auto de fe. And he confiscates the family goods to the use of the church at his first opportunity.


Donado, the father of the foolish Bergetto, is another good father image. He realizes the faults of his son but continues to seek after his betterment through advantageous marriage to Annabella.


Florio, the father to the incestuous lovers, is relatively undeveloped. He is a careful and proper father who wishes the best for his children. Their enormity kills him.


Giovanni, the incestuous brother, is a shocking character. He believes his incestuous lust is motivated entirely by fate. He refuses to acknowledge the role of selfish and undirected passion. Fate is responsible for his inability to repent. But when fate seeks to denounce him, he steps in and takes a hand in his and his incestuous sister's deaths in order to rob Soranzo of his vengeance. He swears he loves his sister without lust but rather for her beauty. In his sophistry, this is rationale enough to engage in incest. His murder of Annabella is perplexing. His motivations are mixed and even contradictory. He kills her for their mutual sin (perhaps), for her faithlessness to him, to rob Soranzo of his revenge, and also in the hope of meeting her in Heaven.


Grimaldi, Annabella's suitor from Rome, is almost wholly undeveloped. The interesting tension between him and his rival, Soranzo, fizzles quickly with his mistaken murder of Bergetto. He flees the play as quickly as he does the mob.


Hippolita is a wicked, wronged woman. She is first seen hurling invective at the man with whom she has been cuckolding her husband, Richardetto. Her vitriol against Soranzo revolves around his promise to marry her if her husband should die. When he reneges, she plots with Vasques, her lover's servant, to kill Soranzo. Only Vasques' loyalty to his master, and his subsequent assassination of Hippolita, stops her becoming a blood revenger in this play.


Philotis, the orphaned niece of Richardetto, is a rather silly ingenue. She allows herself to be betrothed to the foolish Bergetto. When he is mistakenly murdered, she goes to a nunnery and from the play.


Poggio is a servant. His master is the foolish Bergetto. Although he expresses grief when his master is mistakenly murdered, he does little more than merely accompany his master.


Putana is a bawd. Her acceptance of Annabella's incestuous liaison with Giovanni is well foreshadowed when she initially admires Annabella's many suitors and praises Annabella's ability to bring them into feuding over her. Her insistance upon a man, any man, whether lover, brother, or father, is nothing short of scandalous. Still, it is perhaps going too far in her punishment when the cardinal sentences her to be burned at the stake.


Richardetto, the disguised doctor who comes to catch his cuckolding wife in the act, is wasted. He is the agent who gives poison to Grimaldi in that gentleman's failed attempt to assassinate his rival, Soranzo. He thus helps bring about the mistaken murder of Bergetto, who was to have been his son-in-law. Beyond that secondary action, Richardetto has little importance in the play. His attempt to avenge his cuckolding is thwarted when his wife, Hippolita, is poisoned by Vasques in response to her attempt on Soranzo's life. His final unmasking at play's end is an anticlimax.


Vasques is the witty servant. A Spaniard. He is devoted to his master, Soranzo, to the point of refusing the widow Hippolita's enticements and bribes to kill him. Instead, he contrives to assassinate her and thus save his master. When Soranzo discovers that he has been cuckolded, it is Vasques who secretly discovers the Giovanni is sleeping with Annabella. And it is Vasques who arranges the punishments for Giovanni in furtherance of his master's revenge. Vasques is introduced in the play honorably fighting against Grimaldi, his master's rival.


I.i: Giovanni returns to Parma from the University at Bologna with his mentor and tutor, the friar. Giovanni tells the friar of his incestuous love for his sister, Annabella. The friar warns him against such love. Giovanni employs sophistic arguments to rationalize the righteousness of his attraction, but the friar warns him of the falsity of intellect. He advises Giovanni to go home and pray for guidance.

I.ii: Grimaldi and Soranzo are suitors to Annabella. Grimaldi is assaulted by Soranzo's servant, Vasques. They fight. Vasques is winning when Annabella's father, Florio, and Soranzo come from the house and stop the fight.

Annabella enters onto the balcony with Putana. Putana congratulates her for having attracted a fight.

Bergetto, a foolish suitor, struts in the street below the women. He brags to his servant, Poggio, that he will win Annabella.

Annabella is not interested in Bergetto, Soranzo, or Grimaldi, however. She sees another man approaching down the street and compliments his manly shape before realizing it is her own brother, Giovanni. She sees that he is upset, and she and Putana go to comfort him.

Giovanni offers Annabella his dagger. He tells her to kill him if she does not love him. He lies to her that the church has condoned their love. Annabella confesses that she loves him. She offers him the dagger to kill her if he does not reciprocate her love. Giovanni again offers his breast to her if his love is not returned. The siblings retire to consummate their love.

I.iii: Bergetto's father, Donado, offers Florio a handsome sum if Bergetto is allowed to marry Annabella. Florio leaves the choice to his daughter. Donado fears that his foolish son will ruin the match and so seeks to instruct him.

II.i: Giovanni and Annabella have consummated their incestuous attraction. Giovanni, jealous, makes Annabella vow to remain faithful him. Their father, Florio, enters with a doctor, Richardetto, in disguise. Along with him is his niece, Philotis. They have come to examine Annabella, whom Florio fears is ill. Annabella welcomes them.

II.ii: Richardetto is believed to have perished in the sea voyage while going to collect his orphaned niece, Philotis. His widow, Hippolita, accosts Soranzo in his study. She insists that Soranzo keep his promise to marry her now that her husband is dead. They have been cuckolding Richardetto for years. Soranzo rebukes and refuses her before leaving. Hippolita turns to Vasques and promises to give him her land and body if he will help her to be revenged upon Vasques's master, Sornazo. Vasques agrees.

II.iii: Richardetto confides to Philotis that he is in Parma in disguise and that he has a good reason for his deception. He has allowed the rumor of his death to be spread and returned incognito to catch his unfaithful wife and Soranzo together. Grimaldi, the Roman suitor, asks Doctor Richardetto for a love potion to make Annabella love him. Instead, Richardetto offers him a deadly poison with which to kill his rival, Soranzo. He tells Grimaldi that Soranzo is all that stands between him and Annabella. He is to impoison his sword and stab Soranzo, thus relieving him of the rival and secretly avenging Richardetto.

II.iv: Bergetto has written a foolish letter to Annabella. Donado intercepts it and decides to amend it. He orders his son to stay home and not go to the puppet plays or other foolish activities. But as soon as he goes, Bergetto set out to see a prodigious horse that he has heard of performing at a sideshow.

II.v: Giovanni tells the friar of his consummated love. The friar tries to persuade him to marry off his sister and avoid further sin. Giovanni refuses. The friar determines to go to Annabella and hear her confession in the hope of at least saving her soul. Donado delivers a letter with a jewel in it to Annabella. She reads it and politely refuses Bergetto. Donado is not surprised, but he tells her to keep the jewel all the same.

When Florio wonders where her ring is, the ring that was given her by her mother to be given to her future husband, Annabella tells him that Giovanni took it that very morning.

Bergetto enters. He was beaten in the street and tended by Richardetto. He has fallen in love with Philotis. The two plan to marry.

Florio is happy to be rid of the foolish young man. He favors Soranzo.

When Giovanni sees the jewel, he orders his sister to return it.

III.i: Bergetto boasts to Poggio that he has won Richardettos' consent to marry Philotis.

III.ii: As Soranzo tries to court Annabella, Giovanni spies on them from the balcony. Giovanni is satisfied the Annabella loves him when he hears her tell Soranzo that she rejects his suit. She continues by saying that if she ever did marry, it would be to Soranzo. Annabella becomes ill and is taken inside.

III.iii: Putana informs Giovanni that Annabella is pregnant.

III.iv: Richardetto tells Florio that Annabella told him that she had some indigestion from some unripe melons. Florio guesses that she needs a man to bed her. He determines to marry her away. He sends for the friar and Soranzo.

III.v: Grimaldi meets Richardetto and receives the poison. He learns that Soranzo will be going to Annabella's house with the friar tonight. He will lurk in the shadows and stab Soranzo as he enters the friar's cell.

Philotis enters and tells her father that she and Bergetto will marry that night. Annabella repents when the friar visits her. He advises her to repent fully by marrying Sorenzo. This will also hide the truth and legitimize her pregnancy. Sorenzo enters and they vow to be married.

III.vii: Grimaldi, waiting in ambush, mistakes Bergetto and Philotis for Soranzo and Annabella. He stabs Bergetto and flees. Bergetto dies. The Watch gives chase after Grimaldi.

III.viii: Vasques tells Hippolita that Sorenzo is betrothed. Hippolita reminds him of his promise and the rewards to follow if he kills Sorenzo.

III.ix: The hue and cry chases Grimaldi to the cardinal's house where he seeks sanctuary. The cardinal tells Florio and Richardetto that the church has given Grimaldi protection. He will be sent under safe conduct back to Rome. Florio, Donado, and Richardetto express disbelief that there is no justice in the church.

IV.i: At the banquet after the wedding, Giovanni refuses to drink a toast to Sorenzo and Annabella. Hippolita enters, disguised, and with other women dance a masque. She discovers herself, and says that she forgives Sorenzo. She takes a cup from Vasques to drink the couple's health. The wine is poisoned, though, by Vasques, who has remained faithful to his master. Hippolita dies cursing the couple. The friar fears that nothing good can come of a marriage that begins in blood.

IV.ii: Richardetto feels ambivalent about his wife's unchaste demise. He advises Philotis to run away and become a nun. She does.

IV.iii: Soranzo, having discovered his wife's pregnancy, drags her in by the hair. He threatens her with death if she does not disclose the father. Annabella prefers death to revealing her lover. Vasques advises his master to be gentle with her while he spies out the father. Vasques tricks Putana into telling him that Giovanni is the father. He then has banditti drag her away and gouge out her eyes.

Just then Giovanni enters to see his sister. Vasques secretly informs Soranzo that Giovanni is the father.

V.i: From a balcony Annabella confesses her true contrition to the stars. The friar happens to be passing below. He is overjoyed to hear her saving her soul. He tells her as much. She tosses down a letter to Giovanni imploring him also to repent and save his soul.

V.ii: Soranzo plans a birthday feast in his honor to which all of the great men of Parma are invited. He plans to disclose the sins of Annabella and Giovanni there.

V.iii: Giovanni is unrepentant. The friar brings him Annabella's letter. Giovanni remains unmoved. Vasques invites Giovanni to Soranzo's party. Giovanni correctly guesses that the reason for the party is to reveal his sin. Against the friar's warnings, he accepts the invitation. Not wishing to stay and see his tutee's demise, the friar returns to Bologna.

V.iv: Vasques and the banditti are hidden in the great hall, lying in ambush. They will spring out upon Giovanni at a predetermined signal. Soranzo hopes to catch the two in flagrani delicto.

V.v: Giovanni comes to Annabella in her bed. Annabella implores him to repent and escape. She tells him that they have been discovered. He calls her faithless. He bids her pray and then stabs her to death while kissing her. Thus he robs Soranzo of her death. She dies crying to Heaven for mercy on them both. At the banquet, Giovanni enters with Annabella's heart on his dagger. When he confesses all, thus deflating Soranzo's revenge, Florio dies of shock and heartbreak. Giovani and Soranzo fight. Soranzo is stabbed. Vasques stabs Giovanni. The banditti enter at the word "vengeance," and all stab Giovanni.

Soranzo dies.

Giovanni dies hoping to see Annabella in Heaven. The cardinal, having been informed of all by Vasques, sentences Putana to burning at the stake. He banishes Vasques back to Spain. He confiscates all of the families' wealth for the church. Richardetto unmasks anticlimatically. The cardinal determines that 'tis pity she's a whore.

A New source for 'Tis Pity She's a Whore:

Little critical attention has been paid to the anonymous Jacobean comedy The Fair Maid of Bristow (1603/5). However, details of its plot and dramatis personae bring it so close to the later work of John Ford that we clearly have here a significant source of both 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and the Frank Thorney plot of The Witch of Edmonton.

The links between The Fair Maid of Bristow and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore are obvious. The heroine of the play is called Annabel, foreshadowing the Annabella of 'Tis Pity. The wronged Challenger returns disguised as an Italian doctor, as the wronged Richardetto will do in 'Tis Pity, and is solicited to poison Sentloe and Annabel, just as Richardetto will find himself embroiled in the plot of revenge on Soranzo. Florence's attempted subornation of the supposed Blunt closely corresponds to Hippolita's similar attempt to corrupt Vasques (and the name Blunt was in any case of interest to Ford at this time, since one of his two 1606 works was an elegy for Charles Blount or Blunt, Lord Mountjoy). Sentloe disguises himself as a friar to discover if people are sorry and to assist their spiritual reformation, rather as Friar Bonaventure in 'Tis Pity will visit Annabella. Nor is 'Tis Pity the only Ford play which seems to remember The Fair Maid of Bristow: Vallenger's cruel treatment of Annabel, and her patient forgiveness of him, are closely followed in the relationship of Frank and Susan in The Witch of Edmonton, which Ford co-authored with Dekker and Rowley.

In the period 1603-5, when The Fair Maid of Bristow was performed by the King's Men at the Globe, Ford was a young man of between seventeen and nineteen, and a student at the Middle Temple. Other plays that he presumably saw in these years certainly left a profound impression on him: his later work is full of echoes of Othello and King Lear in particular. As a West Country man himself, he might have been drawn by the title of The Fair Maid of Bristow, or he may just have been a voracious playgoer. For whatever reason, it seems clear that in The Fair Maid of Bristow we have another play which Ford saw and remembered.

Lisa Hopkins
Sheffield Hallam University

Go Back to Top

Notes of Interest:

This play has little moral center. Although the friar provides a moral normative, the church is not the source of that norm because the cardinal proves himself to be both immoral in his own way and avaricious for the church.

The central question of incest is given little treatment from a steady moral stance. Giovani's love seems genuine enough. He never repents. Although Annabella repents her sin, she does not repent her love nor does she repent from a sense of inner wrong. She seems more interested in salvation and hiding the pregnancy. The friar and Soranzo along with the others who discover the incest (with the exception of Putana) see the act as monstrous and evil, but Ford does not play the incest as anything but the reasonable outlet of love felt between people who happen to be siblings.

Giovanni is incapable of seeing that he is responsible for his own tragedy. He blames fate for his ordeal. Much is made of Giovanni's education; Florio fears his bookishness, and the friar is initially pleased with his tutee's intellectual achievement. Could it be that Ford, like Marlowe before him, is making a statement about the evils of too much learning, that intellect hampers spiritual growth?

Putana's punishment is meted out off stage. This seems strange given the period's delight with gore. She is blinded and burned out of sight of the audience, and to be sure the auto de fe would be logistically difficult on stage. But Gloucester's blinding in Lear demonstrated the feasibility of this action on stage.

As in The Atheist's Tragedy we have here a rare example of a character dying of natural causes in the course of a Renaissance blood tragedy. Unlike Rousard, however, whose death occurs outside the direct action of the plot, Florio succumbs to the enormity of the action at the center of this play. It can therefore be said that both of his children cause his death whereas Rousard's death stands practically alone as a death motivated by nothing other than illness, albeit metaphorically significant illness, in his tragedy.

The two "physicians", Richardetto and Friar Bonaventura, are nearly useless to their charges. Richardetto is a bad doctor. He fails to diagnose Annabella's pregnancy, and although he tends Bergetto's cuts, he ultimately supplies the engine for that gentleman's death. Friar Bonaventura is likewise helpless. Giovanni will not listen to him. Annabella, who repents of her sin, cannot thank him for much more than threatening to expose Giovanni. In this physically and spiritually ailing world there seems no hope for recovery.

Additionally, the revengers are impotent. Richardetto fails in his revenge upon Soranzo and Hippolita (Vasques is not a revenger but merely an assassin to save his master). Hippolita fails to kill Soranzo. Grimaldi's mistaken murder of Bergetto thwarts his designs upon Soranzo. Donado's vengeance upon Grimaldi is estopped by the church's extension of sanctuary. Soranzo's revenge is cut short by Giovanni. This is therefore a tragedy of thwarted revenge.

Only Vasques gains his goal when he and the banditti fall upon Giovanni. In this we see the Spaniard outdo the Italians in revenge.

Plays to be compared:

See note at A New Source [click here]

Beaumont's A King and No King for the parallel of brother and sister's incestuous mutual attraction and the arguments they use to justify such feelings.

Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy for another incestuous relationship, one that pales in comparison to the consummation of the relationship in this play.

Massinger's The City Madam for the similarity between the first entranced of Frugal and Florio, fathers who must separate suitors in a street brawl over their daughters.

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet for the general tone of the play's love theme. That is, the tone of love prevented by external force. Also for the similarity between the Nurse and Putana's approval of any husband so long as he's a "plain-sufficient, naked man." Also for the death of a "funny" character being the first murder of the tragedy.

Shakespeare's Othello for the "promethean fire" echo at I.ii.207 and also for the similarity between Othello's murder of Desdemona and Giovanni's of Annabella.

Shakespeare's Richard III for the wooing scene of Richard and Anne and of Giovanni and Annabella using a sword or dagger to protest the earnestness of a proclaimed love.

Shakespeare's Hamlet for line echoes and also the use of an impoisoned sword .

Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling for the use of the ring as a maidenhead symbol.

Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy for the glance at that play when Vasques says at that a "Spaniard outwent an Italian in revenge."

Go Back to Top