Representations of Sexuality in Early Modern Literature

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  • Topic: Jacques Lacan, English Renaissance theatre, Stephen Greenblatt
  • Pages : 9 (2988 words )
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  • Published : March 14, 2013
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How does desire disrupt the representation of unified identity in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore?

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.

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 théâtre 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, the 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...
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