UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

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The Literary Connotations of Blood in ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore

The Literary Connotations of Blood in ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore

Lily Cedarbaum

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This essay analyzes the various usages of blood in John Ford’s 1633 Jacobean drama “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”. Building off of Terri Clerico’s own study of Ford’s satire, in which Ford satirically comments on the marital intermingling of the merchant and landed classes, I contextually explain Ford’s other metaphorical comments on society; I argue that through his utilization of the multiple symbolic connotations of the word “blood,” Ford illustrates the struggle between the superficial constraints of Renaissance England’s societal “dermis” of moral and religious pretensions, and the perverse carnality of internal desires for lust and violence. This literary conflict not only comments on the perversity of societal hierarchy constrictions, but also that of antiquated religious traditions and definitions of female sexuality.

As the scientific study of human anatomy grew more advanced and invasive during Renaissance England, certain correlations were established and analyzed between the inner corporeal and the exterior mannerisms of the individual (Cheung 37- 44). Being the most prevalent bodily fluid, blood became the anatomical explanation to a diverse list of characteristics, from one’s social class to one’s loss of purity. Published originally in 1633, John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore uses the multiplicity of the connotations of blood to his advantage, often with double entendre and allusion to the overall thematic incest of the play.  Though throughout the play, blood refers to purification, hierarchical pedigree, virginity, and familial kinship. Through his utilization of the multiple symbolic connotations of the word “blood,” Ford illustrates the struggle between the superficial constraints of Renaissance England’s societal “dermis” of moral and religious pretensions, and the perverse carnality of internal desires for lust and violence.

One of the oldest uses in the history of its etymology, blood “often used in the Bible and theological language for blood shed in sacrifice; esp. the atoning sacrifice of Christ” assumed the symbolic position of purification from its first recorded presence in religious hymns circa 1000 (OED 3.b). The predominance of Catholicism in Medieval Europe only worked to further promote the existence of imagery and religious mythology that utilized this pure, corporeal manifestation of blood. In her analysis of bodily fluids in early modern English dramas, entitled “The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England”, author Gail Kern Paster remarks on Medieval England as a “cult of the Holy Blood, which publicized miraculous stories of bleeding statues and paintings of Christ” (Paster 107). Consistent practices, such as the sacramental ingesting of Jesus’ blood in the form of the Eucharist, perpetuated this certification of blood as a liquid of purification. However, with the launch of the Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century, and the subsequent reign of Protestant Queen Elizabeth, a demystification of Catholic practices in England occurred. In historian Louis Bouyer’s analysis of the Eucharist’s transformation throughout the history of Western religion, entitled Eucharist, the author explains that during the first philosophical transformation of the Reformation, “the sacramental actuality of the sacrifice gave way to the ‘fruits’ that were expected from it and which no one tried enumerating…[the mission was] to rid any notion of a presence of Christ’s sacrifice in the mass” (Bouyer 382, 385). The wine of Eucharist was no longer literalized as the blood of Christ, but became a mere symbolic act of purification to Protestant worshipers of the saint. Disillusionment with Catholicism, when paired with a growing knowledge of the intricacies of the human anatomy, consequently allowed for a cultural climate in which Ford’s ability to pervert other symbolic meanings of blood were welcomed by newly skeptical audiences. The physical exterior could no longer be taken as proof of the actual interior. Christ’s blood was now simply viewed as red wine symbolized, and further critical analysis of the Church’s methods began to take place.

Because of the choice setting of the Italian city of Parma, Ford is able to use blood in order to illustrate the hypocrisy and failings of the Catholic Church throughout the play. Giovanni’s adviser, Friar Bonaventura, is perhaps the best character in Ford’s play to exhibit this duplicity; he illustrates the ineffectiveness of Catholic rituals through his fruitless attempt to cure Giovanni of his sinful lust. When Giovanni first confesses to having incestuous desire for his sister Annabella at the beginning of the play, the friar warns his pupil against the justice of heaven, and counsels him to undertake the following actions, involving a ritual sacrifice of blood:

Hie to thy father’s house, there lock thee fast

Alone within thy chamber, then fall down

On both thy knees, and grovel on the ground.

Cry to thy heart, wash every word thou utter’st

In tears, and, if’t be possible, of blood.

Beg Heaven to cleanse the leprosy of lust

That rots thy soul. (1.1.69-75)

The Friar advises Giovanni that a sacrifice of his own blood, instead of Christ’s, is the effective method for purification of his soul; yet, the perversion in this religious practice negatively impacts the outcome. The lustful blood of Giovanni replaces the traditional sacrifice of Christ’s pure blood, which therefore leads our protagonist astray. When Giovanni returns to tell the Friar that his own Catholic and philosophical advisements have led his prized student further toward sin, Giovanni unintentionally makes this argument by reasoning that the “composition of the mind doth follow the frame and composition of [the] body” (2.5.16-17). In this logically twisted claim he is referring to the purity of his sister; yet, it can be dually perceived as Giovanni’s explanation for why the impurity of his “mind”—or, indirectly, his bloodlust—persuades his body to manifest its inner impurity with the sinful act of incest. Friar Bonaventura then remarks to this ill logic by returning to this imagery of tears, thus indirectly referring to the blood imagery used earlier: “I day and night have waked my agèd eyes above my strength, to weep on thy behalf; but Heaven is angry” (2.5.7-9).  This perverse distortion of blood sacrifice illustrates Ford’s presentation of the human inner carnality through the aspect of religion. The blood sacrificed is not in this case, or in any case, that of Christ’s. The superficiality and falsity of the religious practices of the Friar ultimately fail in their reveal of the inner carnal desires of Giovanni; by sacrificing blood from within his body he is symbolically allowing his inner carnal lust to reveal itself to the friar, and then later the rest of Parma society.

Blood imagery of virginity at its core also represents the carnal undertones of the traditionally pure and moral act of deflowering and marital consummation. In The Body Embarrassed, author Gail Kern Paster describes the symbolism of blood in reference to virginity used in theatrical culture by the end of the 16th century:

In scriptural imagery, a stopped fountain [of blood] symbolizes virginity and the flowing…therefore represents ‘lost virginity’…the sexual wound of defloration itself is symbolically a wound the female body cannot ever heal. (Paster 98-99)

During the period in which Ford’s drama takes place, the traditional act of deflowering a newlywed and the bleeding of the hymen proved the wife’s chastity. As the ripe virgin of the drama, Annabella’s virginity and eventual deflowering is at first viewed in a treasured and chaste context. When desisting a duel outside his home, her father Florio implores, “Be you more silent. I would not for my wealth my daughter’s love should cause the spilling of one drop of blood” (1.2.58-60). While, in this instance Florio is actually referring to the duel outside his home, his exclamation has the double meaning of his belief that Annabella will remain chaste until marriage, and that until then she will not enact any form of “love” that would cause the appearance of blood.

However, due to a definition of blood utilized in the first decades of the 17th century as “the supposed seat of animal or sensual appetite,” traditional connotations of virginal blood are replaced with connotations of unleashed sexual desire and appetite in ’Tis Pity (OED 6). This new presentation of connotations of blood in sexuality is greatly emphasized due to the immoral sexual acts of the female protagonists. Upon the secondary character Hippolita’s forceful entrance into her past lover Soranzo’s home, the scandalized adulteress blames the passions of her blood on her loss of chastity and faithfulness to her husband:

Didst thou not vow, When he should die, to marry me? For which

The devil in my blood, and thy protests,

Caused me to counsel him to undertake

A voyage to Leghorn. (2.2.71-75)

Far from maintaining her chastity, Hippolita’s blood is actually the antagonistic source of sexual desire at any cost. Similarly, when Hippolita’s estranged husband Richardetto, disguised as a doctor, potentially discovers Annabella’s illegitimate pregnancy, he alerts Florio, “her sickness is a fullness of her blood” (3.4.8). By phrasing her ailment in such a manner, Richardetto is implying not that Annabella is pregnant, but that she is suffering from a “sexual ripeness…the usual remedy [being]…to have sex as soon as possible” (Wiggins 105). Female blood is once again given the characteristic of carnal lust and the agency of sexual potency. These two women are held in contrast to the virginal Philotis, Richardetto’s niece, and her escape to a nunnery without bloodshed of deflowering. As her uncle explains on their parting, “who dies a virgin lives a saint on earth” (4.2.28). In this way, the outward bleeding caused by a female’s loss of virginity is presented as a signifier for complete sexual and carnal release into the external world of morally constrained society. Only through maintaining virginity and containing the blood of potential loss of virginity within the body, can a female maintain the moral and religious pretensions of societal constraints placed upon her.

However, blood is often used within the play, not only in religious critiques—such as that of the Eucharist or the virgin blood of deflowering—but also in critiques of Renaissance society as a physical bearer of human characteristics and statuses. Alternately defined as both representations of “family, kin, race, stock, nationality” and “the supposed seat of emotion, passion” the positive characteristics and societal implications of an individual’s bloodline are regularly emphasized in ’Tis Pity (OED 5, 9). We are first introduced to female protagonist Annabella as her father contemplates which of her suitors is her ideal match, a debate that greatly circulates on their hierarchical positions within society. After a duel almost erupts, suitor Soranzo chides his adversary Grimaldi, “though maybe thou art my equal in thy blood, yet this [slander of my character] bewrays a lowness in thy mind” (Ford, 1.2.37-38). In the Oxford English Dictionary’s extensive etymology, blood is “popularly treated as the typical part of the body which children inherit from their parents and ancestors,” and that the terminology of the noun “blue-blood,” which stems from this definition, refers to blood, “which flows in the veins of old and aristocratic families” (OED 8). The hierarchical usage of blood at first is an indication of moral behavior due to elevated class, and Grimaldi’s crude behavior is blamed on his mind as opposed to his inherited bloodline. Likewise, the respected bloodline of Donado allows his nephew Bergetto the societal clout required to vie for the betrothal of Annabella, an ability he would not win with his foolish character. However, in the cases of all three suitors, the elite exterior represented by Ford’s literary usage of blood conceals both the internal drive toward violence, as seen in the actions of Grimaldi and Soranzo, and the carnivalesque behaviors of riot, lust, and irrationality, as exemplified by Grimaldi, and to a more comedic extent Bergetto. Though at the beginning of the play Grimaldi is presented as a member of the noble class, he acknowledges violence as the true source of his honorable position in society: “I am a Roman and a gentleman; one that have got mine honour with expense of blood” (1.2.14-15). In this way, the exterior connotations of noble bloodlines are not garnered from Grimaldi’s own anatomical blood, but by violence incited by his internal carnal and primitive desires. The internal savagery unleashed in war greatly influences Grimaldi’s societal exterior.

This exterior identity even further acts as a justification for his acts of violence. After blindly killing Bergetto, Grimaldi finds sanctuary under the Cardinal’s watch: “For this offence I here receive Grimaldi into his Holiness’ protection. He is no common man, but nobly born of princes’ blood” (3.9.54-57). The Cardinal reasons that the connotation of a false interior of noble blood justifies his act of murder, an act of savage violence incurred by lust for Annabella and misplaced jealousy of Soranzo. This incorrect reading of Grimaldi’s innocence also acts as yet another exhibition of the false symbolism of Catholic ritual. The Cardinal’s incorrect assessment of a relationship between the affluent exterior of Grimaldi and the noble goodness of his blood once again indicates the perversity of believing the exterior presentation of a human society to present his true inner-consciousness.

Likewise, in analysis of Bergetto’s noble blood, his uncle Donado explicitly admits to a complete disassociation between bloodline connotations of Bergetto’s supposed character as a member of noble society, and his actual carnivalesque behavior, as Bergetto both publicly discusses his involvement in a street fight and lustful desire for Philotis. Embarrassed by his nephew’s foolish and lascivious behavior, Donado exclaims, “Would he that beat thy blood out of thy head, had beaten some wit into it! for I fear thou never wilt have any” (2.6.87-88). In this passage, Donado presents Bergetto’s allegedly noble blood as the very antithesis of wisdom. Instead, Bergetto’s blood becomes the veritable source of his foolish involvement with base violence and premarital courtship of a woman below his societal rank. There is also a somewhat humorous double entendre behind Bergetto’s puzzlement as he lays dying from a stab wound: “Is all this blood mine own?” (3.7.29). While this utterance portrays Bergetto’s loss of mental function as he inches toward death, it also refers to the disconnect between societal connotations of the blue-blooded elite, and the actuality that a courtier’s blood is no different than any other member of society. The true absurdity of class differences is once again debunked by the symbolic equality of blood, once it is actually released outside the body.

As exemplified in the daughter of a merchant having three noble-blooded suitors, the possible intentions behind Ford’s presentation of attempted courtship between those of the landed aristocracy and the wealthy merchant class have created a source of argument among many Renaissance scholars today. This perversion of societal connotations of blood in Ford’s drama portrays hypersensitivity among all suitors to the supposed superiority of their rank among the upper echelons of Parma. However, studies of the time period have proven that interclass marriage was more generally considered a common financial necessity, rather than antagonism or destruction of the upper class. As Terri Clerico explains in her article on ‘Tis Pity, entitled “The Politics of Blood” social reality differed greatly from Ford’s depiction of it:

[Although] the dramatic use of the language of blood has partial roots in the complex rhetoric of social mobility and class antagonism…[Lawrence] Stone’s overall argument deflates the importance of this “animated and continuous debate” over class differences by extinguishing the cultural distinctions between the merchant and the aristocrat. (Clerico 405)

Indeed, legal amendments originally created to preserve the elevated separation of landed elite, such as a law created in 1559 that banned merchants from purchasing land, consequently furthered the intermingling between different levels of society, and audiences of London’s theaters were one of many public places in which the separation between the classes dissolved. Clerico claims that, contrary to traditional preconceptions, “private theaters, rather than bastions of royal favor and taste, were instead dependent upon a relatively heterogeneous audience for their survival.” The question then becomes, why did Ford forgo social reality in his depictions of male suitors who found their “blood” and birth, alone, made them superior citizens. Perhaps, the ludicrous assumptions of characters Soranzo and Grimaldi, that because their blood is inherited from lines of nobility they are the worthiest suitor, proves the perversity of assigning so much value to ones societal upbringing. In a relatively economically mobile society, the bloodline obsessions of these two suitors would appear to be archaic and thus perverse to audience members of the period.

Above all used definitions of blood in ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, the most germane connotation to the chief plot of the drama is in blood’s signification of kinship and familial binding. Giovanni actually applies familial implications of blood to argue the rationality and purity of incestuous love:

Say that we had one father, say one womb

(Curse to my joys!) gave both us-life and birth;

Are we not therefore each to other bound

So much the more by nature, by the links

Of blood? (1.1.28-32)

Thus, Giovanni considers their incest to be more naturally and purely formed than love between members of different families. And, yet, by the final scenes of the play Giovanni has suffered the consequences of his twisted rationality, by losing both his beloved sister and father. At the discovery of his father’s death from shock, Giovanni exclaims, “now survives none of our house but I, gilt in the blood of a fair sister and a hapless father” (5.6.66-68). The specific pronouncement of  “gilt” acts as a homonym for the word “guilt” to imply bloodguilt. Due to this effect, the passage suggests that Giovanni has arrived at a realization on the sin of mixing the bloods of siblings in lust (Wiggins 160). The exposed blood of his familial members finally awakens in Giovanni an awareness of the true carnality of incest, a truth that his scientific logic of the play’s beginning can no longer overcome.

Along a somewhat related vein, this pivotal scene also addresses the anxiety of maintaining the patrilineal bloodline and Giovanni’s consequential actions thereof. Giovanni’s incestuous desires for Annabella, in actuality, connote a cultural desire of the time period to maintain the purity of a family’s bloodline. Author Judith Haber acknowledges the cultural pervasiveness of this fear within her book Desire and Dramatic Form:

The insistence on the patrilineal inheritance exists side by side in ’Tis Pity (as in the larger culture) with a deep anxiety about fatherhood; it is, after all, impossible to know for certain who the father of any given child is. (Haber 107)

Giovanni’s impure desire to commit incest, therefore, ironically becomes the only certain path to achieve this purity. Furthermore, Haber connects this concept of partrilineal purity to blood symbolism by describing Annabella as “the ‘body’ in which paternal ‘blood’ can run pure” (Haber 109). Thus, a perverse contradiction forms between the exterior familiar purity of the bloodline and the inner moral impurity of Annabella’s sinful blood; once again the societal and exterior impression conceals the carnality of the human interior. In this aspect, blood once again belies the true lineage of Annabella’s womb and marital consummation. Immediately after marriage to Annabella, Soranzo begins to doubt his parentage of the child growing within his wife, and claims he knows her blood to be sinful, threatening that, “were every drop of blood that runs in thy adulterous veins a life, this sword—dost see’t—should in one blow confound them all” (4.3.1-4). Though Soranzo earlier thought Annabella’s exterior beauty to connote her purity, he now uses the symbol of blood to represent the sin contained within his betrothed.

What is even more so revealing of blood symbolism in relation to inner carnality of lust, is how Giovanni ultimately proves his incest to society. When Giovanni finally decides to reveal his and Annabella’s affair, he chooses not to bring in alive Annabella, herself, as proof of their consensual affair, but instead displays her heart upon his dagger, as the explicit literality of Annabella’s true devotion, and, not coincidentally, the circulatory center of her incestuous blood. As Giovanni enters holding his proof of his sister’s true love for him—in that he, and not Soranzo, literally owns Annabella’s heart—he exclaims, “here, Soranzo, trimmed in reeking blood that triumphs over death, proud in the spoil of love” (5.6.10-12). Though Giovanni informs his sister of his impending act, by explaining it is, “to save thy fame, and kill thee,” the protagonist’s full execution of his revenge strategy actually indicates that it is more to enlighten his enemy Soranzo to the truth of his cuckoldry. Indeed, as Haber writes, “for all the emphasis on the isolated unity of the doomed couple, their consummation/death is clearly something that occurs largely ‘between men’” (Haber 105). Giovanni uses the physical ownership of Annabella’s blood to thrust the full effect of Soranzo’s cuckoldry and polluted familial line upon him. Though Annabella’s wedding ring and her exterior actions would appear to be adequate societal substantiation of her marital loyalty to Soranzo, Giovanni’s literal utilization of Annabella’s blood-covered heart as physically manifested proof of her true carnal love for him once again expresses Ford’s presentation of conflict between societal pretension and the internal repressed desire for rebellion against these limitations.

The pollution of Soranzo’s family line also perhaps relates to his own societal anxiety of marrying to the merchant class beneath him and mixing the “blood” of different socio-economic ranks. Indeed, as author Terri Clerico establishes in her analysis, a main factor of social commentary within the play is “the mingling of the upper and middle class blood enacted by the dramatic commonplace of an aristocratic/mercantile marriage [which] gives birth…to a series of social defenses created in response to an alteration in the traditional valuation of class status” (Clerico 416). In this aspect of the text Clerico indicates Ford’s own exhibition of familial incest versus marriage within one’s own economic class. By utilizing satire to rationalize Giovanni’s incest as an allegory for the enforcement of marrying within one’s economic class, while simultaneously punishing Soranzo with death simply for marrying beneath his class in society, perhaps Ford is commenting on the absurdity of maintaining class boundaries, as the growth of marriage between classes experienced an “upsurge…in the late 1620s and 1630s” (Clerico 416). In a time period on the verge of social change, Ford makes an argument against retaining the societal pretensions of the past, stressing the unnatural quality societal obligation to marry within one’s economic “family”.

There is then further emphasis on the concept of Annabella’s internalities expressing her true nature as Giovanni addresses his own father; however, Giovanni ignores normative expressions of love in favor of the perverse. While the most obvious and culturally normative physical manifestation of Annabella’s loyalty to her brother is her carrying of his child, Giovanni continues to focus on his literal ownership of her blood and heart. Even when the crazed protagonist does refer to what traditionally can be interpreted as Annabella’s uterus, his phrasing also contains the duality in this context of referring to her heart: “this dagger’s point ploughed up her fruitful womb, and left to me the fame of a most glorious executioner” (5.6.31-33). This duplicity of meaning emphasizes the ultimate symbolic importance of blood in the nature of Jacobean perversity, for while the womb still produces the purity of birth, Annabella’s heart acts only as a vessel for Giovanni’s “entombed” love. The final penetration of Annabella’s heart releases only blood; yet, on this symbolic formulation releases the true inner perversions of the human psyche to the society on stage, an as a result, swordplay commences and the complete internal violence of humanity is unleashed from its constraints.

Through the employment of the multiple significations of blood within his drama, Ford is able both to satirically present traditional connotations of blood as symbols of purity and honor, and to illustrate the true carnality of violence actually presented in the various definitions of blood. Whether in analysis of hierarchy, chastity, or familial love, Ford appears to argue for the existence of underlying perversions of traditional connotations of blood. One assumes a blue-blooded member of society, such as Grimaldi, will hold sophisticated mannerisms expected of the elite in early Renaissance society, and when he defies this moral code by killing a stranger, this proves a deviation from what blood traditionally symbolized. The presence of blood in deflowering that would traditionally symbolize the chastity of the bride, in the context of the perverse trysts of the play, instead connotes an unbridling of the female sexual appetite. Blood as a familial bonding of natural closeness transforms into a perverse justification of incest. Soranzo best illustrates the overarching signification of blood when he cries out, “I carry Hell about me, all my blood is fired” (4.3.149-150). Blood in Ford’s drama, on an essential level, embodies the concealed perversions bubbling beneath the exterior of society’s morally and ethically normative constrictions.

Lily Cedarbaum is a Senior English Major with a Film Concentration from Barnard College at Columbia University. A course taught by Professor Mario  DiGangi, entitled “Renaissance Perversions”, influenced her research and subsequent analysis on John Ford’s play.


“Blood”. Oxford English Dictionary. Online Version. Oxford University Press, 2011. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/20391&gt;

Bouyer, Louis. Eucharist. translated ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968. 381-396. Print.

Cheung, Philip. Public Trust in Medical Research. Ashland: Radcliffe Publishing, 2007. Print.

Clerico, Terri. “The Politics of Blood: John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.” English Literary Renaissance. 22.3 (1992): 405-434. Web. 20 Dec. 2011.

Ford, John. ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. 2nd ed. London: A&C Black, 2003. Print.

Haber, Judith. Desire and Dramatic Form in Early Modern England. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 103-116. Print.

Paster, Gail Kern. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England. 1st ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. 64-112. Print.

Wiggins, Martin.‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. 2nd ed. London: A&C Black, 2003. Print.

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