“Baby, It’s Biological: Incest as the Human Circulatory System in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” – essay by MacKenzie Walker

Baby, It’s Biological:

Incest as the Human Circulatory System

in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

essay by MacKenzie Walker

.        John Ford’s Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (1633) is a very bloody production. Scholars conclude that Ford uses the flow and restriction of blood to illustrate his premise that incest is the most appealing option for Annabella as she looks for a suitor in Parma. By choosing incest, Annabella would keep her resources (good character, enviable purse) circulating within her own family as opposed to mingling and weakening them through a bad marriage to an imperfect suitor. Terri Clerico has done an extensive analysis of the complexities that blood and bloodshed bring to the play, pointing out that blood is “uniquely figured throughout the play both in its literal capacity to signify the consequences of physical violence as well as in its metaphorical operations as a marker of social status and worth[. T]he flow of blood negotiates the subtle circulation and intersections of social, political and sexual values in Parmesan society” (405). The idea that a desirable marriage is restrictive, antisocial and antiproductive seems unusual; however, I hope to show that it is not so bizarre if understood in the context of the medical research on blood that was happening in the early seventeenth century. The model of ideal circulation between romantic partners presented in Tis Pity resembles the model of blood circulation outlined in Sir Willam Harvey’s De Motu Cordis (1628), the first publication on the mechanics of the circulation of blood in the human body. Harvey’s model suggests “the continuous and cyclical flow of the same blood in its entirety” through the arteries and veins powered by the contractions of the heart (Pagel 26). While I do not want to say that the publication of Cordis caused a proliferation of interest in sibling romance, it is worthy to note that Ford’s model of incestuous love shares parallels with Harvey’s model of the circulatory system – the antisocial, self-contained flow of resources – published only five years earlier.
.        The plot and language of the play confirm that that incest is the most desirable option for Annabella. Her suitors are intolerable: Bergetto is a blockhead, Grimaldi is a psychopath and Soranzo is singleminded and abusive. Several linguistically interesting passages rationalize incestuous romance by using the fact that the siblings share blood to argue that they are inherently bound to each other. When arguing with the Friar about whether his love for Annabella is acceptable, Giovani argues:

Say that we had one father, say one womb
(Curse to my joys) gave us both life and birth;
Are we not therefore each to other bound
So much the more by nature; by the links
Of blood, of reason? nay, if you will have’t,
Even of religion, to be ever one:
One soul, one flesh, one love, one heart, one all? (1.1.28-34)

.        This passage is structured and written to evoke the image of a closed, bloody circuit between Annabella and Giovanni. The rhythmic repetition of “one” and the image of their fleshy entanglement emphasize their inherent unity. The phrase “links / Of blood” describes both their blood relationship as brother and sister and literal blood linkages – veins and arteries, the building blocks of the human circulatory system. By arguing that he and Annabella share blood, Giovanni suggests that their love enables blood to behave as it would in the human body, or in his words, “nature”: circulating in a closed system. This is precisely the model of the blood circulation that Harvey proposes in De Motu Cordis:

And similarly does it come to pass in the body, through the motion of the blood, that the various parts are nourished… [the blood] then returns to its sovereign, the heart, as if to its source, or to the inmost home of the body, there to recover its state of excellence or perfection… Thence it is again dispersed. All this depends on the motion and action of the heart. (C8)

.        Harvey shows that the blood circulates in the body in a closed system as opposed to evaporating and being renewed afresh each heartbeat as previously thought, and ascribes a special importance to the role of the heart. Though it is not clear whether Ford read Harvey, it is evident that Harvey’s model of closed circulation finds an echo in Ford’s work.
.        Harvey studied circulation by performing vivisections on animal hearts, believing vivisection to be the only method that would enable him to know scientific truth, lauding observation over theoretical reasoning. This is paralleled in ‘Tis Pity by the seemingly universal interest in removing the heart from the chest for the sake of knowledge. In ‘Tis Pity, Giovanni and Soranzo separately ask Annabella to cut out their hearts and look at them so that she might know how much they love her. Soranzo threatens to tear out Annabella’s heart in order to find out the name of her lover, and Giovanni rips out the heart of Annabella and wields it around on a dagger for everyone to see and witness their love. The interest in turning the human inside out to reveal truth – both subjective and scientific – is indicative of the contemporary paradigm of inquiry and functions as a metaphor for the theatre. In an effort to demonstrate his love to Annabella, Giovanni declares “Rip up my bosom; there thou shalt behold / A heart, in which is write the truth I speak” (1.2.200-1). Giovanni is essentially asking Annabella to vivisect him so that she might better know him. The potential for bloodshed, the shock of the situation –Annabella armed with a dagger over Giovanni’s heaving chest — and the poetry of the lines themselves — the curtness of the initial command and its roaring “r” sound — allow these lines to be delivered passionately and move the audience. Ford wants this scene to stand out: ripping the heart out of someone’s chest on stage is an uncommon and exciting occasion. Its very rarity and strangeness makes one wonder what one would see if Annabella held Giovanni’s beating heart in her hand. Ford is toying with the idea of vivisection in this passage, contemplating its use in the discovery of personal subjectivity and causing us to wonder how much more could be learned about someone if they were turned inside out. He draws this connection again when Soranzo threatens to tear out Annabella’s heart to find out the father of her child. Soranzo demands “Tell me his name.” (4.3.50), then, when she refuses, cries, “Not know it, strumpet! I’ll rip up thy heart, / And find it there!” (4.3.53-4). As in the previous threat, Ford uses shocking actions – Annabella is at the least being dragged around stage in this scene — and short phrases with rhythmic stops (“Not know it, strumpet!”) and curling trills (“rip”) to give this scene standout passion and suggest the potential for a real vivisection. And, like Giovanni, Soranzo sees the attainment of knowledge as the purpose of vivisection.
.        For Ford’s characters, the heart seems to be the locus of privileged knowledge accessible only through observation and not theoretical reasoning; seeing the heart gives information that words are incapable of conveying. Harvey also considers empiricism to be a superior methodology to rationalism in his investigation of the circulatory system because of the special nature of the knowledge he seeks:

When I first gave my mind to vivisections, as a means of discovering the motions and uses of the heart, and sought to discover these from actual inspection, and not from the writings of others, I found the task so truly arduous, so full of difficulties, that I was almost tempted to think… that the motion of the heart was only to be comprehended by God. (C1)

Just as Giovanni and Soranzo believe Annabella cannot comprehend the magnitude of their love unless she sees their beating hearts, and just as Soranzo believes that tearing out Annabella’s beating heart will reveal the name of her lover, so Harvey believes that empirical observation of the heart will enable him to understand its processes better than “the writings of others” ever could. Strangely, when Annabella’s heart is eventually ripped out and paraded around stage, it is not for knowledge that Giovanni acts so much as for vengeance: “Soranzo, thou hast missed thy aim in this / I have prevented now thy reaching plots” (5.5.99-100). However, my observation that Harvey values empiricism over reason leads me to read this change in motivation as a continuation of Giovanni’s belief that the visual compensates where language fails. Giovanni cannot adequately tell the banquet how much he loves his sister, nor the true nature of their relationship, so instead, must present them with her bleeding heart on a knife. However this last passage is interpreted, the relationship between vivisection and truth in ‘Tis Pity connects the play to the work of Harvey. It also illuminates what could be said to be the purpose of the stage: to turn the private — the human being and the private space — inside out, to reveal passions, thoughts and secrets (where else could people watch a noble woman engage in sexual activity and talk shop with her aptly-named chambermaid in early seventeenth century England?) and also shows the otherwise undiscussed poetics of scientific vivisection.
.        Ford’s use of circulating blood to describe the relationship between Giovanni and Annabella in ‘Tis Pity echoes the model of blood circulation put forth by Harvey five years earlier in Cordis. Interestingly, both Ford and Harvey use vivisection to examine truth: Ford looks at true love; Harvey at scientific truth. This reveals a contemporary interest in turning the human being inside out for intellectual inquiry and public display, a fitting metaphor for the function of the theatre in early seventeenth century England. I had never thought of modeling romantic behaviour on biological processes; however, now that the idea has presented itself to me, I see a diverse range of interpretations. For example, a relationship based on the behaviour of inductive enzymes like trypsin – the production of which is triggered by the presence of meat proteins in the stomach – would look something like a booty call, which could make for a hilarious, Miltonian parallel between meat eating and meaningless sex and vegetarianism and agape.

Works Cited

Clerico, Terri. “The Politics of Blood: John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore”. English
.              Literary Renaissance. 22.3. Sept. 1992. 405-434. 28 Nov 2011. Online.

Ford, John. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. (Oxford: Oxford UP) 2008. Print.

Harvey, Sir William. De Motu Cordis. Compiled by Paul Halsall. Internet Modern
.            History Sourcebook. 1998. 28 Nov 2011. Online.

Pagel, Walter. “William Harvey and the Purpose of Circulation.” Isis. 42.1 (Apr 1951).
.           22-38. 28 Nov 2011. Online.