‘I haue paid the Duty to the Sonne, which I haue vowed to the Father’: Serving the Father in John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore

Iman Sheeha


In the early modern period, obedience was prescribed as the main duty of household servants. Honest and selfless service offered to deserving masters was presented in contemporary conduct literature as the ideal that household servants had to aspire to in their relationships with their masters. The centrality of obedience to the servant’s role was best captured by the influential contemporary moralist, William Gouge, who held that servants’ ‘maine, and most peculiar function, [is] to obey their masters’ (emphasis original).[1] John Ford’s ’Tis Pity puts on stage three sets of master-servant relationships which engage with contemporary ideologies of service. Poggio, Putana, and Vasques serve their masters, support their choices, safeguard their interests, lament their misfortunes and, in the case of Vasques, fulfill the master’s desire for avenging his honour when he can no longer carry it out himself. In this paper, I argue that despite the fact that all three servants perform similar service to their masters, they end up differently. Notably, in the case of Putana and Vasques, forms of punishment meted out to each for their involvement in the incestuous relationship and the consequent violence and bloodshed are remarkably inconsistent and out of proportion with the nature of the instrumentality of each in these events. It is not obedient service, the play suggests, that merits reward. Nor is it treacherous service, or loyal service aimed at destructive and wicked ends, that invites punishment. It is, instead, the ends to which service is put that matters: patriarchy reigns supreme in Ford’s Parma. It is against this background that I analyse the treatment of both Putana and Vasques. Putana, subscribing to her mistress’s, Annabella’s right to self-determination, despite the fact that she serves her mistress mostly loyally, only meets with severe punishment in the form of torture and, significantly, eventually being sentenced to be burnt alive. Vasques’s comparable service to his master, and the master’s father as long as the latter lived, on the other hand, deeply engrossed in violence, bloodshed, deception, scheming and, more importantly, in threatening subversion of the much policed boundary between master and servant, meets with mild punishment: mere banishment from Parma, safe and sound.

In the first part of the paper, I look at contemporary ideologies of service, exploring the duty to obedience commonly assigned to domestic servants in didactic literature and other domestic treatises and household guides. In the second part, I read the roles of household servants in the play, building on both ideological and historical contexts thus constructed and past scholarship of the play.

[1] William Gouge, Of domesticall duties eight treatises (1622), sig. Qq6v.


drama, early modern, servants, domesticity, conduct literature

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