For sheer, visceral horror, it’s hard to beat cutting out someone’s heart. How many 80s kids were traumatized by the infamous scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in which the priest cuts out and holds up a heart (which then catches fire)?

The violence is almost as bad as the racism.
The violence is almost as bad as the racism.

Or there’s Alan Rickman’s delightful scenery-chewing in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves:

I’ve been thinking about Annabella’s heart in John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Part of my current book project involves examining body parts as extratexts: objects that carry meaning, often textual meanings, both within and transcending the world of the text. The body itself signifies, and certainly we see the heart doing so in ‘Tis Pity. Take Giovanni, for example, who tells his sister that his love has become legible, physically inscribed on his heart:

Gio. Here.

Offers his Dagger to her.

Anna. What to doe.

Gio. And here’s my breast, strick home.
Rip vp my bosome, there thou shalt behold
A heart, in which is writ the truth I speake. (sig. C1r)

He treats the commonplace figure of speech as if it were literal, as if the emotions he feels could carve letters on the organs of his body. This notion takes on urgency in ‘Tis Pity. When Soranzo discovers that Annabella is pregnant, he demands to know the father’s name. She refuses to reveal it:

Anna. Neuer,
If you doe [discover it], let mee be curst.

Soran. Not know it, Strumpet, I’le ripp vp thy heart,
And finde it there. (sig. H1v)

Now it’s Annabella’s heart that’s legible. By the play’s logic, that actually might make sense. Like a conventional lover, Giovanni praises “the glory / Of two vnited hearts like hers and mine!” (sig. I2r). So maybe, by a sort of transitive property of heart-writing, Annabella’s heart became an extratext when she and her brother became lovers. They were flesh-and-blood to one another; now they are one flesh, and their twisted love is imprinted on and in their bodies.

In fact, the gruesome climax of the play relies on Giovanni and Annabella’s emphasis on their hearts as texts. Having killed his sister/lover, Giovanni cuts out her heart and carries it into Soranzo’s feast, brandishing it on his phallic symbol dagger. He keeps making ghoulish references to the heart throughout the rest of the scene. “Be not amaz’d,” he says:

                                  If your misgiuing hearts
Shrinke at an idle sight; what bloodlesse Feare
Of Coward passion would haue ceaz’d your sences,
Had you beheld the Rape of Life and Beauty
Which I haue acted? (sig. K2r)

Now revealed to everyone — including their father, who also now discovers his children’s incestuous relationship — Annabella’s heart paradoxically no longer bears the writing of Giovanni’s love but rather becomes mere spectacle, “an idle sight.” Giovanni feels like he has to identify it to his audience:

[Giovanni:] ‘[T]is a Heart,
A Heart my Lords, in which is mine intomb’d,
Looke well vpon’t; d’ee know’t?

Vas. What strange ridle’s this?

Gio. ‘Tis Annabella’s Heart, ’tis; why d’ee startle?
I vow ’tis hers, this Daggers poynt plow’d vp
Her fruitefull wombe, and left to mee the fame
Of a most glorious executioner. (sig. K2r)

“[T]his Daggers poynt plow’d vp / Her fruitefull wombe.” Gross, Giovanni.

So, really interestingly to me, the moment when Annabella’s heart becomes visible is when it becomes illegible, spectacular, a literal prop for Giovanni. This is what I mean by calling it an extratext: it’s textish, and there’s a sense in which it could become textual, but mostly it’s outside the framework of textual meaning while still being treated by the characters as textually meaningful.

I’ve also been wondering how Annabella’s heart would have been staged. Is it a little stuffed facsimile (like a pillow)? Is it, say, a pig’s heart? Or a sheep’s? Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa point out that George Peele’s The Battle of Alcazar calls for

‘3 violls of blood and a sheeps gather’, that is, three pieces of sheep’s entrail, the liver, heart, and lungs, one for each corpse, along with an appropriate flow of blood from each victim, for display to the excited multitude. (61)

Given Giovanni’s condemnation of his father’s and others’ “bloodlesse Feare,” I think it’s likely that in early productions he was handling an animal heart and possibly was covered in blood (as surely would be expected for someone who has just stabbed his sister and cut out her heart). The image above shows that the 2014 production at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre certainly went with that option.

If I were a director, that’s what I’d do. You’ve got a brother who has slept with and impregnated his sister, then murdered her, cut out her heart, and showed up in front of her husband and their father with her heart stuck on his dagger. If that moment doesn’t call for a great deluge of blood, I don’t know what does.


Sources:

  • John Ford, ‘Tis Pitty Shee’s a Whore (London: Nicholas Okes for Richard Collins, 1633, STC 11165, accessed 4 November 2015 via Early English Books Online through the Renaissance Society of America).
  • Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa, Staging in Shakespeare’s Theatre (New York: Oxford UP, 2000).
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