The play's treatment of the subject of incest made it one of the most controversial works in English literature. The play was entirely omitted from an 1831 collected edition of Ford's plays; its title has often been changed to something euphemistic such as Giovanni and Annabella or 'Tis Pity or The Brother and Sister. Until well into the twentieth century, critics were usually harsh in their condemnations. The subject matter offended them, as did Ford's failure to condemn his protagonist. "Instead of stressing the villainy, Ford portrays Giovanni as a talented, virtuous, and noble man who is overcome by a tumultuous passion that brings about his destruction." Since the mid-twentieth century, scholars and critics have shown more tolerance, understanding, and appreciation of the complexities and ambiguities of the work.
Giovanni, recently returned from university study in Bologna, has developed an incestuous passion for his sister Annabella and the play opens with his discussing this ethical problem with Friar Bonaventura. Bonaventura tries to convince Giovanni that his desires are evil despite Giovanni's passionate reasoning, and eventually persuades him to try to rid himself of his feelings through repentance.
Annabella, meanwhile, is being approached by a number of suitors, including Bergetto, Grimaldi, and Soranzo. She is not interested in any of them, however, and when Giovanni finally tells her how he feels (obviously having failed in his attempts to repent), she requites his love immediately. Annabella's tutoress Putana encourages the relationship. The siblings consummate their relationship.
Hippolita, a past lover of Soranzo, verbally attacks him, furious with him for letting her send her husband Richardetto on a dangerous journey she believed would result in his death so that they could be together, then declining his vows and abandoning her. Soranzo leaves and his servant Vasques promises to help Hippolita get revenge on Soranzo, and the pair agree to marry after they murder him.
However, Richardetto is not dead but also in Parma with niece Philotis, and is also desperate for revenge against Soranzo. He convinces Grimaldi that to win Annabella, he should stab Soranzo (his main competition) with a poisoned sword. Unfortunately, Bergetto and Philotis, now betrothed, are planning to marry secretly in the place Richardetto orders Grimaldi to wait, and Grimaldi mistakenly stabs and kills Bergetto instead, leaving Philotis, Poggio, and Donado distraught.
Annabella resigns herself to marrying Soranzo, knowing she has to choose someone and it cannot be her brother. She subsequently falls ill and it is revealed that she is pregnant. Friar Bonaventura then convinces her to marry Soranzo before her pregnancy becomes apparent.
Meanwhile, Donado and Florio go to the cardinal's house, where Grimaldi has been in hiding, to beg for justice. The cardinal refuses due to Grimaldi's high status and instead sends him back to Rome. Florio tells Donado to wait for God to bring them justice.
Annabella and Soranzo are married soon after, and their ceremony includes masque dancers, one of whom reveals herself to be Hippolita. She claims to be willing to drink a toast with Soranzo, and the two raise their glasses and drink, on which note she explains that her plan was to poison his wine. Vasques comes forward and reveals that he was always loyal to his master, and in fact he poisoned Hippolita. She dies spouting insults and damning prophecies to the newlyweds. Seeing the effects of anger and revenge, Richardetto abandons his plans and sends Philotis off to a convent to save her soul.
When Soranzo discovers Annabella's pregnancy, the two argue until Annabella realises that Soranzo truly did love her, and finds herself consumed with guilt. She is confined to her room by her husband, who plots with Vasques to avenge him against his cheating wife and her unknown lover. On Soranzo's exit, Putana comes onto the stage and Vasques pretends to befriend her to gain the name of Annabella's baby's father. Once Putana reveals that it's Giovanni, Vasques has bandits tie Putana up and put out her eyes as punishment for the terrible acts she has willingly overseen and encouraged.
In her room, Annabella writes a letter to her brother in her own blood, warning him that Soranzo knows and will soon wreak his revenge. The friar delivers the letter, but Giovanni is too arrogant to believe he can be harmed and ignores advice to decline the invitation to Soranzo's birthday feast. The friar subsequently flees from Parma to avoid further involvement in Giovanni's downfall.
On the day of the feast, Giovanni visits Annabella in her room, and after talking with her, stabs her during a kiss. He then enters the feast, at which all remaining characters are present, wielding a dagger on which his sister's heart is skewered, and tells everyone of the incestuous affair. Florio dies immediately from shock. Soranzo attacks Giovanni verbally, but Giovanni stabs and kills him. Vasques intervenes, wounding Giovanni before ordering the bandits to finish the job.
Following the massacre, the cardinal orders Putana to be burnt at the stake, Vasques to be banished, and the church to seize all the wealth and property belonging to the dead. Richardetto finally reveals his true identity and the play ends with the cardinal saying of Annabella "who could not say, 'Tis pity she's a whore?"Men
Friar Bonaventura – A friar and Giovanni's mentor
A Cardinal – Nuncio to the Pope
Soranzo – A nobleman (Annabella's suitor and eventual husband)
Florio – A citizen of Parma, and father of Annabella and Giovanni
Donado – A citizen of Parma, and uncle of Bergetto
Grimaldi – A Roman gentleman (Annabella's suitor)
Giovanni – Son of Florio (his name is pronounced with four syllables)
Bergetto – Nephew of Donado (Annabella's suitor and then Philotis's fiance/suitor)
Richardetto – Hippolita's husband, disguised as a physician, also Philotis' uncle
Vasques – Loyal servant to Soranzo
Poggio – Servant to Bergetto
Banditti – Outlaws, a criminal mob
Annabella – Daughter of Florio
Hippolita – Wife of Richardetto (Soranzo's former paramour)
Philotis – Niece of Richardetto (becomes Bergetto's fiance)
Putana – Tutoress of Annabella; her name derives from the Italian word for "whore", puttana.
The play was revived early in the Restoration era: Samuel Pepys saw a 1661 performance at the Salisbury Court Theatre. In 1894, the play was translated into French by Maurice Maeterlinck and produced under the title Annabella at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre.
The play was not seen again in Britain until 1923, in a production by the Phoenix Society at the original Shaftesbury Theatre, and thereafter it was performed by the Arts Theatre Club (1934) and in two productions by Donald Wolfit in 1940 (Cambridge) and 1941 (The Strand Theatre).
In 1961 Luchino Visconti directed a French adaptation (Dommage qu'elle soit une p...) at the Théâtre de Paris with Romy Schneider (Annabella) and Alain Delon (Giovanni).
Peter Greenaway has said that the play provided him with the main template for his 1989 film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.
In 1980, Declan Donnellan directed a modern-dress performance of the play commissioned by Angelique Rockas's New Theatre at Theatre Space and at the Half Moon Theatre, London. In 2011, Donnellan produced a new version of the play for the theatre Les Gémeaux in Sceaux, France, the Barbican Centre, London, and the Sydney Festival.
Michael Longhurst directed a production of the play in 2014 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, part of the Globe Theatre. It was traditional in many regards, making use of period costumes and Jacobean musical instruments.
The Kinks' song Wicked Annabella on The Village Green Preservation Society makes reference to the play.
A song with almost the same name, "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore", is featured on David Bowie's final studio album Blackstar (2016).
In the first episode of Midsomer Murders "The Killings at Badger's Drift" Inspector Barnaby's daughter, played by Laura Howard, plays the role of Annabella. The story is based on murders committed by an incestuous brother and sister. (1997)My Sister, My Love (Syskonbädd 1782) (1966), film adaptation by director Vilgot Sjöman, starring Bibi Andersson and Per Oscarsson
Addio fratello crudele (1971), film adaptation by director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, starring Charlotte Rampling and Oliver Tobias
Filmed for BBC Two by director Roland Joffé under its original title, and transmitted on 7 May 1980. Production starred Kenneth Cranham (as Giovanni) and Cherie Lunghi (as Annabella), and used an unedited text while transferring the setting visually to eighteenth century England.