John Ford Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

John Ford’s fascination with the psychology of love in its many-faceted applications to social life is evident in his earliest produced play, The Witch of Edmonton, which he wrote in collaboration with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley. Here also is evident Ford’s propensity to the sensational as well as the association of love with death, which was to reappear in many of his subsequent plays.

The Witch of Edmonton

In the first scene, Frank Thorney has just been married to Sir Arthur Clarington’s serving maid, Winnifride, who is with child. The marriage is to be kept in the dark until Frank can secure his inheritance. Sir Arthur abets this deception by writing a letter certifying that no marriage has taken place, even though he is frustrated in his hopes of maintaining a relationship with Winnifride, who takes her marriage and her new status most seriously. The reason for the secrecy becomes gradually yet shockingly apparent as the audience realizes that Frank, who seems to have a strong and genuine love for his bride, nevertheless intends to secure his inheritance through a bigamous marriage with his longtime neighbor Susan Carter. There is irony throughout the scene of his second courtship, but particularly in Susan’s outburst of hymeneal joy at having her heart settled with her one true love and winning the right to dismiss her unwanted suitors. Frank, who seems to like Susan well enough, blames his situation on fate—an ever-present force in Ford’s dramas.

The violent outcome of this wedding is predicted in the imagery as Susan’s father remembers a proverb relating weddings with hangings. One of her former suitors remarks on the unity of the newly married couple, but with an undesirable cutting edge as he compares them with a “new pair of Sheffield knives, fitted both to one sheath.” To Susan as to Ford, real love involves unity and the sharing of souls, and she is disturbed to discover that Frank is unable to share with her the source of his obvious discontent. In a pleading not unlike Portia’s to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600), she coaxes him to display his mind: “You shall not shut me from partaking/ The least dislike that grieves you; I’m all yours. . . . I must know/ The ground of your disturbance.” Frank assures Susan that the cause has nothing to do with her, blaming his unrest on “the poison’d leeches twist about my heart.” He comes close to revealing his bigamy, telling of a palmist who predicted that he should have two wives, but Susan naturally assumes that the second will appear only after her death and, with saintly humility, wishes that “fate” might give him a second wife to outmatch his first—that is, herself.

Frank’s two wives are brought together for a brief scene in which Frank is leaving on a journey with his first wife, dressed as a page for the occasion, and stops to say a farewell to Susan. Winnifride, apprised of the situation, is horrified at Frank’s lawlessness and callousness in committing bigamy for money, but she has little choice but to follow his lead, and her love for him seems to survive. Susan, in ignorance of the situation, ironically pleads with Frank’s “page” to be servant, friend, and wife to him on their journey. Susan contrives to bid farewell to Frank privately; she delays their parting as long as possible, exacerbating Frank’s impatience until a white dog enters the scene and Frank suddenly murders Susan, wounds himself, ties himself up (with the dog’s help), and cries out “murder.” In the supernatural scenes of the play, from which it gets its title and which are generally ascribed to Dekker, the dog is both the witch’s familiar and the representative of the Devil himself. In the scenes by Ford, such as this, the dog almost seems to be a bodily representation of the force of fate, tainted as it is in this play with more than a touch of evil.

Later, in Frank’s sickroom, where he is recovering from his wound, the dog enters just as Susan’s sister discovers the incriminating knife. When she leaves, Frank is visited by the ghost of Susan and by a very live Winnifride before the authorities enter, and both Frank and his remaining wife are carted off to jail. In the final scene of the play, Winnifride is free but faints under the heaviness of her emotion and the weight of her continuing love for her condemned husband. A wave of pity for the bigamist-murderer seems to come over the crowd—a pity that Ford would evidently induce in his audience. This is strengthened by Frank’s final speech on his way to execution. In deep penitence, he comments on the rightness of his own death, asks for forgiveness, and seeks to obtain financial security for Winnifride, whom he has never ceased to love, though his ways of demonstrating that love are aberrant in the extreme. Ford’s obvious sympathy for the murderer, who planned the bigamy long before any “dog” urged him to go further, is an indication of a moral ambiguity that many critics have found in his plays, but it is also an empathetic examination of a kind of love, pure on the part of both Susan and Winnifride and tainted on Frank’s, that can survive in spite of circumstances and a society that would threaten to smother it completely.

The Sun’s Darling

Dekker also collaborated with Ford on another early play (it is almost impossible to date Ford’s plays precisely), a delightful marriage of morality play and masque entitled The Sun’s Darling. Raybright, an Everyman figure who is the offspring of the Sun, travels through the domains of the four seasons, each of which attempts to entice him to stay, while his companion, Humour, enlists counterforces to lure him on to the next segment of the year. Each act, representing a season, is a masque in its own right, and each introduces separate masquelike episodes, with songs, dances, and poetic combats presenting various virtues and vices. The most insidious vice of the play is undoubtedly the Spanish confectioner in Spring’s entourage, who brags that he “can teach sugar to slip down your throat a thousand ways.” Perhaps the most outlandish is the personified Detraction, who claims that scholars are merely “petty penmen [who] covet/ Fame by Folly.” The production ends with a final masque performed by the four elements and the four humors, after which the Sun itself descends to make its comments on health and harmony in the perfect interaction of these eight dancers.

There is much about love in the play, as each of the seasons courts Raybright, but he discerns that much of what is presented as love is merely an attempt to buy him with the various gifts the seasons offer. In Autumn and Winter, the season-acts most often ascribed to Ford on the basis of style, it is interesting to note that the ideas of love grow more complex. There is mutuality in the love offered by Autumn, who recognizes that Raybright, in representing the Sun, has as much to offer the season as Autumn has to offer him. “Let us be twins in heart,” she suggests, after which Humour and her companion Folly have a harder time convincing Raybright to leave. He does leave eventually, and as he approaches Winter, the love imagery of the play becomes theological if not downright messianic. Raybright, the son of the Sun, is the “excellently good” one for whom they have been waiting. He comes with justice and impartial law. The clowns who oppose his coming are waging “war against heaven” and thereby subject themselves to the “thunder-stroke” that is able to cast them “From heaven’s sublime height to the depth of hell.” In terms of the Book of Revelation, Raybright will appear like a star, and “Night shall be chang’d into perpetual day.”

The Lover’s Melancholy

The Lover’s Melancholy, which is probably the first play Ford wrote without a collaborator, examines love in what is almost a clinical study. The play opens with a veritable symphony of frustration. When Menaphon returns from a year’s trip abroad, he is met by his soul-friend Amethus, who laments that his loved Cleophila (a kinswoman of Menaphon) has remained cold to him, because she cares only for her aging and infirm father. Menaphon, in return, discovers that his love, Thamasta, who also happens to be Amethus’s sister, is still “intermured with ice”—absence having done nothing to make her heart grow fond. The illness of Cleophila’s father, Meleander, is related to love, because its genesis was the disappearance of his loved daughter, Eroclea. The classic case of love melancholy, however, is that of Palador, the Prince of Cyprus, whose kingdom has been in a sharp decline since Eroclea’s departure. She had been promised to him in marriage by his tyrant father, but only as a trick to lure her to court, where she was to be raped by lecherous courtiers—a fate from which she had been saved by her father, who was promptly dismissed from court as his reward. This was certainly a factor in producing his melancholy state.

The sickness suffered by the prince has descended through him to the state. Ford presents this on the stage via another returned traveler, Rhetias, who determines to play the role of court railer. His soliloquy against court foolery at the beginning of the second scene of the play is aided by the entrance of two court sycophants, Pelias and Cuculus, who provide excellent targets for his barrage of satire. At the end of the scene, Rhetias finds a partner in raillery in Corax, the physician who has been called into court to heal the prince’s malady. The description of a sick court is enhanced by Meleander himself, as, in beautifully mad poetry, he pictures the decadence perpetrated by the former tyrant, moans over the futility of court life, and pleads for a funeral without pomp, ceremony, or expense. Even Thamasta shows a side of love melancholy as she conceives of herself in love with the youth, Parthenophill, whom Menaphon has brought back from his travels. “Love is a tyrant/ Resisted,” she proclaims—a complaint that might have come from any one of the multifarious treatises on melancholy produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This aberrant love, however, is easily treated when she discovers at the end of one particularly well-wrought scene that the object of her misguided affection is indeed a woman. “Cupid,” Parthenophill points out, “Comes to make sport between us with no weapon.”

The presence of a physician in the court, and hence in the play, gives Ford his chance to examine love melancholy as a form of diseased love. When Prince Palador enters like the melancholy Hamlet, reading a book, Corax caustically reminds him that he had prescribed exercise, not sonnets. Later, two court counselors open the door for a lecture by asking Corax to explain the nature of melancholy, which he does fairly directly out of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Being a master of stagecraft, Ford, through Corax, arranges for a “masque of melancholy” to be presented before the prince, in which Burtonian characters of Lycanthropia, Hydrophobia, Delirium, Phrenitis, Hypochondriacal Melancholy (including a delightful poem against tobacco), and Wanton Melancholy all make their appearance on the stage with appropriate speeches. Prince Palador perhaps assumes that he is getting off lightly because love melancholy is not among the characters. However, thus relaxed (as Claudius perhaps relaxed after the dumb show), he is an easy target for Corax, who, claiming that the condition is too serious and complex to be presented by art (art versus nature being one of the concerns of the play), describes love melancholy to him and suggests that Parthenophill, pale and wan for a lad, is a living example of the disease. As visibly moved as Claudius, Palador abruptly dismisses the gathering, and Corax has his diagnosis confirmed: “Love . . . will be seen.” Corax’s cure is surely made easier by the fact that Parthenophill is in truth Eroclea, who had been in Athens under the care of Rhetias and opportunely found a way to return with Menaphon after the death of Palador’s tyrannical father. Even so, the prince has to be prepared for her return with a closely paralleled parable, and he accepts her actual presence only very slowly, thinking it might be some trick—perhaps Parthenophill disguised as Eroclea. Ford fashions their meeting with another demonstration of the mutuality necessary for real love. When she enters the scene, she finishes his speech as if she were privy to the thoughts of his mind, and she also reveals that she has been carrying his picture next to her breast in exactly the same fashion that, it has been earlier revealed, he has been carrying hers.

In addition, the healing of Meleander is carefully wrought by the scholar-physician Corax. He first prepares Meleander (who enters raging, with a poleax) by staring him down, having donned a frightful mask. He then tries to establish empathy with him by claiming that he, Corax, has a daughter who has been snatched away, leaving him with a crazed head and an acute lack of sleep. It works; Meleander does thereafter claim a special affinity for Corax, admitting “I hug my afflictions,” and fetches Cleophila to praise her virtues and compare them with those of the lost Eroclea. In the final scene of the play, Meleander is reached with another court device, perhaps even more dramatic than the masque of melancholy. Meleander has been drugged, delivered to a barber to have his four-years’ beard removed, and carted to a tailor to fit him with fresh clothes. When he wakes to the sound of music, he is met with a procession of messengers. First, Aretus, the court tutor, announces that all of Meleander’s honors have been restored, and Amethus then presents him with a staff of office, indicating a healing to take place in the state as well as in the individual. Sophronos, Meleander’s brother and the father of Menaphon, hands him the picture of Eroclea that Palador had worn next to his heart and that he no longer needs, further announcing that the prince is ready to address Meleander as father. When Cleophila enters with her sister, the meeting of father and daughter is natural and joyful as the story of her disappearance is related. When Prince Palador finally enters, he joyfully greets Meleander as father with the “prince’s sweetness,” which completes his cure. He makes all necessary explanations and arranges for the marriages, bringing the comedy to a healthy close.

The Broken Heart

In many ways, The Broken Heart is a study in courtship and marriage. The play opens with Orgilus discussing his relationship with his betrothed, Penthea, which has been thwarted by, to use his words, a “poisonous stalk/ Of aconite” in the person of Penthea’s brother, Ithocles, who, in spite of the betrothal, has compelled Penthea to marry Bassanes, an older and richer, though hardly wiser, nobleman. At first, Orgilus, who is later referred to as a married bachelor, seems to show some real concern for Penthea as he informs his father, Crotolon, that he is leaving Sparta for Athens not only to escape from the jealousies of Bassanes and to ease the pain he feels in Penthea’s presence but also to free her “from a hell on earth,” caught between her present husband and her former lover. All of this, however, turns out to be little more than subterfuge, of which Orgilus is a master. He soon returns in disguise as a scholar, spies on her in an unconscionable way, continually describes his love for her in terms bordering on the lascivious, and, in one painful scene, even tries by psychological pressure to force her to violate her marriage vows, claiming that their prior betrothal was the more valid contract. His attempts on her honor fall little short of attempted rape, and her resistance serves but to whet his already sharp appetite for revenge.

Orgilus’s lack of integrity is also manifest in his extraction of a promise from his own sister, Euphrania, that she will never marry without his consent. In doing this, Orgilus is taking control of his sister’s marriage in the same way that Ithocles had manipulated Penthea’s. Euphrania’s love for Prophilus seems genuine, pure, and controlled throughout. It outlasts the delay imposed on them by having to wait for permission from the supposedly absent Orgilus, and it survives his close examination of the relationship, disguised as student who by accident becomes the messenger by whom they exchange letters while their love is still secret. Because Prophilus is a close friend of the hated Ithocles, Orgilus’s permission is wrenched from him only with the greatest difficulty, although once it is given, his rancor seems to be forgotten if not totally dissipated.

The marriage between Penthea and Bassanes is indeed a hellish affair. Orgilus deems it a “monster-love” because she had been previously betrothed to him, but surely it is monstrous in its own right. The cliché of an older man’s fear of cuckoldry when married to a young, attractive woman comes to life on the stage. In the audience’s first glimpse into their home, Bassanes is arranging for a mason to have the front window “dammed up” lest it afford passersby a glimpse of Penthea’s beauty. She is continually spied on by Brausis, a delightfully doughty old woman described in the dramatis personae as her overseer. Bassanes is even jealous of Penthea’s brother, but perhaps this is not untoward in a Ford play. In spite of this oppressive picture of his personality, there is also a note of pathos in it. Although he was the benefactor of Ithocles’ pandering, he did not devise it. The court he describes is indeed a dangerous place for an attractive woman, and his appreciation of her beauty has a numinous quality to it. At her first entrance, he exclaims: “She comes, she comes! So shoots the morning forth,/ Spangled with pearls of transparent dew.” His own intoxication with her beauty justifies his belief that others might be equally affected.

The mad jealousy of Bassanes is dramatically revealed to all when he breaks in on a conference between his wife and her brother and imagines their incest. Ithocles, long since repentant of this marriage that he forced on his sister, now takes decisive steps to remove her from the oppression of this home and put her under his own protection. The shock of public horror at his behavior and the losing of his wife bring Bassanes to a sudden but believable repentance, and he genuinely laments the loss of a love he was not fit to enjoy. Ironically, his repentance comes too late to transform him into a fit husband at the same moment that Ithocles, through painful repentance, has belatedly become a fit brother.

In this state, Ithocles earnestly attempts to elicit his sister’s forgiveness, but every opening gesture he makes is met with scornful barbs forged in the deep center of pain that Penthea feels from having been wrenched from her betrothed love and forced into a relationship that she therefore considers adulterous. She relents only when, sensitized to the psychological conditions of impossible love, she senses the nature of her brother’s recent illness and evokes from him a confession of his love for Calantha, the daughter of his king, who is at the moment being newly courted by Nearchus, prince of neighboring Argos. Penthea recovers from her bitterness to visit Calantha, in the guise of asking her to be the executrix of her will. Using a familiar Renaissance form, she prettily bequeaths her youth to chaste wives who marry “for ties of love,/ Rather than ranging of their blood”; then her fame is left to memory and truth. Calantha is beginning to enjoy the game, when suddenly Penthea shatters the tradition and unexpectedly leaves Ithocles her brother to Calantha. The princess is irate at the presumption of this suggestion but withholds any comment on the suggestion itself. In the next scene, however, Calantha takes a ring that has been given to her by Nearchus and rejects it by tossing it to Ithocles, suggesting that he “give it at next meeting to a mistress.” It is Ithocles’ turn for presumption now, as he returns the ring to the princess herself, causing some resentment among the supporters of Nearchus. The love between Calantha and Ithocles is evidently genuine and reciprocal, and Nearchus, making a choruslike comment on the theme of marriage, shows genuine humility and understanding.

By the next scene, Calantha and Ithocles have courted and grown mature in their love, and she asks her dying father, the king, for permission to marry, which is readily granted. Ithocles has proved himself worthy on the battlefield and in the court and through repentance has cleansed himself of his earlier inclinations to control the lives of others. Calantha is a magnificent woman, a queen, knowing herself and her own love and managing to keep love, passion, and will in perfect balance. Unfortunately, however, their love is to be consummated only in death. Ithocles dies magnificently under the revenger’s dagger as Orgilus first catches him fast in a trick chair and then coolly deprives him of life. Calantha is leading the festivities at the wedding celebration for Euphrania and Prophilus when, on successive changes of the dance, she hears of the deaths of her father, her best friend Penthea, and her betrothed. Giving no evidence of the shock she feels at the news brought by successive messengers, she continues the dance to its conclusion. As the reigning queen, she comments on Penthea’s death; provides for the continuing rule of her country in a wedding contract with Nearchus, which, as Bassanes comments, is actually her will and testament. Then, placing her mother’s wedding ring on Ithocles’ lifeless finger as a symbol of the consummation of a timeless love, she dies, indeed of a “broken heart.”

Love’s Sacrifice

In Love’s Sacrifice, Ford is concerned with human relationships between the sexes in which no fulfillment is possible. The play opens with the banishment of Roseilli, an honest courtier, from the court. The only explanation he can surmise for his banishment is that somewhere behind the action is Fiormonda, the woman he has been unsuccessfully wooing for some time and who wants only to be rid of him.

When the duke enters with his duchess, Bianca, it at first seems as if they are a well-mated pair. Their entrance is announced by courtiers praising the duke for choosing Bianca not because of family or connections but simply because of her beauty, to which Fernando adds virtue. Onstage, the duke affirms that he values only two things: his duchess and his trusted friend Fernando. Intimations of things to come present themselves shortly after their departure, however, when the trusted Fernando laments his all-consuming love for the duchess. He is hardly through with this speech when Fiormonda enters to court him. He deftly puts her off by praising not only her beauty but also her loyalty to her dead husband; however, this serves only as a cue for Fiormonda to produce the ring that her husband instructed her to give to the one she could love as much as she had loved him. The scene is interrupted (a blessing to Fernando and a curse to Fiormonda) by the entrance of Bianca, asking Fernando’s help in convincing the duke to recall Roseilli, the man Fiormonda had just succeeded in getting out of her way.

The intrigue does not stop here. The beginning of the second act discloses still another courtier enamored of Fiormonda, and the court gets a good laugh as, from the upper stage, it overhears and sees Mauruccio practicing ridiculous speeches, designing outlandish costumes, and devising foolish gifts as he outlines his assault on his beloved—the only member of the court who is not in stitches at the entire proceeding. Thus, the audience is introduced to a court with its love triangles, quadrangles, and octangles, none of which promises to produce anything but pain.

The unhealthy quality of the love in this play is underscored by a quantity of disease imagery, with love referred to as a leprosy at least three times. The center of this disease in the court is the duke’s new counselor, Ferentes, who initiates an intriguing scene in which two young ladies and one older one all discover they are pregnant, having been bribed into bed with a promise of...

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