Ford, John (Literary Criticism (1400-1800))
John Ford 1586?-1640?
English playwright, poet, and pamphlet writer.
Producing most of his dramas in the early Caroline period, Ford is something of a literary anachronism. His mentors and early collaborators included such renowned Jacobean playwrights as John Fletcher, Thomas Dekker, and John Webster, all of whom were profoundly influenced by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Even as other Caroline dramatists were turning away from worn-out Elizabethan dramatic techniques in an effort to attract audiences to their theaters, Ford strove to resuscitate that aging tradition through a combination of skill as a tragic dramatist and through the theatrical representation of taboo themes and shocking violence. Through the centuries, literary scholars have fiercely debated the issue of Ford's interest in such sensational subjects. While many have argued that Ford willingly appealed to the increasingly decadent tastes of Caroline audiences, others have maintained that the playwright's use of the medium of tragedy suggests that there is an underlying didactic moral philosophy at work in his plays. Still others have asserted that Ford remains intentionally ambivalent about the morality of his tragic characters, instead transferring the responsibility of judging or sympathizing with his characters to the spectator.
Little is known about Ford's life and career. There is record that the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Ford was baptized on April 17, 1586. The Fords were members of the gentry class from area of Islington, Devonshire, and it appears that John received a good education during his formative years. There is evidence that a John Ford from Devon enrolled in Exeter College, Oxford, in 1601. The next year, Ford matriculated at one of the Inns of Court, the Middle Temple; contemporary documents indicate that he remained affiliated with the Inns of Court until about 1605 or 1606, when he was expelled from the school for not paying his buttery bill. He was not readmitted to the Middle Temple until 1608. Ford encountered trouble again in 1617, when he and forty other students were suspended for wearing regular caps instead of traditional lawyer's caps. If Ford's experience as a student at the Inns of Court was uninspired, his contributions to the London theater scene proved to hold more promise. During this time and throughout his career, Ford worked with the King's Majesties Servants, who were made famous by Shakespeare, and with Christopher Beeston's acting companies at Drury Lane; he also collaborated with Fletcher, Dekker, and Webster. Ford's dramatic career spanned from about 1612-13, when An Ill Beginning Has a Good End, attributed to Ford, was staged at London's Court Theater, until 1639, when The Lady's Trial, the last work bearing his name, was printed. It is not known when Ford died.
Before embarking on his career as a dramatist, Ford tried his hand at several other literary forms, including non-dramatic works, narrative poems, prose works, and pamphlets. He also honed his literary skills as an apprentice collaborator on plays composed by more seasoned playwrights. From this experience came The Witch of Edmonton (1621), written by Ford, Dekker, and William Rowley. This play features sensational themes—including witchcraft, bigamy, and murder—that no doubt influenced Ford's theatrical style in his later plays. In The Lover's Melancholy (1628), probably Ford's first individual effort, he experiments with the theme of jealousy in the context of tragicomedy. Ford achieved a masterful depiction of this theme and its tragic consequences in two of his greatest dramas, first staged between 1630 and 1633: The Broken Heart and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. In The Broken Heart, Ford introduces the theme of brother/sister relationships that will also manifest itself in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and Love's Sacrifice (c. 1632-33). While the siblings' relationship in The Broken Heart is not as overtly incestuous as that in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, nevertheless there exists a latent sexual tension between brother and sister—and by extension their lovers—which generates jealousy, revenge, murder, and ultimately tragedy. These same themes comprise the dramatic events of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, but Ford's forthright and unflinching representation of them—especially the incestuous relationship between Giovanni and Annabella—is what makes the work such a controversial play. This relationship and the shocking theatrical effect of Giovanni taking stage in the final act with Annabella's heart on his dagger represent the pinnacle of decadent excess in Caroline theater. Love's Sacrifice was written about the same time as The Broken Heart and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, and while it contains many of the same sensational themes, it nevertheless displays a lack of consistency, which makes it less compelling than the other two tragedies. Critics point to Ford's last tragedy, Perkin Warbeck (c. 1633-34), as evidence that the dramatist ultimately matured beyond the decadence of his earlier dramas. In this play, Ford dramatizes the political conflict between Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne, Henry VII, and James IV of Scotland. Here, Ford is at the height of his dramatic powers in that he creates a tautly balanced tragedy with well-defined characters.
In the centuries that followed the Caroline era, critics either dismissed or disdained Ford's works as an example of an age which glorified the theatrical representation of sensational sexual themes and graphic violence. Further, Ford could not avoid comparison with Shakespeare, his illustrious predecessor. In most cases, critics harshly judged Ford as an inferior dramatist who rewrote many of Shakespeare's plays to meet Caroline sensibilities. Such parallels were drawn between 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and Romeo and Juliet, Love's Sacrifice and Othello, and Perkin Warbeck and Richard II. In recent years, literary scholars have begun to reexamine Ford's works as complex documents that contain not only ingenious manipulations of traditional dramatic devices but also a whole subtext of information relating to Ford's views on religion and morality. These commentators have generally separated into two critical camps: the first group believes that a skeptical Ford placed his dramatization of aberrant sexual behavior and shocking blood spectacle within the tragic model as a didactic tool to instruct his audience about the dire consequences of such degenerate behavior; the other group proposes that Ford intentionally displays an ambivalent attitude toward an ethical conflict between traditional Christian morality and progressive early seventeenth-century theories about scientific physiology and extreme individualism. From an aesthetic standpoint, critics have generally commended Ford for his brilliant depiction of intensely passionate tragic emotion in his plays, arguing that this achievement holds the audience in suspense where his low comedy and characterization often fail. In the words of Adolphus William Ward: “The intensity of [Ford's] imagination enables him to reproduce situations of the most harrowing kind, and to reveal, with a vividness and suddenness wholly peculiar to himself, the depths of passion, sorrow, and despair which lie hidden in the hearts of men and women.”
Fames Memoriall, or The Earle of Devonshire Deceased (poetry) 1606
Honor Triumphant. Or the Peeres Challenge, By Armes Defensible, At Tilt. Also the Monarches Meeting (prose pamphlet) 1606
An Ill Beginning Has a Good End [attributed to Ford] (play) 1612-13
Christes Bloodie Sweat. Or the Sonne of God in His Agonie [attributed to Ford] (poetry) 1613
The Golden Meane [attributed to Ford] (prose pamphlet) 1613
A Line of Life. Pointing at the Immortalitie of a Vertuous Name (prose pamphlet) 1620
The Witch of Edmonton [with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley] (play) 1621
The Bristow Merchant [with Dekker] (play) 1624
The Fairy Knight [with Dekker] (play) 1624
The Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother [with Dekker, Rowley, and John Webster] (play) 1624
The Sun's Darling [with Dekker] (play) 1624
The Lover's Melancholy (play) 1628
Beauty in a Trance (play) 1630
The Broken Heart (play) c. 1630-33
'Tis Pity She's a Whore (play) c. 1630-33
Love's Sacrifice (play) c. 1632-33
Perkin Warbeck (play) c. 1633-34
The Fancies Chaste and Noble (play)...
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SOURCE: Ford, John. “Prologue to Perkin Warbeck.” In The Dramatic Works of John Ford, Vol. II, edited by W. Gifford, p. 1. London: John Murray, 1831.
[In the following prologue to Perkin Warbeck, first published in 1634, Ford states his reasons for attempting to revive the unfashionable history play genre.]
Studies have, of this nature, been of late, So out of fashion, so unfollowed, that It is become more justice, to revive The antic follies of the times, than strive To countenance wise industry: no want Of art doth render wit, or lame, or scant, Or slothful, in the purchase of fresh bays; But want of truth in them, who give the praise To their self-love, presuming to out-do The writer, or (for need) the actors too. But such the author's silence best befits, Who bids them be in love with their own wits. From him, to clearer judgments, we can say He shows a History, couch'd in a play: A history of noble mention, known, Famous, and true; most noble, 'cause our own: Not forged from Italy, from France, from Spain, But chronicled at home; as rich in strain Of brave attempts, as ever fertile rage, In action, could beget to grace the stage. We cannot limit scenes, for the whole land Itself appear'd too narrow to withstand Competitors for kingdoms: nor is here Unnecessary mirth forced, to endear A multitude: on these two rests the fate Of worthy expectation, Truth and State.
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SOURCE: Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. IX, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, p. 465. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1976.
[In the following diary entry dated March 3, 1669, Pepys recounts seeing The Lady's Trial, deeming it a “sorry play.”]
So to Unthankes and there took up my wife and carried her to the Duke of York's playhouse and there saw an old play, the first time acted these 40 years, called The Lady's tryall, acted only by the young people of the House, but the House very full. But it is but a sorry play, and the worse by how much my head is out of humour by being a little sleepy and my legs weary since last night.
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SOURCE: Langbaine, Gerard. “John Ford.” In An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, pp. 219-22. Oxford: George West and Henry Clements, 1691.
[In the following essay, Langbaine provides a brief overview of Ford's dramatic works, singling out for censure Ford's treatment of incest in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.]
A Gentleman of the Middle-Temple, who liv'd in the Reign of King Charles the First: Who was a Well-wisher to the Muses, and a Friend and Acquaintance of most of the Poets of his Time. He was not only a Partner with Rowly, and Decker in the Witch of Edmonton, … and with Decker, in The Sun's Darling, but writ like-wise himself seven Plays; most of which were acted at the Phœnix, and the Black-Friars: and may be known by an Anagram instead of his Name, generally printed in the Title-page, viz.
He was more addicted to Tragedy, than Comedy; which occasion'd an Old Poet to write thus of him.
Deep in a Dump John Ford was alone got With folded Arms, and melancholy Hat.
I shall give an Account of his Plays Alphabetically, and place The Sun's Darling in its order, because the greatest part of it was writ by our Author.
Broken Heart, a Tragedy acted by the Kings Majesties Servants, at...
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SOURCE: Baker, David Erskine. Biographia Dramatica; Or, A Companion to the Playhouse Containing Historical and Critical Memoirs and Original Anecdotes of British and Irish Dramatic Writers, Vols. II and III, pp. 391-92 and p. 340. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1812.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1764, Baker comments on Ford's The Lover's Melancholy and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, noting that the former was warmly received when first acted while the subject matter of the latter is simply too shocking for audiences.]
[The Lover's Melancholy] is highly commended in four copies of verses by friends of the author; and he has himself greatly embellished it by an apt introduction of several fancies from other writers, particularly the story of the contention between the musician and the nightingale, from Strada's Prolusions, and the description and definition of melancholy, from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. This play was acted in the same week, and by the same company, as Ben Jonson's comedy of The New Inn. The success of them, however, was totally opposite to each other: Ford's play was received with great applause, while Ben's met with general disapprobation. Whoever will recollect the spleen which the latter is acknowledged to have possessed, will not be surprised to find that he resented the fate of his performance in very warm terms;...
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SOURCE: Lamb, Charles. “The Broken Heart.” In Charles Lamb's Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare, Vol. II, edited by Israel Gollancz, pp. 188-99. 1893. Reprint. London: J. M. Dent, 1970.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1811, Lamb rhapsodizes about Ford's profound ability to dramatize tragic passion in The Broken Heart.]
I do not know where to find in any Play a catastrophe so grand, so solemn, and so surprising as this [in The Broken Heart]. This is indeed, according to Milton, to “describe high passions and high actions.” The fortitude of the Spartan Boy who let a beast gnaw out his bowels till he died without expressing a groan, is a faint bodily image of this dilaceration of the spirit, and exenteration of the inmost mind, which Calantha with a holy violence against her nature keeps closely covered, till the last duties of a Wife and a Queen are fulfilled. Stories of martyrdom are but of chains and the stake; a little bodily suffering; these torments
On the purest spirits prey As on entrails, joints, and limbs, With answerable pains, but more intense.
What a noble thing is the soul in its strengths and in its weaknesses! who would be less weak than Calantha? who can be so strong? the expression of this transcendent scene almost bears me in imagination to Calvary and the Cross; and...
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SOURCE: Hazlitt, William. “Lecture IV.” In Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth and Characters of Shakespear's Plays, pp. 107-43. London: Bell & Daldy, 1870.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1820, Hazlitt describes Ford's dramatic technique as artificial and lacking imagination, but notes that such deficiencies are often overlooked due to the sensational nature of his plays.]
Ford is not so great a favourite with me as with some others, from whose judgment I dissent with diffidence. It has been lamented that the play of his which has been most admired ('Tis Pity She's a Whore) had not a less exceptionable subject. I do not know, but I suspect that the exceptionableness of the subject is that which constitutes the chief merit of the play. The repulsiveness of the story is what gives it its critical interest; for it is a studiously prosaic statement of facts, and naked declaration of passions. It was not the least of Shakspeare's praise, that he never tampered with unfair subjects. His genius was above it; his taste kept aloof from it. I do not deny the power of simple painting and polished style in this tragedy in general, and of a great deal more in some few of the scenes, particularly in the quarrel between Annabella and her husband, which is wrought up to a pitch of demoniac scorn and phrensy with consummate art and knowledge; but I do not find...
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SOURCE: Lowell, James Russell. “Fourth Conversation.” In Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, pp. 112-242. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1845 and written as a fictional dialogue between the characters of Philip and John, Lowell acknowledges Ford as a talented playwright but not one of the first rank of English dramatists.]
Ford's dramatic abilities have, I think, been rated too highly. He has a great deal of tragic excitability and enthusiasm, and a good knowledge of stage-effect; but these are the predominant qualities of his nature. In the strong mind they are always subservient. Ford can see the proprieties and beauties of a fine situation; but he has not that dignity in him which can create them out of its own substance. His poetic faculty leans upon the tragic element in his stories for support, instead of being the foundation of it. Tender and graceful he always is, almost to excess; never great and daring. He does not seem to me to deserve the high praise which, if I remember rightly, Lamb bestows upon him, and which other less judicious critics have repeated.
The sweet lovingness of Lamb's nature fitted him for a good critic; but there were knotty quirks in the grain of his mind, which seemed, indeed, when polished by refined studies, little...
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SOURCE: Ward, Adolphus William. “John Ford.” In A History of English Dramatic Literature to the Death of Queen Anne, Vol. III, pp. 71-89. London: Macmillan, 1889.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1875, Ward praises the harrowing intensity of Ford's tragic figures, but contends that the tragic outcome in his plays is often insufficient in that it fails to give spectators catharsis.]
In Ford it needs but little power of judgment to discern an author who by the most striking features of his genius is entitled to an entirely distinct place among our most gifted dramatists. Some of his defects, indeed, he shares with others; but even here he may almost be said to make comparison difficult. Of comic power he is on the whole signally devoid, and the gross under-plots by which he thinks it necessary to disfigure most of his works, and the utter brutality with which he is at the pains of investing the personages who figure in many of them, are unrelieved by any play of wit or humour. His low comedy is upon the whole the most contemptible of any in our pre-Restoration drama—certainly of any that was due to the invention of an author of mark; and his high comedy, or what is intended for it, must, notwithstanding his breeding, be described as deficient in grace and lightness1. … In but a single one of his dramas has he shown a certain power of comic characterisation; and from this...
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SOURCE: Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “John Ford.” In The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, Vol. XII, edited by Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise, pp. 371-406. London: William Heinemann, 1926.
[In the following essay, originally published in Essays and Studies in 1875, Swinburne recognizes Ford's distinctive dramatic style and characterizes him as a poet worth remembering.]
Whenever the name of the poet Ford comes back to us, it comes back splendid with the light of another man's genius. The fiery panegyric of Charles Lamb is as an aureole behind it. That high-pitched note of critical and spiritual enthusiasm exalts even to disturbance our own sense of admiration; possibly, too, even to some after injustice of reaction in the rebound of mind. Certainly, on the one hand, we see that the spirit of the critic has been kindled to excess by contact and apprehension of the poet's; as certainly, on the other hand, we see the necessary excellence of that which could so affect and so attach the spirit of another man, and of such another man as Lamb. And the pure excess of admiration for things indeed admirable, of delight in things indeed delightful, is itself also a delightful and admirable thing when expressed to such purpose by such men.
And this poet is doubtless a man worthy of note and admiring remembrance. He stands apart among his fellows, without master or...
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SOURCE: Ellis, Havelock. Introduction to John Ford (Five Plays), pp. xi-xvi. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1888, Ellis maintains that while Ford was a master of dramatizing passionate emotions, the rest of his technique was careless and uninspired.]
Deep in a dump John Forde was alone got, With folded arms and melancholy hat.
That vivid touch of portraiture is the one record that has come down to us concerning Ford. His shy and reserved temperament corresponds to his artistic position: he stands alone. Of himself he has nothing to tell us beyond one early and perhaps not over-serious allusion, in the youthful Fame's Memorial, to an unkind mistress—
The goddess whom in heart I serve Though never mine, bright Lycia the cruel, The cruel-subtle.
Little, also, is recorded of him; of that little nothing that is not to his honour; while the tone of his dedications is manly, independent, and, towards his personal friends, affectionate. That he was not afraid to take a losing side is shown by his Fame's Memorial, an elegy which, called forth as it evidently was by the strange story of the lady, Penelope, Countess of Devonshire, to whom it was dedicated, is the earliest witness to Ford's interest in the problems of romantic...
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SOURCE: Saintsbury, George. “The Fourth Dramatic Period.” In A History of Elizabethan Literature, pp. 394-427. London: Macmillan, 1902.
[In the following essay, Saintsbury contends that while Ford demonstrated some poetic genius in his plays, nevertheless his characters are artificial and his low-comedy scenes are humorless.]
John Ford, like Fletcher and Beaumont, but unlike almost all others of his class, was a person not compelled by need to write tragedies,—comedies of any comic merit he could never have written, were they his neck verse at Hairibee. His father was a man of good family and position at Ilsington in Devon. His mother was of the well-known west-country house of the Pophams. He was born two years before the Armada, and three years after Massinger. He has no university record, but was a member of the Middle Temple, and takes at least some pains to assure us that he never wrote for money. Nevertheless, for the best part of thirty years he was a playwright, and he is frequently found collaborating with Dekker, the neediest if nearly the most gifted gutter-playwright of the time. Once he worked with Webster in a play (The Murder of the Son upon the Mother) which must have given the fullest possible opportunity to the appetite of both for horrors. Once he, Rowley, and Dekker combined to produce the strange masterpiece (for a masterpiece it is in its own undisciplined way) of the...
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SOURCE: Sargeaunt, M. Joan. “The Setting of the Plays.” In John Ford, pp. 142-54. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966.
[In the following essay, first printed in 1935, Sargeaunt discusses the relationship between setting and the characters' emotions in Ford's plays.]
‘Shakespeare and his contemporaries,’ says Peacock, ‘… used time and locality merely because they could not do without them, because every action must have its when and where: but they made no scruple of deposing a Roman Emperor by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an English archer. This makes the old English drama very picturesque, at any rate, in the variety of costume, and very diversified in action and character; though it is a picture of nothing that ever was seen on earth except a Venetian carnival.’1
The lack of unity which might be expected to result from this indifference to historical accuracy in the plays of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan and early seventeenth-century dramatists is often compensated for by a prevailing atmosphere, or mood, which gives to each play a different kind of unity of its own. The Italian setting of Romeo and Juliet may be no very realistic picture of renaissance Italy, but it is an entirely appropriate background for that tragedy of lyric love. The...
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SOURCE: Sensabaugh, G. F. “Fame and Confusion.” In The Tragic Muse of John Ford, pp. 1-12. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1944.
[In the following essay, Sensabaugh proposes that Ford can be viewed as a prophet of modern thought in that his dramas explore the nascent issues of scientific determinism and extreme individualism.]
John Ford stands in the eyes of competent critics as a poet of considerable stature. Commentary uniformly commends his solemn blank verse and his poetic power; editors include at least one of his plays in every important collection of Renaissance drama. Indeed, Charles Lamb places him in the “first order of poets”;1 and subsequent criticism, though less adulatory, unanimously maintains that Ford's polish and skill entitle him to fame in an age which gave England Shakespeare. Swinburne, for example, describes Ford's poetry as “piercing and intense of sight, steady and sure of stroke, solemn and profound of strain”;2 and even Hazlitt, one of Ford's most severe critics, admits that the poetry of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore shows a “power of simple painting and polished style.”3 Furthermore, twentieth-century scholars agree with these able critics. M. Joan Sargeaunt, for instance, in a recent review of Ford's reputation, concludes that Ford's plays present “a body of poetry direct in...
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SOURCE: Leech, Clifford. “Ford and Jacobean Tragedy.” In John Ford and the Drama of His Time, pp. 41-64. London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.
[In the following essay, Leech discusses Ford's drama within the context of Jacobean tragedy, asserting that in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore Ford comes closest to recreating the Jacobean tragic spirit.]
If 'Tis Pity She's a Whore can be described as belonging with the Jacobean tragedies of Shakespeare, Chapman, Webster and Middleton, we must approach it by considering the attitude to the nature of things that underlies those plays. The attitude, of course, will vary to some extent from writer to writer, even from play to play—it would be absurd to equate the dominant feelings and effects of Hamlet, Bussy d'Ambois and Women Beware Women—yet it is possible to speak in general terms that have a validity for the whole body of major tragic writing in the earliest years of the seventeenth century. Basically, then, this drama is characterized by an intellectual tension. On the one side there is a feeling of exaltation in the nature of man, a delight in his dominance among created things, in his ambitions and his potentialities, his daring, his readiness to assume responsibility for the pattern of his life, his capacity for love and understanding; on the other side there is a recognition of the limitations of man's power, his isolation in the...
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SOURCE: Anderson, Donald K. Jr. “Kingship in Ford's Perkin Warbeck.” ELH, 27, No. 3 (September, 1960): 177-93.
[In the following essay, Anderson argues that Perkin Warbeck presents a lesson in kingship, where the character of Henry VII represents the ideal ruler.]
John Ford is not generally considered a political dramatist, but he would seem to be one in Perkin Warbeck (first printed in 1634). Illustrating the pragmatic viewpoint of such theorists as Machiavelli and Bacon, Ford portrays his ideal king in the person of the wise and eminently practical Henry VII, and so considerable is the playwright's attention to competent and incompetent governing that Perkin Warbeck1 might well be called a lesson in kingship.
This aspect of the play has been overlooked by most students of Ford, denied by some, and thoroughly discussed by none.2 Several of its probable causes have never been noted. Furthermore, some scholars who do recognize the political nature of Perkin Warbeck see the drama as a protest against Stuart absolutism and Divine Right,3 but there is evidence that casts some doubt on this interpretation.
Although the romance of Warbeck and Katherine is prominent in the play, also important are the politics of Henry, James IV of Scotland, and Warbeck. Henry has become the perfect monarch, his foresight...
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SOURCE: Ornstein, Robert. “John Ford.” In The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, pp. 200-21. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.
[In the following essay, Ornstein examines the moral design of Ford's major tragedies, arguing that they represent a flexible morality which is constantly shaped by the dynamic nature of human relationships.]
Of the tragedies written between 1622 and the close of the theaters, only Ford's rank beside the masterpieces of the first decade. Blessed with the virtues of a constitutional monarch—sobriety, sincerity, and conventionality—Massinger had to be content in tragedy with unsubstantial regal gestures; he could not command the imagination as did the earlier Jacobeans. Shirley's dramatic authority was even more limited; at his best (in The Cardinal) he proves himself a skillful manager of plot. Because Ford had the courage and the will to break new dramatic ground, he was a less consistent and “correct” playwright than they. Yet even when his reach exceeds his grasp, he is indisputably the last of the Jacobeans—the last dramatist to make an original and significant contribution to early seventeenth-century tragedy.
Far more clearly than Middleton's, Ford's tragedies are an aristocratic rather than popular entertainment. His portraits of “noblesse” have a dignity and integrity that are lacking in Beaumont and Fletcher's...
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SOURCE: Stavig, Mark. “'Tis Pity She's a Whore.” In John Ford and the Traditional Moral Order, pp. 95-121. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.
[In the following essay, Stavig argues that Ford integrated a sophisticated satirical commentary on contemporary moral, ethical, and religious issues into the traditional moral design of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.]
After hearing a brief summary of the plot, a Caroline playgoer might expect 'Tis Pity She's a Whore to be a sensational melodrama with Giovanni portrayed as an all-black villain who outrageously violates all standards of decency. As an atheist, an incestuous lover, a revenger, and a murderer, Giovanni has many of the characteristics of a stage villain; but Ford chooses to develop him in a quite different way. 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. Most modern readers, steeped in the literature of romantic love, are so impressed by the noble side of Giovanni that they respond to the play as the tragic story of two courageous lovers trapped by a transcendent passion that an inflexible society cannot hope to comprehend. According to this view, Giovanni and Annabella are victims of a situation that is largely beyond their control. When the play is read historically, this interpretation of...
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SOURCE: Greenfield, Thelma N. “The Language of Process in Ford's The Broken Heart.” PMLA, 87, No. 3 (May, 1972): 397-405.
[In the following essay, Greenfield examines how Ford uses language in The Broken Heart to convey the process of feelings and actions that create a tragic chain of events.]
“Ford does not,” writes Mark Stavig, “simply rewrite the same play over and over again as so many of his contemporaries did. In each of the plays he attempts something a little different.”1 Although this observation is certainly accurate, Ford's plays bear such a distinctive atmosphere, his characters and style are so much his own, and his focus in certain ways is so narrow, that there has been an understandable tendency to emphasize the similarities more than the differences among his plays.2 Concerning his language, readers of Ford's plays have rather uniformly remarked on his poetic power and on his characteristic qualities of simplicity and passionlessness, of colloquialism, of directness, of an odd thinness of imagery especialy at moments of supreme truth, and of the slow, dignified regularity of metrical line typical of all his plays.3 My present purpose is to attempt to identify in Ford's language “something a little different” that distinguishes one of his plays—The Broken Heart—from the others.
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SOURCE: Rosen, Carol C. “The Language of Cruelty in Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.” In Drama in the Renaissance: Comparative and Critical Essays, edited by Clifford Davidson, C. J. Gianakaris, and John H. Stroupe, pp. 315-27. New York: AMS Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Rosen discusses 'Tis Pity She's a Whore within the context of Antonin Artaud's application of the tragedy to his theory of the theater of cruelty, concluding that Artaud fails to recognize that there is a fundamental balance between the cruel language and the violent action in the play.]
Though Antonin Artaud has been popularly deified as the mad martyr of the modern theater, his critical The Theater and Its Double deserves careful consideration not merely as an essential element in the bizarre alchemy of contemporary drama, but also as a provocative approach to orthodox dramatic theory. Indeed, Artaud's infamous “First Manifesto” of the Theater of Cruelty culminates in an apparently traditional program to stage “an adaptation of a work from the time of Shakespeare, a work entirely consistent with our present troubled state of mind” or other “works from the Elizabethan theater.” Notions of traditional revivals are shattered, however, with Artaud's revolutionary stipulation that these “apocryphal plays” be performed not only “without regard for text,” but...
(The entire section is 5298 words.)
SOURCE: Atkinson, David. “Moral Knowledge and the Double Action in The Witch of Edmonton.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 25, No. 2 (Spring, 1985): 419-37.
[In the following essay, Atkinson asserts that the theme of moral knowledge serves to unite the seemingly disconnected Mother Sawyer and Frank Thorney plots in The Witch of Edmonton.]
A familiar view of The Witch of Edmonton by Dekker, Ford, and Rowley is that the play was written hastily in order to cash in on the topicality of the witchcraft material and that little effort was made to integrate this with the Frank Thorney plot.1 A study which praises the main plot as “probably the most sophisticated treatment of domestic tragedy in the whole of the Elizabethan-Jacobean drama” simultaneously dismisses the sub-plot as sketchy and largely unrelated.2 Edward Sackville West, in his seminal essay on the play, gives a more detailed reason for doubting the unity of The Witch of Edmonton:
While in the theatre the interest and excitement of the play is marvellously sustained, so that we do not care to notice the points at which the double action fails to amalgamate, outside it we must admit that the stories of Frank Thorney and of the witch herself are not properly integrated. We can, if we like, argue that the Dog acts as a sufficient binding force; but...
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SOURCE: Foster, Verna Ann, and Stephen Foster. “Structure and History in The Broken Heart: Sparta, England, and the ‘Truth.’” English Literary Renaissance, 18, No. 2 (Spring, 1988): 305-28.
[In the following essay, Foster and Foster argue that Ford intended to draw an historical and political analogy between mythological Sparta in The Broken Heart and Elizabethan England, concluding that such an interpretation assists in revealing the play's structure and tragic outcome.]
In preparation for her death, Calantha at the end of Ford's The Broken Heart disposes of her realms and her people. To her cousin and designated heir, Nearchus, prince of Argos, she says,
I would presume you would retain the royalty Of Sparta, in her own bounds: then in Argos Armostes might be viceroy; in Messene Might Crotolon bear sway
The political detail here is curiously circumstantial for the conclusion of a tragedy, and one wonders in any case why Nearchus should not simply join the two kingdoms. In fact, the future relations between Sparta and Argos can hardly have failed to remind a Caroline audience of those already existing between England and Scotland, ruled by one king but separately governed. Like James VI and I, Nearchus is to leave his first kingdom to take up residence in his second and more important one. The third...
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SOURCE: Nogami, Katsuhiko. “The Rationalization of Conflicts in John Ford's The Lady's Trial.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 32, No. 2, (Spring, 1992): 341-59.
[In the following essay, Nogami examines Ford's sophisticated use of dualities in The Lady's Trial to achieve unconventional dramatic effects.]
The assumption that John Ford, as a Renaissance playwright, was wholly bound by the dramatic conventions of his time was notably refuted by Robert Stanley Forsythe in his assiduous examination of the interrelationship among English Renaissance plays: “Ford creates a problem which he studies and analyzes during a play, without any regard for the inculcation of a lesson by its solution. … Two courses were open to the dramatist of this period: to carry on the established traditions or to seek out new material. Ford did the latter; almost all other dramatists did the former.”1 The recent rise of critical comment on John Ford's last play, The Lady's Trial (licensed and acted 1638, printed 1639), appears to endorse Forsythe's view.2 Enquiries into the dramatic components of this tragicomedy, however, are still insufficient, since some of Ford's ways of treating the subject matter of the play have hitherto escaped notice.3
Obviously Ford could not work completely outside the conventions of his time.4 A late...
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SOURCE: Hopkins, Lisa. “Touching Touchets: Perkin Warbeck and the Buggery Statute.” Renaissance Quarterly, 52, No. 2 (Summer, 1999): 384-401.
[In the following essay, Hopkins maintains that Ford's Perkin Warbeck encodes a form of sexual deviancy that may be subtle to modern readers and spectators but would not have been lost upon Ford's audience and patrons.]
At first sight, The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck seems to be the only one of John Ford's plays that is not pointedly and openly concerned with sexual deviation. Both 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and The Broken Heart feature either actual incest or the fear of it. The Lover's Melancholy is structured around the concept of a passion that verges on the pathological, an erotomania. The Fancies Chaste and Noble has at the heart of its plot an allegedly impotent marquis who is believed to keep a harem. Love's Sacrifice probes the boundaries of platonic love. And The Lady's Trial has one wife who is thought to be adulterous, one who is actually so, and a third who has been sold by her husband to another man. Perkin Warbeck, by contrast, presents a cast of characters who seem to be models of sexual rectitude. Perkin and his wife Lady Katherine Gordon are romantically devoted to one another and virtually inseparable, while Katherine's former suitor, Dalyell, cherishes a blameless,...
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Anderson, Jr., Donald K. “John Ford.” In The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists, edited by Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, pp. 120-51. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
In-depth bibliographical survey of Ford's life and works.
Tannenbaum, Samuel A. and Dorothy R. Tannenbaum. “John Ford.” In their Elizabethan Bibliographies, vol. II. 1941. Reprint. Port Washington, N. Y.: Kennikat Press, 1967.
Includes a brief introduction to Ford and a 26-page primary and secondary bibliography of his life and major works.
Anderson, Jr., Donald K. John Ford. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972, 160 p.
Monograph covering Ford's life, literary career, and critical reception.
Leech, Clifford. John Ford. Writers and Their Work 170. Edited by Geoffrey Bullough. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1964, 40 p.
General overview of Ford's life and literary career, emphasizing his discipleship to John Fletcher.
Ali, Florence. Opposing Absolutes: Conviction and Convention in John Ford's Plays. Jacobean Drama Studies 44. Edited by James Hogg. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1974, 109 p.
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