John Ford Biography

Start Your Free Trial

Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Download John Ford Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Very little is known about John Ford’s life other than a few isolated facts. He was baptized on April 17, 1586, the second son of a Devonshire country gentleman. He was admitted to Middle Temple in 1602, expelled for not paying a board bill in 1606, readmitted in 1608, and involved in a dispute over the wearing of hats in 1617. His father died in 1610, leaving Ford a paltry ten pounds, and six years later, his income was increased by a bequest of twenty pounds a year from his elder brother’s estate. Nothing is known of his style of life—whether he was ever married or engaged in a profession—and no record has yet been found of his death.

Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

John Ford probably entered Exeter College, Oxford, in 1601; he entered the Middle Temple in 1602, but there is no evidence that he ever practiced law. His earliest known literary composition is Fame’s Memorial: Or, The Earl of Devonshire Deceased, an elegy on the death of the earl of Devonshire that contains a tribute to that nobleman’s widow, Penelope Devereux, the supposed Stella of Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnets.

At least four of Ford’s plays, perhaps including his earliest, are lost. Four are included in the list of plays destroyed by John Warburton’s cook, Betsy Baker, whose unfortunate fame results from her having destroyed a large number of play manuscripts, some unique, by using them as “pie-bottoms” or as fire-starters.

The first two of Ford’s surviving plays were written in collaboration with Thomas Dekker. Of the seven surviving plays by Ford alone, three established his reputation: ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Broken Heart, and Perkin Warbeck. Because of its sensationalism and moral horror, the first of these has frequently been cited as an example of the “decadence” of Stuart drama. The second is interesting for its connections with Sidney’s Arcadia and its use of the theme of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella for its tragic plot. The third is a worthy, if slightly anemic, descendant of William Shakespeare’s history plays. After 1639 all reference to Ford disappears from the records.

Biography

(Drama for Students)

John Ford, the second son of Thomas and Elizabeth Ford, was born in Ilsington, Devonshire, England, in 1586. The Fords were an old, well-to-do country family. While there is little information about Ford's early life, it is known that he attended Exeter College, Oxford, from 1601-1602. At the age of sixteen, in 1602, he was admitted to London's Middle Temple, where he studied law for several years, though there is no record of his having been called to the bar. The inns of court served as law schools as well as residences for young gentlemen, who also learned there the fine points of fashionable city and court life. During the years of Ford's residence, such major literary talents as dramatists John Marston and William Davenant, and metaphysical poet Thomas Carew were affiliated with Middle Temple. Literary scholars believe Ford circulated among them, and through them knew poet John Donne's family.

Between 1606 and 1620, Ford wrote several prose works, including Love Triumphant (1606), The Golden Mean (1613), and A Line of Life (1620). During his dramatic apprenticeship, he wrote and contributed to as many as eighteen plays, though seven have been lost.

Ford's period of major collaboration, from 1621 to 1625, included writings with various playwrights. He worked with Thomas Dekker on The Fairy Knight (1624), The Bristow Merchant (1624), and The Sun's Darling (1624). Ford, Dekker, and Rowley composed The Witch of Edmonton, which was produced at the Phoenix Theatre in 1621, while Ford, Dekker, Webster, and Rowley authored the now lost A Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother; or, Keep the Widow Waking (1624).

Working independently, Ford wrote his major plays after 1625. He wrote for several theatrical companies, including the King's Men at the Blackfriars and the Queens' Men and Beeston's boy-company at the Phoenix.

Robert Burton's enormous The Anatomy of Melancholy, a Renaissance treatise detailing classical ideas about "humour'' psychology, influenced Ford's first independent play, The Lover's Melancholy (1629). His other major dramatic works include Love's Sacrifice (1633), The Broken Heart (1633), Perkin Warbeck (1634), and The Lady's Trial (1638).

Ford's interest in aberrant psychology figures prominently in many of his plays. In general, his most successful characters evidence dignity, courage, and endurance in the face of suffering. Though Ford's plays deal with controversial themes such as incest and torture, he does so without being judgmental, neither condoning nor condemning, but rather, striving to offer an understanding of what a person experiencing such actions might think or feel.

Dating the performance history of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore proves difficult. Published in 1633, the play's title page indicated that it had been ‘‘Acted by the Queenes's Maiesties Seruants, at The Phoenix in Drury-Lane.'' Quite logically, then, critics believe the play to be performed after the founding of the Queens' company in 1626 and before its publication in 1633. Though published late in Ford's career, however, some critics believe it may be the first play he wrote alone.

The details surrounding Ford's death remain unknown, though most critics believe he died shortly after the 1639 publication of The Lady's Trial.