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.
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.