Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 9989 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 marriage from the same man. This source of the disease is effectively purged, however, in a scene reminiscent of dramatist Thomas Kyd, in which Ferentes is stabbed by all three of the women in a court masque presented in honor of a visiting abbot (Bianca’s uncle). To justify this action, each woman displays her newborn infant.

The primary love business of the play, between Fernando and Bianca, is strong, poignant, and confusing. At his first opportunity, Fernando speaks most eloquently of his love, evidently for the third time, and is put down with equal force and eloquence by a diatribe on chastity from Bianca, who takes her marriage vows seriously. In spite of being charged never to speak of love again, on pain of exposure and certain death, Fernando cannot contain himself, and once more pleads his plight. The situation is ominous. D’Avolos has noted Fernando’s passion and, by means of displaying a pair of pictures, has trapped him into disclosing the object of his desire. With the duke away, Fiormonda has maneuvered the couple into a chess game (fraught with double entendre) and then, pleading sickness, has managed to leave them alone except for D’Avolos, who is sent back to spy on them. The situation is too much for Fernando; even though warned, he is soon on his knees declaring his love. Again he is chastely humbled by Bianca, who deplores his “bestial dalliance” and warns that if he opens his “leprous mouth” again on the subject, it will mean “the forfeit of thy life.” Fernando agrees to silence, but with Donne-like eloquence declares that if his heart is ripped open at his death, there the observer will read “Bianca’s name carv’d out in bloody lines.” From his observation post, D’Avolos completely misreads this scene and reports to Fiormonda that the couple are on their way to bed, to which she, playing the role of a good revenger, vows “to stir up tragedies as black as brave.”

This misreading is the only preparation that exists in the play for the next turn in the relationship, which surprises the reader in the very next scene. Bianca suddenly becomes the initiator in the game of love, appears in Fernando’s bedroom while he is fast asleep, and wakes him with her declaration of mutual love. Even though she comes with “shame and passion,” caught up by the “tyranny” of love, there is also an invitation in her words: “If thou tempt’st/ My bosom to thy pleasures, I will yield.” Her invitation, however, has a barb in it; though she is torn by the passion of her love, she is also constant to her “vow to live a constant wife.” Her impossible solution to this dilemma is to follow her passion in offering herself to Fernando but also to follow her conscience in declaring that, should he accept, “Ere yet the morning shall new-christen day,/ I’ll kill myself.” Fernando at first hopes this is some jest, but finally takes her at her word, vowing to master his passion and sublimate their love into a spiritual relationship, though he is still uneasy enough to ask if she will later laugh at him for refusing the wondrous gift. At the end of the scene, she echoes Fernando’s own avowal of constancy.

The reader is never quite sure of her mood after this. In one scene she contrives, in public, to wipe Fernando’s lips and adds in an aside, “Speak, shall I steal a kiss? believe me, my lord, I long.” There is something too coquettish in these lines coming from the woman vowed to death should her lover go beyond the kiss. Furthermore, in the final scenes of the play, she confesses to the duke, her husband, that she desired Fernando madly, tried her best to seduce him, but was unable to overcome his scruples. Perhaps she wanted both Fernando and death; this would not, certainly, be beyond the scope of Ford’s imagination. Perhaps, in this scene, she was merely trying to save his life in the face of the revenge-fury that Fiormonda had worked up in the duke. The latter seems most likely, in that she attributes Fernando’s technical chastity not to the concern for her life but rather to his constant loyalty to the duke himself—an idea that, as far as the audience can tell, never entered Fernando’s head, though perhaps it should have.

Typical of Ford’s plays, the love that is impossible in life finds its consummation in death, as has been foreshadowed throughout the play. There is something noble about the way in which Bianca bravely bares her breast to receive death from her husband’s dagger. She may be seeking death as the only way out of her dilemma, using her cruel and seemingly needless taunting of the duke (by proclaiming Fernando’s superiority) as a device to be sure he is angry enough to complete the deed. She warns him that he will suffer when he comes to accept the validity of her physical chastity, but he cannot believe this, and his one moment of relenting is quickly overcome by the urging of Fiormonda, the real revenger, from the upper stage. The duke’s anger is inflamed, and the murder committed.

When the duke, again at Fiormonda’s urging, approaches Fernando to complete his revenge, he finds him armed and unhesitatingly challenges him to a duel to the death. Fernando, however, on hearing that Bianca is dead, drops his sword and bares his breast, willing to be sacrificed in the same manner that she had been, thus joining her in a death union symbolically apparent on the stage. He is denied this symmetry, however, for the duke, finally convinced of his wife’s chastity if not her constancy, tries to stab himself, though he is stopped before completing his self-immolation. Instead, he arranges for a coffin and a funeral procession for his wife’s body, and the abbot returns in time to add his dignity and pomp to the occasion. After an eloquent tribute to his dead wife, the duke opens the burial vault, only to find Fernando there ahead of him, still quite alive but dressed in his winding sheet. He answers the duke’s attempt to drag him out by gulping poison to join his Bianca. The bliss of their union in death (assuming that such is possible) is, however, short-lived. The duke proclaims that after he dies, he would like to be buried in one monument with his wife and friend, then makes the waiting time short by stabbing himself to join them. The love triangle presumably moves from the human stage into an eternal tension.

Whether Ford is trying to say that all attempts at a solution by means of death are in vain or is quietly mocking himself, the situation suggests that there is neither glory nor promise nor fulfillment in love’s sacrifice, which seeks to find on the other side of the grave what it is denied in life. On this side of the tomb, life goes on. The dukedom is perpetuated when Fiormonda, the sole surviving heir, offers the dukedom along with herself to Roseilli, who seems to be worthy of the post and establishes justice by consigning D’Avolos to the hangman. Fiormonda, however, who is the real source of evil in the play, lives to become the new duchess. Roseilli vows to live a celibate life within marriage. This, given his love for her, punishes him almost as much as it does Fiormonda, but it also reiterates the theme of the play, which is dominated by love, or at least by passion, without fulfillment.

’Tis Pity She’s a Whore

The play widely regarded as Ford’s best, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, is a study of a single but hopelessly tainted love—that between Giovanni and his sister Annabella. The other loves that emerge serve but to cast light on the central pair of lovers.

In the opening speech of the play, the friar is in the process of urging young Giovanni to abandon love. For several lines, Ford artistically delays revealing the nature of the friar’s objection until Giovanni reveals the state of his psyche by genuinely asking a question, the answer to which is totally obvious both to the friar and to the play’s audience: “Shall then, for that I am her brother born,/ My joys be ever banish’d from her bed?” What Giovanni wants from the friar is some means of justifying his love and of consummating it, but what he gets is a formula for exorcising the “leprosy of lust/ That rots thy soul,” as the friar describes his condition. Giovanni agrees to the regime, even though it seems obvious that it will not succeed, and the scene ends by introducing two powerful forces at work within the play: revenge and fate.

Undoubtedly the greatest critical problem in this play is the simple fact that although Giovanni’s passion is by common definition a sick love, it is by far the healthiest love in the play. Giovanni and Annabella join strengths, not weaknesses; they augment each other’s personalities through giving, never by preying on each other. Giovanni is praised for his “government, behaviour, learning, speech,/ Sweetness, and all that could make up a man,” and Annabella’s virtues are lauded throughout the play as she is courted by at least three others and described by father, brother, and nurse. The quality most conducive to a genuine love in Ford’s plays is mutuality, and this brother-sister love abounds with it. Giovanni justifies his love to the friar by describing their unity, and it is the primary mark of their first love scene when it is discovered that Annabella has long had the same feeling for her brother but has not dared to speak it. In this scene, both brother and sister seem to be free from a sense of guilt. Their mutual vows, “love me or kill me,” speak of the strength of their love in the face of the opposition of the world, not a mutual guilt. By their next meeting, their love has been consummated, and the poetry of their union marks it as complete. When Giovanni tries to rationalize his love to the friar in terms of school principles, it turns out to be mere sophistry, but the real and convincing argument is her beauty, in which almost every cliché of Renaissance poetry is created anew.

It is also in the presence of the friar that some hint of division comes between Giovanni and Annabella. Although little noted by critics, it is surely her pregnancy that brings Annabella to her knees, weeping in contrition before the friar, who responds by offering her a fine condensation of Dante’s Inferno. The means to salvation, he suggests, is for her to marry her suitor, Soranzo, not only to cover her pregnancy but also to live totally loyal to him all her days. The marriage is easily achieved, and that very day Annabella and Soranzo exchange vows. Loyalty and commitment, however, are harder to muster, and when Soranzo discovers the pregnancy and excoriates her as a common whore engaging in “belly sports,” she taunts him with high praise of her former lover, a man whom Soranzo could never match. He ought to be proud, she insists, to “have the glory/ To father what so brave a father got.” Though she is hardly an obedient wife (evidently continuing her relations with Giovanni), Annabella does grow in penitence, wishing in love, like John Milton’s Eve, to take the penalty due Giovanni on herself. When the friar enters in the middle of her soliloquy, he is delighted and agrees to deliver a letter to Giovanni, both suggesting that he join her in repentance and also warning him against the revenge-fury of Soranzo.

The change in Giovanni is subtler, but there is a definite shift in his attitude from love of a woman to love of the pleasure itself. Ford has underlined this in the structure of his play, for just as the friar interrupted Annabella’s soliloquy of repentance, he enters in the middle of Giovanni’s soliloquy glorying that even after her marriage, he finds “no change/ Of pleasure in this formal law of sports.” Annabella was once more than a sport, and though he can still speak of “united hearts” and a love to the death, the emphasis is on the pleasure. In their final meeting, “lying on a bed,” Giovanni is upset at Annabella’s sudden resolve to “be honest,” and certainly his anger and resentment at being denied his pleasure contributes to the impetus to murder. Even after he is convinced that their end is near and the talk turns to eschatology and life after death, his mind is on pleasure: “May we kiss one another, prate or laugh,/ Or do as we do here?” Annabella, however, does not know the answer, but Giovanni, convinced that death is on the way and that only after death is there any possibility for their love, frustrates Soranzo’s elaborate plans for revenge by sacrificing his love on his own dagger. Like William Shakespeare’s Othello, he exacts three kisses from her, finally resolving to “kill thee in a kiss” as she begs heaven to forgive him and cries for mercy. The final scene of the play, in which Giovanni, quietly and rationally demented, enters the banquet scene carrying her bleeding heart on the tip of his dagger, is one that few can forget.

It is not only the sensationalism of this final scene nor the disturbingly sympathetic treatment of an incestuous love that makes this play memorable but also the poetry, which is of a consistently high caliber, forming a mirror of the souls of the characters. Recurring motifs, particularly of music and the full and ebbing sea, bind the play together. The pervasive resounding of love associated with death, accentuated by images of piercing and ripping, artistically creates a unified tone and foreshadows the end. Further, Ford’s masterful use of the irony inherent in the situation, in which only the audience and the friar know of the clandestine love, adds enjoyment and understanding to the experience of the play.

This work also receives Ford’s most complete examination of the role fate plays in life, a topic that obsessed him. In the very first scene of the play, Giovanni is convinced that he is compelled into his love by a force beyond him, not by what the friar describes as his “wilful flames.” When Giovanni resolves to tell his sister of his love, he proclaims (perhaps protesting too much), “’tis not, I know,/ My lust, but ’tis my fate that leads me on.” He uses the idea of fate in pleading his love, insisting, “’tis my destiny/ That you must either love, or I must die,” and fate justifies the incest: “Wise nature first in your creation meant/ To make you mine; else’t had been sin and foul.” Annabella also uses fate to justify her actions, as she unconvincingly tries to convince Soranzo that he should accept an impregnated bride: “Why, ’tis thy fate.” Later, in soliloquy, she echoes an earlier pair of star-crossed lovers as, regarding Giovanni, she laments: “Would thou hadst been less subject to those stars/ That luckless reign’d at my nativity.” The friar tries to make a distinction between fate as nature’s dictates and the destiny that is the will of heaven. Both of the minor, bungling revengers, Richardetto and Hippolita, indicate that they are trying to control fate, and against this background, it is interesting that Giovanni also, as he begins to assume the role of avenger, changes from a victim of destiny to one who would manufacture his own fate. He does not, however, outlive his revenges, and a sword in the fist of Vasques deals him the final blow, which otherwise he had determined to inflict on himself. He dies declaring the irrelevance of mercy in the fact of the justice he has met, and wishing to “enjoy this grace,/ Freely to view my Annabella’s face.”

Perkin Warbeck

Perkin Warbeck has been termed a tragedy by some critics and a history play by most. It is about a legitimate king and an infamous claimant to the throne, yet it has no villain, unless it be Margaret of Burgundy, who never appears in the play, although her murky influence is felt behind Warbeck’s claim to the throne. Henry himself is presented as an efficient king who rules well, with both foresight and insight, keeping always the good of his kingdom as his first goal and using mercy and goodness whenever they coincide with his major purpose. James of Scotland joins forces with Perkin Warbeck, out of a genuine though misguided sense of right. He is a weak but not a sinister character. He quickly takes the expedient course when he perceives that no English forces are rising to back Warbeck and when the forces of Spain and the empire are discovered to be totally behind the current English king. Warbeck himself is not without dignity in the play. Totally convinced that he is the duke who should rightfully have inherited the throne of England, he behaves in all respects like a king. Ford heightens his sense of nobility in the closing act of the play by contrasting him with Lambert Simnel, a previous pretender to the throne who is presented on the stage as a tempter of Warbeck. Simnel has bought his life by accepting the abject position of the king’s falconer, and it is made plain that a similar choice is open to Warbeck. Convinced that he is indeed of royal blood, however, he will have none of it. In a conventional but moving speech on the nobility of death, he is taken off to his own in royal dignity, a genuine, almost heroic figure who has almost persuaded the audience.

Interested as Ford is in the proper rules of succession and in affirming the legitimacy of the Tudor and Stuart lines, the play is just as much concerned with the quality of love, the dominant theme in his plays. In Perkin Warbeck, there are two examples of deep spiritual love of man for man. One instance is King Henry’s attachment to his counselor, Lord Stanley. When Clifford reveals Stanley’s complicity in the Warbeck plot, the king is shaken. Stanley had saved Henry’s life on the battlefield and placed the crown on his head. Since that time, there had been nothing the king would not have done for him. The king’s feelings for Stanley are poignantly evident in the scene of Stanley’s condemnation. The king confides to his couselors that his heart would pardon Stanley, that there is “a chancery of pity in our bosom,” but his better sense (awakened by a few strong words from his advisers) knows that this is impossible. Even so, he absents himself from the trial, fearing his own strong emotions. Stanley himself seems to underline the strength of their relationship as he responds to his sentence: “O the king,/ Next to my soul, shall be the nearest subject/ Of my last prayers!” In the face of this love, the reasons for his complicity in the plot remain a mystery.

Even stronger than this relationship is that between the Scots’ Lord Huntley and Daliell, the suitor for his daughter Katherine’s hand. Because she is an attractive girl with royal blood flowing in her veins, her father feels that she might well be a fit choice for King James himself, yet he is so fond of Daliell that he finally agrees to give his blessing to the match if Katherine should answer Daliell’s plea with proper passion, though he does not agree to recommend the match to her. When Kate shatters the dreams of both men by turning her passion toward Warbeck, whom her father sees as a mere impostor, the relationship between Huntley and Daliell deepens and the older man invites Daliell to “Come with me, for I feel thy griefs as full/ As mine; let’s steal away and cry together.” This friendship is deepened at the wedding feast, where the music sounds to Huntley “Like to so many choristers of Bedlam/ Trolling a catch.” In spite of a good nature that has learned to make light of hardships and a determination to be merry in a court in which flattery keeps him secure, there is a touch of bitterness in Huntley’s resignation to kings who are “earthly gods” with “anointed bodies” and in the renunciation of his child, who has chosen a “dukeling mushroom” for a husband. Daliell cuts through this mood of the older man, and with a more humble, continuing, and faithful love adds a tincture of consolation to their meeting. When Huntley asks for pardon for slighting Daliell’s suit, the younger man offers him “a love, a service,/ A friendship to posterity,” and Huntley expresses his gratitude for “some ease,/ A partner in affliction,” after which the two men together endure the remainder of the wedding feast. They next appear after Warbeck has been rejected by King James, and although they enter together, they leave separately. Huntley, after a moving farewell to his daughter, returns to Scotland, but Daliell, in an act of faithfulness resembling that of Lear’s Kent, asks permission to join Katherine and her husband in their sojourn to Cornwall. When Huntley appears for a brief moment at the end of the play, he does not converse with Daliell, but the two men are obviously united in their attitudes toward Katherine.

The major examination of love in the play involves Katherine. Although when Daliell begins to address her, Huntley suspects that an arrangement has already been made between them, the passion that he supposed to exist is the one thing lacking. Instead of responding to his suit, Katherine pleads duty to her father as an excuse to say no. Highly appreciative of his virtues, she gently and coolly suggests a Platonic courtly-love relationship. In sharp contrast with this is Katherine’s first response to Warbeck. She merely watches his arrival in court from the sidelines, when the Countess of Crawford, observing her, remarks, “Madam, y’are passionate.” To this passion is added the press of duty to accept Warbeck for a husband, but it is not duty to her father. In spite of Huntley’s vociferous objections to the match, King James himself has insisted on it, claiming an “Instinct of Sovereignty” to authenticate his choice. Katherine is nothing loath to accept this higher authority. She must be hurt deeply, however, when her father refuses his blessing on the match and goes off to commiserate with Daliell.

From this point on, Katherine’s love is a blend of commitment, duty, and faithfulness marked by a desire to share every life experience with her husband. She begs to go off to war with him, and when she is denied this, she extracts from him a promise that he will never again leave without her. Later, when Warbeck is dismissed by King James, his first reaction is not concern for his kingdom but a fear that James will find a way to retract the marriage and separate him from his new wife. Kate affirms her faithfulness to her husband. With bravery and courage, she is ready for what amounts to exile, exhibiting no bitterness toward the king, who commanded her into the marriage. She evinces a majestic sense of pride, vowing that she will not return as long as Warbeck is banished from the king’s presence.

At the end of the play, Katherine is not allowed to share Warbeck’s death, but she does share the humiliation that he has already turned into triumph by royally refusing to capitulate either to the king’s taunts or to Lambert Simnel’s demeaning compromise. In a magnificent bit of stagecraft, characteristic of Ford, Katherine climbs up onto the stocks in which he has been fixed. Though the Earl of Oxford is shocked and angered by the indignity, Katherine answers him with an affirmation of her marriage vows and her intention to live or die with her husband. Fate, however, which plays an important part in this play, as it does in Ford’s others, decrees otherwise, and Perkin is taken off to his death, while Katherine is escorted to her apartment, her true love thwarted by a tragic misconception of birth and role.

The Lady’s Trial

The question of love is again examined in The Lady’s Trial, and this time it is social: Is it possible for love and marriage to succeed across socioeconomic lines? The well-born Auria has married Spinella with no dowry except her youth and beauty. His bosom friend, Aurelio, had warned him against this move, and indeed, shortly after the marriage, Auria is forced to leave Genoa to seek his fortune in the desperate arena of fighting Turkish pirates—not without an “I told you so” from Aurelio. Spinella’s real dowry is faithfulness, honor, and an inner nobility. With humility and scorn, she spurns the suit of the ranking lord, Adurni, who, in her husband’s absence, has trapped her into a bedroom replete with seductive music and a full banquet spread for the two of them. Aurelio, who discovers them together, threatens to expose her infamy. Although by hiding at Auria’s return, she evinces some doubt of his willingness to believe her innocence, a mutual, perfect trust is reestablished at the close of the play, and all is well.

The theme is perhaps even more expressly considered in the subplots of the play. Levidolche has married beneath her station one Benatzi, whom her uncle, Martino, has designated a mere “trencher-waiter.” The upper ranks of society beckon, however, and after becoming the mistress of Adurni, she divorces her husband, whose fortunes then degenerate until he becomes a galley slave to the Turks. When Adurni’s affections begin to cool (as he plans his seduction of Spinella), Levidolche writes a passionate letter seeking to enter into a relationship with Malfato, a lowly gentleman of the court, Spinella’s uncle and ward. She confides her thoughts on rank to Futelli, whom she has hired to deliver the letter (and who betrays her by bringing it to Adurni first). “The properest men,” she states, “should be preferr’d to fortune.” Futelli leads her to admit that Adurni is not a man she admires by suggesting that “The title of a lord was not enough/ For absolute perfection,” which she answers by describing the real perfections of Malfato. He, however, scorns her letter completely and publicly, mistakenly believing that Adurni was behind the solicitation, seeking to dupe Malfato into a marriage that would serve as both a cover-up for and pregnancy insurance against Adurni’s own illicit relationship with the woman he would marry off.

Infuriated at her betrayal by the two men, Levidolche seeks an avenger and hires Benatzi, who has been freed from the Turks by Auria and is now in disguise as a returned soldier and outlaw. His fee, however, is not money but marriage, and he insists on a wedding before the commission is fulfilled. She confesses her adultery and looseness, but he affirms his faith in her ability to reform. As he leaves, Levidolche smiles, confiding to the audience that “Love is sharp-sighted,/ And can pierce through the cunning of disguises./ False pleasures, I cashier ye; fair truth, welcome!”

This change of heart and life, induced by trust, is evidently genuine and lasting. When Levidolche’s uncle, Martino, first sees her with this disheveled, disreputable piece of man-flesh, he accuses her of going public in her whoredom, setting up shop and crying “A market open; to’t and welcome,” but when he is informed of the marriage and let in on her secret that this creature is in reality her former husband, to whom she now intends absolute fidelity, her uncle is won over and convinced of her ability to achieve faithfulness. In the final scene of the play, Levidolche proclaims her new lifestyle to the entire court, and they, too, believe, accepting her fully into their society. She blushes to face Malfato but is forgiven by him, and she is supported financially in her new start by Adurni, Spinella, and her sister Castanna. This is indeed what Robert Grams Hunter would call “comedy of forgiveness.”

The theme is reiterated on still another level of society, in which it approaches farce. Amoretta has a fixation: Although lacking social status herself, she refuses to marry anyone less than a count and believes that she is really fit for a duke. Futelli and his friend Piero plot to cure her of this disease by having her courted by one Guzman, in the disguise of a Spanish grandee, and by Fulgoso, one of the newly rich who has devised for himself a long and honorable family tree. In four long and delightful pages, Futelli coaches Guzman on the proper method to approach Amoretta, describing correct courtship in terms of military strategy. When Piero enters, counseling Fulgoso, the two would-be lovers challenge each other to a bloody resolution of their rivalry, but when they discover their mutual gluttony, they decide to have a sumptuous dinner together instead. In the wooing scene, in which Amoretta’s heavy lisp adds to the foolishness, both Guzman and Fulgoso plead their cases by giving long and hilarious recitations of their family ancestries, and eventually they become so ridiculous that they are literally kicked off the stage with a cruelty reminiscent of Ben Jonson. Amoretta is cured and readily agrees to accept the mate of her father’s choice, who later turns out to be Futelli.

Although there may be no such genre, this play can be best classified as a revenge comedy. It is almost as if Ford looked at his earlier tragedies and asked what psychological factors might have kept the blood from the stage. Many elements of revenge tragedy are present. There is an age discrepancy between Auria and Spinella, and when Auria leaves court, he warns his young wife not to give even the slightest appearance of infidelity, charging her to remember “whose wife thou art.” Against this charge, Aurelio, who has the innate potential to become an Iago figure, is commissioned to watch her. His love for Auria, which is twice mentioned in the play, is enough to create jealousy. He has warned Auria that his wife’s youth and beauty are “baits for dishonour,” and he would naturally like to prove his forebodings justified. Further motivation is provided in that Auria has made Aurelio his heir, to inherit all of his assets except “Some fit deduction for a worthy widow/ Allow’d, with caution she be like to prove so.” In addition to this, Aurelio is provided with “occular proof,” which seems totally convincing to him when he finds Spinella locked in the bedroom with Adurni. His threat to inform his newly returned friend of this infidelity is ominous, and it is little wonder, remembering Auria’s departing charge, that Spinella chooses to hide rather than to face her husband after he has heard Aurelio’s accusations. Hiding, however, could well be interpreted as an admission of guilt, adding one more bit of evidence to the already convincing testimony.

What is the psychological ambience that resolves all of these elements into comedy rather than tragedy? The answer is in the quality of love in the play. Auria answers Aurelio’s accusations with common sense and a luminous sense of trust in his wife, a quality that is completely absent in revenge tragedy. The evidence against her is circumstantial, he explains to Aurelio, and other interpretations are equally satisfactory. It is Auria’s relationship with his friend that is threatened, not that with his wife. What a refreshing current this is in the murky waters of Renaissance drama: One can trust the person one loves; accusations dissolve into nothing in the clear, binding matrix of love. The one thing that hurts Auria is that Spinella’s absence seems to say she did not trust him to have faith in her. His dealing with this seems a bit cruel, for on their meeting, he pretends not to recognize her. Spinella retains her dignity and is eloquent against both liars and those who believe them. To this, Aurelio confesses that his accusations were engendered more by his suspicions than knowledge, but Auria then suggests the disparity in their ages as a possible cause of her dissatisfaction, to which she answers that there was none. Adurni, who had previously confessed to Auria that his confrontation with Spinella had changed his entire attitude toward women, convincing him that good women exist, enters to ask pardon of Spinella. When Auria seems not to accept even this as evidence of her innocence, Spinella strikes at the heart of their relationship: “You can suspect?/ So reconciliation, then, is needless.” To allay Auria’s suspicions would be irrelevant; if he has suspicions, the relationship is already beyond salvation. The reader, however, knows that he has none, but is worried about her suspicions of him. This worry removed, their relationship of mutual trust is reaffirmed. The real “lady’s trial,” then, appears not to be the obvious external assault on her virtue, portrayed in the first half of the drama, but the inward trial of the mutual trust, the real basis of love and marriage—the kind that makes tragedy impossible.

The other strain in which the play skirts on tragedy is in Levidolche’s cry for revenge, which seems genuine and threatening. Her method of hiring a revenger is also typical of revenge tragedy, as she drops a purse with a note in it from a second-story window in the dark of night, so that it appears mysterious to all those on the lower stage. Benatzi, disguised as Parado, is certainly a fit instrument for revenge. Like Bosola, he has been both a soldier and a galley slave, and he makes a ragged appearance on the stage—an outsider to society. It is only when her renewed love for him proves to be genuine and permanent that the audience knows the revenge will not take place, though some suspense is maintained right up to the moment that he is disarmed in court. The play ends in merriment as Futelli is to wed Amoretta, Adurni is betrothed to Spinella’s sister Castanna, and Fulgoso and Guzman enter to make their final foolish speeches before Auria dismisses all to attend the revels celebrating both marriages and his own promotions.


Ford, John (Contemporary Literary Criticism)