John Ford 1586?-1640?
Writing in a period when dramatists used sensational themes and bloody spectacles rather than dramatic quality to attract audiences, Ford developed a reputation as decadent playwright. Indeed, his dramas appealed to the most degenerate tastes of playgoers during the reign of Charles I. They offered Caroline audiences a frank representation of the taboo theme of incest and the onstage dramatization of shocking violence. Perhaps the most striking instance of the joining of these devices occurs in the final act of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore: here, Giovanni murders his sister Annabella, whom he has secretly wed, to prevent her from marrying a rival suitor; he then interrupts a dinner hosted by the suitor by walking into the room covered with blood and holding up a dagger with Annabella's heart stuck on the point. For centuries, literary scholars have struggled to comprehend Ford's interest in such subject matter: while many have argued that Ford willingly catered to the decadent tastes of his Caroline peers, others have contented that the playwright's use of the medium of tragedy suggests that there is subtle, didactic moral philosophy at work in Ford's plays.
Little is known about Ford's life and career. There is record that he was baptized on 17 April 1586, to Thomas and Elizabeth Ford. 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 the Middle Temple, one of the law schools known as the Inns of Court; 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 lackluster, his contributions to the London theater scene proved to hold more promise. During this time and throughout his career, Ford worked with Christopher Beeston's acting company at Drury Lane, the King's Majesties Servants (the company with which Shakespeare had been affiliated), and he collaborated with such prominent Jacobean dramatists as Thomas Dekker and John Webster. Ford's dramatic career spanned from about 1612-1613, when An III Beginning Has a Good End, attributed to Ford, was staged at London's Court theater, until 1639, when The Ladies Triall, 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 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, written by Ford, Thomas 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, probably Ford's first individual effort, he experiments with the theme of jealousy in the context of tragicomedy; ultimately, Ford achieved a masterful depiction of this theme and its tragic consequences in two of his greatest dramas: 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. While the siblings' relationship in The Broken Heart is not as overtly incestuous as that in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, there nevertheless 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 inform 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 relation-ship and the shocking theatrical effect of Giovanni taking stage 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 great tragedy, Perkin Warbeck, as evidence that the dramatist ultimately matured beyond the sensational decadence of The Broken Heart and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. In this play, Ford dramatizes the political conflicts among 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 work 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. For example, Ford teases playgoers with the character of Giovanni in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore by giving him all of the characteristics of a conventional stage villain and then transforming him into the protagonist of the play. Similarly, in Perkin Warbeck, Ford shows dramatic insight in ignoring the megalomaniacal depiction of Warbeck in historical source material for the sake of dramatizing the pretender as a foil to Henry VII. There is a growing school of critical thought that believes that a skeptical Ford placed his dramatization of aberrant sexual behavior and the shocking blood spectacle within the tragic model as a didactic tool to instruct his audience about the dire consequences of such degenerate behavior. As Irving Ribner has argued, "Ford does not hold up incest or illicit love for the admi-ration of his audience; he is not a champion of moral anarchy. … Ford's moral position is far more subtle and complex than his critics generally have been willing to allow. It is the product of a skeptical age which can no longer accept without question the doctrine of a human law reflecting the will of God in a perfectly reasonable and harmonious universe."