John Ford Ford, John (Drama Criticism) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


The Witch of Edmonton [with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley] 1621

The Lover's Melancholy 1628

The Broken Heart c. 1630-1633

'Tis Pity She's a Whore c. 1630-1633

Love's Sacrifice c. 1632-1633

Perkin Warbeck c. 1633-1634

The Fancies Chaste and Noble c. 1635-1636

The Lady's Trial 1638

The Queen, or The Excellency of Her Sex 1653


Fames Memoriali, 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

Christes Bloodie Sweat. Or the Sonne of Gode in His Agonie (poetry) 1613

A Line of Life. Pointing at the Immortalitie of a Vertuous Name (prose pamphlet) 1620

Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Clifford Leech (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Fordian Tragedy," in John Ford and the Drama of His Time, Chatto & Windus, 1957, pp. 67-98.

[In the following essay, Leech contends that despite displaying a generally refined dramatic technique, Ford nevertheless is unable to imbue the tragic events in Love's Sacrifice, The Broken Heart, and Perkin Warbeck with an overall significance.]

The totality of human perception embraces several levels of experience. Because, as we live from moment to moment, we have a strong sense of the actual, of 'now', we establish mental relationships with people, things, situations within the shortest period of time in which it is possible to apprehend them. We respond to, we evaluate, these objects of our perception as if their basic character were static, not subject to the principle of growth or to modification by circumstance, proof against the shifting of viewpoint or other change in ourselves. We know, of course, that this mode of perception is partial, but we commonly act upon it when the objects presented to our consciousness are not such as to call memory powerfully into play. If we are marginally aware of mutability, that may serve only to give an emotional intensity to our response. So we may pass judgment on a new acquaintance or a situation suddenly encountered, or yield to the immediate charm of a landscape. If we are Romeo or Juliet, we may fall in love at a glance. This kind of response, though normally of a lower degree of intensity than the experience of falling in love, is an everyday event with us. Yet, on another level of consciousness, we are aware of the world not as static but as wholly subject to the processes of time. We trace effects to their causes, anticipate effects from causes, finding our patterns—pleasing or otherwise—in time rather than in space. But this temporal mode of perception can hardly exist without the spatial mode, which is logically anterior to it. We cannot envisage process, mutability, without a point of reference in an actual or imagined 'now'. We can see this simply illustrated in Mr Aldous Huxley's recent story, The Genius and the Goddess. Here the novelist's concern is predominantly with the physical and mental growth of his characters, their subjection to accident, and to some extent their cyclic fluctuations of behaviour as circumstances come near to repeating themselves. But the whole story is securely anchored in a present moment, in which one of the chief participants in the events of the story recounts it all as a remote but highly formative experience. This present moment is given elaborate description at various points in the story, and the strength of the 'now' is increased when the reader is on occasion invited to consider the likelihood of processes that are still in the future. So Proust has his 'now' from which he sets out on his search for lost time. In this way we are prevented from ever quite losing ourselves in the momentary event that occurs in the story. We know, we are perpetually reminded of, the time-pattern within which that event falls. We see the most ecstatic or dreadful moment as an abstraction from a large phase of experience. The same effect can be achieved by the taking of an already well-known story, which we shall hold in our minds as a totality while we are reading any part of it. So that, when Chaucer describes Troilus and Cressida in bed, like children together taking shelter from the rain, we are simultaneously aware of Troilus's fruitless vigil on the walls of Troy. But there too the poet gives us a 'now' as a point of reference: at the beginning of each of Books I-IV he refers to himself and his writing of the poem, so that our consciousness of time-processes coexists with our consciousness of each apprehensible moment within the narrative.

Lessing in The Laocoon distinguished between painting and poetry by the assertion that the one was an art of space, the other an art of time. It was, he said, the painter's concern to capture the moment as it fleeted, to seek for pattern and significance in what was offered to the senses within a period of time sufficiently short for temporal changes not to appear. But the poet's concern was with processes. The painter might display Helen's beauty on his canvas, the poet should rather show men's response to it, in the launching of the thousand ships, in the old Trojans remembering their youth. In defence of his thesis, Lessing referred to the way in which memory functions. If a poet lists the various features of a landscape or a human being, his reader will not be able to bear in mind all the items in the catalogue and construct out of them an effective whole. But, while we cannot trust ourselves to memorize (and organize) a catalogue, we can simultaneously hold in the mind a series of events which are linked by a chain of causality or by any other form of consecutiveness. Because it takes time to read a poem, its material should be what happens, not what appears to have a static existence in a moment of consciousness. Now it is of course evident that those forms of art in which the mode of expression is itself subject to continuous change—the written or spoken word, music, a sequence of visual patterns—will be more easily able to objectify our sense of process, while those forms in which the mode of expression is relatively fixed—the pictorial and plastic arts—will be more at home in the field of spatial perception. Coleridge must have had this in mind [in Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV] when, having said that Good Sense was the body of poetic genius and Fancy its drapery, he added that Motion was its life. Certainly his own poems, whether supernatural narratives or the exploration of a train of thought, are almost invariably on the move. And if Lessing is generally right in this prescription for poetry, the argument would seem to have even greater force for the drama. In the playhouse we see human beings moving before us, reacting to each other's words and actions, and composing for us an experience which continues for two or more hours. The plot, said Aristotle, is the prime element in tragedy, not the display of character or the enunciation of thought [The Poetics, Chapter VI]. The action must develop, must lead to achievement or catastrophe. If Lessing's thesis can be sustained anywhere, it is surely here.

But we must recognize that an artist is often ill-content with the limitations imposed on him by his medium. The painter, for example, will resort to various contrivances to enable himself to display his perception of process. Lessing was well aware of this, and spoke of the 'minor aggressions' ('kleinen Eingriffe') which poet and painter made on one another's rights. In the Middle Ages it was possible, within the framework of a single composition, to present a series of pictures showing the same figures at different points within the course of a story. Thus the key-moments of a saint's life could be brought within a spatial relationship. Similarly, the multiple setting that was usual in medieval drama, being visible to the audience throughout the representation, would suggest a temporal coalescence of all the events in the dramatic story. Or the painter may produce a series of separate works, yet each showing an isolated step in a process. That indeed is common enough, from the traditional Stations of the Cross to Hogarth's sequences. Or, if he is anecdotally given, he may paint a single imaginary scene which immediately suggests to the viewer the events that have led up to it or will ensue. Or, with greater artists and more lasting effect, he will choose for his subject a key-moment in a well-known story: the whole action will in that way be implied.

So, too, the poet is reluctant not to make use of the momentary, spatial perception. As the painter finds himself imprisoned by his limitation to a moment of time, so the poet will feel the need to remain within that moment. He will wish to dwell on the features of a place, a person, a situation, that has confronted him within a time-unit. Though Lessing blamed him for it, Ariosto listed the charms of Alcina, and many a poet has surveyed a landscape and drawn his reader's attention to each of its features in turn. Or he may expose different facets of a situation, as Shakespeare does in some groups of his son-nets, or as Matthew Prior in one of his songs turns from the lover to his pretended love and then to his real love and then to the invisible Venus who comments on the small spectacle they offer:

The merchant, to secure his treasure,
Conveys it in a borrowed name:
Euphelia serves to grace my measure,
But Chloe is my real flame.

My softest verse, my darling lyre,
Upon Euphelia's toilet lay—
When Chloe noted her desire
That I should sing, that I should play.

My lyre I tune, my voice I raise,
But with my numbers mix my sighs;
And whilst I sing Euphelia's praise,
I fix my soul on Chloe's eyes.

Fair Chloe blushed: Euphelia frowned:
I sung, and gazed; I played, and trembled:
And Venus to the Loves around
Remarked how ill we all dissembled.

It is a moment that is contemplated, and the poet isolates in turn each member of the group. However, the matter is slight and the description brief.

In the drama, though it is impossible for 'motion' to be absent, it can for a while be arrested. The most obvious illustration of this is in the Greek chorus, in those passages where neither the past is recalled nor the future anticipated but where the general significance of the play's action is expounded or where the dramatist turns away from his contemplation of a growing dread and finds relief in a lyrical reminder of natural beauty. Aristotle rebuked Euripides for allowing his chorus at times to lose contact with the dramatic action, so that a particular choral song might be as appropriate to one play as to another. But in this Aristotle appears to have overlooked the dramatist's need for a point of rest, of static contemplation: to achieve this completely, it is necessary to lose contact with the dramatic action, for that cannot be contemplated without a sense of the dynamism that belongs to it. Shakespeare lacks the freedom that this use of a chorus could give: the practice of his theatre was to use a so-called chorus only for the anticipation of action or to bridge gaps in it. But he could come close to the moment of stillness in the use of the long sententious speech, where the thought is generalized, having some relation, it is true, to the action of the drama but couched in such terms that the particular application is not much in our consciousness. This is the case with Prospero's 'Our revels now are ended' and with Duke Vincentio's 'Be absolute for death'. It is almost the case, too, with the scene in Antony and Cleopatra where Antony's soldiers hear strange music under the stage and one of them says that this is the sign of Antony's desertion by the god Hercules: the action of the play is stilled; the god's alleged desertion is merely the symbol of a particular moment, though a decisive one, in Antony's fortunes; that moment is held, and contemplated. Thus Lessing's distinction between poetry and painting is one of emphasis and degree. Just as in our everyday experience perception cannot be wholly spatial or wholly temporal (though of course at certain times we shall tend towards one extreme or the other), so in art there is continually a reaching towards that mode of perception which the chosen art-form does not easily allow.

So far I have spoken of two modes of perception, but many people will perhaps be conscious of a third. Behind particular spatial patterns we have a sense of a general pattern which includes all particulars; behind the flux of things of which we are conscious through the temporal mode of perception there is a stillness which incorporates all movement, all sound. In the previous Chapter. ["Ford and Jacobean Tragedy"], I quoted Maeterlinck as saying that in Ford's women-characters we have an idea of the undifferentiated human soul. Individuals vary greatly from one another, but every mind knows and suffers, plans and desires, every human being is born and strives and in its fashion loves and in every fashion dies. So we are able to speak of Man, in a way that transcends mere intellectual generalization. In major works of art we are conscious of an individual person or situation being presented, but at the same time we see that the individual is humanity, the situation an image of the general human condition. Moreover, our notion of time is subsumed in a notion of simultaneity. The course of a complete action is immediately apprehensible, as it always is when we look back upon a narrative poem, a novel or a drama, which we have experienced moment by moment but which has stayed in our mind as a total image. When perception is of this order, we remain conscious of a time-sequence which is one of the dimensions of the thing we see, but we are not likely any more to think in terms of cause and effect. 'This is how it is,' we shall feel, not 'This is how it came about.' It is not that we see the different layers of time as forming an elaborate palimpsest, with the conclusion of the story as the top layer, as we do in any series of paintings on a continuous theme. Rather, we are equally aware of the beginning and of the end and of each separable moment within the sequence. In the nature of things, we shall have difficulty in achieving this kind of perception on a first reading, but a poetic dramatist, or a novelist similarly endowed, will—by means of continual echoes of preceding passages, parallels or reversals of preceding situations—urge us towards a state of mind in which we shall apprehend his work as a totality within which the separable parts, the moments of time, co-exist. In the totality of King Lear, Cordelia is always rejected, and Lear always in the storm, and the father and daughter always achieving peace together, and the father always holding the dead girl in his arms. In referring above to Coleridge's words on the body and drapery and life of poetry, I omitted the concluding term in his list: after assigning functions to Good Sense and Fancy and Motion, he added that Imagination was 'the Soul that is everywhere, and in each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole'. A sense of wholeness is, I think, impossible if we see the arts of time as capable only of narrative, of construction within the time-dimension. When we contemplate Lear, we do not think of its end as the point we have to arrive at; we think of a whole in which that end is a part, as is every other moment of the play.

This has been a long but perhaps useful preamble to the discussion of Ford's three characteristic tragedies, Love's Sacrifice, The Broken Heart and Perkin Warbeck. They are remarkable in their comparative indifference to event, in their cultivation of the static scene, in their approach to uniformity of mood throughout the drama, and above all in their suggestion of a total vision of human life in which vicissitude has become irrelevant. From Lessing's viewpoint they are defective writings indeed, for Ford has given scant attention to the study of processes. They are, most strangely in the playhouse, analogous in effect to that Grecian urn in which Keats found only arrested movement, fairness of attitude but no imaginable end. Of course, the plays were to be acted, and they had to have plots. The characters die and sometimes kill. But a reader who makes his way through them for the sake of the dying and the killing will have little satisfaction. Defying the natural limitations of drama, Ford aims at a form of spatial perception. When we first read his plays, what remains most persistently in our minds is a series of static groupings—Penthea dead in her chair, with her brother quietly near his own end and her lover addressing words of admiration to the man he has stabbed; Orgilus, with a proud heart, addressing himself to the formal ending of his life; Perkin Warbeck at the moment of his entry into the welcoming Scottish court, or later in the stocks, gracing with little heed the confessed fraud Lambert Simnel, who has accepted Henry's mercy and employment and now urges Warbeck to a like humiliation; the pictures of a solemn rite that come at the ends of Love's Sacrifice and The Broken Heart. We shall see that he is much nearer to the psychological drama of character and action in Love's Sacrifice than in the other two tragedies, yet in all of them the movement is towards the moment of stillness. It is no coincidence that these most remembered moments are those when death is imminent or just past. Here Ford, with his urge towards a cessation of movement, is necessarily the poet of death. The contrast thus presented between these plays and 'Tis Pity is extreme: there we remember with special force the earnest colloquy of Giovanni and the Friar with which the play opens; the fierce sensuality of the scene in which brother and sister avow their love; the moments of hubris and continued activity which come ever faster on Giovanni as the end approaches; the last scene of love; and the defiance of Giovanni's final entry.

This does not mean that the three other tragedies are mere occasions for tableaux vivants, however solemn and impressive. They come, as it were, into sharp focus at such points, but we remember them as wholes, not merely as frameworks in which a striking picture is momentarily displayed. The death of Calantha is moving not simply because of her firm and loving conduct in the moment itself, but because we have seen her with other manners upon her—listening to Penthea's account of Ithocles' love, playing the heir-apparent, with seriousness or lightness as the occasion demands, accepting Ithocles' love, dancing on as she learns that all her hopes are cracked, all her loves outraged. Moreover, the plays are wholes through the coherence and consistency of their language—though here indeed we must except certain portions of Love's Sacrifice. Ford has his special melody in his use of blank verse, and each major character will at times give utterance to it. Poignant as his phrasing can be, there is no over-excitement of tone, no use of language for persuasion's sake—no impetus, in fact, to action. His elegiac repetitions suggest always a withdrawal into an immobility that is a refuge and a means of full realization for his characters' mode of being. 'A peine ont-ils un passé,' says Professor Davril [in his Le Drame de John Ford, 1954] of Ford's men and women, and in effect this is true, despite the fact that in Love's Sacrifice and The Broken Heart and The Lover's Melancholy there is frequent reference to action before the time of the plays' beginnings: the things past are data, never strongly emphasized as causative or brought vividly before our minds. On the other hand, the frequent preoccupation with fame, chronicles, remembrance in after-times, suggests the notion that the characters have within the play achieved a status beyond mutability. This is strengthened by a tendency to see them in abstract terms, which achieves its most overt expression in The Broken Heart. In his list of dramatis personae for that play, Ford attaches a word or phrase to each character, presenting each as it were emblematically: Ithocles is 'Honour of Loveliness', Orgilus 'Angry', Penthea 'Complaint', Clantha 'Flower of Beauty'. Some of the labels are arbitrary and almost without point, and most readers probably find the device at first sight irksome. Yet its hold on our minds is sufficient to make the characters more remote from a world of particulars, associating them and their tragedy with a plane on which abstractions can be imagined, giving to each, moreover, an immutable quality.

Thus in large measure Ford compensates for his casualness of plot-development—through which he lacked some of the strongest factors making for a sense of the organic—and we are able from these plays to experience a totality in which particularities of space and time have become accidental. His fascination with the spatial picture should not blind us to his deeper capacities, his perception of a poignant order of things and his manner of authority in communicating what he saw.

There is a well-known epigram by Crashaw which closely links Love's Sacrifice and The Broken Heart:

Thou cheat'st us Fod, mak'st one seeme two by Art.
What is Loves Sacrifice, but the Broken Heart?
[The Poems English Latin and Greek of Richard
Crashaw, edited by L. C. Martin, 1927

Certainly there is much in common to the two plays. The story of Bianca, Duchess of Pavia, who loves Fernando but determines—though without complete success—to re-main faithful to her husband, has similarities to the story of Penthea, married to the elderly Bassanes but refusing to give to Orgilus, to whom she was formerly betrothed, even the hope of their marrying after Bassanes' death. In both plays, moreover, the chief woman-character dies before the end and she is much and most ceremoniously mourned. Both, as we have noted, move towards a static presentation of loss, and the dramatic incidents are casually introduced, so that we are surprised when anything happens but do not feel called on to give primary attention to the event. Incident is a mere interruption: even death is of use principally as a way of giving a final immobility to the group of figures. But the greater strength of these features in The Broken Heart than in Love's Sacrifice may indicate that Love's Sacrifice was written earlier. Indeed in this play there are frequent echoes both of 'Tis Pity and of the Jacobean tragedies with which 'Tis Pity must be associated. Towards the end of Love's Sacrifice the Duke returns suddenly to court, to confirm his suspicions that his friend Fernando is the Duchess's lover. He finds them indeed making love, and a scene follows in which Bianca speaks to her husband in terms of vigorous contempt, glorying in her love for Fernando. It is apparent that she seeks a quick death and wishes to drive the Duke to the point of killing her. This is very close to the scene in 'Tis Pity where Soranzo is brutally trying to discover from Annabella the name of her lover, and she, determined on secrecy and given over to despair, abuses him in the hope of immediate death. So too there is a resemblance in the situations of Fernando in Love's Sacrifice and Giovanni in Tis Pity. Fernando is the Duke's friend, and finds himself loving the Duke's wife. He attempts, as Giovanni did, to subdue his love, but in II, i, he cries out in terms almost identical with Giovanni's: 'For I must speak or burst.' The play has most elaborate echoes of Othello, for the Duke is worked on by the villainous D'Avolos in exactly Iago's fashion. In III, ii, D'Avolos, observing Bianca and Fernando in the Duke's presence, exclaims: 'Beshrew my heart, but that's not so good', and he goes on to pretend reluctance to make himself plain. The Duke turns on him in the following scene, his threats owing much to Othello's:

Thou art a traitor: do not think the gloss
Of smooth evasion, by your cunning jests
And coinage of your politician's brain,
Shall jig me off; I'll know 't. I vow I will.
Did not I note your dark abrupted ends
Of words half-spoke? your 'wells, if all were
known' ?
Your short 'I like not that'? your girds and 'buts'?
Yes, sir, I did; such broken language argues
More matter than your subtlety shall hide:
Tell me, what is't? by honour's self I'll know.
(III, iii.)

In IV, i, D'Avolos has grown bolder and urges upon the Duke an imaginary picture of the two lovers as they 'exchange kisses, seeking one another's lips, nay, begetting an heir to the dukedom, or practising more than the very act of adultery itself. When in the last Act the Duke has come to believe Bianca innocent, he expresses his despair, his inability to envisage life on any terms, in words that recall Othello's remorse and his terror at the thought of Desdemona's reproachful presence at the judgment seat. And he sees D'Avolos as the devil that Othello came to see in Iago:

Slave, torture me no more!—Note him, my lords;
If you would choose a devil in the shape
Of man, an arch-arch-devil, there stands one.
(V, ii.)

Ford was so preoccupied with Othello here that he even gave Fernando a soliloquy reminiscent of Iago's. Love has just taken possession of him, and he debates its claims and those of friendship, the chance of success with Bianca, and the means of revealing his passion to her, in a way strongly echoic of Iago's early deliberations, staccato, colloquial, with all the marks of active and fevered thought:

So, now I am alone; now let me think.
She is the duchess; say she be; a creature
Sew'd-up in painted cloth might so be styl'd;
That's but a name: she's married too; she is,
And therefore better might distinguish love:
She's young and fair; why, madam, that's the bait
Invites me more to hope: she's the duke's wife;
Who knows not this?—she's bosom'd to my friend;
There, there, I am quite lost: will not be won;
Still worse and worse: abhors to hear me speak;
Eternal mischief! I must urge no more;
For, were I not be-leper'd in my soul,
Here were enough to quench the flames of hell.
What then? pish! [if] I must not speak, I'll write.
(II, ii.)

And there are echoes of Webster too in the play. The first words of the first Act are Roseilli's 'Depart the court?', which is close to Lodovico's angry cry 'Banished!' at the beginning of The White Devil. A minor villain Ferentes takes his leave with an utterance close to Vittoria's in Webster's play: 'My forfeit was in my blood; and my life hath answered it.' And when the Duke's sister Fiormonda is wooing Fernando for herself, she produces a ring that her first husband had given her and tries to persuade Fernando to take it—all very much in the manner of the Duchess of Malfi wooing her steward Antonio.

Yet these echoes of 'Tis Pity and of Shakespeare and Webster do not give to Love's Sacrifice its characteristic quality. That, rather, is one of lamentation for ineluctable distress. The fourth Act ends with an emphasis on the working of fate, as Roseilli says of Fernando:

I see him lost already.
If all prevail not, we shall know too late
No toil can shun the violence of fate.
(IV, ii.)

We are, in fact, made to feel that the love-relationship of Bianca and Fenando is an inevitable consequence of their situation. She, young and dowerless, has married the elderly Duke: Fernando is his young friend, and Bianca is fair: she resists his wooing, thinking to bring the matter effectively to a stop by going to him at night and offering to accept his love, while making it plain that, if he allows her to do this, she will kill herself in the morning. Fernando, of course, responds generously and abandons for a while any thought of her love. Then Ford's shrewdness of understanding is shown most finely. Bianca becomes increasingly imprudent, increasingly a prey to the love that she has apparently succeeded in bringing to an end. In III, ii, she and Fernando are on stage with the Duke and his courtiers. She speaks, apart, to Fernando, asking him: 'Speak, shall I steal a kiss? believe me, my lord, I long.' The previous assertion of her virtue has so satisfied her scruples that now she is heartily ready to accept Fernando's love, and will show her feelings with folly and rashness. After she has driven the Duke to kill her, we are again made to feel the inevitability of his new belief in her innocence: he has been too devoted to the idea of her to be able indefinitely to think her disloyal. So he and Fernando join in doing her posthumous honour, and together they kill themselves to escape from their sense of loss. We are left with an image of these three people and their relationships: there is no question of blame, or of praise; but there is much pity, and Ford joins the two men in their devotion to Bianca.

It will be seen that the main plot of Love's Sacrifice is of the slightest. Ford filled out his play with various court-intrigues, to some degree incorporating the dully farcical comedy which was so often a blemish on his work. He was to do better than this in The Broken Heart, where he secured enough material for his five Acts by a skilful interweaving of actions, all of which, however, had the high seriousness that his tragedy needed. Love's Sacrifice thus has all the marks of being an intermediary play between 'Tis Pity on the one hand and The Broken Heart and Perkin Warbeck on the other. Nevertheless, it is to be valued for its central action involving Bianca, who has been drawn by Ford with a supreme understanding of human waywardness and a woman's passion.

If Professor Alfred Harbage is right in his belief that The Great Favourite, or The Duke of Lerma, published as the work of Sir Robert Howard in 1668, is an adaptation of a lost play by Ford, it is probable that in the original form it had a strong family likeness to Love's Sacrifice. In Howard's version it shows how the Duke of Lerma re-establishes his tottering fortunes by loosing his daughter Maria to the young King of Spain: she is virtuous, but when the King falls quickly in love with her there is a general assumption in the court that she is his mistress. She wishes to save her father from ruin, but will not sell her love or approve of his unscrupulous dealing with his enemies. The King and court are ultimately convinced of her virtue. Her father saves himself from the growing power of his rivals by purchasing a Cardinal's office: he has a splendid last entrance when he confronts his judges in his Cardinal's robes, and Howard's preface indicates that this was in the 'old play' he had adapted. It is, of course, impossible to say how much of the extant version is Ford's, but we can surely detect Howard in the very ending of the play: this is largely in couplets, and shows Maria slowly yielding to the King's wish to make her his Queen. In his preface, Howard says of the original:

it ended abruptly: and on the person of Philip the 3 there was fixed such a mean character, and on the daughter of the Duke of Lerma such a vicious one, that I could not but judge it unfit to be presented by any that had a respect, not only to princes, but indeed to either man or woman.

In Howard's version Maria has no trace of viciousness. She is as virtuous and as calumniated as Spinella in The Lady's Trial, and like Spinella she disappears from view during the later part of the play, returning at the end for a solemn exculpation. But the 'old play' made her 'vicious', and we must therefore assume that her character was there nearer Bianca's than Spinella's. Professor Harbage has wondered if Ford suggested an incestuous relationship with her father, for certainly Lerma often describes her with an unusual fervour. This possibility is strengthened when we consider than an incest-motive shows itself in The Broken Heart as well as in 'Tis Pity. But it is unlikely that it was the mainspring of the action. The whole conduct of the plot depends on Lerma's use of his daughter to re-establish himself as the King's favourite, and on her reluctance to play her part. Though it is rash to speculate on the exact sequence of events in the 'old play', it seems possible that Ford's Maria was rather more wavering in her virtue than Howard's, that like Bianca's her resistance to the power of love was not lasting, that Lerma's fall was ultimately bound up with the King's view that a mistress, once attained, was but a mistress. In IV, i, her uncle the Duke of Medina comes in disguise to Maria and presents a masque-like entertainment which is intended to arouse the workings of her conscience: she protests her virtue indignantly and nobly, so that Medina is astonished and begins to wonder if calumny has been done. It would be close indeed to Love's Sacrifice if her yielding to the King had quickly followed this successful demonstration of her virtue. Howard said the King's character was 'mean' in the original, and we can have no doubt that, as in Love's Sacrifice and The Broken Heart, Ford would here have put all his strength and admiration at Maria's disposal. There would, however, be no opportunity for a last-act glorification of his heroine. Howard, we have seen, said the old play 'ended abruptly', and Lerma's triumphant wimdrawal from his judges and the world, safe in his Cardinal's scarlet, was doubtless almost the last incident. There would be no final entry for Maria, no elevation to a throne. There is no historical warrant for Maria's existence, but the real Duke of Lerma had a son who turned against him, and Philip IV—the successor of the King in me play—had a mistress called Maria Calderon. Ford's Maria may well have been nearer than Howard's to the historical Duke's son and King's mistress.

In Howard's version Lerma is presented as a man ready to challenge fate:

Mar. Are there divinities below?
Ler.There are. Every wise thing is a divinity
That can dispose and check the fate of things.
(II, i.)

But his efforts are puny: he cannot control Maria's will, his hold on the King is always insecure, his enemies are finally able to drive him from court. When the play ends, his one remaining achievement is a purchased immunity from death and imprisonment, and it seems a small matter for one who sought 'divinity'. Maria, on the other hand, though he would use her as an instrument in his advancement, has always his homage and the King's. It is her initial bewilderment, her love for the King which yet will not kill her virtue, her resolution in defying the King's lust, curbing her father's plans and yet seeking to preserve him, that provide the play with its centre. The scenes in which she meets her father or the unprincipled Confessor or the King or her uncle Medina have Ford's note in them. And if we have lost a later scene between her and the King, we have lost the chance of seeing her as vividly as we see Bianca. Nevertheless, the play may have been left unpublished by Ford because he could not devise an ending satisfactory to him.

The action of The Broken Heart, like that of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, is centred in a brother and a sister, Ithocles and Penthea. Indeed at one point in the play Bassanes, the husband of Penthea, suspects that she and Ithocles are lovers. And at another point we are reminded of the earlier play when Orgilus manifestly resents his sister's acceptance of Prophilus's love. These, however, are only stray echoes: as in Love's Sacrifice, the stress here is on suffering, not on the daring and violence of Giovanni and Annabella. Penthea, we learn, was formerly betrothed to Orgilus, but Ithocles was ambitious and contrived for her the more splendid match with Bassanes. She and Orgilus suffer from their separation, and there is a touch characteristic of Ford when she tells him that, even after Bassanes' death, she will not allow Orgilus to take her at second-hand:

Org. … Penthea is the wife to Orgilus,
And ever shall be.
Pen. Never shall or will.
Org.. How!
Pen. Hear me; in a word I'll tell thee why.
The virgin-dowry which my birth bestow'd
Is ravish'd by another; my true love
Abhors to think that Orgilus deserv'd
No better favours than a second bed.
Org.. I must not take this reason.
Pen. TO confirm it;
Should I outlive my bondage, let me meet
Another worse than this and less desir'd,
If, of all men alive, thou shouldst but touch
My lip or hand again!
(II, iii.)

This is one of the most unpleasant manifestations of Ford's exaltation of beauty and virginity, a peculiar exhibition of a snobbery that disregards the person while exalting its condition. One would be willing to believe that here Ford has insight into the quirks that may afflict a human being in a state of deprivation, but Penthea is so generally exalted in the play that this seems unlikely. While Penthea, however, is thus morbidly faithful, Bassanes is jealous, and Penthea is ultimately driven to a state of mind in which she starves herself to death. Ithocles has long repented his arrangement of his sister's marriage, and recognizes the wrong he has done to her and Orgilus. Penthea forgives him, and pleads on his behalf to Calantha, the Princess of Sparta, whom he loves. Orgilus respects Ithocles, but cannot allow him to escape unpunished. In the presence of Penthea's dead body, he kills Ithocles, admiring his fortitude and being ready himself to die for what he has done. At Calantha's order he gives himself to death, with resolution, no thought of a compensating heaven, no remorse:

Org. I feel no palsies.
On a pair-royal do I wait in death;
My sovereign, as his liegeman; on my mistress,
As a devoted servant; and on Ithocles,
As if no brave, yet no unworthy enemy:
Nor did I use an engine to entrap
His life, out of a slavish fear to combat
Youth, strength, or cunning; but for that I durst not
Engage the goodness of a cause on fortune,
By which his name might have outfac'd my
O, Tecnicus, inspir'd with Phoebus' fire!
I call to mind thy augury, 'twas perfect;
Revenge proves its own executioner.
When feeble man is bending to his mother,
The dust he was first fram'd on, thus he totters.
Bass. Life's fountain is dried up.
Org. SO falls the
Of my prerogative in being a creature!
A mist hangs o'er mine eyes, the sun's bright
Is clouded in an everlasting shadow;
Welcome, thou ice, that sitt'st about my heart,
No heat can ever thaw thee.
Near. Speech hath left him.
Bass. He has shook hands with time.
(V, ii.)

Calantha, too, as we saw earlier, goes to her death with dignity as well as with a broken heart.

If we were to seek for the beginning of the series of disasters that the play exhibits, we should find it in Ithocles' arranging of his sister's marriage to Bassanes. But that seems irrelevant to the play's effect. There is hardly a character here that does not demand our sympathy: Ithocles, truly repentant of the wrong he has done his sister; Penthea, suffering from Bassanes' jealousy and from her reciprocated love for Orgilus; Orgilus, with malice towards none but with a sense of compulsion to kill Ithocles for his responsibility for Penthea's death; Bassanes, absurdly, pathologically jealous, but pathetically so, and at the end of the play rousing his strength so that jealousy may be overcome, sorrow endured, and respects rightly paid; Calantha, ever the Princess yet a woman in love with Ithocles and a devoted subject of death when her lover has entered its dominion. These characters win our sympathy, not for what they do, but for their readiness to suffer their fate with a measure of dignity. It is not surprising, there-fore, that the dialogue of the play is full of references to fate. Tecnicus, the tutor of Orgilus, thus teaches resignation to his pupil:

Tempt not the stars; young man, thou canst not play With the severity of fate.

(I, iii.)

So Prophilus, the lover of Orgilus's sister, says: 'Fate instructs me' (I, ii), and Calantha is described as 'cross'd by fate' (IV, iii). Ithocles thus submits himself:

Leave to the powers
Above us the effects of their decrees;
My burthen lies within me: servile fears
Prevent no great effects.
(IV, i.)

And Nearchus, the Prince of Argos who succeeds to the kingship of Sparta on Calantha's death, asserts man's ignorance of heaven's decree:

The counsels of the gods are never known
Till men can call th' effects of them their own.
(V, iii.)

This contrast between the ordaining gods and their puppets men is expressed too by Orgilus:

Creeps on the dung of earth, and cannot reach
The riddles which are purpos'd by the gods.
(I, iii.)

And by Tecnicus when he says:

But let the gods be moderators still;
No human power can prevent their will.
(III, i.)

In Jacobean tragedy there was a simple opposition implied between the vigour and daring of human beings and the fixed character of divine decree. Here the characters are not vigorous: certainly Ithocles has been the successful commander of an army, and Orgilus has the degree of resolution requisite for the killing of his friend, but it is not their daring but their courtly dignity that makes itself most apparent to us. Penthea, Ithocles, Orgilus, Calantha do not protest against the manner or the early coming of their deaths. They are far more preoccupied with the need to go out well. Ithocles dreams of a heaven awaiting him:

Thoughts of ambition, or delicious banquet
With beauty, youth, and love, together perish
In my last breath, which on the sacred altar
Of a long-look'd-for peace—now—moves—to
(IV, iv.)

But the other characters have their minds elsewhere, on love and deprivation and the need to leave a kingdom in good order, a sovereign's name in good repair. Perhaps Ford considered that Ithocles, sympathetic character as he was, had done most wrong in frustrating the love of Penthea and Orgilus: consequently he needed a thought of heaven to make quiet the anguish of his remorse, while the others, even the murderer Orgilus, could go into darkness with only a need for 'resolution'. With all, however, there is a sense that they are most supremely themselves in the moment of death, that this moment definitively marks their characters, makes them proof against mutability.

As usually with Ford, there are clumsinesses in the contrivance of the action. He seems to forget details that he had at first meant to seem important. Thus in I, iii, Orgilus is disguised, and his sister Euphranea and her lover Prophilus plan to use him as a means of writing to each other. This is ironic, for Orgilus is jealously opposed to the match. But the whole device is quickly forgotten and Orgilus abandons his disguise and returns to court. So in IV, iii, Ithocles tells Orgilus of his still hopeless love for Calantha, though the King's consent to the marriage had been made public shortly before. And, though the effect in V, ii, is admirable, when a series of messengers brings to the dancing Calantha the news that her father and Penthea and Ithocles are dead, we may well feel incredulous that she should be informed in this stylized way: the dramatic method employed in the scene does not quite cohere with the general manner of the play. As ever, we feel that Ford is not to be bothered with matters of detail. There are, of course, other things that stand in a modern reader's way when he would enter sympathetically into the world of The Broken Heart. He may find Penthea morbid in her cult of virginity, when she will not consider offering to Orgilus the blown flower of her widowhood, and he may resent the snobbishness of Calantha as, at the moment of her death, she contrasts herself to 'mere women' who may outlive their sorrows. It is even possible that Ford's preoccupation with sexual love may seem too exclusive.

Nevertheless, the play presents an imaginable world consistently peopled, and its inhabitants speak in fittingly noble accents. And our admiration for them is made sharper because we feel that some effort has gone into the act of imagining. Ford is not at every moment sure that this aristocratic world is wholly firm or admirable: he makes Orgilus protest against the King's arbitrary order for the marriage of Euphranea and Prophilus; he makes Ithocles behave churlishly to the Prince of Argos when he thinks that Calantha will accept the Prince's alliance; and the near-madness of the jealous Bassanes, the suspicion of incest that comes to him, and the over-possessive attitude of Orgilus to his sister, are forces that could disrupt this well-conducted school of suffering. So, in imagining the 'Sparta' that is this play's nominal scene, Ford is expressing a wish for a proud and yet affectionate courtliness which he cannot fully credit. It is this hint of an ultimate uncertainty, a fragility in the structure of his palace of art, that makes us doubtful of Professor Ellis-Fermor's view of his plays [in The Jacobean Drama]: she sees Ford as approaching suffering and abnormality 'with a grave and unfaltering faith in the ultimate prevalence of underlying virtue in the universe of mind', and in his plays, she suggests, 'we assist… at the conversion of the seven deadly sins, not at their overthrow'. It would certainly be difficult to see this as true of 'Tis Pity, where Giovanni's defiance and guilt remain with him to the end. And in The Broken Heart the assertion of human nobility has the hint of precariousness that strengthens our aspiration, that makes us strive towards belief. For the dream, however nearly at times the poet comes to the point of waking, is superbly managed. It is not 'life' as we know it: yet it is an aspiration that we certainly know, a condition in which human beings might behave as Ithocles and Calantha and Penthea do. It is, if one likes to phrase it so, a kind of sainthood that the poet here formulates and loves. And the saints have respect and affection for one another. Ithocles mourns for the loss of Penthea's happiness and worships her in her death; Orgilus kills Ithocles with words of deep admiration on his lips; Calantha condemns Orgilus to death, but, though he has killed her love, with a tender sorrow; Bassanes, recovered at last from his fears of cuckoldom, pays a deep respect to his wife, her brother, her lover and the Princess Calantha who dies last of all. Bassanes, indeed, was earlier in the play so full of jealous anger that, as we have seen, he sounded a dangerous note in the quiet sadness of this dramatic world. But at its end he too is quiet, he has come over to the quietisi ideal: he has learned the dignity of not coveting, of being ready to lose all, of a nobleness which is self-conscious and ultimately sufficient.

It is natural that to-day these figures should associate themselves in our minds with the joint protagonists of Villiers de l'lsle-Adam's Axël. … But Axël and Sara not only challenge the worlds from which they have come but of their own will choose to give up a life that is beneath their regard: 'Vivre? les serviteurs feront cela pour nous.' It is this challenge and this contempt for mere being that differentiate them from Ford's characters. Penthea and Orgilus, Calantha and Ithocles, do not revolt against their Sparta and its ways, they do not seek destruction: they merely and grandly submit when nature or the law or emotional exhaustion demands their ending. As symbols they have not the power to startle that belongs securely to Axël and Sara. It is in a gentler fashion that they make their claims on us; it is a more orthodox cosmology that they inhabit; it is, ultimately, a less 'romantic' impulse that has gone to their making.

To-day we could not expect The Broken Heart to be a popular tragedy. We have to make an effort of the historical imagination to come to terms with it. Yet, when we have done so, we not merely understand more of the special nature of English drama in Charles I's reign: we are more deeply aware of a special kind of human aspiration, the desire not merely to 'get on', to win applause for achievement, to satisfy one's sensual or other material longings, but to accept the inevitable with calm and authority. And that, after all, is not the most contemptible of aspirations.

In Perkin Warbeck Ford turns from the nobility to an impostor. Professor Lawrence Babb has pointed out [in 'Abnormal Psychology in John Ford's Perkin Warbeck', Modern Language Notes, li (April 1936), 234-7] that, although the chroniclers presented him 'as an impudent rascal who is under no illusions regarding his base origin', Ford never questions his sincerity. In the play he is a melancholic who has come to believe in his own royalty. To us his pretensions are exposed by means of the tag-rag company who are his only persistent followers, and through the blunt scepticism of the Earl of Huntley. But it was doubtless Warbeck's final refusal to come to terms with Henry, knowing that his refusal meant death, that attracted Ford to his story. Warbeck becomes a Fordian aristocrat, dignified by his own steadfastness in delusion. Moreover, though Professor Babb's diagnosis compels itself on us through Warbeck's dramatic situation, Ford never exposes him to the pity which we may give to the sick. That he speaks like one sure of himself, not like one deranged, has made Professor Davril refuse to see him as afflicted, and we may say that Ford has here achieved probability in character and action by a most discreet employment of the knowledge he derived from Burton. To act as he does, Warbeck must be afflicted, yet nothing in his own words or in the attitude of the other characters confirms this necessary view of his condition. For a time he can win the support of the King of Scotland, and more abidingly the love of Lady Katherine Gordon. Indeed Ford departs from his sources when he tells us that Katherine will 'die a faithful widow', over-looking her historically subsequent marriages in order to make her a more zealously Fordian heroine and to make of Warbeck a man more clearly distinguished in the love he could inspire.

The play is very different from the chronicle histories of thirty or forty years earlier. Here we have little in the way of fighting or pageantry. The interest is on Warbeck and Lady Katherine and her true, respectful lover Lord Dalyell, and to some extent on Henry VII, a man crafty in the political struggle yet truly perturbed by the malignancy of those about him. When, at the beginning of the play, Henry is told that his friend Sir William Stanley is plotting against him, the King's grief is extreme. He has not the controlled indignation that Shakespeare made Henry V show at Southampton: he is wounded deeply, and laments the loss of a good man. Certainly Ford remembers the earlier histories a little, and perhaps because of that he makes reference to kingship's divinity:

But kings are earthly gods, there is no meddling
With their anointed bodies; for their actions
They only are accountable to heaven.
(III, ii.)

Warbeck, ever secure in his own delusion, makes a similar assertion:

                       Herein stand the odds,

Subjects are men on earth, kings men and gods.
(IV, v.)

But what emerges as of most importance here is not kingly birth or position but the belief, however won, in one's own aristocracy, in the unwavering acceptance of the role of greatness. In this play modern readers may feel that Ford's notion of aristocracy has been modified. Perhaps indeed it has, yet it is still based on a qualitative discrimination between high and low. Warbeck, in aspiring to recognition as a king, has assumed and accepted the responsibilities that belong to the high: it is to his honour that his conduct befits his claim, but it is the aspiration to high rank that brings a chance of distinction to him. Early in the play Sir Robert Clifford has betrayed Sir William Stanley's share in a plot against the King: Stanley asks to see Clifford before he dies: when he comes, Stanley marks his cheeks with a cross, as a badge of infamy:

I wet upon your cheeks a holy sign,—
The cross, the Christian's badge, the traitor's infamy:
Wear, Clifford, to thy grave this painted emblem;
Water shall never wash it off; all eyes
That gaze upon thy face shall read there written
A state-informer's character; more ugly
Stamp'd on a noble name than on a base.
(II, ii.)

The aristocratic touch is obvious enough here: the informer's mark is 'more ugly Stamp'd on a noble name than on a base': Sir Robert Clifford, playing the political opportunist, has betrayed the rank in which he was born. This play is not about a struggle for power, as for the most part the histories of the 1590s had been. It is, like The Broken Heart and to some extent Love's Sacrifice, a demonstration of how nobility can be rightly worn. Thus Warbeck's disreputable companions, though their comedy is ineptly written, have a dramatic function in their contrast to their leader; and there is an occasional hint of a contrast between the capable and crafty king, Henry VII, and the noble and unpractical impostor, Warbeck.

The play is as full of references to fate as the other tragedies of Ford, and once again we are made more fully aware of human powers as their limitations are exposed. Frion, Warbeck's secretary and the only man of intelligence among his followers, sees that the issue of the strife with King Henry is determined in advance:

yet our tide
Runs smoothly, without adverse winds: run on!
Flow to a full sea! time alone debates
Quarrels forewritten in the book of fates.
(II, iii.)

So Katherine exhorts her husband to accept whatever is bound to come:

What our destinies
Have rul'd-out in their books we must not search,
But kneel to.
(III, ii.)

But Warbeck needs little urging to this, as he proclaims his readiness to follow the line of event that he does not claim to control:

Be men, my friends, and let our cousin-king
See how we follow fate as willingly
As malice follows us.
(IV, iii.)

When disaster comes, Katherine can find a value in the immutability of fate, which can test her ability to meet it:

It is decreed; and we must yield to fate,
Whose angry justice, though it threaten ruin,
Contempt, and poverty, is all but trial
Of a weak woman's constancy in suffering.
(V, i.)

Here Ford is close to Webster, whose choric character Delio in The Duchess of Malfi exclaims:

Though in our miseries Fortune have a part,
Yet in our noble suff rings she hath none.
Contempt of pain, that we may call our own.
(V, iii.)

But neither in Perkin Warbeck nor in his other tragedies does Ford give us the impression that his characters are stretched and tormented as Webster's are. Rather, it is of the nature of Ford's elect that they endure their trials (which are poignant but never savage) with a calm readiness. Webster's, on the other hand, have no natural inclination to passivity: they are full of passion and initiative, achieving a final acceptance at the cost of a supreme effort, and the brutality of their sufferings frequently appals us. While, moreover, there is a hint of strain in Ford's imagining of Calantha and her court, there is a touch of the facile in his presentation of Warbeck's resolution. This perhaps makes Perkin Warbeck a lesser play than The Broken Heart, just as Ford's work as a whole has not the broad humanity and unchecked vision that characterize the major plays of Webster.

It is probable that Perkin Warbeck was Ford's last tragedy. Certainly it was his most difficult dramatic task, to enrol among his personal aristocracy the impostor of low birth, followed by a rout of the greedy, the craven and the base. Though the play lacks the intensity and the hint of subtlety that can be found in The Broken Heart, it is in some ways the work that leads us most easily to an under-standing of Ford's characteristic attitude. Its difference from Shakespeare's histories is due partly to the development of the 'private' theatre in the years following Shakespeare's retirement, and partly to the general change in the seventeenth-century dramatic temper. But the difference arises also from a special peculiarity of Ford. His was a simpler dramatic world than Shakespeare's, a simpler attitude to human conduct. Shakespeare found his examples of tragic greatness in a murderer like Macbeth, a great-hearted child like Othello, a man who loved, as Lear did, both ease and ceremony: he saw their imperfections along with their greatness: he saw, in a sense, the justice of each man's fate, and also its dreadful lack of mercy. In Shakespeare's tragedy, as we have seen, there is something of protest, something of regret. For Ford there is no protestation to be made: the march of events is of course irresistible, it is not to be regretted: the characters who win his praise are those who do not attempt resistance but step grandly on to the scaffold. In 'Tis Pity he could be in two minds about Giovanni. He is not in two minds about Bianca or Calantha or Warbeck or the other leading characters of these plays: they are all securely among his 'elect'. If he ever doubts the possible existence of Calantha and her court, he never allows their inherent goodness to be sharply questioned. If indeed there is ever a latent uncertainty in his view of this, it is something that the characters themselves do not share. I have already spoken of his simplicity of language. It is a telling simplicity that fits the characters' assurance. Because they are confident of their values, as Shakespeare's often were not, they can go to their deaths with an aristocratic lack of dread. If the end comes quickly or gently, it is their last but not their gravest trial. So Orgilus shakes hands with time, so Warbeck dismisses the small fact of his ending:

Death? pish, 'tis but a sound; a name of air;
A minute's storm, or not so much: to tumble
From bed to bed, be massacred alive
By some physicians, for a month or two,
In hope of freedom from a fever's torments,
Might stagger manhood; here the pain is past
Ere sensibly 'tis felt.
(V, iii.)

Ford's general indifference to event and process lead to an effect of dislocation in his work. The writers of the first rank can convince us on every level: in them, the movement of the current of time, the interpolated moment of stillness, and the totality within which the movement and the stillness are subsumed, have a like validity, and we can appreciate King Lear, for example, on any level of consciousness. But in Ford we must be dissatisfied with the surface-effect. We must look beyond it—though to do so involves an effort. If that can be managed, we may get from these three of his tragedies a kind of experience similar to that offered to us by Dostoievsky in The Devils, where events tumble haphazardly from life's sleeve, but where uniform principles of being and virtue are strenuously affirmed. Ford's seems a small talent when we mention it along with Dostoievsky's, but these men are alike in the kind of barrier that separates them from the casual reader and in their power to suggest the insignificance of event.

R. J. Kaufmann (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Ford's Tragic Perspective," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. I, Winter, 1960, pp. 522-37.

[In the essay below, Kaufmann identifies jealousy as a tragic motif in The Queene, Love's Sacrifice, and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, commenting on how this theme manifests itself through the devices of misalliance, the "psychology of vows, " and counterfeiting.]


Ford has not been altogether fortunate in his critics. They have been attentive, but perhaps Ford, like children, would have fared the better for a little healthy neglect. His reputation has been refracted into a grotesque pattern of distorted and partial images, largely, one supposes, because there is much distracting foreign matter in his canon, many invitations to irrelevancy in his historical position. As the last of the great Elizabethan tragic writers on the one hand and as the somewhat bookish exploiter of these great predecessors' visions on the other, he is set either too high or too low by standards quite external to his manifest performance. It is time we accord Ford his proper status as a minor classic writer on the scale of Emily Brontë, E. M. Forster, Hawthorne, and Scott Fitzgerald—writers typically obsessive in theme, deeply constrained personally, and nervously unresponsive to all save their main concerns. Such writers share in consequence a tendency to self-parody which is the underside of their splendid local intensities. The critic of great minor writing is obliged to enjoin his readers to observe decorum, not to ask too much of these writers, lest in so doing they miss the exquisite psychological disclosures which are the hallmark of such art.

It is one's initial sensitivity to the obsessive quality of Ford's art which provokes resistance to T. S. Eliot's accusation that Ford's plays are marred by "the absence of purpose" and that, more particularly, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore "may be called meaningless" since the "characters of the greatest intensity" are not seriously related to "an action or a struggle for harmony in the soul of the poet" [Essays in Elizabethan Drama, 1956]. In this essay I am attempting to show the insufficiency of this judgment. Ford struggles purposively with humanity's genius for self-deprivation, with its puzzling aspiration to be the architect of its own unhappiness. He does this with the kind of persistence that argues "an action of the soul."

Recent years have been fruitful in the kind of cruel experience which makes Ford's anxious world imaginatively accessible—specifically, our acquaintance with the plays of the modern French theater has taught us to read him better. The sophisticated fairy tales of Anouilh, the geometry of neat but not portentous spiritual encounter in Giraudoux, the studies in the lonely and gifted man's search for a sufficient identity as we find it in Sartre's Flies and Camus' Caligula—all variously can instruct us in the tonal qualities and special intellectual mode of Ford's plays. Ford, too, is the type of intellectual who is humanly restive under the tyranny of mind and yet artistically dependent upon its more rigid formulations. Hence the neatly logical surface and the sense of inchoate emotion in these plays. All such playwrights share an insight into the self-defining quality of individual human action. If the root of existential thought is the conviction that each man "makes himself through a qualifying series of choices, then Ford is as surely and as interestingly an existentialist as Sartre.

But there is, I think, a more direct route to the analysis of Ford's tragic perspective.

In this essay I fol

(The entire section is 30497 words.)

'Tis Pity She's A Whore

(Drama Criticism)



Alastair Macaulay (review date 8 May 1992)

SOURCE: Review of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, in Financial Times, 8 May 1992, p. 15.

[In the review below, Macaulay questions the viability of David Leveaux's interpretation of Giovanni and Annabella's incestuous relationship in his 1992 staging of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at London's Pit Theatre.]

The strange thing about David Leveaux's staging of 'Tis Pity for the Royal Shakespeare Company is that the central brother and sister are played as the least polished people in this Italian...

(The entire section is 21762 words.)

The Broken Heart

(Drama Criticism)


Nicholas de Jongh (review date 6 June 1995)

SOURCE: Review of The Broken Heart, in Evening Standard, 6 June 1995. Reprinted in Theatre Record, Vol. XV, No. 12, 10 July 1995, p. 736.

[In the review below, De Jongh applauds Michael Boyd's 1995 staging of The Broken Heart at London's Barbican Theatre as "a spectacular but truthful performance, brimming with sardonic humour and emotional dynamism. "]

Three hundred and sixty-two years after its London premiere, John Ford's revenge drama of arranged marriages and refined cruelty, with women at the mercy of male power, still speaks with...

(The entire section is 12675 words.)

Perkin Warbeck

(Drama Criticism)

Donald K. Anderson, Jr. (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Kingship in Ford's Perkin Warbeck, in ELH, Vol. 27, No. 3, September, 1960, pp. 177-93.

[In the essay below, Anderson examines the theme of kingship in Perkin Warbeck, particularly focusing on the political interplay between Warbeck, Henry VII, and James IV.]

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...

(The entire section is 11732 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Davril, R., "Shakespeare and Ford." Shakespeare Jahrbuch 94 (1958): 121-31.

Argues that while many themes and devices in Ford's plays parallel those of Shakespeare, Ford succeeded in creating a distinct oeuvre containing substantial lyrical and psychological qualities.

Farr, Dorothy M. John Ford and the Caroline Theatre. London: The Macmillan Press, 1979, 184 p.

Examines Ford's plays in relation to the tastes and sensibilities of Caroline playgoers.

Hopkins, Lisa. John Ford's Political Theatre. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994, 196 p.


(The entire section is 664 words.)