John Ford 1586?-1640?
English playwright, poet, and pamphlet writer.
Producing most of his dramas in the early Caroline period, Ford is something of a literary anachronism. His mentors and early collaborators included such renowned Jacobean playwrights as John Fletcher, Thomas Dekker, and John Webster, all of whom were profoundly influenced by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Even as other Caroline dramatists were turning away from worn-out Elizabethan dramatic techniques in an effort to attract audiences to their theaters, Ford strove to resuscitate that aging tradition through a combination of skill as a tragic dramatist and through the theatrical representation of taboo themes and shocking violence. Through the centuries, literary scholars have fiercely debated the issue of Ford's interest in such sensational subjects. While many have argued that Ford willingly appealed to the increasingly decadent tastes of Caroline audiences, others have maintained that the playwright's use of the medium of tragedy suggests that there is an underlying didactic moral philosophy at work in his plays. Still others have asserted that Ford remains intentionally ambivalent about the morality of his tragic characters, instead transferring the responsibility of judging or sympathizing with his characters to the spectator.
Little is known about Ford's life and career. There is record that the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Ford was baptized on April 17, 1586. 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 one of the Inns of Court, the Middle Temple; 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 uninspired, his contributions to the London theater scene proved to hold more promise. During this time and throughout his career, Ford worked with the King's Majesties Servants, who were made famous by Shakespeare, and with Christopher Beeston's acting companies at Drury Lane; he also collaborated with Fletcher, Dekker, and Webster. Ford's dramatic career spanned from about 1612-13, when An Ill Beginning Has a Good End, attributed to Ford, was staged at London's Court Theater, until 1639, when The Lady's Trial, 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 non-dramatic works, 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 (1621), written by Ford, 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 (1628), probably Ford's first individual effort, he experiments with the theme of jealousy in the context of tragicomedy. Ford achieved a masterful depiction of this theme and its tragic consequences in two of his greatest dramas, first staged between 1630 and 1633: 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 (c. 1632-33). While the siblings' relationship in The Broken Heart is not as overtly incestuous as that in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, nevertheless there 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 comprise 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 relationship and the shocking theatrical effect of Giovanni taking stage in the final act 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 tragedy, Perkin Warbeck (c. 1633-34), as evidence that the dramatist ultimately matured beyond the decadence of his earlier dramas. In this play, Ford dramatizes the political conflict between 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 works 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. These commentators have generally separated into two critical camps: the first group believes that a skeptical Ford placed his dramatization of aberrant sexual behavior and shocking blood spectacle within the tragic model as a didactic tool to instruct his audience about the dire consequences of such degenerate behavior; the other group proposes that Ford intentionally displays an ambivalent attitude toward an ethical conflict between traditional Christian morality and progressive early seventeenth-century theories about scientific physiology and extreme individualism. From an aesthetic standpoint, critics have generally commended Ford for his brilliant depiction of intensely passionate tragic emotion in his plays, arguing that this achievement holds the audience in suspense where his low comedy and characterization often fail. In the words of Adolphus William Ward: “The intensity of [Ford's] imagination enables him to reproduce situations of the most harrowing kind, and to reveal, with a vividness and suddenness wholly peculiar to himself, the depths of passion, sorrow, and despair which lie hidden in the hearts of men and women.”