John Ford Ford, John (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Fames Memoriall, 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

An Ill Beginning Has a Good End [attributed to Ford] (play) 1612-13

Christes Bloodie Sweat. Or the Sonne of God in His Agonie [attributed to Ford] (poetry) 1613

The Golden Meane [attributed to Ford] (prose pamphlet) 1613

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

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

The Bristow Merchant [with Dekker] (play) 1624

The Fairy Knight [with Dekker] (play) 1624

The Late Murder of the Son upon the Mother [with Dekker, Rowley, and John Webster] (play) 1624

The Sun's Darling [with Dekker] (play) 1624

The Lover's Melancholy (play) 1628

Beauty in a Trance (play) 1630

The Broken Heart (play) c. 1630-33

'Tis Pity She's a Whore (play) c. 1630-33

Love's Sacrifice (play) c. 1632-33

Perkin Warbeck (play) c. 1633-34

The Fancies Chaste and Noble (play) c. 1635-36

The Lady's Trial (play) 1638

The Queen, or The Excellency of Her Sex (play) 1653

John Ford (essay date 1634)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ford, John. “Prologue to Perkin Warbeck.” In The Dramatic Works of John Ford, Vol. II, edited by W. Gifford, p. 1. London: John Murray, 1831.

[In the following prologue to Perkin Warbeck, first published in 1634, Ford states his reasons for attempting to revive the unfashionable history play genre.]

Studies have, of this nature, been of late,
So out of fashion, so unfollowed, that
It is become more justice, to revive
The antic follies of the times, than strive
To countenance wise industry: no want
Of art doth render wit, or lame, or scant,
Or slothful, in the purchase of fresh bays;
But want of truth in them, who give the praise
To their...

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Samuel Pepys (essay date 1669)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. IX, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, p. 465. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1976.

[In the following diary entry dated March 3, 1669, Pepys recounts seeing The Lady's Trial, deeming it a “sorry play.”]

So to Unthankes and there took up my wife and carried her to the Duke of York's playhouse and there saw an old play, the first time acted these 40 years, called The Lady's tryall, acted only by the young people of the House, but the House very full. But it is but a sorry play, and the worse by how much my head is out of humour by being a little sleepy and my legs weary since last night....

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Gerard Langbaine (essay date 1691)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Langbaine, Gerard. “John Ford.” In An Account of the English Dramatick Poets, pp. 219-22. Oxford: George West and Henry Clements, 1691.

[In the following essay, Langbaine provides a brief overview of Ford's dramatic works, singling out for censure Ford's treatment of incest in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.]

A Gentleman of the Middle-Temple, who liv'd in the Reign of King Charles the First: Who was a Well-wisher to the Muses, and a Friend and Acquaintance of most of the Poets of his Time. He was not only a Partner with Rowly, and Decker in the Witch of Edmonton, … and with Decker, in The Sun's Darling, but writ...

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David Erskine Baker (essay date 1764)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Baker, David Erskine. Biographia Dramatica; Or, A Companion to the Playhouse Containing Historical and Critical Memoirs and Original Anecdotes of British and Irish Dramatic Writers, Vols. II and III, pp. 391-92 and p. 340. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1812.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1764, Baker comments on Ford's The Lover's Melancholy and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, noting that the former was warmly received when first acted while the subject matter of the latter is simply too shocking for audiences.]

[The Lover's Melancholy] is highly commended in four copies of verses by friends of the author; and he...

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Charles Lamb (essay date 1811)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lamb, Charles. “The Broken Heart.” In Charles Lamb's Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare, Vol. II, edited by Israel Gollancz, pp. 188-99. 1893. Reprint. London: J. M. Dent, 1970.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1811, Lamb rhapsodizes about Ford's profound ability to dramatize tragic passion in The Broken Heart.]

I do not know where to find in any Play a catastrophe so grand, so solemn, and so surprising as this [in The Broken Heart]. This is indeed, according to Milton, to “describe high passions and high actions.” The fortitude of the Spartan Boy who let a beast gnaw out...

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William Hazlitt (essay date 1820)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hazlitt, William. “Lecture IV.” In Lectures on the Literature of the Age of Elizabeth and Characters of Shakespear's Plays, pp. 107-43. London: Bell & Daldy, 1870.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1820, Hazlitt describes Ford's dramatic technique as artificial and lacking imagination, but notes that such deficiencies are often overlooked due to the sensational nature of his plays.]

Ford is not so great a favourite with me as with some others, from whose judgment I dissent with diffidence. It has been lamented that the play of his which has been most admired ('Tis Pity She's a Whore) had not a less exceptionable subject....

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James Russell Lowell (essay date 1845)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Lowell, James Russell. “Fourth Conversation.” In Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, pp. 112-242. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1845 and written as a fictional dialogue between the characters of Philip and John, Lowell acknowledges Ford as a talented playwright but not one of the first rank of English dramatists.]


Ford's dramatic abilities have, I think, been rated too highly. He has a great deal of tragic excitability and enthusiasm, and a good knowledge of stage-effect; but these are the predominant qualities of his nature. In the strong mind they are always...

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Adolphus William Ward (essay date 1875)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ward, Adolphus William. “John Ford.” In A History of English Dramatic Literature to the Death of Queen Anne, Vol. III, pp. 71-89. London: Macmillan, 1889.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1875, Ward praises the harrowing intensity of Ford's tragic figures, but contends that the tragic outcome in his plays is often insufficient in that it fails to give spectators catharsis.]

In Ford it needs but little power of judgment to discern an author who by the most striking features of his genius is entitled to an entirely distinct place among our most gifted dramatists. Some of his defects, indeed, he shares with others; but even here he may almost...

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Algernon Charles Swinburne (essay date 1875)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Swinburne, Algernon Charles. “John Ford.” In The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, Vol. XII, edited by Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise, pp. 371-406. London: William Heinemann, 1926.

[In the following essay, originally published in Essays and Studies in 1875, Swinburne recognizes Ford's distinctive dramatic style and characterizes him as a poet worth remembering.]

Whenever the name of the poet Ford comes back to us, it comes back splendid with the light of another man's genius. The fiery panegyric of Charles Lamb is as an aureole behind it. That high-pitched note of critical and spiritual enthusiasm exalts even to disturbance our own...

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Havelock Ellis (essay date 1888)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ellis, Havelock. Introduction to John Ford (Five Plays), pp. xi-xvi. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1888, Ellis maintains that while Ford was a master of dramatizing passionate emotions, the rest of his technique was careless and uninspired.]

Deep in a dump John Forde was alone got,
With folded arms and melancholy hat.

That vivid touch of portraiture is the one record that has come down to us concerning Ford. His shy and reserved temperament corresponds to his artistic position: he stands alone. Of himself he has nothing to tell us beyond one early and perhaps not over-serious allusion, in the...

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George Saintsbury (essay date 1902)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Saintsbury, George. “The Fourth Dramatic Period.” In A History of Elizabethan Literature, pp. 394-427. London: Macmillan, 1902.

[In the following essay, Saintsbury contends that while Ford demonstrated some poetic genius in his plays, nevertheless his characters are artificial and his low-comedy scenes are humorless.]

John Ford, like Fletcher and Beaumont, but unlike almost all others of his class, was a person not compelled by need to write tragedies,—comedies of any comic merit he could never have written, were they his neck verse at Hairibee. His father was a man of good family and position at Ilsington in Devon. His mother was of the well-known...

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M. Joan Sargeaunt (essay date 1935)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Sargeaunt, M. Joan. “The Setting of the Plays.” In John Ford, pp. 142-54. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966.

[In the following essay, first printed in 1935, Sargeaunt discusses the relationship between setting and the characters' emotions in Ford's plays.]

‘Shakespeare and his contemporaries,’ says Peacock, ‘… used time and locality merely because they could not do without them, because every action must have its when and where: but they made no scruple of deposing a Roman Emperor by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an English archer. This makes the old...

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G. F. Sensabaugh (essay date 1944)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Sensabaugh, G. F. “Fame and Confusion.” In The Tragic Muse of John Ford, pp. 1-12. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1944.

[In the following essay, Sensabaugh proposes that Ford can be viewed as a prophet of modern thought in that his dramas explore the nascent issues of scientific determinism and extreme individualism.]


John Ford stands in the eyes of competent critics as a poet of considerable stature. Commentary uniformly commends his solemn blank verse and his poetic power; editors include at least one of his plays in every important collection of Renaissance drama. Indeed, Charles Lamb places him in the “first...

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Clifford Leech (essay date 1957)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Leech, Clifford. “Ford and Jacobean Tragedy.” In John Ford and the Drama of His Time, pp. 41-64. London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.

[In the following essay, Leech discusses Ford's drama within the context of Jacobean tragedy, asserting that in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore Ford comes closest to recreating the Jacobean tragic spirit.]

If 'Tis Pity She's a Whore can be described as belonging with the Jacobean tragedies of Shakespeare, Chapman, Webster and Middleton, we must approach it by considering the attitude to the nature of things that underlies those plays. The attitude, of course, will vary to some extent from writer to writer, even from play...

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

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Anderson, Donald K. Jr. “Kingship in Ford's Perkin Warbeck.ELH, 27, No. 3 (September, 1960): 177-93.

[In the following essay, Anderson argues that Perkin Warbeck presents a lesson in kingship, where the character of Henry VII represents the ideal ruler.]

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 considerable is the playwright's attention to competent and incompetent...

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Robert Ornstein (essay date 1960)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ornstein, Robert. “John Ford.” In The Moral Vision of Jacobean Tragedy, pp. 200-21. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1960.

[In the following essay, Ornstein examines the moral design of Ford's major tragedies, arguing that they represent a flexible morality which is constantly shaped by the dynamic nature of human relationships.]

Of the tragedies written between 1622 and the close of the theaters, only Ford's rank beside the masterpieces of the first decade. Blessed with the virtues of a constitutional monarch—sobriety, sincerity, and conventionality—Massinger had to be content in tragedy with unsubstantial regal gestures; he could not...

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Mark Stavig (essay date 1968)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Stavig, Mark. “'Tis Pity She's a Whore.” In John Ford and the Traditional Moral Order, pp. 95-121. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Stavig argues that Ford integrated a sophisticated satirical commentary on contemporary moral, ethical, and religious issues into the traditional moral design of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.]

After hearing a brief summary of the plot, a Caroline playgoer might expect 'Tis Pity She's a Whore to be a sensational melodrama with Giovanni portrayed as an all-black villain who outrageously violates all standards of decency. As an atheist, an incestuous lover, a revenger, and...

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Thelma N. Greenfield (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Greenfield, Thelma N. “The Language of Process in Ford's The Broken Heart.PMLA, 87, No. 3 (May, 1972): 397-405.

[In the following essay, Greenfield examines how Ford uses language in The Broken Heart to convey the process of feelings and actions that create a tragic chain of events.]

“Ford does not,” writes Mark Stavig, “simply rewrite the same play over and over again as so many of his contemporaries did. In each of the plays he attempts something a little different.”1 Although this observation is certainly accurate, Ford's plays bear such a distinctive atmosphere, his characters and style are so much his own, and his...

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Carol C. Rosen (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Rosen, Carol C. “The Language of Cruelty in Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.” In Drama in the Renaissance: Comparative and Critical Essays, edited by Clifford Davidson, C. J. Gianakaris, and John H. Stroupe, pp. 315-27. New York: AMS Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1974, Rosen discusses 'Tis Pity She's a Whore within the context of Antonin Artaud's application of the tragedy to his theory of the theater of cruelty, concluding that Artaud fails to recognize that there is a fundamental balance between the cruel language and the violent action in the play.]

Though Antonin Artaud has been popularly deified as the mad...

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David Atkinson (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Atkinson, David. “Moral Knowledge and the Double Action in The Witch of Edmonton.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 25, No. 2 (Spring, 1985): 419-37.

[In the following essay, Atkinson asserts that the theme of moral knowledge serves to unite the seemingly disconnected Mother Sawyer and Frank Thorney plots in The Witch of Edmonton.]

A familiar view of The Witch of Edmonton by Dekker, Ford, and Rowley is that the play was written hastily in order to cash in on the topicality of the witchcraft material and that little effort was made to integrate this with the Frank Thorney plot.1 A study which praises the main plot as...

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Verna Ann Foster and Stephen Foster (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Foster, Verna Ann, and Stephen Foster. “Structure and History in The Broken Heart: Sparta, England, and the ‘Truth.’” English Literary Renaissance, 18, No. 2 (Spring, 1988): 305-28.

[In the following essay, Foster and Foster argue that Ford intended to draw an historical and political analogy between mythological Sparta in The Broken Heart and Elizabethan England, concluding that such an interpretation assists in revealing the play's structure and tragic outcome.]

In preparation for her death, Calantha at the end of Ford's The Broken Heart disposes of her realms and her people. To her cousin and designated heir, Nearchus, prince of...

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Katsuhiko Nogami (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Nogami, Katsuhiko. “The Rationalization of Conflicts in John Ford's The Lady's Trial.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 32, No. 2, (Spring, 1992): 341-59.

[In the following essay, Nogami examines Ford's sophisticated use of dualities in The Lady's Trial to achieve unconventional dramatic effects.]

The assumption that John Ford, as a Renaissance playwright, was wholly bound by the dramatic conventions of his time was notably refuted by Robert Stanley Forsythe in his assiduous examination of the interrelationship among English Renaissance plays: “Ford creates a problem which he studies and analyzes during a play, without any regard...

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Lisa Hopkins (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Hopkins, Lisa. “Touching Touchets: Perkin Warbeck and the Buggery Statute.” Renaissance Quarterly, 52, No. 2 (Summer, 1999): 384-401.

[In the following essay, Hopkins maintains that Ford's Perkin Warbeck encodes a form of sexual deviancy that may be subtle to modern readers and spectators but would not have been lost upon Ford's audience and patrons.]

At first sight, The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck seems to be the only one of John Ford's plays that is not pointedly and openly concerned with sexual deviation. Both 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and The Broken Heart feature either actual incest or the fear of it. The...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Anderson, Jr., Donald K. “John Ford.” In The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists, edited by Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, pp. 120-51. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

In-depth bibliographical survey of Ford's life and works.

Tannenbaum, Samuel A. and Dorothy R. Tannenbaum. “John Ford.” In their Elizabethan Bibliographies, vol. II. 1941. Reprint. Port Washington, N. Y.: Kennikat Press, 1967.

Includes a brief introduction to Ford and a 26-page primary and secondary bibliography of his life and major works.



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