Historical Context

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

When Ford's drama is read, there is frequently the suspicion that the playwright is exaggerating, that no society could be as unstable and corrupt as that of the Parma he depicts. While parts of the play— particularly Annabella's death at the end—seem extravagant (and, as some critics might say, "baroque"), the historical moment which produced Ford's dramas was a contentious one. To better understand the reign of King Charles I, who ruled when Ford wrote his "Caroline" dramas, a history of England's earlier kings is necessary.

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When Henry VII died in 1509, he left England on relatively sound financial footing, but his son Henry VIII through expensive foreign wars and uninhibited personal spending, began the dangerous trend of running a deficit. The question arose as to who would pay off the deficit. Those paying the increased taxation soon wanted more say in how the king spent their money. By the seventeenth century, a split developed between the king and elements of the landed classes—the land owners represented in Parliament—that, during the reign of King Charles I, resulted in civil war in 1642 and the king's beheading in 1649.

During this tempestuous period, when people discussed political theory, it frequently took the form of a debate between Royalism and Republicanism. The Royalists believed in monarchical absolutism (the absolute power of the king), while Republicans, influenced by the relatively democratic examples of classical Athens and contemporary Italian city states like Florence, Sienna, and Venice, argued for a balance of power between the executive branch—the king—and the legislature—the Parliament—in a form of representative democracy. Interest in Italy in part accounts for Ford's setting the play in Parma.

Religion complicated these economic and political considerations. In 1517, Martin Luther's "Wittenberg Theses" began the Protestant Reformation which lead to breaks with the Catholic Church. In 1534, Henry VIII himself broke with Rome (the seat of the Catholic Church), primarily because of the Pope's failure to annul the king's childless marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In the 1534 Act of Supremacy, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the English Church. Religion remained a divisive issue, though, as Henry's son Edward VI continued England's move toward Protestantism, a trend violently reversed after his death by the Catholic Queen "Bloody" Mary.

In 1558, Queen Elizabeth took the throne, steering a militantly centrist path between English Catholics and traditional "High Church" Anglicans on one hand, and reformist "low church" Dissenters and Puritans on the other. While all these religious issues seem complicated, they help explain Ford's negative representations of the Catholic Friar and Cardinal. It also helps explain why within the play, religion itself—about which different people may hold different beliefs—fails to offer any absolute standard of ethical conduct.

Ford himself was born in 1586, one year before Protestant Elizabeth's execution of Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and two years before Protestant England's invasion by Catholic Spain's Armada. In 1601, when Ford was just fifteen, the rebels involved in Essex's rebellion against Elizabeth captured one of Ford's relatives. After the queen's death and the coronation of James I in 1603, Ford and his fellow law students would have followed the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh. This grossly unfair proceeding, actually a referendum on Raleigh's belligerent aggression toward Catholic Spain in the New World, ended with his execution in 1618. In 1605, Catholic conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot attempted to blow up the king and Parliament.

Decker Roper provided another example in which the history of the moment is not much stranger than the fiction of Ford's...

(The entire section contains 1921 words.)

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