John Ford

Because of his disdain of the orthodox moral code of his time and his sympathetic treatment of forbidden love, John Ford is often regarded as the most modern of Elizabethan and Stuart dramatists. He was baptized at Ilsington in Devonshire, April 17, 1586, was probably the John Ford who entered Exeter College, Oxford, in March, 1601, and was certainly the John Ford who was admitted to the Middle Temple in November 1602. He first appeared in print with Fame's Memorial (1606), a long elegy on the death of the Earl of Devonshire, and he published other occasional pieces before he finally commited himself to a dramatic career. His first venture in dramatic work may well have been in the writing or revising of A Bad Beginning Makes a Good Ending, which was acted by the King's Men at court in 1612 or 1613, and which was one of the four unprinted plays of Ford that were destroyed by Warburton's cook. His career as a playwright definitely begins, however, in 1621, when he joined with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley in the composition of The Witch of Edmonton. He collaborated with Dekker in several other plays and with Webster in at least one. After about 1624, however, he seems to have worked alone, and his reputation rests chiefly upon his three unaided tragedies of forbidden love, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, The Broken Heart, and Love's Sacrifice.

On April 19, 1621, Elizabeth Sawyer, who was later to assume the title role in The Witch of Edmonton, was executed for witchcraft. On April 27, Henry Goodcole's Wonderful Discovery of E. Sawyer, a Witch was entered in the Stationer's Register, and was published later the same year. From this work the authors drew materials for The Witch of Edmonton, which was acted December 29, 1621, at Whitehall by the Prince's Servants. Studies of the proportionate shares of the three collaborators in the play have not led to agreement beyond a few general conclusions (see M.L. Hunt's Thomas Dekker, F.E. Pierce in Anglia XXXVI, and H. Dugdale Sykes in N. & Q., December 18, 1926). Rowley's share in the play seems to be indeterminable, but is probably slight, being confined chiefly to those scenes in which Cuddy Banks appears. To Dekker may be assigned the witch scenes, the greater share in the character of Susan, and a considerable part in the prose passages. According to Sykes and others, Ford is responsible for the greater part of the play--it's main structure; the characters of Sir Arthur Clarington, Frank Thorney, and Winnifride; and some part in the character of Susan and in the prose passages, especially those dealing with Old Carter and his household.

The Broken Heart, printed in 1633, was probably written not long before its entry in the Stationer's Registry, March 28 of that year. No literary source for the play has been discovered, but, in view of ll. 15-16 of the prologue and the arguments of Stuart Pratt Sherman (PMLA, 1909, and the introduction to his edition in the Belles-Lettres Series), it appears to have been based upon the experience of Sir Philip Sidney, Penelope Devereux, and Lord Rich, the triangle celebrated in Sidney's Astrophel and Stella. "In The Broken Heart," Sherman says, "Ford throws down the gauntlet to orthodox morality by placing a thoroughly pure woman in a genuine moral dilemma ... By establishing the tragic conflict of Penthea in her own spirit, he makes of her a distinctly modern type of heroine."

In The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck, entered in the Stationer's Register February 24, 1634, and published the same year, Ford turned aside from his interest in romantic love to produce a type of play which, as he seems to suggest in his prologue, had been neglected for a generation. He derived the materials for the play from Bacon's History of the Reign of Henry the Seventh (1622) and Thomas Gainsford's True and Wonderful History of Perkin Warbeck (1618), and apparently chose the Shakespearean chronicle play as his model. His plot, however, is simpler than Shakespeare's, and the play as a whole, though rapid in movement, lacks intensity and variety. Nevertheless, it fills a gap among Shakespeare's chronicle plays, and it has often received high praise as a play not unworthy to rank among the few plays of the kind that deserve distant comparison with those of the master dramatist.

†This article was originally published in Elizabethan and Stuart Plays Ed. Charles Read Baskervill. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1934. 1443-44.

Ford's Plays  |  Biographies/Studies


Ford's Plays


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British Theatre

John Ford: Poems

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