1902 Encyclopedia > John Ford

John Ford
English dramatist
(1586 - c. 1640)

JOHN FORD, (1586-C. 1640), one of the most noteworthy writers of the English old drama in the period of its first decline, was born in 1586 at Ilsington in North Devon. He came of a good family; his father was in the commis-sion of the peace, and his maternal grandfather, Sir John Popham, was successively attorney-general and lord chief justice. John Ford, like his cousin and namesake (to whom, with other members of the society of Gray's Inn, he dedicated his play of The Lover's Melancholy), entered the profession of the law, being admitted of the Middle Temple in 1602 ; but he seems never to have been called to the bar. Four years afterwards he made his first appear-ance as an author with an elegiac effusion called Fame's Memorial, or the Earl of Devonshire deceased, and dedicated to the widow of the earl (Charles Blount Lord Mountjoy, " coronized," to use Ford's expression, by King James in 1603 for his services in Ireland, which the elegy celebrates) —-a lady who would have been no unfitting heroine for one of Ford's tragedies of lawless passion, the famous Penelope formerly Lady Bich. This panegyric, which is accom-panied by a series of epitaphs, and is composed in a strain of fearless extravagance, was, as the author declares, writ-ten "unfee'd"; it shows Ford to have sympathized, as Shakespeare himself is supposed to have done, with the " awkward fate" of the countess's brother, the earl of Essex. Who the " flint-hearted Lycia" may be, to whom the poet seems to allude as his own disdainful mistress, is unknown; indeed, the record of Ford's private life is, like that of the lives of so many of our old dramatists, little better than a blank. To judge, however, from the dedications, prologues, and epilogues of his various plays, he seems to have en-joyed the patronage or goodwill of several men of rank-— among them the excellent earl (afterwards duke) of New-castle, " himself a muse " after a fashion, and the gallant Lord Craven, supposed to have been the husband of the ex-queen of Bohemia. Ford's tract of Honor Triumphant, or the Peeres Challenge (printed 1606), and the simultaneously published verses The Monarches Meeting, or the King of Denmarkes welcome into England, exhibit him as an occa-sional contributor to the festive demands of court and nobility; and a kind of moral essay by him, entitled A Line of Life (printed 1620), which contains a few not un-interesting references to Raleigh, ends with a climax of praise to the address of " a good man, of whom it may be verified that he is bonorum maximus and magnorum optimus"-—viz., King James I. Yet it may be noted in passing that one of Ford's plays contains an implied pro-test against the absolute system of government which usually found ready acceptance with the dramatists of the early Stuart reigns. Of our poet's relations with his brother-authors little is known; it was natural that he should exchange complimentary verses with Shirley, a more various though less intense dramatic poet of his own age and school, and that he should join in the chorus of laments with which the poets of the time mourned the decease of their acknowledged veteran chief, Ben Jonson. It is more interesting to notice an epigram in honour of the author of Love's Sacrifice and The Broken Heart by a poet of a very different kind, but in whose genius it is not paradoxical to assert that there were points of contact with Ford's—Richard Crashaw, morbidly passionate in one direc-tion as Ford was in another. Towards the public Ford seems, by reason either of his social position or of his per-sonal character, to have assumed an attitude of independ-ence ; but for an assailant of the theatre, such as the author of Histriomastix, he displays, like his friend Shirley, a dramatist's inevitable scorn.

It has been concluded, from evidence of a rather vague description, that in the latter part of his life he gratified the tendency to seclusion for which he has been thought to be ridiculed in a contemporary poem, by withdrawing from business (it had probably been legal business of one kind or another), and from literary life in London, to his native place; but nothing is known as to the date of his death. His career as a dramatist very probably began with some plays in which he assisted, or was assisted by, other authors. The titles of these (all we possess of them) are not without significance. With Dekker he wrote The Fairy Knight and The Bristowe Merchant; with Webster A late Murther of the Sonne upon the Mother. A play attributed to Ford alone, and entitled An ill Beginning has a good End, was brought on the stage as early as 1613 ; and in 1615 followed Sir Thomas Overbury's Life and untimely Death— a subject to which the poet devoted some lines, which are preserved, of indignant regret. He also wrote, at dates unknown, The London Mercliant and The Royal Combat; a tragedy by him, Beauty in a Trance, was entered in the Stationer's Register in 1653, but never printed. Of the plays by Ford preserved to us the dates span little more than a decade—the earliest, The Lover's Melancholy, having been acted in 1628 and printed in 1629, the latest, The Lady's Trial, acted in 1638 and printed in 1639.

When writing The Lover's Melancholy, it would seem that Ford had not yet become fully aware of the bent of his own dramatic genius, although he was already master of his powers of poetic expression. We may suppose him, when he first became a dramatic author, to have been attracted towards both domestic tragedy and romantic comedy—to the former by an irresistible desire to sound the depths of abnormal conflicts between passion and cir-cumstances, to the latter by a strong though not widely varied imaginative faculty, and by a self-delusion (such as will alone account for his repeated—and nearly always unsuccessful—efforts in this direction) that he was possessed of abundant comic humour. In his next two works, undoubtedly those most characteristically expressive of his peculiar strength, viz., 'Tis Pity she's a Whore and The Broken Heart (both printed 1633), he had found themes the horrible situations in which required dramatic explanation by intensely powerful motives. Ford by no means stood alone among our dramatists in his love of abnormal subjects; but few were so capable of treating them sympathetically, and at the same time without that reckless grossness or ex-travagance of expression which renders the morally repul-sive aesthetically intolerable, or converts the horrible into the grotesque. For in Ford's genius there was an element of true refinement, except when the self-delusion referred to came into play. In a third tragedy, Love's Sacrifice (also printed in 1633) he again worked on similar materials; but this time he unfortunately essayed to base the interest of his plot upon an unendurably unnatural possibility— doing homage to virtue after a fashion in which to honour is almost equivalent to insulting her. He might seem by this time to have been in danger of indulging still further a morbid tendency, the corroding influence of which is fatal to any genius abandoning itself to it; yet we find him in Per kin Warbeck (printed 1634) choosing an historical sub-ject, and, alone among the dramatists of his age, seeking to emulate the glory of the great series of Shakespeare's national histories. It is true that his treatment of his theme, though neither unskilful nor unworthy, could not at once compass the breadth and variety which this species of drama demands. But the effort is one of the most com-mendable, as it was by no means one of the least successful, in the dramatic literature of this period; and we may un-hesitatingly regret that he should not have made another essay in the same field, instead of turning to romantic comedy, for which he was without the requisite buoyancy of spirit, while all but devoid of the faintest vestige of comic humour. The Fancies Chaste and Noble (printed 1638), though it includes scenes of real force and feeling, is dramatically a failure, of which the main idea is almost provokingly slight and feeble; and The Lady's Trial (acted 1638, printed 1639) is only redeemed from utter wearisomeness by an unusually even pleasingness of form. There remain two other dramatic works, of very different kinds, in which Ford co-operated with other writers, the mask of The Sun's Darling (acted 1624, printed 1657), which is hardly to be placed in the first rank of early com-positions, and The Witch of Edmonton (printed 1658, but probably acted about a quarter of a century earlier), in which we see Ford as a joint writer of one of the most powerful domestic dramas of our own or any other stage.

A few notes may be added on some of the more remarkable of the plays enumerated. A wholly baseless anecdote, condensed into a stinging epigram by Endymion Porter, asserted that The, Lover's Melancholy was stolen by Ford from Shakespeare's papers. Lesser dramatists are in the habit of borrowing from greater; and there were few among the writers of our old drama, of whatever eminence or calibre, to whom plagiarism, whether in the matter of situations and characters, or of passages and expressions, would have seemed a literary liberty requiring defence. Undoubtedly, the madness of the hero of this play of Ford's occasionally recalls Hamlet, while the heroine is one of the many, and at the same time one of the most pleasing, parallels to Viola. But neither of them is a copy, as Friar Bonaventura in Ford's second play may be said to be a copy of Friar Lawrence, whose kindly pliability he disagreeably exag-gerates, or as D'Avolos in Love's Sacrifice is clearly modelled on Iago. The plot of The Lover's Melancholy, which is ineffective because it leaves no room for suspense in the mind of the reader, seems original; in the dialogue, on the other hand, a justly famous passage in Act i. (the beautiful version of the story of the nightin-gale's death) is translated from Strada ; while the scheme of the tedious interlude exhibiting the various forms of madness is avowedly taken, together with sundry comments, from that store-house of useless learning, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Already in this play Ford exhibits the singular force of his pathos ; the despondent misery of the aged Meleander, and the sweetness of the last scene, in which his daughter comes back to him, alike go to »be heart. A situation — hazardous in spite of its comic substratum — between Thaumasta and the pretended Parthenophil is conducted, as Gifford points out, with real delicacy; but the comic scenes are merely stagey, notwithstanding, or by reason of, the effort expended on them by the author.

'Tis Pity she's a Whore has been justly recognized as a tragedy of extraordinary power; but it seems no hard matter to join in this recognition, while reserving to oneself the right, which no canon of criticism can rebut, of protesting against the abuse of art of which this play furnishes an almost unparalleled example. Mr Swinburne, in his eloquent essay on Ford, has rightly shown what is the mean-ing of this tragedy, and has at the same time indicated wherein consists its poison. He dwells with great force upon the different treatment applied by Ford to the characters of the two miserable lovers—brother and sister. "The sin once committed, there is no more wavering or flinching possible to him, who has fought so hard against the demoniac possession; while she who resigned body and soul to the tempter almost at a word, remains liable to the influences of religion and remorse." This different treatment shows the feel-ing of the poet—the feeling for which he seeks to evoke our inmost sympathy—to oscillate between the belief that an awful crime brings with it its awful punishment (and it is sickening to observe how the argument by which the Friar persuades Annabella to for-sake her evil courses mainly appeals to the physical terrors of retri-bution), and the notion that there is something fatal, something irresistible, and therefore in a sense self-justified, in so dominant a passion. The key-note to the conduct of Giovanni lies in his words at the close of the first scene—

' All this I'll do, to free me from the rod Of vengeance ; else I'll swear my fate 's my god."

Thus there is no solution of the conflict (which in one form or the other all men have to undergo) between passion on the one side, and law, duty, and religion on the other ; and passion triumphs, in the dying words of "the student struck blind and mad by passion"—

"0, I bleed fast! Death, thou'rt a guest long look'd for; I embrace Thee and thy wounds: 0, my last minute comes! Where'er I go, let me enjoy this grace Freely to view my Annabella's face."

It has been observed by a recent critic of mark that " English poets

have given us the right key to the Italian temperament

The love of Giovanni and Annabella is rightly depicted as more imaginative than sensual." It is difficult to allow the appositeness of Mr J. A. Symonds's special illustration; on the other hand, Ford has even in this case shown his art of depicting sensual passion without grossness of expression ; for the exception in Annabella's language to Soranzo seems to have a special intention, and is true to the pressure of the situation and the revulsion produced by it in a naturally weak and yielding mind. The entire atmosphere, so to speak, of the play is stifling, and is not rendered less so by the underplot with Hippolita.

Like this tragedy, The Broken Heart was probably founded upon some Italian or other novel of the day; but since in the latter instance there is nothing revolting in the main idea of the subject, the play commends itself as the most enjoyable, while, in respect of many excellences, an unsurpassed specimen of Ford's dramatic genius. The complicated plot is constructed with greater skill than is usual with this dramatist, and the pathos of particular situations, and of the entire character of Penthea—a woman doomed to hopeless misery, but capable of seeking to obtain for her brother a happiness which his cruelty has condemned her to forego—has an intensity and a depth which are all Ford's own. Even the lesser characters are more pleasing than usual, and some beautiful lyrics are interspersed in the play.

Of the other plays written by Ford alone, The Chronicle Historic of Perkin Warbeck—A Strange Truth alone appears to call for special attention. A repeated perusal of this drama suggests the judgment that it is overpraised when ranked at no great distance from Shakespeare's national dramas. Historical truth has not to be taken into consideration in the matter; and if (notwithstanding Mr Gairdner) there are still credulous persons loft to think and assert that Perkin was not an impostor, they will derive little satisfaction from Ford's play, which with really surprising skill avoids the slightest indication as to the poet's own belief on the sub-ject. That this tragedy should have been reprinted in 1714 and acted in 1745 only shows that the public, as is often the case, had an eye to the catastrophe rather than to the development of the action. The dramatic capabilities of the subject are, however, great, and it afterwards attracted Schiller, who, however, seems to have abandoned it in favour of the similar theme of the Russian Demetrius. Had Shakespeare treated it, he would hardly have contented himself with investing the hero with the nobility given by Ford to this personage of his play,—for it is hardly possible to speak of a personage as a diameter when the clue to his conduct is intentionally withheld. Nor could Shakespeare have failed to bring out with greater variety and distinctness the dramatic features in Henry VII., whom Ford depicts with sufficient distinctness to give some degree of individuality to the figure, but still with a tenderness of touch which would have been much to the credit of the dramatist's skill had he been writing in the Tudor age. The play is, however, founded on Bacon's Life, of which the text is used by Ford with admirable discretion. The minor charac-ters of the honest old Huntley, whom the Scottish king obliges to bestow his daughter's hand upon Warbeck, and of her lover the faithful "Dalyell," are most effectively drawn; even "the men of judgment," the adventurers who surround the chief adven-turer, are spirited sketches, and the Irishman among them has actually some humour; while the style of the play is, as befits a "Chronicle History," so clear and straightforward as to make it easy as well as interesting to read.

The Witch of Edmonton was attributed by its publisher to William Rowley, Dekker, Ford, "&c," but the body of the play has been generally held to be ascribable to Ford and Dekker only. Mr Swinburne agrees with Gifford in thinking Ford the author of the whole of the first act; and he is most assuredly right in con-sidering that " there is no more admirable exposition of a play on the English stage." Supposing Dekker to be chiefly responsible for the scenes dealing with the unfortunate old woman whom per-secution as a witch actually drives to become one, and Ford for the domestic tragedy of the bigamist murderer, it cannot be denied that both divisions of the subject are effectively treated, while the more important part of the task fell to the share of Ford. Yet it may be doubted whether any such division can be safely assumed; and it may suffice to repeat that no domestic tragedy lias ever taught with more effective simplicity and thrilling truthfulness the homely double lesson of the folly of selfishness and the mad rashness of crime. To us such plays as this are singularly interesting, both as pictures of the manners of the age which they depict without the effort more or less perceptible in comedy, and as illustrations of a species of the modern drama which, in its best examples, is perhaps of all the least liable to essential change.

With Dekker Ford also wrote the mask of The Sun's Darling; or, as seems most probable, they founded this production upon Phaeton, an earlier mask, of which Dekker had been sole author. Gifford holds that Dekker's hand is perpetually traceable in the first three acts of The Sun's Darling, and through the whole of its comic part, but that the last two acts are mainly Ford's. If so, he is the author of the rather forced occasional tribute on the accession of King Charles I., of which the last act largely consists. This mask, which furnished abundant opportunities for the decorators, musicians, and dancers, in showing forth how the seasons and their delights are successively exhausted by a "wanton darling," Ray-bright the grandchild of the Sun, is said to have been very popular. It is at the same time commonplace enough in conception; but there is much that is charming in the descriptions, Jonson and Lyly being respectively laid under contribution in the course of the dialogue, and in one of the incidental lyrics.

Ford holds a position of his own among our dramatists of the second order. This he owes not to his skill as a con-structor of plots, which he at times prepares better than he executes them, thus verifying the observation that the supreme skill of the dramatist lies, not in devising or finding the chief situation of his play, but in the harmonious build-ing-up of the action and development of the characters towards it. Nor does he owe it even to the beautysof his versification, the fluency and strength of which are incontestable, notwithstanding a certain obscurity of style. His peculiar power lies in the intensity of his passion, in parti-cular scenes and passages where the character, the author, and the reader are alike lost in the situation and in the sentiment evoked by it; and this gift is a supreme dram-atic gift. But his plays—with the exception of The Witch of Edmonton, in which he doubtless had a prominent share—too often disturb the mind like a bad dream which ends as an unsolved dissonance; and this defect is a supreme dramatic defect. It is not the rigid or the stolid who have the most reason to complain of the insufficiency of tragic poetry such as Ford's; nor is it that morality only which, as Rhodes says in The Broken Heart, " is formed of books and school-traditions," which has a right to protest against the final effect of the most powerful creations of his genius. There is a morality which both " Keeps the soul in tune, . At whose sweet music all our actions dance," and is able to physic
" The sickness of a mind Broken with griefs."

Of that morality—or of that deference to the binding power within man and the ruling power above him— tragedy is the truest expounder, even when it illustrates by contrasts; but the tragic poet who merely places the pro-blem before us, and bids us stand aghast with him at its cruelty, is not to be reckoned among the great masters of a divine art.

The best edition of Ford is that by Gifford, with notes and introduction, revised with additions to both text and notes by the late Mr Dyce (3 vob. 1869). Mr Swinburne's "Essay on Ford," to which reference has been made in this article, is reprinted among his Essays and Studies (1875). (A. W. W.)


Grot.—" The king hath spoke his mind. Org.— " His will he hath ;
But were it lawful to hold plea against
The power of greatness, not the reason, haply
Such undershrubs as subjects sometimes might
Borrow of nature justice, to inform
That licence sovereignty holds without check
Over a meek obedience."
The Broken Heart, act iii. sc. 4.

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