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.