on 14 June 2017
John Ford (1586 – ???) was perhaps the last great writer in the pre-Civil War English verse drama tradition, a Caroline playwright rather than an Elizabethan or Jacobean one. Those question marks are put there to indicate that we are still ignorant of many of the facts of his life, including the date and place of his death; the last reference to him as a living individual comes in 1639. A number of the plays he is known to have written are now lost; only about eight plays written by him alone still survive. He also wrote in collaboration with other playwrights, most notably Thomas Dekker.
This volume contains four plays, all written by Ford alone. “The Lover's Melancholy”, possibly his first unaided drama, is a particularly obscure work which has never been revived for the stage in modern times. The only revival outside Ford’s lifetime took place in 1748, when Charles Macklin tried to pass it off as a lost play by Shakespeare. Nobody believed him, and it is easy to understand why. This dull comedy about the efforts of Prince Palador of Cyprus (the melancholy lover of the title) to be reunited with his long-lost sweetheart Eroclea may contain some Shakespearean tropes, such as a girl disguising herself as a boy, but does not even bear comparison with the other three plays printed here, let alone with a play of Shakespeare. It is sometimes regarded as a “tragicomedy”, a word which in this context can be translated as “Well, all ends happily so it’s not a tragedy, but it’s not very funny so it’s not really a comedy, so let’s find another name for it”.
As its title might suggest, “The Broken Heart” also deals with a melancholy lover, but here the theme is given a tragic rather than a comic treatment. (We know little of Ford’s personal circumstances, but he seems to have had a reputation for being of a melancholy disposition himself, so he may have been more naturally drawn to tragedy than to comedy). The story is set in ancient Sparta. At first it seems that the “broken heart” of the title belongs to a young man named Orgilus, whose sweetheart Penthea has been forced by her brother, Ithocles, into an unhappy, loveless marriage with a wealthy older man named Bassanes. The title could also, however, refer to several other characters, not only Penthea but also Ithocles himself (who is secretly in love with the King’s daughter, Calantha) and even Bassanes, who is at first portrayed as a pathologically jealous bully but who is later stricken with remorse for his treatment of his wife. The plot deals with Orgilus’s plan to take revenge on Ithocles, and with the consequences of that plan.
Ford’s tragic vision in this play is rather different to that of some of his English predecessors. “The Broken Heart” is no Shakespearean account of a great man destroyed by a flaw in his character. Nor is it a Middletonian warning against the evil consequences of the sin of lust. It has, in fact, been described as having more in common with the work of Ford’s younger French contemporary Pierre Corneille. Although Ford follows the English blank verse tradition rather than the French one of rhyming couplets, “The Broken Heart” has the very Cornelian theme of a conflict between duty and inclination (which normally takes the form of sexual or romantic love). Although Penthea is as much in love with Orgilus as he with her, she angrily rejects him when he tries to persuade her to leave Bassanes for him. For Penthea her duty as a wife- even as the wife of a man as unworthy as Bassanes- is sacrosanct and must take priority over her own feelings. This being a tragedy, Penthea’s self-sacrifice in the name of duty does not lead to happiness; either for Orgilus or herself; she ends up being driven mad by the irreconcilable conflict between her sense of duty and her passions. Virtue, as they say, is its own punishment.
“'Tis Pity She's a Whore” is probably the play by which Ford is best remembered today, and the one most often presented on the modern stage. Like “The Broken Heart” it is a tragedy, but one which has more in common with those written by other English dramatists. With its Italian setting and a plot dealing with lust, violence and revenge, it is reminiscent of the works of John Webster and Thomas Middleton. The title was at one time frequently bowdlerised to “Giovanni and Annabella” or “The Brother and Sister”, or simply “'Tis Pity”, although to strain at the word “whore” and swallow a plotline revolving around the theme of brother-sister incest strikes me as a curiously selective form of prudery. Middleton’s “Women Beware Women” also deals with the theme of incest, although in that case between uncle and niece.
The incestuous couple here are Giovanni, a young student, and his sister Annabella. Annabella has three suitors for her hand in marriage, the hot-headed Grimaldi, the duplicitous Soranzo and the foolish Bergetto, who provides most of the play’s comic relief, but she prefers her brother to any of them. A sub-plot involves the attempts of Soranzo’s abandoned mistress Hippolita to take her revenge on him for going back on his promise to marry her after the death of her husband Richardetto. A complicating factor is that, although Soranzo and Hippolita both believe Richardetto to be dead, he is in fact alive and well and, disguised as a doctor, is plotting his own revenge on his faithless wife and her lover.
A much-disputed question is whether Ford condemns the relationship of Giovanni and Annabella, condones it or takes a neutral position. The editor of this volume, Marion Lomax, argues for a positive or neutral treatment, possibly because it suits her feminist viewpoint to portray Annabella in a sympathetic light, but this is not a position with which I could agree. Giovanni certainly argues passionately in support of his right to love his sister, but equally passionate counter-arguments are put forward by his confessor Friar Bonaventura who acts as the voice of reason, or possibly the voice of the conscience which Giovanni has suppressed. Although Giovanni remains unconvinced, Annabella later repents of what she has done. It seems to me more likely that Ford viewed the guilty passion of the two siblings as a symptom, although certainly not the only one and possibly not the worst, of a general moral sickness infecting the city of Parma. Other symptoms of this disease include corruption in church and state- a Cardinal misuses his authority to shield a murderer from justice- Hippolita’s adultery, Soranzo’s duplicitousness and the general atmosphere of vindictiveness and aggression.
There was a vogue for plays based upon English history in the late sixteenth century; apart from the very late “Henry VIII” all of Shakespeare’s efforts in this genre were written during the 1590s. By the 1630s, however, as Ford himself admits, history plays had declined in popularity, so “Perkin Warbeck” is something of a rarity for its period.
As every schoolboy knows, Warbeck was one of two false pretenders to the throne during the reign of Henry VII, the other being Lambert Simnel. He claimed to be Richard Duke of York, one of the two murdered Princes in the Tower, although in reality he was not even English but a commoner from Tournai in what is today Belgium. He nevertheless was recognised as the rightful King of England by several European monarchs, including (as we see here) James IV of Scotland. James, however, was to prove a broken reed so far as Warbeck was concerned. He was happy to support Warbeck when it suited his political purposes to do so, but dropped him when he realised that further support could embroil Scotland in a potentially disastrous war with England. Warbeck’s cause received little support among the English population, and he was eventually captured and executed for treason.
The play dramatises these events and also deals with the relationship between Warbeck and his Scottish wife Katherine Gordon. (Ford refers to Katherine as a “Princess”, although she was only distantly related to the Scottish royal house). In reality, Warbeck confessed to his imposture, but in the play he never does. Ford deliberately leaves ambiguous the reason why Warbeck continues to insist that he is the rightful King, even when he realises that he could save his life by confessing. There are three possible reasons. The first is he may indeed be the real Richard of York, a possibility never definitely excluded in the play. The second is that he may be so deluded that he has come to believe his own lies. The third is that he owes it to his followers, who have risked (and in some cases given) their lives in his cause, to maintain his pretence to the last so that their sacrifice will not seem to have been in vain.
Moreover, although Henry is portrayed here as a just and merciful ruler, any historically informed reader or playgoer in the 1630s would have been uncomfortably aware that Henry’s claim to the throne, arising through the illegitimate Beaufort line, was little better than Warbeck’s and only succeeded because his predecessor, Richard III, was so unpopular. Ford’s analysis of the nature of political power, therefore, might have made for uncomfortable reading in the reign of Charles I, a direct descendent of Henry and a king facing increasing opposition among his subjects. (The play was revived in 1745 as anti-Jacobite propaganda, although the producers clearly ignored the fact that the Stuart pretenders, unlike Warbeck, had a genuine claim to the throne).
The tradition of verse drama which Ford represents was to be brought to an end by the outbreak of the Civil War and the Puritan closure of the theatres in 1642, an event which may have ended Ford’s career as a dramatist if he was still alive at that date. Attempts to revive the tradition after the Restoration, except perhaps in the case of John Dryden, were generally unsuccessful. “The Lover’s Melancholy” is perhaps of little consequence, but the other plays printed here are all testimony to the excellence of this tradition even in its later years.