A Study of John Ford
JOHN FORD AND DARTMOOR
Mark Beeson, 1998
John Ford has represented something of a puzzle to literary critics. There have been many studies of Ford the dramatist of the London stage during the closing years of Elizabethan theatre (known more accurately as the Caroline period). Few if any agree either on the nature of his achievement or the purpose behind his plays. Yet no modern study has looked at him in relation to Dartmoor and his upbringing there. Gifford (1827) edited his work with a West Country eye, but he lived before Dartmoor’s medieval and early modern culture was properly understood. Dartmoor was in those days regarded by some outsiders as a waste, a ‘squalida montana’ according to William Camden (1596), and on this basis might be thought to be the sort of place that once a young man had escaped he would want to forget. Certainly its terrain and still largely medieval architecture would have fitted ill with the Italianate renaissance and baroque sensibility of Jacobean and Caroline London. Nevertheless William Browne, who was born and brought up in the stannary town of Tavistock on the west side of Dartmoor, became a classical scholar and renaissance writer who could incorporate his local area into his work (Beeson, 1996). To him Dartmoor was not a waste. His conscious integration of the classical with the local is part of a thread in English writing which reaches back at least to Spenser, and continues forward to Milton and Pope. It was a thread associated with a Puritan outlook, concerned with establishing independence from Rome. In his more Catholic circles (Hopkins, 1994), in the middle of his working life in London, it is possible that Ford did not feel this political concern, but it does not mean that his Dartmoor background in childhood and in later life was necessarily less of an influence. The Fords of Bagtor were part of a stannary culture independent and confident enough to have imprisoned a Member of Parliament, Richard Strode, under its own jurisdiction in 1512 (Rowe, 1848, 242), only three quarters of a century before John Ford’s birth.
What constitutes Dartmoor and what makes Dartmoor a coherent enough entity to merit historical treatment, rather than discussing Ford as a playwright from Devon, the county in which Dartmoor is situated? In the first instance we cannot be talking about the Dartmoor National Park, which is not even fifty years old. The geology of Dartmoor, however, has given most of the area included in the current National Park boundary an integrity over many centuries, not so much because of the obvious visual characteristics of the granite plateaux, but because of the effects of the granite on the way of life of those who live upon it (Beeson and Greeves, 1993). In essence, Dartmoor consists of a central upland portion called (from its early medieval designation as a hunting tract) the Forest, surrounded by the parishes whose valley farmlands lead up onto open moorland abutting on this central portion. What united Dartmoor geographically during medieval and early-modern times was this focus of the perimeter parishes on an upland centre at relatively high altitude, which traditionally provided summer pasture for grazing stock kept in the valleys during the winter months. Although the Forest boundary is less important today than the boundary between areas of open moorland and enclosed farmland, its influence is still felt in the form of its ownership by the Duchy of Cornwall, and the leases for military training granted to the Ministry of Defence by the Duchy. Another equally important unifying feature has been the presence of tin ore in the granite area, which led to the formation of the four stannary districts of Tavistock, Chagford, Ashburton and Plympton, with boundaries meeting in the centre of Dartmoor not far from Crockern Tor. This stannary jurisdiction served to unite those living in the Forest and its surrounding parishes possibly even more emphatically than the agricultural focus.
Ford is recorded as being baptised at Ilsington on the south-eastern flanks of Dartmoor on April 12th 1586 . Ilsington is a parish lying just north of the stannary town of Ashburton, and includes Rippon Tor and Haytor Rocks within its boundaries, two of the highest and most rugged hills on Dartmoor’s eastern plateau. It was also the scene of a great deal of tin-mining activity during the medieval and early modern period. The presumption is that Ford was born at Bagtor, just on the edge of open moorland stretching up to Rippon Tor. He was the second son of a yeoman farmer, Thomas Ford, who had married the sister or niece (there is some dispute which) of a famous judge, the Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham. John Ford’s grandfather George Ford had a close involvement with tinworking. The Fords of Bagtor owned the manor of Ilsington and can therefore be presumed to have been reasonably well-off, but they could have boasted nothing like the prestige, influence and level of education which the Popham family must have brought. John Prince, author of The Worthies of Devon, derives the Ford family ultimately from Elias Ford, who was given land in Moretonhampstead by William de Mandevil in the reign of Henry II (Prince, 1810, 380). We know very little about John Ford’s life. He had an older brother Hnery who when he died in 1616 left John left a legacy of twenty pounds a year for the rest of his life. A sister Jane is commemorated in an inscription the wall of Ilsington Chrurch as having died a virgin in 1664, leaving twenty pounds in her will for the schooling of children in Ilsington parish. William Gifford, an early editor of his work, presumes that Ford was educated at a local grammar school. The closest was in Ashburton, which Gifford himself attended. It is possible that, like Browne, he went on to Exeter College, Oxford – college records refer to the matriculation of one ‘John Ford, Devon gent.’ in 1601 – but Gifford argues that, if so, he could not have spent very long there. Like Browne, he finished his education at one of the Inns of Court, in his case the Middle Temple, where he was enrolled in 1602. In 1605 he was suspended from the Middle Temple for failing to pay his buttery bill, but was reinstated again in 1608. In between, he published his first poetic works Fame’s Memorial, an elegy dedicated to the Countess of Devonshire, and Funeral Tears, a shorter tribute to her husband the Earl of Devon, as well as a prose pamphlet Honour Triumphant.
But there most of the resemblance with Browne appears to end. Ford moved in Catholic circles (Hopkins, 1994), whereas Browne was in the Puritan camp . Ford, who started by writing poetry, became a playwright in the tradition of Shakespeare, while Browne, whose earliest finished work seems to be his masque for the Inner Temple (Hazlet, 1869), made his name as a pastoral poet who served as a model for Milton. And far from championing Dartmoor and Devon, Ford more or less turned his back on his native area, certainly as far as subject matter is concerned. It is true that Fame’s Memorial is dedicated to Penelope Devereux, Countess of Devonshire, and on the subject of her husband the late Earl of Devonshire, but that is likely to have been more because of his fascination with the nature of their life-history than out of any conscious promotion of his home county.
Penelope Devereux had been engaged to Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, Earl of Devonshire, and then forced to marry another man, Lord Rich, against her will. She and Mountjoy continued their relationship to produce several children, and eventually she either divorced Lord Rich officially, or became sufficiently estranged to pass for divorced. In any event, she and Mountjoy were eventually married, but this resulted in Mountjoy coming in for strong criticism (though perhaps not outright ostracism from court as used to be thought) and he died not long afterwards from what is said to have been a broken heart (Gifford, 1827). In Fame’s Memorial we see the germ of Ford’s over-riding interest in the psychology of love. We also infer that he himself had had an unhappy love-experience with a girl he calls Lycia, the Greek for she-wolf:
Ah! that the goddess whom in heart I serve
Though never mine, bright Lycia the cruel,
The cruel-subtle, would the name deserve
Of lesser wise, and not abuse the jewel
Of wit, which adds unto my flame more fuel.
Her thoughts to elder merits are confined
Not to the solace of my younger mind.
Fame’s Memorial (Gifford, 1827, Vol 2, 604)
According to Gifford, this girl was the daughter of a member of the Devon aristocracy, in which case Ford must still have been keeping up his links with home at the age of twenty. In Honour Triumphant, as it were Fame’s Memorial’s accompanying prose pamphlet, Ford, using a certain amount of irony, reveals his familiarity with the ideals of medieval courtly love which this stanza recalls. A poem signed IF and now attributed by many to Ford, Christ’s Bloody Sweat, written in 1613, suggests a conversion to a more religious outlook. On the evidence of the plays it cannot have been a conventional one, but on the same evidence there is no reason to believe he recanted from some kind of Christian belief. Two other prose pamphlets, The Golden Mean (1614) and A Line of Life (1620), set out Ford’s commitment to neo-stoical doctrines as a rule for living at this stage of his life, the combination of Christianity with classical Stoicism being a common one in his time. Up to this point, there is no hint of the originality that was to come in the plays. It seems plausible to suggest that something happened in Ford’s own life between the writing of the conventionally moralistic Christ’s Bloody Sweat and the writing of The Lover’s Melancholy, or even his collaboration on The Witch of Edmonton, which jolted him into a broader way of thinking. Christ’s Bloody Sweat gives the impression of being the work of a man who has rescued himself from an excessive turmoil of young love by turning to religion – the poem attacks the vanity of woman’s beauty, and declares that ‘love is no god’, as if in direct refutation of Honour Triumphant. The plays, on the other hand, are clearly the work of a man with a profound, if painful, experience of mature love which has revived his natural admiration for women and deepened his sympathy for the human predicament.
Childhood is an impressionable time. There are things in Ford’s work which suggest that certain scenes from his childhood stayed with him. And there is one play in particular, The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck, whose subject matter as a whole suggests that an instinctive sympathy for the South West remained with him into his adult life. Ford’s grandparents would have been in their prime at the time of the prayer-book rebellion in 1549, when Devon and Cornwall rose against Edward VI’s reforms. Ford’s parents would certainly have been able to relate this episode to their son. Perhaps stories of this rebellion led him to take as his subject the rebellion half a century earlier when the pretender to the throne of Henry VII, Perkin Warbeck, landed in Cornwall calling himself Richard IV, and marched through Devon gathering supporters along the way. Ford displays great sympathy with Warbeck, and has the Cornish described in favourable terms: ‘The Cornish blades are men of mettle’.
This pun leads on to Ford’s mining imagery. Cornwall was famous for its tin-mines. But Dartmoor in the medieval and Tudor period was also a very significant tin-mining area, outproducing Cornwall in the late 12th century and enjoying a peak in productivity during the early sixteenth century (Greeves, 1992a). Productivity was tailing off somewhat by the end of the sixteenth century, but the industry and culture of the mines must have been all around Ford as he grew up, particularly given his family’s recorded involvement, and it would be surprising if his frequent references to mining do not reflect Dartmoor experience. Consider the following passage from ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, III, VI,7-23:
There is a place –
List, daughter – in a black and hollow vault
Where day is never seen; there shines no sun,
But flaming horror of consuming fires;
A lightless sulphur chok’d with smoky fogs
Of an infected darkness; in this place
Dwell many thousand, thousand sundry sorts
Of never-dying deaths; there damned souls
Roar without pity; there are gluttons fed
With toads and adders; there is burning oil
Poured down the drunkard’s throat; the usurer
Is forc’d to sup whole draughts of molten gold;
There is the murderer forever stabb’d,
Yet can he never die; there lies the wanton
On racks of burning steel, whiles in his soul
He feels the torment of his raging lust.
On the face of it, this is a conventional medieval picture of Hell, echoing a similar passage in Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus Act V, II, 126-135:
Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare
Into that vast perpetual torture-house.
There are the furies tossing damned souls
On burning forks. their bodies broiled in lead.
There are live quarters broiling on the coals
That ne’er can die. This ever-burning chair
Is for o’er tortured souls to rest them in.
These, that are fed with sops of flaming fire,
Were gluttons, and loved only delicates,
And laughed to see the poor starve at their gates.
Yet considering what is added by Ford to Marlowe’s picture, I wonder if Ford’s description is not influenced by memories of blowing houses in the misty Dartmoor river valleys, where the tinners smelted tin and ladled the molten metal into moulds. To a student of Dartmoor history it cannot help but call to mind the legend (probably untrue) of how pouring molten metal down a man’s throat was one of the tinners’ punishments (Crossing, 1997, 121).
Likewise in this passage from Love’s Sacrifice IV, 2, 43-49:
Were both of you hid in a rock of fire,
Guarded by ministers of flaming hell,
I have a sword – ‘Tis here – should make my way
Through fire, through darkness, death, and hell, and all,
To hew your lust-engendred flesh to shreds,
Pound you to mortar, cut your throats, and mince
Your flesh to mites.
‘a rock of fire’ is suggestive of the tinners’ furnaces, which were built with massive granite, and ‘pound you to mortar’ calls to mind the mortar stones on which the mechanical stamps ground tin-bearing rock into a mortar for washing and dressing. Other references to mining and its associated processes are more direct. For example:
Are far more hot than they which flame outright.
The Witch of Edmonton, V, 1, 54-5
The constant lode-stone and the steel are found
In several mines, yet is there such a league
Between these minerals, as if one vein
Of earth had nourished both
The Lover’s Melancholy III, II, 77-80
But I digged for food
In a much richer mine than gold or stone
Of any value balanced.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore V, VI, 26-28
Not Gloucester’s own confusion..
..Can move this woman-monster
But that she still from the unbottomed mine
Of devilish policies doth vent the ore
Of troubles and sedition.
Perkin Warbeck I, I, 48-51
For there’s a fire more sacred purifies
The dross of mixture.
Perkin Warbeck IV, V, 62-3
Cleave to so pure a metal.
Perkin Warbeck II, III, 75-6
Unearth the mine of jewels at your foot
The Lady’s Trial II, IV, 34
These could of course be merely general references to mining; there is no mention of tin, or anything else which would help to locate the source of the experience as definitely belonging to Dartmoor. Even a reference to rabbit buries in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore IV, III, lines 156-7
Know what ferret it was that haunted your cony-berry.
and a reference to rock suggestive of a Dartmoor tor in Love’s Sacrifice, II, I, lines 172-4
I have sued and sued,
Knelt, wept and begged; but tears, and vows, and words
Move her no more than summer winds a rock.
though they look as if they derive from Dartmoor experience, equally could have come from elsewhere.
There are two passages in Ford, however, which in conjunction with this mining imagery, do appear to point the finger more firmly at Dartmoor.
Possessed, even to their deaths deluded, say
They have been wolves and dogs and sailed in egg-shells
Over the sea and rid on fiery dragons..
Perkin Warbeck V, III, 100-104
Besides, Lord Orgilus is fled to Athens
Upon a fiery dragon..
The Broken Heart II, I, 53-54
What we should be concerned with here is the mention of ‘Fiery dragons’. Marion Lomax, in her edition of Ford’s best-known plays, suggests a reference to Medea for the passage from The Broken Heart (Lomax, 1994). If the playwright had been anyone but Ford, this might be a good guess. Ford, however, is curiously uninterested in classical mythology, as if he had a particularly strong mythology of his own to call on. A little later in the same play, mention of a witch’s ‘familiar’ in connection with Orgilus’ journey shows that the reference is almost certainly an anachronistic one to medieval folklore. Thomas Tonkin, in the 18th century, describes how Cornish women used to see ‘streams of fire to fall on them (undiscovered veins of tin), which they call fiery dragons’. More relevant still is a discovery by Tom Greeves. He reports that on a map of Ellisborough tin mine in Sheepstor parish, at the point where a vein of tin called South Draggon Lode is shown crossing an ancient working first documented in 1563, is written ‘A Firey Draggon was seen to fall near this place’ (Greeves, 1992b). Fiery dragons were clearly part of Dartmoor’s mining culture, and the Dartmoor tin industry is the most likely place for Ford to have come across mention of them.
There is a tradition that Ford returned to Ilsington in about 1639, married and had children. If this was the case, then it is more than likely that he had kept in touch with his family and friends in and around Ilsington during his years in London, giving his adulthood a strong Dartmoor strand to add to that of his childhood. Do we know anything about the nature of educated Dartmoor cultural life at this time, and anything in particular which might enable us to explain elements in Ford’s work? While Ford and Browne were very much men who travelled away, there were other educated ones who both lived and worked on Dartmoor during the first half of the 17th century. Robert Herrick for example, the High Church poet of Hesperides, was vicar of Dean Prior just to the west of Ashburton, and must have known Ford from his London days; it is hard to think that these two did not meet and read each other’s work in Devon, until Herrick was deprived of his living in 1648. Herrick, though, was a product of London, who treated Dartmoor as a place of exile. John Elford of Sheepstor, on the other hand, who was an amateur poet and artist using the same kind of neo-platonist imagery (for example the phoenix) found in some of Ford’s work, was from a Dartmoor family and lived in the neighbouring parish of Widecombe between about 1630 and 1648 (Hamilton Rogers, 1895, 185-9).
The Elfords were, like the Fords of Bagtor, deeply involved in the Dartmoor tin industry, as well as being farmers. John, educated at Cambridge, was later to pass into legend as the man who painted pictures along the walls of his cavern hide-out on Sheepstor at some point during 1655 while Cromwell’s troops were searching for him in vain. A comment attached to his signature in the Church Register at Meavy runs roughly (when translated from the Latin) ‘God deliver us from the savagery and ignorance of the Puritans’. He was not a Royalist – we know that he was a member of the Long Parliament in 1640, and was appointed by Cromwell’s administration to conduct civil marriages during the Commonwealth – but his artistic inclinations brought him into conflict with extreme forms of Puritanism. In this he shows the same independence of mind found in Ford’s work, neither Catholic nor Protestant. His love of symbolism too, as revealed in the monuments to his dead wives which he designed in Widecombe and Sheepstor churches, is reminiscent of Ford. Elford, in his poetic epitaph on his wife Mary, shows a fascination for the chronogram, which is a form of acrostic, and the anagram. The epitaph reads as follows:
TO THE MEMORIE OF
MARY THE THIRD WIFE OF IOHN
ELFORD OF SHITSTOR, ESQr., WAS
HEER INTERRED FEBr Ye 16 Ao 1642,
HAVING ISSUE AT A BYRTH
MARY & SARAH
AS MARYES CHOYCE MADE IOHN REIOYCE below
Soe was her losse his heauie crosse most know
Yet lost she is not sure but found above
Death gaue her life t’imbrace A dearer love.
Anagr: MARY ELFORD. – FEAR MY LORD.
Then FEAR MY LORD whilst yet yu mou’st on mold
That soe those armes that mee may thee infold
Neer twelue moneths day her maridge heer did pass
Her heauenly nuptiall consummated was
She fertile prou’d in soule and bodye both
In life good workes at death she twyns brought forth
And like A fruitfull tree with bearing dy’d
Yet Phoenix like for one there two suruiu’d
Which shortly posted their dear mother after
Least sin’s contagion their poore soules might slaughter
Then cease your sad laments I am but gone
To reape aboue what I belowe haue sowne
Ao aetat VIXIt obIIt SVperIs
MarIa GaLe IohannI ELfroD Vxor tertIa
heV obIIt eX pVerperIo Erectum fuit Ao 1650.
‘The chronogram in the first Latin line reads 25 as her age. That in the two succeeding lines 1642, as the date of her death. The numerals 1650 indicate when the monument was erected.’ (Hamilton Rogers, 1895, 186)
Ford has an acrostic – a series of lines whose first letters spell a word or name – in his prefatory dedication of his poem Fame’s Memorial to Penelope Devereux, countess of Devonshire, and uses the anagram of his name (spelt Iohn Forde) ‘Fide Honor’ on the title pages of his later plays. In the churchyard at Ilsington there is a chronogram written on the tombstone of George Ford who died in 1663, almost certainly a close relative of the playwright. The lines on an hourglass in The Lover’s Melancholy, IV, III, 56-63:
Minutes are numbered by the fall of sands;
As by an hour-glass, the span of time
Doth waste us to our graves, and we look on it.
An age of pleasures revel’d out, comes home
At last and ends in sorrow, but the life
Weary of riot, numbers every Sand,
Wailing in sighs, until the last drop down,
So to conclude calamity in rest.
recall the hourglass John Elford designed on the small monument now over the porch of Sheepstor Church, with the caption ‘Ut hora, sic vita’.
While Ford appears at home in the same symbolic world as Elford, and the poem Christ’s Bloody Sweat is certainly a work of religious devotion, the conventional religious content in Elford’s monuments, as typified by the epitaph on Mary Elford in Widecombe Church with its emphasis on a better life after death, is eschewed by Ford, whose concern in his plays is very definitely with how we should live on earth. This is an important difference and points towards the conclusion that the striking similarity in tone between the work of Ford and Elford (small and amateur though the latter’s output was), involving an imaginative independent stoicism in the face of granite circumstance, hardly Catholic but certainly anti-Puritan in its dependence on symbolism, is not the result of a possible personal link, but limns out a Dartmoor culture as common ancestor to the work of both.
John Elford, a man who like some of Ford’s male relatives was a yeoman farmer cum tinner living and working on the moor, is the only truly representative figure in early 17th century Dartmoor culture whose work we have any knowledge of, at a time when (as we can deduce from the popularity of Elizabethan drama across the social scale) educated culture had still not quite diverged from that of uneducated people. Through studying the work of Elford, we can see something of the nature of the cultural influence that Dartmoor would have had on Ford during his childhood particularly, but also throughout his working life.
In Ford’s last play, The Lady’s Trial performed at the Cockpit in 1638, two men who are close friends have the curiously similar names of Auria and Aurelio – could the el difference be a reference to the difference between Ford and Elford? If he was living in Devon, or even coming to visit, we can speculate that some of his work would have been read and performed in private houses on Dartmoor, perhaps Elford’s.
What of the dramatic background on Dartmoor? The best-documented tradition of religious plays in Devon is recorded from the Dartmoor stannary town of Ashburton; likewise the most detailed records for a Robin Hood play tradition in Devon come from the Dartmoor stannary town of Chagford (Wasson 1986). Since the tin-mining stannaries of Dartmoor had links with those in Cornwall – until the twelfth century they were a single organisation – and Cornish drama was vigorous during the medieval period (Bakere, 1980) it may be no coincidence that strong dramatic traditions in Devon should be linked with tin-mining areas. There is no direct evidence for plays at either Ashburton or Chagford after 1564, but Ford perhaps refers to the Hood play in The Lover’s Melancholy 1, II, lines 10-14, when Rhetias says, in an apt and perceptive summary of its function:
Why should not I, a May-game, scorn the weight
Of my sunk fortunes? Snarl at the vices
Which rot the land, and without fear or wit
Be mine own antic?
and it is possible that the tradition of playing Hood in the East Dartmoor area continued far enough into Ford’s Dartmoor childhood for him to witness it – there is a mention of a silver arrow, possibly used in a Hood play, in a Chagford church inventory as late at 1587 (Wasson, 1986 xxv). Catholicism was tolerant of such traditional activities – Mary’s reign, for instance, brought about the revival of the Hood game in Chagford. Hood traditions continued underground in more remote, unreformed areas of the country after the accession of Protestant Elizabeth, even to the extent of surfacing on one or two occasions during the seventeenth century (Wiles, 1981). Dartmoor, in places like Ilsington which later during the Civil War hid Royalists on the run (Crossing, 1912, 310), may have been remote enough for the Hood play to have escaped the attention of the Protestant authorities. The play is recorded in East Devon (at Woodbury) as late as 1582 , and there is no particular reason, given its earlier prevalence on East Dartmoor, why it should not have been part of the childhood cultural background of John Ford. Probably his parents and certainly his grandparents would have memories of both Hood plays and religious plays in Ashburton and Chagford.
On the other side of Dartmoor, we find a reference to the Queen’s Players coming to the stannary town of Tavistock and being paid for a performance in 1561, and a record of the Players of Tavistock also being paid for a performance in the same year. The Players of Tavistock are recorded as being paid for a performance in the Plymouth Receivers’ Accounts for 1568-9 . Again, the Earl of Warwick’s Servants were paid for a play in Tavistock in 1572-2 .
Visits to Devon by touring theatre companies from London occurred throughout the second half of the 16th century. When Edward Alleyn led Lord Strange’s Company on a tour in 1593, they performed Marlowe’s Dr Faustus at Exeter in a building. A manuscript in the British Museum records that ‘wherein the play of Dr Faustus, the evil one himself suddenly appeared by the side of Mephistopheles to the dismay of the audience, who fled from the house and to the terror of the players who left the town’ (Crane, 1980, 13). Ford would have been seven years of age at the time, and he could have attended this performance, or at least had the incident related to him by someone who did. The Witch of Edmonton (1621), on which Ford collaborated with Thomas Dekker and William Rowley, shows the influence of Dr Faustus, seen through the eyes of a Dartmoor boy, in an especially unnerving manner when, during a scene which Ford is generally agreed to have written (Onat, 1980), a devil disguised as a dog prompts a young man to murder his girlfriend in a field by rubbing up against him. It is highly probable that he would have come across Dartmoor legends of evil dogs – the same legends that eventually inspired The Hound of the Baskervilles. The combination of Dr Faustus and Dartmoor folklore at an early age would have been a potent force on the imagination of an intelligent and sensitive boy, and can perhaps be directly traced in passages from later plays of which Ford was sole author.
Ford’s role in writing The Witch of Edmonton suggests he had an interest in and knowledge of witchcraft which Dartmoor folklore would have been well-placed to provide, even in days when witchcraft was a regular topic of conversation. And passages from other plays such as:
The doublers of a hare, or, in a morning,
Salutes from a splay-footed witch, to drop
Three drops of blood at th’nose, just and no more…
The Broken Heart, V, I, 12-14
where the odd precision of the lore echoes Dartmoor folktales (for example Brown, 1983), contribute to the impression that Ford’s experience of witch lore was had at first hand during his Dartmoor childhood. The Witch of Edmonton also gives us the first theatrical glimpse of Ford’s sympathy for women who have broken society’s sexual code in his depiction of the character of Winnifrede.
Could it be that Ford had a hand in writing a play with an overtly Dartmoor connection, The Play of Dick of Devonshire? (Rowe, 1905). This is an anonymous play, written after 1625 but probably not much after, and based in part on the adventures of Richard Peeke of Tavistock, who travelled with an ill-fated expedition to Cadiz in 1625, and performed a series of heroic feats about which he almost immediately published a pamphlet. In spite of the play’s title, the main plot is a story about rape and its aftermath, set in Spain. This is exactly the sort of subject which would have appealed to Ford at this time, and the style of some of the play has similarities with the Ford scenes in The Witch of Edmonton. Compare for instance:
Eleonora: I know you will defend me.
Henrico Will defend thee!
Have I a life, a soul that in thy service
I would not wish expir’d! I do but borrow
Myself from thee.
Eleonora: Rather you put to Interest
And for that principal you have credited
To Eleonora her heart is paid back
As the just Usury.
Henrico: You undo me, sweet,
With too much love: if ere I marry thee
I fear thou’lt kill me.
Henrico: With tend’ring me too much, my Eleonora:
For in my conscience thou’lt extremely love me,
And extremes often kill.
Eleonora: There can be no extreme of love, Sir.
Henrico: Yes, but there may: and some say Jealousy
Runs from the Sea, a rivolet but deducted
From the main channel.
Eleonora: This is a new language.
The Play of Dick of Devonshire II, II (Rowe, 1905, 46)
with the psychology of The Witch of Edmonton Act II, Scene II, agreed to be Ford’s work (Onat, 1980), in which Susan’s too open display of affection begins to irk Frank. Compare also these lines
Eleonora: Your father’s house will prove no castle to me
If you at home do wound me. ‘Twas an angel
Spoke in you lately not my cheek should be
Made pale with fear. Lay not a lasting blush
On my white name. No hair should perish here
Was vowed even now: Oh let not a black deed,
And by my sworn preserver, be my death,
My ever living death. Henrico, call
To mind your holy vows: think on our parents,
Ourselves, our honest names: do not kill all
With such a murthering piece. You are not long
T’expect, with the consent of men and angels,
That which to take now from me will be loss,
A loss of heaven to thee. Oh, do not pawn it
For a poor minute’s sin.
Henrico: If’t be a work , madam, of so short time
Pray let me beg a minute’s privacy:
‘Twill soon be done.
Eleonora: Yes, but the horror of
So foul a deed shall never: there’s laid up
Eternity of wrath in hell for lust.
Oh ’tis the devil’s exercise. Henrico,
You are a man, a man whom I have laid up
Nearest my heart: in you ’twill be a sin
To threaten heaven and dare that justice throw
Down thunder at you. Come, I know you do
But try my virtue, whether I be proof
Against another’s battery: for these tears-
Henrico: Nay, then I see you need will try my strength:
My blood’s on fire, I boil with expectation
To meet the pleasure and I will.
The Play of Dick of Devonshire. II, II (Rowe 1905, 49-50)
with The Witch of Edmonton Act I, Scene I, 156-208, also acknowledged to be by Ford (Onat, 1980), particularly lines 175-179:
Winnifrede: O blush to speak it further:
As y’are a noble Gentleman, forget
A sin so monstrous: ’tis not gently done
To open a cur’d wound. I know you speak
For trial; troth you need not.
Sir Arthur. I for trial?
or again with these lines from The Queen:
Alphonso: Y’are too saucy.
Return and quickly too, and tell her thus –
If she intend to keep her in our favour,
Let us not see her.
Columella: Say you so, great Sir;
You speak it but for trial.
The Queen or the Excellency of her Sex, D2
In addition to the striking similarities in the sympathy evinced for the plight of women, the language in these passages from The Play of Dick of Devonshire is suggestive of Ford in his later sole-authorship plays, even down to the echoing of an earlier famous play, The Revenger’s Tragedy, in ‘poor minute’s sin’. It has Ford’s typical clarity, his sparing use of imagery, his procession of simple but powerful symbolic nouns and verbs such as ‘soul’, ‘love’, ‘heart’, ‘angel’, ‘hell’, ‘devil’, ‘blush’, ‘wound’, ‘heaven’, ‘sea’, ‘tears’, ‘blood’, ‘fire’, ‘lust’, and ‘boil’ (Huebert, 1977, 129-161), with a rhythmic pace often held back for emotional effect by line endings which break the sense. The denouement of the play turns on a law-court scene which demonstrates exactly the sort of concerns with justice which Ford exhibits in his later plays. Ford even uses the name Guzman, which is the name of the leading family in The Play of Dick of Devonshire, to represent a Spaniard in The Lady’s Trial.
Yet ironically the episodes in The Play of Dick of Devonshire which deal specifically with the Tavistock man Richard Peeke do not form a likely subject for Ford. What is the explanation? It has long been recognised, as J. Brooking Rowe remarks in his introduction to the play, that the Peeke episodes have little connection with the main plot, and seem to have been inserted to give the play an English, or a Devonian interest. The playwright, or playwriting team, has faithfully adapted the pamphlet which Peeke published about his adventures and skilfully joined it to another narrative set in Spain by using the name Fernando, who is merely an ancient soldier in Peeke’s account, as the father of the wronged Eleonora, as well as arranging for Peeke to be tried in the same court as Henrico. This suggests an original unperformed play by Ford, perhaps written just before The Witch of Edmonton, which he himself later cannibalised (because it happened to be set in Spain) to produce a topical play about a Devon hero in Spain at the request of a theatre manager, probably in conjunction with others. That manager may have had a tour of Devon in mind which would take in Tavistock and turned to Ford because Ford was a Devon and Dartmoor man. The fact that the city of Plymouth at this time was avidly paying touring companies not to play (Wasson, 1986, xx) indicates companies from London were still touring the West Devon area.
It was not, however, for an interest in witches or ‘fallen’ women that Ford was caricatured among his contemporaries; it was for his melancholy:
Deep in a dump Jack Ford was alone got
With folded arms and melancholy hat
runs the couplet in a jingle by one of his contemporaries. Ford collaborated on a number of plays apart from The Witch of Edmonton, most of which are lost , but the first surviving play to be performed of which he was sole author was probably The Lover’s Melancholy in 1628 (although we have no idea of the date of The Queen). The Lover’s Melancholy uses ideas from Robert Burton’s recently published The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), and may have earned Ford his melancholic reputation. The idea expounded in the play, that the melancholy resulting from the frustration or abuse of love can gradually poison a society, is one which goes on to permeate Ford’s three tragedies – The Broken Heart, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and Love’s Sacrifice. Starting almost where Shakespeare left off in his late romances Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest (plays which seem to shift the centre of dramatic gravity towards heroines who have been wronged by the uncontrolled passions of a male world) Ford proceeds in his first four plays to draw a series of sympathetic female characters who suffer at the hands of male authority but maintain their love for the man of their choice.
Eroclea in The Lovers’ Melancholy is preyed on by the father of her lover, and has – almost literally – to change her sex (by disguising herself as a boy) in order to survive. Penthea in The Broken Heart is forced by her brother to break off a relationship with the man she loves and to marry another against her will; she crushes all hope in her lover for his own sake, and eventually goes mad and dies. Calantha in the same play is told as she dances at a state marriage ceremony that her father, her friend and her lover have all died; her stoicism in the face of these calamities as she continues dancing out of duty to the occasion seems to have conquered the situation, but eventually such extremes of self-control exact their price, and in the last scene she drops dead from the eponymous broken heart. Annabella in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is forced by the consequences of being her brother’s lover to marry another man she has no love for, and dies at the hands of her brother, because he believes that she has broken faith with him. Bianca in Love’s Sacrifice is killed by a jealous husband who has trapped her in a loveless marriage, to which she has nevertheless remained loyal, in spite of loving his best friend. Bianca is the most complex of these heroines, a character in which human changeability, properly acknowledged, is shown as the raw material for nobility of spirit.
T.S. Eliot (1953) accused Ford, among other playwrights of his time, of having no conception of what Shakespeare was trying to do. There is a sense in which this may be true – at least to the extent that few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries were able to approach his level of poetry-in-action and action-in-poetry. But the evidence of Ford’s plays, particularly when seen in the context of Ford’s childhood background on remote Dartmoor with its powerful maternal justice-orientated strand, can be used to argue that Ford knew what Shakespeare was trying to do well enough to find him wanting in his view of women and sexual love, and to challenge him on this important issue. Hence Ford’s reworkings of the plots of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Othello among other Shakespeare plays, as well as those by Shakespeare’s successors, such as Middleton and Webster, which deal with the relationship between men and women. Eliot calls ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore ‘meaningless’ because it is not ‘somehow dramatising… an action or struggle for harmony in the soul of the poet’ (Eliot, 1953). He fails to see unity and development in the sequence of Ford’s work, because he fails to understand this challenge to Shakespeare. He misses Ford’s overriding concern with, and belief in the value of, sexual love between men and women as equal partners, which hides under the surface of the bizarre events his plays chronicle, but which makes him, as Havelock Ellis correctly argues, closer to our contemporary thought than is Shakespeare (Ellis, 1888). Ford chose plots containing these out-of-the ordinary events not for the sake of exotic sensation, but because he needed extreme conditions to develop and test his positive vision in order to make it proof against corrosive Jacobean cynicism .
In each of Ford’s first four major plays, sexual love, in the form of concern for the loved-one’s well-being, is seen as the central redeeming virtue, whether it leads to culminating happiness as in the Lover’s Melancholy, or to tragedy, as in the other three, The Broken Heart, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and Love’s Sacrifice. Those who wilfully abuse or frustrate this redeeming love are generally repaid by disgrace, but not before they have brought ruin on the world court they inhabit, and destroyed the lives of those who exhibit it. To talk of redemption is not to exaggerate; sexual love for Ford has a religious value, symbolised for example by the persistent equation of the heart of a lover with the tomb or coffin. Giovanni says of Annabella’s:
‘Tis a heart
A heart, my lords, in which is mine entombed.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, V, VI
and Fernando declares to Bianca:
If, when I am dead, you rip
This coffin of my heart, there shall you read
With constant eyes, what now my tongue defines,
Bianca’s name carved out in bloody lines.
Love’s Sacrifice, II, III
The religious connotations of this reach their full extent in the final scene of Love’s Sacrifice when Fernando appears alive at the opening of Bianca’s tomb, in keeping with his promise to her that ‘that supulchre that holds/Your coffin shall incoffin me alive’. (L.S. V,I, 22-23). The use of the word ‘sepulchre’ must put a church-going audience in mind of the tomb where Christ was laid after the crucifixion. The implication is that Bianca’s heart is the tomb in which Fernando’s finds his resurrection. Unlike Shakespeare’s romance plays, love in Ford’s three tragedies redeems the characters who show it without physically saving them or their world. This linking of sexual love with the passion of Christ is implicit in the title of Love’s Sacrifice, and argues that sexual love between a man and a woman was for Ford the human experience most fitted to achieve transcendence. Reciprocated sexual love of itself is always presented by Ford as good, even when its practical outcome is recognised as wrong by the audience, and even when Ford suggests that those involved do not deal with it as well as they might.
This is the ‘meaning’ which Eliot failed to find in the subject matter of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and this is what distinguishes Love’s Sacrifice, for instance, from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, which it deliberately echoes in a number of places. Technically Webster’s Duchess is doing nothing wrong by marrying Antonio, her steward – she is a widow and he is unmarried. Although Antonio is beneath her in rank, there is no legal or religious reason for the audience of Webster’s day, or indeed ours, why their marriage should not take place. What argue against it are pragmatic considerations: the obstacles of snobbish expectations and political expediency which it is foolhardy for her to try and overcome. We pity and sympathise with her victimisation by the forces of political greed and male jealousy which destroy her. We are touched by the exquisite realism of the love-scenes between the Duchess and Antonio – touched but not torn, because it is all black-and-white. Webster’s protagonists hide their love not, as it were, from God but from a world which is hostile to God. Shakespeare’s problem with female sexuality has been side-stepped, not solved, by embodying male jealousy in the figure of the Duchess’ mad brother Ferdinand. The implication that the male is mad to have any problem with female sexuality does not make the problem go away. For all its tenderness and hints at companionship, the sexual relationship in The Duchess of Malfi is besieged by Shakespearean supernatural omens of doom, as if it went somehow against the natural order that two people should love like this. The difference here is that in Shakespeare the natural order is essentially good, whereas in Webster it appears essentially bad.
Ford on the other hand, after isolating them as symptoms of melancholy in his first mature play, does away almost entirely with the spine-chilling but darkly imprecise symbols of ghosts, wolves, ravens, yew-trees and screech-owls that abound in Webster. He is out to demonstrate how the sexual love he leads his audience to sympathise with poses a potential threat not to the natural order, but to their own cultural sense of moral and social order. In a world where there are no obvious villains like Ferdinand, and where there is no outraged natural order foretelling doom and urging on revenge in portents, the unpredictable element in sexual love, particularly when sexual love is newly approved as a motive for behaviour by a society with ancient codes of honour and class, would still throw up conundrums as intractable as those at the centre of The Broken Heart, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Love’s Sacrifice. Ford’s plays consistently argue for women to be treated with compassion in sexual matters, rather than judged by higher standards than men as part of a self-centred struggle within the male soul, as the best way to face these conundrums.
Ford’s early pamphlet Honour Triumphant, written in 1606 ‘in honour of all fair ladies and in defence of these four positions following – 1, Knights in Ladies service have no free-will. 2, Beauty is the maintainer of valour. 3, Fair Lady was never false. 4, Perfect lovers are only wise’ suggests, even allowing for the irony evident in the extravagance of its propositions, that as a young man he was very taken with the cult of chivalry towards women as developed in medieval love poetry under the troubadours and brought to its fullest expression by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. The combination of Ford’s early enthusiasm for ‘romantic love’, evidenced by Fame’s Memorial, with his later experience as a playwright working in a down-to-earth stage tradition which was haunted by images of women as whores meant that he was in a good position to understand the tension between these two positions. That it was a tension which ran right through medieval European culture is confirmed by the most cursory acquaintance with the work of Chaucer or Boccaccio. In the works of these two men, stories which glorify courtly love and religiously-inspired chastity rub shoulders with bawdy stories of uninhibited sexuality in which all the mores of the former are transgressed. It is as if two different moral worlds existed side by side in these men’s work without any attempt being made to reconcile them. The influence of the earlier Dante, who had sought a coherent approach to his love for the opposite sex by transforming it into an allegory for divine love, proved more powerful as the Reformation gathered force, encouraging the non-physical elements of sexual love as Dante’s allegory lost its force and came to be taken more literally. Once the concept of sexual love was allowed the religious position epitomised by Dante’s treatment of Beatrice in his Divine Comedy, and the allegory was forgotten, of necessity ‘romantic love’ gained a place in moral thinking as a motive for belief and action rather than just a means to reproduction.
As soon as this filtered through to the practical matter of marriage, with its economic implications, conflict inevitably ensued. If relationships between men and women are allowed to be contracted on the unpredictable basis of sexual love, which requires independent equals capable of exercising real choice, rather than using the calculated method of family arrangement for dependants who will do as they are told, respect for sexual love in women cannot help challenging the moral order of the extended family, dominated in the 17th century by male ownership. This is the challenge which leads so many powerful male characters in the plays of Ford’s time to brand women as ‘strumpets’ or ‘whores’ the moment they are suspected of exercising the sort of sexual choice which men take for granted. Webster’s Cardinal Monticelso sums up the perceived threat which the ‘whore’ poses to the order of his day, ending with a tacit reference to the economic implications:
What’s a whore?
She’s like the guilty counterfeited coin
Which, whoso’er first stamps it, brings in trouble
All that receive it.
The White Devil, III, I, 99-102
Allowing sexual love to govern a man’s affairs was seen as so dangerous that such love either had to be fixed for ever, or at the first whiff of change condemned out of hand as lust, and escaped from: ‘Woman to man/ Is either a god or a wolf’, says Bracciano in The White Devil (Act IV, I 20-21), excusing his jealousy. By contrast, when Isabella in the same play exhibits jealousy (albeit as an act), she loses her brother’s sympathy immediately and for the only time.
Francisco: Look upon other women, with what patience
They suffer these slight wrongs…Now by my birth you are a foolish, mad
And jealous womanThe White Devil II, I, 238-9 and 262-3
Unless men believed that women were more constant and less subject to sexual whim than men, it was not possible to approve of women exercising sexual choice in the personal sphere, while still espousing male ownership of the economic sphere, without inducing a vertiginous feeling of loss of control. The exaggerated sense of horror, out of all proportion to the reality of the situations, evinced by certain of Shakespeare and Webster’s male characters when they encounter what they see as inconstancy in women – Troilus, Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Leontes, Posthumus, Bracciano, Ferdinand – can only be interpreted as being produced by a welling up of insecurity.
In Hamlet particularly, the playwright is confronted by one of the most disturbing consequences of men contemplating women as psychological equals: men have to take a different view of their mothers, from whom they originate and derive their psychological security. Instead of being able to treat mother and girl-friend as if they were different species, idolising the first and playing with the second like a pet, Hamlet is forced by the events of the play in the direction of seeing both as vulnerable individuals like himself. And instead of being able to escape from the consequences of male sexuality by dividing the female sex into angels and whores, Hamlet is compelled by his humanity to examine the inconsistency in himself, and by extension in every man of his time.
There were two ways out of this conundrum. One was to look backwards to the morality and feudal social structure of the middle ages, the path taken by Cyril Tourneur in The Revenger’s Tragedy, which was first performed in 1606 and follows Hamlet in having the guilt of a mother as a major theme. In passages such as:
O, more uncivil, more unnatural,
Than those base-titled creatures that look downward.
Why does not heaven turn black, or with a frown
Undo the world? Why does not earth start up
And strike the sins that tread upon’t? O
Were’t not for gold and women, there would be no damnation;
Hell would look like a lord’s great kitchen without fire in’t.
But ‘twas decreed before the world began,
That they should be the hooks to catch at man.
Who’d sit at home in a neglected room,
Dealing her short-lived beauty to the pictures
That are as useless as old men, when those
Poorer in face and fortune than herself
Walk with a hundred acres on their backs,
Fair meadows cut into green foreparts? O,
It was the greatest blessing ever happened to woman,
When farmers’ sons agreed and met again,
To wash their hands and come up gentlemen.
The commonwealth has flourished ever since:
Lands that were mete by the rod, that labour’s spar’d;
Tailors ride down, and measure ‘em by the yard.
Fair trees, those comely foretops of the field,
Are cut to maintain head-tires – much untold.
All thrives but Chastity, she lies a-cold.
The Revenger’s Tragedy II, I, 208-222 and 246-254
Tourneur, through his leading character Vindice, diagnoses the sickness of the times as the abandonment of old values. What enables Vindice to bear the appalling series of events depicted in the play with ultimate Senecan stoicism is the fact that his mother and his sister, after dark moments when they waver, are shown to revert to these values in the traditional manner by refusing an illicit male sexual advance. As a result his security remains intact:
I’faith, we’re well: our mother turn’d, our sister true,
We die after a nest of dukes – adieu.
The Revenger’s Tragedy V, III, 121-3
It is precisely the troubling implications of female sexual choice exercised in a society where women are dependent on men which have led so many male critics since to prefer the picture of perfect innocence in Desdemona and Imogen to the reality of flawed good-nature in Bianca and Annabella. Yet it is Ford’s work which represents the other, forward-looking way out of the conundrum; in his plays a new standard for male behaviour is developed rather than an old standard for female behaviour harked back to.
Up until the Reformation the split between religious asceticism on the one hand and pagan sensuality on the other had been a kind of universal fault line for the deep tensions at work between codes, sexes and classes. Deviation from what Christian religion stipulated could be passed off as sin and forgiven, as long as the eventual orientation was towards the ascetic. Sexuality could be embraced, provided that at the last it was repudiated, as in Chaucer’s final recanting. As the Reformation progressed, with its Lutheran emphasis on the individual’s direct relationship with God superseding the authoritarian mediation of the Catholic priesthood, the pressure of conscience argued for a more consistent approach to sexual behaviour than sin and forgiveness. Shakespeare struggled towards a view of life which promoted women’s importance to men at the cost of sublimating their physical sexuality. His immediate followers reworked his conclusions in a more pessimistic light, suggesting not only that women’s physical sexuality was essentially destructive, if only by default, but that it could not be satisfactorily sublimated because there was no belief-system worth sublimating it to. This pessimism, though, was still predicated on a paradigm in which asceticism was opposed to sensuality, even if the asceticism was now seen as having largely lost its religious meaning.
Ford attacks the whole problem from a different angle to the earlier playwrights. Instead of regarding the physical side of love between men and women as a tempting serpent to be kept under control by various snake-charming rituals, which was Shakespeare’s final word on the matter in The Tempest, Ford sees it as the fountain of spiritual life. His plays chart what happens to the human spirit when this fountain is suppressed or forced into the wrong channels by cultural mixed-messages. The Broken Heart in particular suggests the horrific consequences of adhering rigidly to a view of chastity – the view implicit in Shakespeare’s late plays – which goes against the grain of natural human passions. By doing so, Ford prevents the familiar division along the old fault line of asceticism and sensuality, and this is what has made him so uncomfortable a figure.
Forbidden sexual love in Ford’s tragedies is forbidden not so much by entrenched and reprehensible external authority as by the internal censure with which our culture programmes us. It is this division of the cultural soul which produces Ford’s characteristic effect on his audience, and has earned his work epithets such as ‘melancholic’ and ‘painful’. In the most extreme manifestations of this division, characters who follow the incompatible courses of action their cultural code dictates – faithfulness to ‘true love’ on the one hand, and on the other obedience to the status quo involving what we might refer to in positive terms as ‘putting a brave face on things’ and ‘making the best of a bad job’ – can pine away to death through unresolvable inner suffering almost without consciously articulating the conflict, as in the cases of Penthea and Calantha.
In The Broken Heart the solution tried by Penthea in her forbidden love for Orgilus is to accept the husband, Bassanes, who has been forced on her by her brother Ithocles, and to persuade Orgilus that he must forget their previous relationship. In a blaze of self-sacrifice which consumes her inwardly, she even tries to overcome her resentment of her brother by undertaking to plead with Calantha on his behalf. Eventually Penthea comes to feel she has broken faith with Orgilus by accepting Bassanes, and she starves herself to death in madness. On the other hand Calantha in the same play is consumed inwardly by keeping faith with her dead lover Ithocles while outwardly keeping up appearances and upholding her duty to the Spartan state, traditionally a byword for mental toughness. She drops dead of the eponymous broken heart before she can marry the man she is compelled by her code to accept as husband, Nearchos, prince of Argos. Recalling the story of the Spartan boy who stole a fox and hid it under his cloak when accosted, refusing to admit to the crime even while the fox gnawed into his vital organs, The Broken Heart is literally a depiction of savage emotional evisceration underneath a cloak of honour.
In ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore Giovanni and Annabella try to solve the problem of their incestuous love by pursuing its physical fulfilment and hiding it. When Annabella becomes pregnant, she is forced to marry her unwanted suitor Soranzo to keep up appearances. She becomes habituated to living with Soranzo and cannot cope with continuing her relationship with her brother. The audience’s sympathy is engaged in such a way that we feel on the one hand that incest is wrong, but on the other hand that Annabella’s dawning habituation to the conventionally ‘right’ course of action – sexual acceptance of husband Soranzo – is also wrong, a betrayal forced on her by her culture. Ford’s skill at character drawing allows us to sympathise with Annabella, even while we feel she is betraying what she has lived for by trying to accept convention and save her brother’s life. Giovanni’s eventual complaint is that Annabella has not been ‘steady’, has not kept faith with their mutual oaths because she has decided to be a proper wife to Soranzo. To Giovanni, this is Annabella becoming a whore, and he kills her. In the eyes of their society, and in Giovanni’s eyes for entirely different reasons, Annabella is condemned for the whore of the title – but not in the eyes of the audience, who are left feeling compassion for her.
In Love’s Sacrifice Bianca at first rejects her husband’s friend Fernando’s advances; later, she comes to him at night and confesses she loves him, but states that if he fulfils his physical longing for her, she must kill herself because of her vows to her husband, Caraffa. They agree (with some waverings on both sides, whose exact degree is obscured by a missing passage in the text) to hold off from physical fulfilment, so neither suppressing nor indulging their passion. They die eventually because of other people’s envy and suspicion, Bianca murdered and Fernando by his own hand from grief. These two do manage to keep faith with each other and with the letter of society’s code, but only because death intervenes.
The three solutions in these plays, all of which end in death for the lovers, could be superficially categorised in Elizabethan philosophical terms as Stoic, Epicurean and Platonic. More than this, each play presents towards its ending a masque-like symbolic action which serves as an icon for the corresponding emotional state – in The Broken Heart it is Calantha’s formal dance which continues uninterrupted despite the announcement of three deaths, in ’Tis Pity it is Giovanni’s entrance at the feast carrying Annabella’s heart on the point of his sword, and in Love’s Sacrifice it is Fernando’s appearance from Bianca’s tomb wrapped in a winding-sheet. But over and above a sense that the three tragedies form a triptych , which studiedly sets each examination of forbidden love in a different context, the situations in which Ford’s characters find themselves impress us as some of the most excruciatingly human in all drama; they are also psychologically extremely complicated, and it is Ford’s achievement as a dramatist and poet that he is able to wrest out of this complexity a delineation of sexual love we can sympathise with.
Shakespeare had found this hard, and his attitude to sexual love remained deeply ambivalent – in Troilus and Cressida, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and particularly Antony and Cleopatra sexual love between men and women is linked to self-ruin, and his last plays are dominated by non-sexual love between father and daughter. In The Lover’s Melancholy Ford is not yet quite sure of his subject – while suggesting the far-reaching effects of love frustrated, he goes along with the late Shakespearean paradigm of the good chaste daughter rejuvenating the disillusioned father figure. Explicit sexuality is relegated to an ugly incident which is got out of the way before the play starts, to some jokes around cross-dressing and to the waiting woman Kala’s few frank comments. The same could not be said of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and by the time Ford wrote Love’s Sacrifice, which deals with some of the same themes as Shakespeare’s Othello but from a completely different angle, Ford was prepared to challenge Shakespeare’s view of the love-relationship head on. Bianca and Fernando tread the finest, yet most human, of lines between Platonic love which is bloodless because too good to be true, and unfettered sexual passion which is prepared to destroy vows and lives. Both feel the strongest of sexual passions for each other, both have been prepared to give themselves to the other, but both have respected each other’s well-being at the highest level, and, almost in spite of themselves, both have retained their innocence (or integrity as we might now call it) not only in conventional terms, but – far more difficult – in terms of being true to themselves and to each other. Bianca in particular is a creation with which Ford deliberately challenges the unsatisfactory (because too innocent to be human) Shakespearean concept of female chastity embodied by Desdemona in Othello.
The charge of moral collapse which Havelock Ellis (1888) levels at the ending of Love’s Sacrifice is the complaint of a critic who for all his championship of Ford is unable to cope with something at the core of Ford’s enterprise. Ellis is able to go along with Ford so long as it is matter of compassion for human failings – what he balks at is Ford’s implicit assertion that human changeability, properly acknowledged, is the basic material of human steadiness. Love’s Sacrifice argues that we cannot ask any more of human nature than we find in Bianca and Fernando in such circumstances. Their reaction to the position they find themselves in is all we can expect faith and chastity to be – moreover, what is crucial, Ford is still prepared to revere these concepts in the new light he casts on them. At the end of Love’s Sacrifice Ford very deliberately shows how the deaths of individuals reveal the volatility of a conventional view of them. Death turns Bianca from a potential whore into a chaste wife in Caraffa’s eyes. More striking still, Fernando, who has been railed at by Caraffa as a ‘man of darkness’ moments before, becomes his ‘friend unmatched’ the instant he is dead. Caraffa’s volatility serves to emphasise by contrast the consistency of Bianca’s character. Caraffa, with his black-and-white morality, does not seem to know what he really feels about any of his close associates, while Bianca is very sure of her feelings throughout the play. In spite of trying to put him off, she has always loved Fernando. She also respects Caraffa. Even when he calls her a whore and brandishes a sword at her, her liking for him shines calmly through:
Alas, good man! put up, put up; thine eyes
Are likelier much to weep than arms to strike:
Love’s Sacrifice, V, I, 70-1
Because the argument around faith and chastity in Ford’s time had focused very much on women, setting them far higher standards than men, ultimately Ford’s passion for fairness coincides with his concern for the psychological equality of women (although a concern with equality does not prevent him being well aware of the differences between the sexes, as the different responses of Bianca and Fernando to being in love demonstrate). This concern is what makes him seem modern to us. With something of a legal instinct, he allows women, as human beings, exactly the same sexual license as men. As Spinella puts it in The Lady’s Trial:
Subject to punishments, and men’s applauded,
Prescribe no laws in force.
The Lady’s Trial V, II, 114-116
The sub-plot in Love’s Sacrifice involves a young man called Ferentes’ betrayal of three women, each of whom he has made pregnant and promised to marry, indulging in the sort of sexual license commonly allowed to men down the ages. The public disgrace and consequences of this misbehaviour are borne not by Ferentes but by the three women, who decide to get together, laying aside their rivalry, to carry out their revenge. When Fernando suggests a ‘device’ to entertain the Abbot on his visit:
I saw in Brussels, at my being there,
The Duke of Brabant welcome the Archbishop
Of Mentz with rare conceit, even on a sudden,
Performed by knights and ladies of his court,
In nature of an antic; which methought –
For that I ne’er before saw women antics –
Was for the newness strange, and much commended.
Love’s Sacrifice, Act III, Scene II, 16-22
the scene is set for the women to exact a very public retribution. Allowed to act along with Ferentes in an ‘antic’ or masque, they surround and stab him to death in front of the assembled court. It is significant that Fernando agrees to speak for one of the women who has no male relative available when they are imprisoned, showing his sympathy for the female sex even when ‘fallen’. This episode may seem rather horrific to us today, but the action – and as a good dramatist Ford was always seeking actions as icons for ideas – represents a stark reminder to the audience of his time that a woman had little or no access to the judicial system in cases such as this. As one of the three, Julia, declares with a baby in her arms, they are
unable to revenge:
Our public shames but by his public fall:
Love’s Sacrifice III, IV 33-4
At a deeper level, Ford’s radical attachment to the psychological equality of women is evinced by Bianca’s reply to her husband in response to his accusation of infidelity (Act V, Scene I, 69-131):
Duke. Tell me, bad woman, tell me what could move
Thy heart to crave variety of youth?
Bianca. I’ll tell you, if you needs would be resolved.
I held Fernando much the properer man.
Duke. Shameless, intolerable whore!
Bianca: … What ails you?
Can you imagine, sir, the name of duke
Could make a crooked leg, a scrambling foot,
A bloodless lip, or such an untrimmed beard
As yours, fit for a lady’s pleasure? no:
I wonder you could think ’twere possible,
When I had looked but once on your Fernando,
I ever could love you again; fie, fie!
Now, by my life, I thought that long ago
Y’had known it, and been glad you had a friend
Your wife did think so well of.
Duke: O my stars!
Here’s impudence above all history.
Why, thou detested reprobate in virtue,
Dar’st thou, without a blush, before mine eyes
Speak such immodest language?
Bianca: Dare! yes, ’faith.
You see I dare: I know what you would say now;
You would fain tell me how exceeding much
I am beholding to you, that vouchsafed
Me, from a simple gentlewoman’s place,
The honour of your bed: tis true, you did;
But why? twas but because you thought I had
A spark of beauty more than you had seen.
To answer this, my reason is the like;
The self-same appetite which led you on
To marry me led me to love your friend:
O, he’s a gallant man! if ever yet
Mine eyes beheld a miracle composed
Of flesh and blood, Fernando has my voice.
I must confess, my lord, that for a prince
Handsome enough you are, and – and no more;
But to compare yourself with him! trust me,
You are too much in fault. Shall I advise you?
Hark in your ear; thank Heaven he was so slow
As not to wrong your sheets; for as I live,
The fault was his, not mine…
I must confess I missed no means, no time,
To win him to my bosom; but so much,
So holily, with such religion,
He kept the laws of friendship, that my suit
Was held but, in comparison, a jest;
Nor did I ofter urge the violence
Of my affection, but as oft he urged
The sacred vows of faith twixt friend and friend:
Yet be assured, my lord, if ever language
Of cunning servile flatteries, entreaties,
Or what in me is, could procure his love,
I would not blush to speak it.
The element of taunting is less here than in Annabella’s similar reply to Soranzo’s accusations in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore Act IV Scene III, which Bianca echoes and develops with a calmer and more devastating argument. This passage has made uncomfortable reading for Ford’s male admirers, not only because of its emphasis on the psychological right of a woman to love where her fancy pleases, regardless of vows or obligation, in the same way that men have done from biblical times to the present, but also because of its elaboration of those uncontrollable elements of sexual feeling which threaten male security in a male-ordered society. Caraffa’s response shows his inability to cope with the real woman and her sexual appetite:
Duke: Such another
As thou art, miserable creature, would
Sink the whole sex of women: yet confess
What witchcraft used the wretch to charm the heart
Of the once spotless temple of thy mind?
For without witchcraft it could ne’er be done.
Love’s Sacrifice V, I, 131-6
Rather than totally abandon his illusory and inhuman picture of Bianca as ‘spotless’, he starts to accuse his friend Fernando of using witchcraft. He forgets that Bianca has only done what he himself asked of her in the first scene of the play:
Philippo and Fernando
Shall be without distinction – Look, Bianca,
On this good man; in all respects to him
Be as to me: only the name of husband,
And reverent observance of our bed,
Shall differ us in person, else in soul
We are all one.
Love’s Sacrifice I,I,,131-7.
Right to the end of the play Bianca is seen by Caraffa either as a devilish whore or a model of purity. She must either be his entirely, or go to hell. His attitude echoes that of Bracciano in The White Devil, who in his most anguished condemnation of his mistress Vittoria calls her ‘changeable stuff’, and above all that of Othello:
O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others’ uses.
Othello III, III 272-276
Only once can Caraffa countenance anything between, and that is when he hesitates over her murder: ‘Why should I kill her? she may live and change,/ Or -’. As Brian Opie points out, this forward-looking thought is swept away by his sister’s appeal to the ties of blood and the past with the words: ‘Dost thou wish to blemish all thy glorious ancestors?’ – just as Annabella’s forward-looking intention to change is ignored by Soranzo and literally killed off by Giovanni in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Ford has a particular concern with change, and psychological problems with change raised but not resolved by Shakespeare, Webster and others. Ultimately Ford sees change – despite the consequences this may have for security based on external fixed points – as something positive, provided that his characters have developed the inner security of personal integrity. The contrast with Thomas Middleton’s play Women Beware Women (1611), in which an ordinary girl also called Bianca leaves her marriage with a courtier to become a Duke’s mistress, setting in motion the moral corruption of all those around her, is most pointed and surely intended by Ford. The conventional morality of Middleton’s characters cannot cope with human weakness in the face of temptation – once tempted, there is no way back for them. By accepting human ‘weakness’ as natural and unalterable, Ford allows his characters to develop a morality which is preserved in the face of disaster.
Another play which is echoed by Love’s Sacrifice is The Changeling (1622) written by Middleton with William Rowley. The Changeling contains the same motif of a young woman changing her mind about an initially unwanted suitor. But the tone and the moral framework of the two plays are worlds apart. Nowhere is this shown more clearly than in the final treatment of the heroines. Middleton and Rowley’s heroine, Beatrice-Joanna, turns on her lover De Flores in a degrading attempt at self-preservation, in retaliation for which De Flores stabs her to death. Bianca, on the other hand, is prepared to incriminate herself in order to defend the man she loves. It is the defence of Fernando by Bianca to Caraffa which necessitates not only admission but exaggeration of the guilt of her passion for Fernando. And in return Fernando defends Bianca by admitting and exaggerating his own part. While Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores leave us with an impression of the power of sexual love to degrade and destroy, Bianca and Fernando leave us with an impression that sexual love is a positive force, even in an impossible situation. Both Bianca and Fernando confess their guilt, yet both turn out to be not only literally innocent, but exonerated in terms of the dynamics of the play’s climax, keeping the audience’s sympathy. Further, Ford also manages to keep our sympathy for their self-appointed judge, Caraffa, who fights his corner as his naiveté is swayed this way and that way by the avalanche of revelations, and retrieves some kind of dignity by accepting Fernando and Bianca’s love. In achieving this within the confines of society as it stood in those days, Ford nevertheless has to sacrifice the lives of all three of his protagonists.
What gives Love’s Sacrifice a particular balance among Ford’s works, is the character of Fiormonda, Caraffa’s sister, who instigates the tragic ending out of spite for her rejection by Fernando. There are not many bad women in the plays of Ford, and Fiormonda is a necessary reminder that if women are to be seen as men’s equals, then they can be equally bad as well as equally good. With an irony worthy of Christ’s forgiveness on the cross – and we should remember that the play’s title has exactly such religious connotations – this woman, who cut short her brother’s thought that Bianca should be allowed to live because she might change, is the one major character in the play given the opportunity to live and change. It is perhaps fitting that Ford should choose a woman in love as the vehicle to embody his cancelling of the Elizabethan revenge ethic derived from pre-Christian codes of honour with a Christian ethic of forgiveness. ‘Learn to new-live’ Roseilli tells her, turning on her the same injunction she herself delivered to D’Avalos her servant in an earlier scene. D’Avalos, whose motive has been that of a man calculatedly courting favour with his superior, is a kind of Judas-figure, unable to repent. Fiormonda, whose motive has been passion, albeit passion transformed to hatred, is able to see the error of her ways. She recognises that in spite of remaining technically ‘chaste’, and obeying the more ancient code of honour accepted by convention, she has allowed her behaviour to be governed by the self-interest of ‘lust’ rather than the concern for the beloved’s well-being implicit in love:
Abbot: Purge frailty with repentance.
Fiormonda. I embrace it.
Happy too late, since lust has made me foul.
Henceforth I’ll dress my bride-bed in my soul.
Love’s Sacrifice V, III, 161-3
There is one event deep in the heart of the play that has predisposed the audience to accept Fiormonda’s reprieve. Mauruccio is an elderly minor courtier whose love for Fiormonda has seemed so ridiculous to the court that he has been publicly laughed at. When he becomes unwittingly involved with Ferentes’ murder, he is imprisoned and only pardoned through the intervention of Fernando and Bianca, who sanction his marriage to the ‘fallen’ waiting-woman Morona. Caraffa , in his capacity as ruler of Pavy, allows Mauruccio’s freedom and his marriage to a woman who already has a baby out of wedlock, but banishes him from court. Fiormonda’s response is immediate and unprompted, and prompts Fernando:
Fior. Mauruccio, you did once proffer true love
To me, but since you are more thriftier sped,
For old affection’s sake here take this gold;
Spend it for my sake.
Fern. Madam, you do nobly, –
And that’s for me Mauruccio. [They give him money]
Love’s Sacrifice IV, I, 200-204
For a moment Fiormonda and Fernando are united in human sympathy which is made possible by seeing sexual love in its religious sense as ‘charity’ rather than love in its cynical sense as ‘lust’.
Love’s Sacrifice is the most criticised and least understood of Ford’s three tragedies. Havelock Ellis (1888) is not alone in being unable to come to terms with the realism of Ford’s depiction of Bianca as a chaste woman, with its implication that chastity in every desirable, full-blooded and kind-hearted woman is a broad attitude of mind which must include a roving eye, unfaithful thoughts and even actions, a positive tendency rather than something absolute. Gifford (1827), for instance, is unrestrained in his condemnation of Bianca, and the list extends to modern times – as recently as 1988 Michael Neill has described the protagonists of Love’s Sacrifice as ‘degenerate’(Neill, 1988). In many ways, though, Love’s Sacrifice stands at the centre of Ford’s output, his most carefully-constructed and most probing work, dramatically and psychologically radical in its investigation of love not from the view-point of the individual nor from the view-point of society, but from a position balanced somewhere between the two. It represents the culmination of his interest in the rights and wrongs of forbidden love which began with Fame’s Memorial, and through the character of Bianca he is able to exorcise the demon of the lust-ridden devilish female which haunts the other major Elizabethans as corollary of the inhumanly pure angel they sought in woman. Bianca is both full of sexual appetite and behaves with integrity.
Perhaps because of the intensity of the focus he achieves on this problem in Love’s Sacrifice, his blank verse in this play is at its clearest, and while it may lack some of the magical poetry of the love scenes in ’Tis Pity, the imagery is more consistent, and more insistent, in its economy and simplicity. Repetition of a few central key-words and phrases takes the place of elaboration through extended simile and metaphor – blood, the heart, the soul, the womb, spheres and stars, mirrors, tombs and coffins, Heaven, angels, devils, temples, horns, tables (meaning tablets), slaughter, butchery, leprosy, ice, the flames of hell, the flames of love: these are symbols which would be immediately understood by an audience which had only just emerged from the Middle Ages, and which was used to seeing them on the monuments, and hearing them from the pulpits, of their churches, deeply conventional yet powerfully emotive symbols with which to anchor the extremely unconventional thoughts and feelings of Ford’s characters (Gibson, 1988).
The dramatic construction of Love’s Sacrifice, too, is particularly cogent, not least for its constant use of the gallery. The gallery is a device which allows Ford time after time to show characters witnessing, at a distance and often incompletely, an intimate scene between other characters , from which conclusions are drawn which are only partly right. This enables him to question, like a good lawyer, our tendency to make unwarranted presumptions and to force into simple categories behaviour which is often too complex to fit them. It has been pointed out that Ford’s literary circle was closely bound up with the Inns of Court, and that he was writing at least in part for men trained at law. Love’s Sacrifice is dedicated to his cousin, another John Ford, who was a member of Gray’s Inn: appropriately enough, in view of the almost judicial trial of love-behaviour which the playwright carries out as a probing but impartial judge, with his audience rather than himself as jury. The primitive revenge-justice which the Duke brandishes, in the form of a dagger dripping Bianca’s blood, at his friend Fernando with the following words:
Stand and behold thy executioner,
Thou glorious traitor! I will keep no form
Of ceremonious law to try thy guilt:
Look here, tis written on my poniard’s point,
The bloody evidence of thy untruth,
Wherein thy conscience and the wrathful rod
Of Heaven’s scourge for lust at once give up
The verdict of thy crying villanies.
I see thou’rt armed: prepare, I crave no odds
Greater than is the justice of my cause;
Fight, or I’ll kill thee.
Love’s Sacrifice Act V, Scene 2, 26-36
is nevertheless packed full with reference to a legal system which should have superseded it, but in sexual matters had not. The sub-plot in which the courtier Ferentes’ meets his revenge at the hands of three waiting-women both serves to emphasise the powerlessness of contemporary law to help in this area, and to contrast the Duke’s obsession over Bianca’s chastity with his inability to condemn Ferentes’ lechery.
In Ford’s last major play, The Chronicle History of Perkin Warbeck, which is superficially modelled on the Shakespearean-style history play, love is neither abused nor frustrated. The love of Katherine Gordon and Perkin is returned, persists and is allowed full and unshadowed expression in the face of the most adverse circumstances, even when Perkin is almost universally regarded as a counterfeit. In this play melancholy is overcome by the full extension of love and self-belief, although these mental states are at odds with the pragmatism required by the outside world. Rebellion has become communal and external, rather than individual and interiorised. Katherine Gordon can love the wrong man in society’s eyes, because he is prepared to take arms against society. Perkin’s death, the eventual penalty for doing so, is dignified and well-prepared and he takes his leave of Katherine with a tacit acceptance of her right to have other lovers in the future, even though she protests her intention not to. None of Ford’s other characters are able to believe in each other and themselves quite like this, and it gives Perkin Warbeck an air of personal liberation missing from the other tragic plays. While Giovanni is thoughtless of Annabella’s future, Perkin and Katherine are prepared for it, and Katherine alone of Ford’s tragic heroines survives the death of her lover. Through the fulfilment of her love, and through Perkin’s non-possessive care, she has become strong enough and independent enough to live without him. Once again, Ford is interested in presenting a case almost as if he were in a law-court, teasing out the rights and wrongs of a man who believes he is something the world decides he is not. The description of Perkin as ‘the Christian world’s strange wonder’ suggests that the parallel with the history of Christ is a conscious one, Ford taking on, and once more being contentious about, the religious overtones of Shakespeare’s cycle of chronicle plays. We are given no insight into whether Perkin’s claim to be of royal blood is factually true or false – from the play we cannot tell. What we can judge is the quality of Perkin’s behaviour, which at the same time as being unmanly in the conventional sense -‘effeminately dolent’ as an enemy describes him – is yet dignified, honourable, compassionate and considerate, setting a new male standard which is informed by a profoundly humanistic view of Christ’s example and teaching. This contrasts strongly with Shakespeare’s near animistic treatment of the mystique of royalty. For Perkin the ground for salvation is prepared by self-belief rather than the belief of others, and salvation itself is represented by Katherine’s unprompted final act of keeping faith with him when he sits in the stocks, mocked by the world as an impostor:
Katherine: O my loved lord, can any scorn be yours
In which I have no interest? Some kind hand
Lend me assistance, that I may partake
Th’infliction of this penance….
Warbeck: Harry Richmond,
A woman’s faith hath robbed thee of thy triumph…..
Spite of tyranny
We reign in our affections, blessed woman.
Perkin Warbeck V, III ,82-85, 100-101 and 120-121
Beneath its superficially backward-looking format, Perkin Warbeck is quietly one of the most radical works in the English language.
Despite Ford’s dialogue with Shakespearean themes, his style, particularly after The Lover’s Melancholy, is studiedly un-Shakespearean in its lack of developed metaphor, and its clarity of diction descends from Christopher Marlowe via Ben Jonson. (Ford wrote verses on Jonson’s death in which he describes him as the best of English poets). A certain objectivity about both Ford’s characterisation and his plots is reminiscent of the plays of Marlowe, who like Ford may have been a Catholic by inclination, if not in fact. Shakespeare in his tragedies investigates, reveals and sympathises with the anguished faulty thinking inside a human personality as it reasons itself towards actions which are disastrously wrong, bending the outside world into mirroring an internal state of mind, cutting through conventional morality in a gigantic demonstration of how wrong-thinking leads inexorably to self-destruction because of its own inconsistency. This is at root an exercise that is Puritan in the largest and broadest sense of the term, a struggle towards world coherence, purifying our physical surroundings by our own spiritual effort. Ford seems to have been able to encompass more of the Catholic tradition which still underlay the vast majority of thought and practice at that time. As in Catholic teaching, Ford’s physical world is an imperfect place in which to perfect the spirit, although he goes against Catholic dogma in his refusal to identify spiritual integrity with a denial of the flesh. Like Marlowe, Ford is concerned with manifestations of a conflict between the individual as product of nature and the individual as determined and limited by society, but Ford locates this conflict within the individual, rather than between the individual and society. Dr Faustus has already been mentioned as an influence on The Witch of Edmonton’s subject matter, but the concrete nature of its punishment for mental arrogance which rides rough-shod over convention seems to have held a particular fascination for Ford, and its influence, or more importantly his development away from it, is even more obvious in the tone of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. For instance:
Giovanni: Busy opinion is an idle fool,
That, as a school-rod keeps a child in awe,
Frights the unexperienced temper of the mind:
So did it me, who, ere my precious sister
Was married, thought all taste of love would die
In such a contract; but I find no change
Of pleasure in this formal law of sports.
She is still one to me and every kiss
As sweet and as delicious as the first
I reaped, when yet the privilege of youth
Entitled her a virgin. O, the glory
Of two united hearts like hers and mine.
Let poring book-men dream of other worlds;
My world and all of happiness is here,
And I’d not change it for the best to come:
A life of pleasure is elysium.
Father, you enter on the jubilee
Of my retired delights: now I can tell you,
The hell you oft have prompted is nought else
But slavish and fond superstitious fear….
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore V,III,1-20
has obvious echoes of:
This word damnation terrifies not me,
For I confound hell in elysium
Dr Faustus I, III, 58-9
Think’st thou that Faustus is so fond to imagine
That after this life there is any pain?
Tush, these are trifles and old wives’ tales.
Dr Faustus I, V, 136-8
as Faustus talks with Mephostophilis disguised as a Friar. When Annabella provides a foil of doubt to Giovanni’s certainty, she mirrors Faustus’ dialogue with himself. Her soliloquy at the beginning of Act V has deliberate echoes of Faustus’ terrifying last speech:
Thou precious Time that swiftly rid’st in post
Over the world, to finish-up the race
Of my last fate, here stay thy restless course…
Would thou hadst been less subject to those stars
That luckless reigned at my nativity!…
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore V, I, 4-6 and 19-20
Stand still you ever moving spheres of heaven
That time may cease and midnight never come…
O lente, lente, currite noctis equi…
You stars that reigned at my nativity…
Dr Faustus V II 146ff
Giovanni also has something of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine about him in the hyperbole of his passion. With
Giovanni. Not go! stood Death
Threatening his armies of confounding plagues
With hosts of dangers hot as blazing stars,
I would be there: not go! yes, and resolve
To strike as deep in slaughter as they all;
For I will go.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, V, III, 58-63.
Why, I hold fate
Clasped in my fist, and could command the course
Of time’s eternal motion, hadst thou been
One thought more steady than an ebbing sea.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, V,V,11-14
Forsake thy king and do but join with me
And we shall triumph over all the world.
I hold the Fates bound fast in iron chains
And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about;
And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere
That Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.
Tamburlaine, Part I, I, II, 172-177.
The Catholic, medieval world of heaven and hell provides much of the background imagery in both ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Love’s Sacrifice, and yet both plays are far from traditional in their emphasis on individual conscience rather than social code as a moral arbiter and individual merit rather than inherited wealth or rank as the criterion for excellence. The strength of Ford’s devotion to these principles is seen to great effect in Bianca’s crucial speech to Fernando where she first questions the course of chastity they have chosen, then explains in spite of herself why they have chosen it:
Bianca: Why shouldst thou not be mine? Why should the laws,
The iron laws of ceremony, bar
Mutual embraces? what’s a vow? a vow?
Can there be sin in unity? could I
As well dispense with conscience as renounce
The outside of my titles, the poor style
Of duchess, I had rather change my life
With any waiting woman in the land
To purchase one night’s rest with thee, Fernando,
Than be Caraffa’s spouse a thousand years.
Love’s Sacrifice, V, I, 5-14
In the same breath she asserts both how little the title and rank of duchess, and how much her conscience, mean to her, echoing in part the famous speech of Achilles in Homer’s Odyssey (Book VI, lines ) where he declares he would rather be a slave on earth than a king in Hades. Unlike Achilles, Bianca has choice, but conscience is so powerful in her that she will not exercise it.
Ford is a great echoer , but he is not just plagiarising or imitating, he is using similar material and calling attention to past material in order to draw different conclusions, taking issue with previous writers, and in particular the dominant figures of his time, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Webster, over their treatment of certain key themes. We have seen how he challenges Shakespeare’s hostility to women’s sexuality, and Webster’s doom-laden depiction of sexual fulfilment. With Marlowe, the challenge is almost more fundamental – what is important to Faustus, Tamburlaine and Edward II (the individual’s extravagant pursuit of knowledge, beauty and worldly power, together with the physical punishment at the hands of the external world which such pursuit can lead to) is steadily cast aside in Ford’s work as outdated and irrelevant besides love and friendship, and the mental tortures associated with them.
In Act II Scene I of The Lady’s Trial, as a very straightforward example, Marlowesque bombast of his Tamburlaine variety is applied by Futelli and Guzman to the conquest not of a city but a woman’s heart. The following passage actually contains a direct reference to Tamburlaine:
Guzman. Lustre of beauty,
Not to affright your tender soul with horror
We may descend to tales of peace and love,
Soft whispers fitting ladies’ closets; for
Thunder of cannon, roaring smoke and fire,
As if hell’s maw had vomited confusion,
The clash of steel, the neighs of barbed steeds,
Wounds spouting blood, towns capering in the air,
Castles push’d down, and cities plough’d with swords,
Become great Guzman’s oratory best,
Who though victorious (and during life
Must be), yet now grants parley to thy smiles.
The Lady’s Trial,II, I, 64-75
And after this to scale a castle wall,
Besiege a fort, to undermine a town,
And make whole cities caper in the air.
Tamburlaine, Part 2, III,II,59-61
It is as if Ford needed an ultra-conventional social background in his plays, with the same assumptions about human aims and human sins which Marlowe makes, in order to highlight the very different aims and shortcomings of his leading characters, and by this means to focus the conflict between personal integrity and traditional morality within the minds of his protagonists. We should bear in mind that Tamburlaine was still frequently performed in the same theatre for which Ford wrote his later plays, the Cockpit or Phoenix Theatre in Drury Lane (Gurr, 1988).
If traditional morality, based on religious decree, and backed up with the threat of punishment in medieval hell, was found to be unsatisfactory, possibly even dangerous because of its association with Catholicism, what was there to take its place as a guide to right living? Certainly nothing absolute, at least until the triumph of the Puritans under Cromwell. Instead there was debate, and examination of how various courses of action benefited or damaged others. Morality had to be re-derived from first principles. For this, Ford’s legal background stood him in good stead. In Ford’s last two plays The Fancies Chaste and Noble and The Lady’s Trial there are happy endings to situations which appear potentially tragic. After the unremitting tragedy of The Broken Heart, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Love’s Sacrifice and Perkin Warbeck which provided a laboratory for Ford’s ethical experimentation, these final works seem concerned to show how characters who behave according to the new standards Ford was developing can achieve a practical happy outcome to their problems, not merely the sympathy of the audience. The Fancies Chaste and Noble is a more interesting play than its title, a summary of its plot, or indeed its critics would suggest. A shadowy world in which male possession of women runs mad is conjured up in the minds of the characters and the audience during the first half of the play, enabling Ford to suggest that what is to be admired in female behaviour is totally independent of conventional notions of chastity. Flavia is sold by her husband Fabricio to a nobleman Julio, and the young women known as the Fancies appear to be imprisoned in a brothel cum harem by a perverted marquis of Siena, into which Livio is prepared to cast his sister Castamela in return for advancement at court. In the second half of the play, Fabricio becomes a monk in repentance for what he has done, leaving Flavia happy in her second marriage and the marquis of Siena is revealed as the wise educator of his nieces in the refinements of the arts. As a female character, Castamela is a descendant of Eroclea in The Lover’s Melancholy, with a masculine streak and an independent frame of mind. Flavia, on the other hand, is reminiscent of Bianca, steering a crooked course of integrity through the obstacles of a male world over which as a married woman she has no direct control. Unlike Bianca, though, she is allowed to survive by adapting herself to circumstances and changing.
Ford’s’s fascination with the analogy between the playhouse and the lawcourt found most overt expression in his final tragi-comedy The Lady’s Trial. The plot has something in common with Love’s Sacrifice. Aurelio’s suspicion of his friend Auria’s wife Spinella stems in part from his disapproval of her poor background, just as Bianca is disapproved of for her low origins in Love’s Sacrifice. Adurni, the type of the old-fashioned lord who regards a woman of lower rank as fair game for his advances, courts Spinella in Auria’s absence and gives Aurelio apparent ground for his suspicion by entertaining her in his bed-chamber. While Auria can improve his standing in the world by going off on an expedition, Spinella has only her fragile good name as status, which is shown to be easily compromised by ungoverned male behaviour.
The happy ending means that questions are left unanswered. Tragedy is averted by Adurni’s apology. The moral standards of the lord are replaced by the moral standards of the gentleman who earns his merit. Levidolche, Adurni’s former mistress, is reformed. But it takes the contrivance of Adurni’s marriage to Spinella’s sister, Castanna, to restore the appearance of decorum to his dealings with Spinella, and the contrivance of Benatzi, Levidolche’s new husband, turning out to be the man she long ago divorced, to give the appearance of decorum to her marriage. The spectre of ‘loss of good name’ which had challenged Ford’s thinking ever since Fame’s Memorial haunts these final comedies with the implication that emotional moral feeling is not susceptible to being changed as quickly as rational moral thinking would like. In the background of The Lady’s Trial Malfato (whose name means ‘ill-fated’) conquers the melancholy caused by his frustrated love for his cousin Spinella, which he was too diffident to declare to her because of an erroneous concern that a cousin relationship might be regarded as incestuous. Like Daliel in Perkin Warbeck, he is able to channel his frustration into helping his beloved after he has given up hope of obtaining her sexually. It seems that Ford had a particular affinity with this type of man. Although clearly not fulfilled, Daliel and Malfato show a positive response to their circumstances by transforming their sexual love into love-friendship rather than allowing rejection to embitter them. There is a hint in The Lady’s Trial that the heroine Spinella would have been happier married to the lower status Malfato than to the high status Auria. Malfato is certainly his own man:
Malfato. I am
A gentleman free-born; I never wore
The rags of any great man’s looks, nor fed
Upon their after meals; I never crouch’d
Unto the offal of an office promised
(Reward for long attendance) and then miss’d.
I read no difference between this huge,
This monstrous big word lord, and gentleman,
More than the title sounds; for aught I learn,
The latter is as noble as the first,
I am sure more ancient.
The Lady’s Trial I, III, 55-65
This sounds like John Ford, the son of a Dartmoor yeoman farmer, speaking. But a few lines later Malfato recants somewhat.
In colder blood
I do confess nobility requires
Duty and love; it is a badge of virtue
By action first acquired, and next in rank
Unto anointed royalty.
The Lady’s Trial, I, III, 83-87
The kind of society that could form the foundation of the equal relationship between man and woman for which Ford was arguing had not yet come about, though the political upheaval of the Civil War just around the corner was to bring it a little closer.
In The Fancies Chaste and Noble and The Lady’s Trial the gap between Ford’s ‘noble’ protagonists and his ‘comic’ characters widens. Happy endings for the protagonists mean a foregoing or forgetting of some of the heart-rending issues which dominate his four tragic plays, a diminution of sensibility inversely proportional to an increase in problem-solving ability. It is the ‘comic’ characters in The Fancies Chaste and Noble and The Lady’s Trial who embody at a lesser level the tug-of-war of passions which swayed to and fro in the breasts of the protagonists of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Love’s Sacrifice, while the protagonists of the two final plays have a certain two-dimensionality about them, consequent on their function as standard-bearers for a new way of behaving, a role for which they needed to be, in the gathering mood of puritanism, incontestably clean. The convention of comic misbehaviour allows Ford to remind his audience subtly that life was not as simple as the puritans would have it, while still asserting that standards could and should be changed. There is divorce for significant though not leading female characters in both The Fancies Chaste and Noble and The Lady’s Trial – Flavia and Levidolche – and though the impact is each time softened by various devices in addition to the women in question not being protagonists, the impression left is a thrust towards accommodating change. Levidolche is the reformed ‘whore’ who is given a new start, as Christ gave a new start to Mary Magdalen. The compromise is pragmatic, dictated by the increasing political uncertainty of the times.
There is no need, on this view of Ford, for some of the more extraordinary tangles into which modern critics have got themselves in discussing his work. When Michael Neill writes in the introduction to a recent collection of essays on Ford that ‘identity in Ford’s plays is “fissured and prismatic”; it may amount in fact…. to nothing more than a name – an arbitrary label linking together a succession of play-roles determined by the endless reworkings of earlier dramas’, he puts forward an account of Ford which Ford himself would surely have found unrecognisable (Neill, 1988). As Ford’s dedications and prologues make explicit, he had a serious and contentious purpose in writing his plays and believed he was breaking new ground in the truth of his version of how human nature should be regarded.
Ford, we need to remember, was the nephew of a Lord Chief Justice and the product of a Dartmoor environment dominated by the self-governing stannary courts, which a century earlier had imprisoned a Member of Parliament. He exhibited the sort of independence of mind which perhaps could only come from such a background at that time. He was very different from his contemporary playwrights; as Havelock Ellis remarks, he stands alone. He was neither an out-and-out stage professional, nor an amateur court playwright. He does not seem to have belonged to any particular theatrical camp, writing for both the Kings Men at Blackfriars and Christopher Beeston’s company at the Cockpit (also known as the Phoenix). In his development of a coherent moral formula which progresses from play to play, and in his positive view of human nature even during the grimmest tragedy, he is more like Shakespeare than any of the others; yet Shakespeare typifies that age’s fundamental difficulty with women’s sexuality which Ford goes beyond. As Brian Opie has suggested, Ford’s later work – in spite of his links with Catholicism – looks forward immediately to certain elements of Milton’s depiction of Adam and Eve’s relationship in Paradise Lost (Opie, 1988), just as we have seen William Browne’s work look forward to Milton. Ford’s understanding of women in his tragedies, however, is far broader and deeper than Milton’s, and his sympathy for them correspondingly greater. The melancholy of love abused which surfaces in The Lover’s Melancholy is well on its way to being purged by the time we arrive at Perkin Warbeck through an immense effort to defend the primal innocence, and therefore essential goodness, of the sexual love-relationship, not by looking at it through a rose-tinted lens, but by tackling its least acceptable manifestations. His last works, The Fancies Chaste and Noble and The Lady’s Trial, suggest a practical rapprochement between his moral exploration and the reality of social convention, as if he were preparing to lead a quieter and more normal life
Does the battle with melancholy have its roots in a Dartmoor childhood? Arthur Conan Doyle in The Hound of the Baskervilles described Henry Baskerville’s first glimpse of the Moor from the train window some three centuries later like this (Conan Doyle, 1904, 118-119):
Over the green squares of the fields and the low curve of a wood there rose in the distance a grey, melancholy hill, with a strange jagged summit, dim and vague in the distance, like some fantastic landscape in a dream.
The distinctive shapes of the granite tors just north of Ilsington, including Haytor and Houndtor, the harshness of the moorland environment, the mists, the influence of the culture of the tinners with its stern but democratic legal system, the rich but gloomy nature of the folklore, the isolation, even the monumental quality of the masonry in a granite building such as Bagtor, all are likely to have impressed the imagination of a sensitive boy and encouraged a habit of mental self-sufficiency which could tend to melancholy rather than passion in adverse circumstances. At a basic level, the Dartmoor field is not an arena in which human endeavour’s conquest of nature and triumph over all obstacles is likely to be seen to best effect – immovable granite outcrops must be ploughed around, and the limitations they impose accepted. The passionate but stoical female characters for which his plays are notable may have been influenced too by the independence called for, and concomitant necessity for self-regulation entailed, in working in such an environment, as well as by the model of his mother, who as a judge’s daughter was probably better educated than his farmer father. All his working life Ford was striving to express his vision that full-blooded, loving humans keeping faith with their sexual passion are essentially good, even when the granite certainties of their environment defeat them. In Love’s Sacrifice, through the character of Bianca – the most real and sympathetic of all his creations, – he develops this contrast between inner personal integrity and a hostile outer world in a manner which was both at the forefront of human thinking and redolent of Dartmoor.
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