Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 16. Comparison of Shirley with Ford

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

VIII. Ford and Shirley

§ 16. Comparison of Shirley with Ford

The moral standards of Shirley were not those of Ford, Shirley has his share of grossness, both in incident and dialogue, but this grossness is neither more frequent than in his predecessors, nor is it by any means habitual. Of Ford’s moral agnosticism there is no trace in Shirley. In some of his plays, the moral is almost obtrusive; in none of them is the general drift immoral. Nor is he notable for the violence or sensationalism of his catastrophes. The slaughter which closes The Traytor, Loves Crueltie and The Cardinall is no more wholesale than that at the end of Hamlet or King Lear, and in intention at least, it is like Shakespeare’s, the necessary outcome of character and previous action, not, like Ford’s, an ingenious horror concocted for a final thrill. In comic power, he stands high above Ford. Without being primarily a comic artist, Shirley yet displays much genuine comic power, both in conceiving amusing situations, and in creating comic characters. In versification too, Shirley seems to belong to an earlier and sounder school than Ford. His metre is singularly correct and easily read; Ford uses much licence and not infrequently gives us lines hard to scan. Both men were capable of great sweetness of melody, and both adorned their finer speeches with a wealth of flowery imagery, not always dramatically appropriate, but frequently of great beauty and imaginative suggestiveness.

Yet, with all Shirley’s greater soundness, greater versatility, surer versification and admirable craftsmanship, one feels that there are certain heights and depths achieved by Ford which the younger man never reached. When we turn to the most wonderful things in Ford, we find a tenderness, a poignancy and an insight that Shirley cannot match. Shirley is the more balanced mind, the better workman; Ford, the rarer genius. The best things in both give them assurance of their place in the ranks of the greater dramatists of their age, and, if so, then of any age. And these facts must be carefully considered before, together or apart, they are set down as examples of their art’s decline.