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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

§ 5. His independent Dramas

The first independent drama printed by Ford was The Lover’s Melancholy, acted in 1628 and published in the following year. This somewhat slow-moving romance turns on the melancholy of a prince grieving over the disappearance of his sweetheart. The girl, whose loss has also deprived her father of his senses and delayed the marriage of her sister, is present throughout in the disguise of a man, and the love she inspires in the princess is, in turn, the obstacle that prevents her cousin from winning that lady. The discovery of the lost girl’s identity, which might as well have occurred in the first act, solves all the entanglements and permits a happy ending; but this discovery is delayed in order to enable Ford to occupy his scenes with a psychological analysis of the “lover’s melancholy.” This analysis is strongly influenced by Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, from which are directly taken the materials for the Masque of Melancholy in the third act. The account of the finding of the disguised girl is reminiscent of Philaster, and is made the occasion for the telling of the story of the nightingale’s death from Strada’s Prolusiones. The main plot has recently been traced by Stuart Pratt Sherman to Daniel’s Hymens’ Triumph, and reminiscences of Hamlet, Lear and other Shakespearean plays are obvious. In spite of all these borrowings, and of the fact that many of the characters belong to well recognised stage types, the play afforded the contemporary observer abundant evidence of the advent of a new dramatist. The delicacy shown in the treatment of emotion, the sweetness of the verse and the happiness of the phrasing pointed to a poet who only needed discipline in stagecraft to achieve distinction.

Ford acquired this technical skill with wonderful rapidity, if we are correct in supposing The Broken Heart (printed in 1633) to have been his next play. The plot of this tragedy shows much originality, and it is conducted through many intricacies to a highly effective catastrophe. The princess Calantha loves and is loved by Ithocles, a brilliant young warrior, who had forced his sister Penthea, in spite of her love for Orgilus, into a marriage with the jealous Bassanes. Penthea remains faithful to her husband to the despair of her lover, and Orgilus repulsed, turns to seek revenge. Penthea goes mad and dies, and, beside her dead body, Orgilus causes to be placed a chair in which he induces Ithocles to sit, and which closes on him and holds him helpless while Orgilus stabs him to death. In the last act, news is brought to Calantha in the midst of revels at court of the death of her father, then of those of Penthea and of Ithocles; but she dances on to the end. Orgilus is condemned, and, in the final scene, Calantha, before the altar, puts a wedding ring on the finger of the dead Ithocles, hands over her newly inherited crown to the prince of Argos and dies of a broken heart. The last two scenes, if somewhat deliberately theatrical, are among the most beautiful and memorable in the drama of the period. No source has been found for the story of Calantha, though suggestions from Sidney’s Arcadia seem to have been used throughout. In the prologue, it is implied that the plot has a foundation in fact, and Sherman has ingeniously argued that, in the situation of Penthea, the dramatist consciously treated the story of that Stella whom Ford had long before sought to justify in Fame’s Memorial Burton’s influence is again discernible in the treatment of the jealousy of Bassanes; but, on the whole, this play is much less imitative than its predecessor. Since something will have to be said on the subject of Ford’s dubious morality, it is only just to point out that, in this play, Penthea reaches a lofty standard in her perception of the essential unchastity of a loveless marriage. Yet, as we shall see, her conviction is not unconnected with the theory that undermines the morality of the later plays—the dogma of the supremacy and inevitableness of passion.

The influence of Sidney and Shakespeare persists in the next tragedy, Loves Sacrifice (printed 1633). Illicit passion is here the dominant theme. The duke of Pavy has married the beautiful but humbly born Bianca, who is loved by his favourite Fernando. The duchess’s virtuous resistance to Fernando’s suit leads him to change his passion to friendship, and his strength is soon tested by the weakening of Bianca, who comes at night to his chamber and offers herself to him, purposing to kill herself afterwards. They swear mutual but chaste love. Meantime, the duke’s sister Fiormonda, whose love Fernando has repulsed, and the villainous secretary d’Avolos, excite the duke’s jealousy and arrange to make him spectator of a love scene between Fernando and the duchess in her bedchamber. The duke breaks in and accuses Bianca. She acquits Fernando of guilt, confesses to having tempted him and brazenly tells her husband that she preferred Fernando as the better man. The duke, enraged, kills her, and then seeks Fernando, who, in turn, acquits Bianca and blames himself. The duke believes, and, at the funeral, eulogises Bianca as a model of chastity when, from the tomb, Fernando enters defiant and drinks poison. The duke stabs himself; and Roseilli, the now accepted suitor of Fiormonda, becomes duke, condemns d’Avolos and divorces his own bride. The purely physical view of chastity which is characteristic of much of the Jacobean drama is nowhere exhibited so extravagantly as here. Ford clearly sympathises with the lovers throughout, and, in the duke’s admiring attitude at the close, carries his theory to a climax that would be revolting if it were not patently absurd. In the main plot, the chief literary influences are from Othello and Macbeth and Middleton’s Women Beware Women, the story itself being derived, according to Sherman, from Gascoigne’s Ferdinando Jeronimi. The sub-plot of Ferentes is based on the story of Pamphilus in Sidney’s Arcadia, the wretched farce being Ford’s own.

Tis Pitty Shees a Whore (printed 1633) is the tragedy most frequently cited in evidence of Ford’s “decadent” tendencies. The main plot turns on the love of a sister and brother. The sister accepts a husband to conceal her sin, and, when discovery is inevitable, the brother kills her and rushes into the presence of the father with his sister’s heart on a dagger. In the general catastrophe that follows, father, husband and brother all die. This simple plot is combined with no fewer than three sub-plots, two of which are woven into it with great skill. The third sub-plot, that of Bergetto, is, in the beginning, farcical; but the foolish hero of it meets his death through a mistake that gives a thrill of horrified pity. The dialogue is rich in passages of great beauty, and the characterisation, especially in the differentiation of the two lovers and their attitude towards the crime, is managed with subtlety. No objection lies against the introduction of the fact of incest, but the dramatist’s attitude is sympathetic, and he apparently assents to the fatalism with which the brother excuses his passion. Both the strength and the defects of Ford are here fully revealed; and nowhere else do the tenderness and poetry of his verse, the delicacy of his psychology and the impressiveness of his handling of a dramatic situation, lend their aid to an assault at once so insidious and so daring upon the foundations of accepted morality. The plot, so far as is known, is original, such parallels as have been noted being too remote to be regarded as direct sources.

The air clears in Perkin Warbeck (printed 1634), a notable return to the chronicle history, which had scarcely been cultivated for a generation. The play is based on Bacon’s History of Henry VII and Thomas Gainsford’s True and Wonderful History of Perkin Warbeck (1618), and, in his substantial adherence to history, the dramatist follows the tradition of this dramatic type. He obviously found his model in the histories of Shakespeare; and the slightly archaic flavour of the whole work is increased by the use of blank verse somewhat more formal and regular than Ford is accustomed to write. The plot, however, is simpler than in the Shakespearean histories, there is less richness of episode and the play falls short chiefly in a certain lack of intensity. The hero derives dignity from the carefully preserved assumption that he believed in his own claims, and Huntly and his daughter Katherine, whom Warbeck marries, are admirable figures. In Dalyell, Katherine’s rejected suitor, Ford had the opportunity, of which he might have been expected to make more, of creating a telling romantic figure. The comedy is confined to the low-born followers of Warbeck, who are kept well in character, and who, if only mildly amusing, have none of the vulgarity of the comic figures in Ford’s earlier plays. On the whole, it is unmistakably a workmanlike performance.

The comedy of The Fancies, Chast and Noble (printed 1638) is a somewhat careless performance. Octavio, marquis of Siena, through the instrumentality of his nephew and Livio, a courtier, induces Livio’s sister Castamela to join “the Fancies,” three young girls kept in seclusion by the supposedly impotent marquis. It appears later that the girls are Octavio’s nieces, and that the marquis’s relations and intentions are honourable. But the hoax, which is played not only on the court but also on the audience, prolongs a more than doubtful situation. So imperfectly are the motives of the action indicated that it almost seems as if the dramatist had clearly worked out neither his plot nor his conception of the main characters, until his play was half written. Livio, the most interesting man in the piece, is guilty of a puzzling change of attitude; and Castamela’s repulse of the suggestions, first of the marquis and, later, of her brother, which occasions the finest scenes in the drama, is weakened by the fundamental unreality of the situation. The underplot deals with the relations to her brother and husbands of Flavia, who has been bought by a great lord from her first husband. Out of this unpromising material, some effective situations are developed; but here, too, Ford seems to have been at the beginning uncertain as to the kind of character to give to the heroine. The prologue states that the plot is original, a claim that by no means disposes of Sherman’s attempt to trace a strong line of influence from Jonson’s Volpone.

The list of Ford’s extant plays closes with the romantic comedy, The Ladies Triall (acted 1638). The main plot of this play is very simple. Auria, a noble Genoese driven by poverty to the wars, leaves his young wife under the eye of his friend Aurelio. Adurni, a gallant lord, attempts her virtue and is repulsed; but Aurelio’s suspicions are aroused, and, on Auria’s return, Aurelio kindles the husband’s jealousy. Through the frankness of Adurni, the heroine is cleared, and all ends well. Both husband and wife are nobly drawn, and the suspicious but faithful friend is clearly conceived. The scene in which the wife defends herself is full of dignity and beauty; and the discontented lover, Malfato, late in the play rises in language and conduct to heights that Ford seems not to have contemplated at the outset. This is another of the indications which occur, especially in the later plays, of a certain carelessness and languor in the management of both action and character. It is further exemplified in the sub-plot of Levidolche, where the absurdity of the stage convention of disguise is carried to a high pitch in the failure of Benatzi’s nearest relatives to recognise him in ragged clothes. A second sub-plot, that of Amoretta and her mock-suitors, shows the influence of Jonson. The main plot seems to be original, and certainly calls for no great inventive power. Benatzi shows indebtedness to Ancient Pistol.