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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

§ 7. Ford as typical of the period of decadence

It is customary to instance Ford as typical of the decadence of the Elizabethan drama, and it therefore becomes important for a view of that drama as a whole, as well as for an estimate of Ford individually, to enquire what the term means and whether it can be justified. Applied to Ford, it has reference both to his subjects and to his manner of treatment. Of his three tragedies, two are, almost in the modern sense, “problem plays,” in which the chief characters are faced by the dilemma of having to choose between love and loyalty to legal ties; the third deals with incest. Here, already, we have themes all but unused by Shakespeare and his predecessors, and the mere fact of a dramatist’s absorption in such subjects might be regarded as a symptom of change. But Beaumont and Fletcher, to name no others, many years before had touched these themes, and Ford is generally regarded as marking a more advanced stage than they. The difference becomes more striking when method of treatment is considered. Not only is the difficulty of the tempted soul treated sympathetically by Ford, but the question is almost left open and the burden of guilt is shifted to the shoulders of Fate. In this, there is a clear departure from the assumption by the earlier dramatists of the validity of accepted morality, and there is brought into these tragedies an atmosphere of moral instability. Another evidence of change may be found in the violence and sensationalism of Ford’s catastrophes. Fernando, crawling from the tomb to drink his poison and die over the corpse of the woman his love had ruined; Giovanni, rushing into the presence of his father with the heart of his sister-mistress on a dagger; Calantha, with the theatrically contrived setting for her own death—all point to the exhaustion of more natural appeals to the emotions, to a desperate attempt to whip up excitement at all costs. Finally, in his attempts at comedy, Ford sinks to a lower level than any dramatist of his class, and his farce lacks the justification of much of the coarse buffoonery of his predecessors. It is not realistic; it is not the expression of high spirits; it is a perfunctory attempt to season tragedy and romance with an admixture of rubbish, without humour and without joy.