Introduction to John Ford

The earliest reference to John Ford appears in 1586 in the record of his baptism. Thus, he was about the same age as Philip Massinger. Ford trained for the law at Exeter College, Oxford, and likely practiced law after moving to London in the very early 1600’s. He wrote sporadically, including a few plays, which were unpublished, and consequently lost, and he collaborated with several other well-known dramatists in writing a famous play, The Witch of Edmonton, around 1621-22. It was in 1628, however, when Ford was in his forties (Shakespeare had already been dead for more than a decade), that his own career as a dramatist took off.

For the next decade, including one year, 1633, in which three of his plays were first acted, Ford produced a handful of dramas which earned him a place in the first order of playwrights of the era. In 1639, just as suddenly, Ford appears to have retired from both the stage and the law, and returned to his native Islington to live out the rest of his life. History seems to have lost track of what happened to John Ford at this time.

Ford’s greatest skill as a writer was his unique ability to express the feelings of the heart, more so than any other poet of the period. Critics have for centuries praised the depth of his language and his ability to plumb the depths of both romantic feeling and the agony of what Ford editor Havelock Ellis called a “passionate and heavy-laden heart”. He was superior to every other dramatist, in particular, in expressing the emotions of women. His skill in describing the passions of a woman whose heart told her to do one thing when convention told her to do another was unsurpassed.

Ford also seems to have been strongly attracted to abnormal storylines, such as incest in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. While not alone among tragedians in his desires to explore such topics, he was unusual in his ability to treat them with enough sympathy that his plays did not descend into self-parodies.

It is worth quoting the comment from the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) that John Ford suffered from “a delusion that he was possessed of abundant comic humour.”

It has been noted that though his plays were popular when they were performed, they were practically ignored for two centuries by publishers, until rescued in the 19th century. For us in the 21st century, Ford’s plays are a delight to read. His plays never feel rushed, the speeches never hurried – after all, writing plays was not John Ford’s primary profession, so they likely were not written in much of a rush.

Like Shakespeare, who appeared at the beginning of the era, Ford, who was active near the end of the era, wrote in fairly strict iambic pentameter. This means he was careful to write so that his speeches easily and neatly fit the alternating stresses that iambic pentameter requires. So, if you wish to mouth or read aloud his plays, the metronomic alternating stresses of his iambs will roll off your tongue easily, requiring no verbal gymnastics to achieve the desired rhythm – just read his lines as they are written.