The following biography is reprinted from A Complete Manual of English Literature. Thomas B. Shaw. New York: Sheldon & Company, 1867.
If Massinger, among the Elizabethan dramatists, be peculiarly the poet of moral dignity and tenderness, John Ford must be called the great painter of unhappy love. This passion, viewed under all its aspects, has furnished the almost exclusive subject matter of his plays. He was born in 1586, and died in 1639; and does not appear to have been a professional writer, but to have followed the employment of the law.
He began his dramatic career by joining with Dekker in the production of the touching tragedy of The Witch of Edmonton, in which popular superstitions are skilfully combined with a deeply-touching story of love and treachery; and the works attributed to him are not numerous. Besides the above piece he wrote the tragedies of The Brother and Sister, The Broken Heart (beyond all comparison his most powerful work, a graceful historical drama on the subject of Perkin Warbeck), and the following romantic or tragi-comic pieces: The Lover's Melancholy, Love's Sacrifice, The Fancies, Chaste and Noble, and The Lady's Trial.
His personal character, if we may judge from slight allusions found in contemporary writings, seems to have been sombre and retiring; and in his works sweetness and pathos are carried to a higher pitch than in any other dramatist. In the terrible play of The Brother and Sister the subject is love of the most unnatural and criminal kind; and yet Ford fails not to render his chief personages, however we may deplore and even abhor their crime, objects of sympathy and pity. In The Broken Heart, we have in the noble Penthea, in Orgilus, Ithocles, and Calantha, four phases of unhappy passion; and in the scenes between Penthea and her cruel but repentant brother, between Penthea and the Princess (in which the dying victim makes her will in such fantastic but deeply-touching terms), and last of all in the tremendous accumulation of moral suffering with which the piece concludes, we cannot but recognize in Ford a master of dramatic effect. His lyre has but few tones, but his music makes up in intensity for what it wants in variety; and at present we can hardly understand how any audience could ever have borne the harrowing up of their sensibilities by such repeated strokes of pathos.
Ford, like the other great dramatists of that era of giants, never shrank from dealing with the darkest, the most mysterious enigmas of our moral nature. His verse and dialogue are even somewhat monotonous in their sweet and plaintive melody, and are marked by a great richness of classical allusion. His comic scenes are even more worthless and offensive than those of Massinger. One proof of the consummate mastery which Ford possessed over the whole gamut of love-sentiment is his skill in making attractive the characters of unsuccessful suitors, in proof of which may be cited Orgilus and the noble Malfato.
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