The English author John Ford (1586-1639?) was the last great tragic dramatist of the English Renaissance. His work is noted for its stylistically simple and pure expression of powerful, shocking themes.
John Ford, the second son of Thomas Ford, was baptized at Ilsington, Devonshire, on April 17, 1586. The Devonshire Fords were a well-established family, and John's father appears to have been a fairly well-to-do member of the landed gentry.
In 1602 Ford entered the Middle Temple, one of the London Inns of Court. Although designed primarily to provide training in the law, the Inns of Court at this time also attracted young men who had no intention of entering the legal profession. Ford probably acquired his knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, and the Latin classics while in residence at the Middle Temple, where he remained for about 15 years.
During his early years in London, Ford wrote a few undistinguished nondramatic works. Not until 1621 did he turn to writing for the stage. From 1621 to 1625 he collaborated on at least five plays with Thomas Dekker, John Webster, and Samuel Rowley—all experienced and successful dramatists. From 1625 until the end of his literary career Ford worked alone, writing about a dozen plays (some of which are lost). Ford's reputation as a major dramatist rests on two of these unaided efforts: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and The Broken Heart.
Ford has been called a decadent playwright because of his frank treatment of lurid and sensational themes. In 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1629?-1633) the central character, Giovanni, having become involved in an incestuous and adulterous affair with his sister, is finally led to kill her. With his sister's heart on the point of his dagger, Giovanni triumphantly proclaims his misdeeds, whereupon he is himself killed.
The Broken Heart (ca. 1627-1631?), while less obviously sensational, also treats of abnormal characters caught in highly unusual situations. The action of the play is set in Sparta, and its principal characters illustrate the typically Spartan virtues of rigorous self-discipline and overriding concern for personal honor. In the final act, when Princess Calantha is told of the deaths of her father, her friend, and her betrothed, she suppresses all signs of emotion. Only when she has set the affairs of the kingdom in order does she reveal the unbearable psychological strain put upon her; with ceremonious dignity she weds her dead lover and successfully commands her heart to break.
Nothing is known of Ford's activities after 1639, when his last known play was printed. No record of his death or burial has been found.
The standard life of Ford is M. Joan Sargeaunt, John Ford (1935).For the dating of Ford's plays (an extremely difficult task) see Gerald Eades Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, vol. 3 (1956). Ford's intellectual makeup and his moral views are treated at length in G.F. Sensabaugh, The Tragic Muse of John Ford (1944), and Mark Stavig, John Ford and the Traditional Moral Order (1968).