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in which, after reproaching Prynne with his voluminous ignorance and impudence, he calls upon him to read Ford's Tragedy, and then turn to his own interminable farrago, which he had not only termed “The Actors' Tragedie," as if in scorn of them, but divided into Acts and Scenes.
The admirers of Ford had by this time, apparently, supped full of horrors. Three tragedies of the deepest kind in rapid succession were probably as many as the stage would then endure from him; and in an hour not unpropitious to his reputation, he turned his thoughts to the historical drama of his own country. “ Perkin Warbeck,” which appeared in 1634, and which was accompanied with more than the usual proportion of commendatory verses,* is dedicated to the Earl (better known as the Duke) of Newcastle, in a strain, which shows that the Poet was fully sensible of the “worthiness,” as well as the difficulty of the subject, which he had spared no pains to overcome. It is observed in a critical notice of this drama, which appeared in 1812, that “ though the subject of it is such as to preclude the author from the high praise of original invention and fancy,” a circumstance which he himself notices in the
very opening of his dedication, “ the play is so admira
* Among them are a few lines from John Ford, of Gray's Inn, who thus returns the kindness with which his cousin had inscribed “Love's Sacrifice" to him.
bly conducted, so adorned with poetic sentiment and expression, so full of fine discrimination of character and affecting incidents, that we cannot (continue the critics) help regarding that audience as greatly disgraced, which, having once witnessed its representation, did not ensure its perpetuity on the English stage. If any (historic) play in the language can induce us to admit the lawfulness of a comparison with Shakspeare it is this."* There is little to add to this commendation; and I am not aware that much can be taken away from it. It may, however, be observed, that the language of this piece is temperately but uniformly raised; it neither bursts into the enthusiasm of passion, nor degenerates into uninteresting whining: but supports the calm dignity of historic action, and accords with the characters of the
graced persons” who occupy the
I have elsewhere noticed the uncommon felicity with which Ford has sustained the part of Warbeck; he could scarcely believe the identity of this youth with the young prince, yet he never permits a doubt of it to escape him, and thus skilfully avoids the awkwardness of shaking the credit and diminishing the interest of his chief character; for Perkin and not Henry is the hero of the play.
* Monthly Review.
More will be found in the notes, on this subject; but, it may be added here, that the king was probably less indebted to his armoury, than to his craft and his coffers, for the suppression of these attempts, which occasionally assumed a very threatening aspect: even the ill-judged attack on the coast, feeble as it undoubtedly was, created a considerable degree of alarm; and it appears from a letter to Sir John Paston,* “ that a mightie aid of help and succor” was earnestly requested to secure the towns of Sandwich and Yarmouth.
Notwithstanding the warm commendations of his friends on this production, Ford did not renew his acquaintance with the Historic Muse: nor, on the other hand, did he return to the deep and impassioned tone of the preceding dramas. He appears to have fostered the more cheerful feeling which he had recently indulged, and to have adopted, a species of serious comedy, which should admit of characters and events well fitted for the display of the particular bent of his genius. He was not in haste, however, to court the public; for nothing is heard of him till 1638, (with the single exception of a warm eulogium to the “memory of the Best of Poets Ben Jonson," who died in the preceding year,) when he published “ The Fancies Chaste and Noble.” The date of
* Fenn's Letters, vol. v. p. 427.
its first appearance on the stage is not known; but it probably did not long precede its being given to the press. The play is dedicated to the well known Earl (afterwards Marquis) of Antrim. And here again Ford asserts, that his “courtship of greatnes,” never aimed at any pecuniary advantage. Granted: but he forgets that he had no need of it; and there is something in this implied triumph over his necessitous contemporaries, which, to say the best of it, is to be praised neither for its generosity nor its delicacy.
The poet takes to himself the merit of constructing this comedy with original materials:there is nothing in it, he says, but what he knows to be his own, “ without a learned theft.” There must surely have been a pretty general notion of Ford's adopting the practice of the dramatic writers of his day, and founding his plots on Spanish or rather Italian fables, to render these frequent abjurations necessary; and when we compare the prologue of the “ Lover's Melancholy” with the conduct of that piece, we shall not be inclined to understand such expressions too strictly. If it be as he says, we can only regret that what was conceived with considerable ingenuity, and afforded ample scope for an interesting and amusing story, should produce so little effect. After all, the fable is so probable, when told of a Transalpine magnifico, that I can scarcely avoid thinking
Ford found some hint, something analogous to his plot, among the Italian novels of those days. We have a very inadequate idea of the solicitude with which the dramatic and romantic treasures of Spain and Italy were sought for and circulated in this country. The literary intercourse was then far more alive than it is at present, for there were many readers, and many translators at hand to furnish them with a succession of novelties; and, though it must be admitted, I fear, that the exchange ran grievously against us-that we imported much and sent out little-yet the bare labour of working up what we received had, as in other cases, a salutary and quickening effect. Meanwhile, I am persuaded that far the greater number of our dramas are founded on Italian novels: this would, perhaps, scarcely be a matter of debate at this time, were it not for the Fire of 1666, which destroyed, beyond hope of recovery, no inconsiderable portion of the light and fugitive literature of the preceding age. In the wide and deep vaults under St. Paul's, lay thousands and ten thousands of pamphlets, novels, romances, histories, plays, printed and in manuscript; all the amusement, and all the satire, of Nash and Harvey, of Lodge and Peel, and Green, and innumerable others, which even then made up the principal part of the humble libraries of the day. Here they had been placed for secu