The Infectious, Alimentary, and Organistic Ecologies of John Ford’s The Broken Heart

Roya Biggie


This paper focuses on the ways in which characters respond to loss and the threat of corporeal permeability in John Ford’s The Broken Heart. By describing melancholy as an “infection,” the play, I argue, deviates from Galenic understandings of the disease and instead engages with emerging theories of contagion developed by practitioners such as Fracastoro and Paracelsus. Melancholy infects and travels across bodies as Ithocles’s spleen penetrates Penthea’s chest and undesirable sounds invade Calantha’s ears. The play implicates bodies within an unavoidable and infectious ecology in which melancholy destroys the bodies with which it makes contact. I suggest that Penthea’s self-starvation and Orgilus’s phlebotomy, while different modes of suicide—that is, one involves the body’s enclosure while the other involves purgation—dramatize a desire to control the body’s precariously porous borders. Starvation allows Penthea to resist engaging with larger external ecologies, composed of not only human bodies, but also flora and fauna. Orgilus too rejects the vicissitudes of his environment by performing his own phlebotomy and controlling his humoral output. The play’s final act, in which Calantha dances across stage while invaded by the news of death, visually represents melancholic contagion and draws attention to the devastating assault upon Calantha’s unwilling though ultimately permeable body. I argue that in its attention to digestion, bloodletting, and invasive organs, Ford’s play focuses on anxieties about corporeal permeability and illustrates a move toward homo clauses, a more closed conception of the body. Invasive agents exploit the cracks of The Broken Heart, as Ford's tragedy exposes the widening ideological rifts of humoral medicine during the seventeenth century.


John Ford, melancholy, humoral medicine, sympathy, infection

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