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The Darker Side of Valentines

18/02/2015 11:05 GMT | Updated 19/04/2015 10:59 BST

I have a passion for the plays of John Ford, a leading dramatist working in the reign of Charles I. And Valentine's Day, when we are surrounded by images of hearts inscribed with messages of undying love, or appeals to someone to be that lover, is an appropriate time to talk about him, for Ford's career coincided with the first systematic explorations of the human heart in England. Just as we do today, lovers in Ford's day, and in his plays, saw the heart as the symbol of love, but also as the core of our being, where we hold our most profound feelings. In the 1600s people began to examine the heart as a physical organ in the body, and a number of Ford's plays appeared around the time William Harvey published his ground-breaking work on the circulation of the blood in 1628. The great Elizabethan soldier and poet, Sir Philip Sidney, once claimed that if you wanted to tell the truth, you should 'look in thy heart and write', and a few years after the publication of his book, Harvey, accompanied by Charles I, had the extraordinary experience of being able to do just that, when they were able not only to look at - but also touch - the heart of a young gentleman, Hugh Montgomery, by removing a small metal plate that covered a hole in the left side of his chest, the result of an injury when he was a child, and which never healed over.

Central to explorations of the body was the study of human anatomy, and the practice of dissecting bodies that accompanied it (and we find something of the same in the fashion for the 'blazon' in love poetry, where the woman's 'parts' are separated out and praised, a poetic device that Shakespeare parodied in his sonnet, 'My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun'). There was more than something theatrical about these acts of dissection, which took place in anatomy theatres ("theatres of blood" as they've been called) with an audience watching the performance of opening a human body to reveal its secrets. And surely no audience of Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore can have been unaware of the analogy when Giovanni cuts his sister's heart from her body and parades it before her husband.

Indeed, many moments in Ford's plays that might strike us as fanciful become, when looked at with seventeenth century eyes, clear reflections of the world that surrounded the playwright. Time after time, Ford shows us the direct impact on the human heart of men and women under enormous emotional stress and how these experiences become, in effect, written on the heart. In Love's Sacrifice, for example, the young lover, Fernando, thinking himself rejected by Bianca, tells her that when he is dead, to 'rip this coffin of my heart, there shall you read, with constant eyes, what now my heart defines: Bianca's name carved out in bloody lines.' Queen Mary I is reported to have remarked that 'when I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais lying in my heart', but a more intriguing analogy is found in the case of Mistress Ratcliffe, one of Queen Elizabeth I's maids-of-honour, who died, pining with grief at the death of her brother. The Queen ordered her body to be 'opened' and 'found it all well and sound, save certain strings striped all over her heart'. There are echoes of this in Ford's beautiful tragedy, The Broken Heart - a title which subsumes the theme of so many other of his plays - when a character dies as 'silent griefs cut the heart-strings', the strings snap, 'Crack, crack', and her heart breaks.

Of course, although Ford's plays tend to explore hearts which suffer, he also knew the power of love to make hearts 'melt with gladness', so if you perhaps exchanged messages of love and heart-shaped cards on Valentines Day at the weekend, think too of John Ford, the truly great dramatist of the human heart.

The RSC's production of Love's Sacrifice plays in repertoire at the Swan Theatre, Stratford from 11 April - 24 June 2015

The Broken Heart plays at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 12 March - 18 April 2015