The Changeling (1653 Quarto)

Mr. C. Reads Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling

[Title page of the 1653 quarto of The Changeling]

Good evening. As promised – I’m going to write my thoughts on Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling. A few different things led me to this play – the hearsay that a friend is going to put on a production of it – and a fascinating chapter in Issues of Death: Morality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. I had read the latter book as part of my work for a project on memento mori and the dance of death in Majora’s Mask (to be published in February). The argument of the book is fascinating and multi-faceted: Michael Neill discusses how early modern theatre is not exclusively in conversation with literary and performance traditions, but also with the early modern anatomical theater, in which spectators could marvel at new discoveries made by physicians about the human body.


[The Anatomy of Dr. Paaw at Leiden. Engraving by Bartolomeo Dolendo. Image courtesy of 1610. Original at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.]

Neill’s chapter comes immediately after a critique of discovery in Othello in which he claims that De Flores, the main villain of the changeling, is a “deliberate reworking of Othello” (170). Where Othello’s plot primarily concerns itself with “racial anxieties”, The Changeling is one in which “bitterness” at rank and status come to create a monster in De Flores, a servant character who wishes to possess Beatrice for himself. Neill sees in The Changeling a structure of opening, discovery and hidden secrets, a type of “psychological anatomy lesson” (169) to contrast the financial success of the anatomical theaters.

The plot of The Changeling concerns a love triangle between Beatrice-Joanna, her husband Alonzo, her lover Alsamero and the devious De Flores. The play begins after Beatrice-Joanna has already been promised in marriage (by her father) to Alonzo, a man with whom she has very little emotional connection to. As a result, Beatrice-Joanna takes fate into her own hands and decides to hire the miserable De Flores to kill her husband so that she may be free to be with her lover. De Flores is delusional in his attachment to Beatrice-Joanna, who so despises him that she calls him “thou thing most loath’d” (Middleton II.i.72) and resents his “bring[ing]” himself to her “sight” (II.i.73). De Flores validates Beatrice-Joanna’s scorn by proving himself a manipulative deceiver – he listens secretly to a meeting between Diaphanta and Alsamero about Beatrice-Joanna and devises a plot to “put in for one” (II.ii.60). Beatrice Joanna has noticed De Flores’ skulking and calls him from the darkness, to which he responds that he runs “mad with joy” because “she call’d [him] fairly by [his] name De Flores” rather than a “rogue” or a “rascal” (II.ii.71-2). De Flores is so delusional that he will accept a non-negative as an indication of affection – such will continue to define the relationship between him and Beatrice-Joanna throughout the rest of the play. Even when she remarks on his physical appearance, she describes him as “not so unpleasing” (II.ii.90). Each moment in which De Flores wrangles the most positivity as possible out of his and Beatrice’s interactions, Beatrice manages to undercut him: when he is infatuated by her calling him “my De Flores” (II.ii.98) she remarks that she “forgot” (II.ii.100). The encounter ends with Beatrice-Joanna offering the villain money to kill Alonzo de Piracquo. While De Flores is fantasizing about his own delusions of self-worth, Beatrice-Joanna remarks in an aside that she will thus find a way to ride herself of “two inveterate loathings at one time” – naming De Flores a “dog-face” (II.ii.144-45). Beatrice-Joanna is a character with a significant degree of self-determination – and proves her own best defence against De Flores’ advances. In this sequence, Beatrice-Joanna demonstrates her own aptitude to outwit the traditional Machiavellian villain in the play. While Iago might ultimately win the day through his intellect in Othello, in The Changeling, Beatrice-Joanna demonstrates that the traditional melodrama between Machiavellian villain and heroic men is a delusion of masculine narrative composition. While yes – Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, two men, did write this play, the suggestion is implicit that popular melodrama of the period fails to account for women’s intellect. The men in this play, however, prove to be totally incompetent idiots.

In the final sequences of The Changeling, Alsamero screws everything up because he is an idiot. After Jasperino and he witness De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna exchanging words in the garden, Jasperino declares that the scene from the garden has shown “enough for deep suspicion” (V.iii.3). Alsamero agrees and declares infidelity a “black mask that so continually was worn upon’t” (V.iii.4). The dude fucks up further by calling his beloved a “whore” (V.iii.31). Beatrice-Joanna responds in pain: “what a horrid sound it hath! It blasts a beauty to deformity” – she declares that his words can “ne’er repair” (34) the wound they have opened. The playhouse audience, as in Othello, is completely aware that Beatrice-Joanna did not commit adultery, but rather became victim to the suspicions of men because she loved a man too much. Her meeting with De Flores is entirely a matter of business, to settle accounts after the murder of Alonzo. The two idiot-men then decide to lock Beatrice-Joanna up together in a closet, a horrible sequence in which De Flores demands her virginity as payment for the assassination. Alsamero is such an idiot that he yells from outside the closet: : “I’ll be your pander now; rehearse again / Your scene of lust, that you may be perfect” (V.iii.114-15). The brutish man demands his lover to “rehearse” a scene of adultery which never took place and, as consequence, produces what he fears most. Earlier in the play, Alsamero himself suggests that Beatrice-Joanna discover a method of killing Alonzo: “”One good service / Would strike off both your fears” (II.ii.21-22)” and thus has played both the first and the last act in murdering his beloved. Idiot.

The play ends with the “de-flowering” of De Flores – an etymological link one should see from miles away. De Flores unquestionably rapes Beatrice-Joanna, but he also commits it as what Deborah Burks describes as a “crime targeted at propertied men” (762) – namely, a crime which assumes that women are the property of men. Frances Dolan, in “Re-reading Rape in The Changeling” traces a link between legal attitudes towards property and towards women in early modern England through Michael Dalton’s discussion of rape in The Countrey Justice: a popular guide for rural justices in England. In the 1618 edition, Dalton states that “to take any maid, widow, or wife having lands or goods, or being heire apparant to her ancestor against her will unlawfully, is felony…to take away a mans wife with the goods of her husband, whether it bee against her will, or against her husband’s will, seemeth to be felony” (248). And yet – Dalton claims that it is not a felony if a wife runs away with her husbands goods (Dolan Web). According to Dolan – abduction and rape are not yet considered separate crimes until the 17th century – and when they do appear as a crime, they are not sexualized but made on the understanding that a woman as wife belongs to a man (Dolan). The implications are obviously disgusting and yet – Middleton and Rowley here acutely depict the absurdity of living as a woman in male dominated early modern London. Frances Dolan accurately points to how the play performs a “disturbing interrelationship of the histories of rape and of marriage” (Web) – a sentiment I am inclined to agree with. It is equally disturbing to discover that most of the criticism towards The Changeling until as recently as the 1980’s has placed blame on Beatrice-Joanna for what befalls her (Web). Beatrice-Joana – the most insightful and clever character in the play – falls victim to the irrational paranoias and the selfish desires of men. One wonders, however, if that the warning in the play is not towards men to beware the adultery of women, but rather to warn women of accepting men too much at their word. Beware the (dis)honesty of men and their paranoid delusions.

Works Cited:

Burks, D. G. “”I’ll Want My Will Else”: The Changeling and Women’s Complicity With Their Rapists.” ELH, vol. 62 no. 4, 1995, pp. 759-790. Project MUSE. Web.

Dolan, F. E. “Re-reading Rape in The Changeling.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies,  vol. 11 no. 1, 2011, pp. 4-29. Project MUSE. Web.

Middleton, Thomas, and William Rowley. The Changeling. Edited by N. W. Bawcutt,      Manchester University Press, 1998. Print.

Neill, Michael. Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. Clarendon Press, 2005.

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