Written in 1622, toward the end of an extraordinarily rich period in English drama that produced a substantial body of the finest plays written in English, The Changeling is widely considered to be one of the best non-Shakespearean tragedies. The opening and closing scenes and the subplot are generally attributed to William Rowley, and the remainder of the play to Thomas Middleton. Of the two authors, Middleton was the more prolific. He wrote at least twenty-five plays alone or in collaboration with other playwrights, such as Thomas Dekker, John Webster, and Francis Beaumont. Middleton’s output was varied, including comedies, tragicomedies, and masques. He is best known for his political satire, A Game at Chess (1624), and for his two great tragedies, The Changeling and Women Beware Women (c. 1621-1627). Rowley was well known in his own time as an actor of comedy roles. He also wrote at least eleven plays in collaboration with others and four plays unaided.
The word “changeling” has three definitions relevant to the play: a changeable person, a person surreptitiously exchanged for another, and an idiot. Various characters are associated with the different senses of the word, and the last few speeches of the closing scene point to many of these. Although the subplot of the play, with its fools and madmen, is tiresome and in poor taste according to twentieth century sensibilities, it provides some commentary on the main theme of the play. There is a shared imagery of change. Antonio and Francisco undergo transformation in their pursuit of love, as do Alsemero, Beatrice, and De Flores. Isabella, who remains true to her marriage vows in spite of temptation, provides a comparison to Beatrice’s increasing immorality. The madness and folly observed in Alibius’s institution form a grotesque reflection of the madness and folly of the outside world. In the play’s development of the characters of Beatrice and De Flores, as well as in some fine passages of dramatic rhetoric, the play achieves great stature.
In the course of the play, Beatrice is transformed from an apparently pious, dutiful young woman into a damned soul, stabbed to death by her murderous lover. This process occurs with terrifying ease and speed. Her downfall begins with her passion...
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