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 for Alsemero and her desire to marry him rather than Alonzo. On the face of it this seems a reasonable wish. Beatrice does not reason, however; she does not consider or question the means she employs to achieve her ends. She is utterly self-centered, and this blinds her to the nature of the events she sets into motion. There is a willful irrationality about her initial loathing for De Flores and a selfish amorality in her determination to persuade her father to dismiss him. This is a foreshadowing of her later schemes. She is too intent on the gratification of her own desires to recognize that in instigating the murder of her unwanted fiancé, she participates in evil. When she realizes that the price she has to pay De Flores for his part in the crime is sexual surrender to him, she is horrified at the violation of her honor.
Why, ’tis impossible thou canst be so wicked,Or shelter such a cunning cruelty,To make his death the murderer of my honor!
This “honor,” the perception by others that her virtue is unsullied, remains, to her, a compelling value. The protection of this sham leads to the corruption and murder of Diaphanta. Beatrice’s growing reliance, affinity, and then passion for De Flores are indicative of how she becomes accustomed to evil.
De Flores is a malcontent, resentful of his social status because he was born to a higher rank. His ugliness is an additional misfortune. Like Beatrice, he is motivated by passion, but...
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