“The Changeling” is a striking illustration of how the genius of a great dramatist can transform the most unpromising melodrama into the subject matter of a memorable and harrowing psychological tragedy. Una Ellis- Fermor, in “The Jacobean Drama: An Interpretation”, describes the tragedy as the “most compact and pitiless in this drama”, containing “elements of great beauty and subsequent action”, resulting in their disintegration by the “spiritual evil set at work within them”. Belonging to the decadent period of Jacobean tragedy, it is a key study in the history of post- Elizabethan drama- one that is psychological and realistic. It portrays a sombre and disturbing world, where driven by impulses and passions they can scarcely comprehend, leave alone master, Middleton’s and Rowley’s characters gradually disintegrate as moral beings. As T. S. Eliot has commented, it is the “tragedy of the not naturally bad but irresponsible and undeveloped nature, caught in the consequences of its own action.”
The play deals with complex ideas and feelings in such a way that the whole structure appears to rely on a sustained sureness and quickness of mind. It offers us a picture of the operation of folly and madness within the mind, and in doing so it explores ‘abnormal’ mental states; some critics believe that madness is of greater concern than the folly. Unlike the popular conception of Shakespearian tragedy that shows a calamity overtaking men and women, the dramatists penetrate the experiences of ordinary people and show us the tragedy of a world where people discover too late that they wear destruction within our own bosoms.
It is also basically a study in sin and retribution, expressed in terms of sexual relationships, and it develops the subject with a maturity and balance rarely found in Elizabethan drama. John Elsam has described the play as an “orgy of sex and death”. Love, here, is not an absolute value to which all others are subordinate, nor is it merely lust or sensuality. It is a force of immense potentiality for good or evil that can radically alter human character and conduct.
One of the most interesting examinations of sexual obsession and the ease with which one sin leads to another; it cleverly intertwines the two parallel stories of a virginal gentlewoman and the wife of an insane asylum warden. “The Changeling” centres on the deep psychic attraction between apparent opposites: the affinity, emotional and moral, between Beatrice and her servant Deflores. The play powerfully uncovers those hidden currents of human action that the aristocratic characters never openly acknowledge. In this respect, it is less concerned with accommodation to roles than with stripping them away, as DeFlores forces Beatrice to accept him as her spiritual equal.
“The Changeling” is a play about strong obsessions and violent changes. T. S. Eliot has considered Beatrice’s character as the centre of the play; he talks in terms of her “habituation to her sin”, and claims rather enigmatically, “She became moral only by becoming damned”. She is a pampered, spoilt, precocious and irresponsible child who has been deluded into regarding herself as an adult. She believes that she is capable of love, but becomes attracted to three different men in quick succession and it becomes evident that her selfishness prevents her from experiencing anything that could be described as normal affection. Her dominant trait, and tragic defect, is wilfulness- as she tries to order her life and those around her to suit her needs, but things do not go exactly according to her plan.
Murder to Beatrice is a commodity, like anything else one buys- one pays someone to undergo the risk, the unpleasantness and the guilt. All her decisions are made in haste and she does not even pause to reconsider. When planning a way to dispose off Piracquo, DeFlores suddenly comes to her mind, and she realizes that she might be able use him to her advantage. She considers Piracquo and DeFlores as the two “poisons” in her life, and decides to “keep one to expel the other”. There is however no indication that Beatrice regards herself as having embarked upon a criminal career. This one act of wilfulness, undertaken so casually, would involve her in a moral labyrinth from which she would never escape. In a matter of a few scenes we can see a complete moral breakdown in her character, as she moves from being a woman in love, to a murderess.
Beatrice in Act II, deliberately exploits what may begin as an unwitting form of sexual enticement. Suppressing her revulsion for DeFlores with the surprisingly egotistical rationalization that “the ugliest creature/ Creation fram’d for some use”, Beatrice decides to use her “art” to persuade him to eliminate Piracquo. But it is DeFlores who throws a hideously clear light on the assumption underlying this role- that the gentry can always find someone to commit their crimes for them. It is the cruellest irony that inevitably Beatrice becomes more involved with her hated gangster- accomplice, than with her husband for whose sake she killed.
DeFlores is constantly referred to as “poison” and his dreadful countenance inspires in Beatrice a horror which at times seems capable of overriding all her emotions. In her eyes he was a “serpent”, an “ominous ill-faced fellow” whose hideously pimpled visage disgusted her. However the intensity of his passion for her was obviously great, and so as to possess her he would suffer any indignity: whether it was enduring her curses and taunts, or to stoop to any crime, sacrificing his own soul, never regretting the loss. The excitement of her company, combined with the hope for sexual favours in return, is the chief reason for his eagerness to become her instrument of mayhem. Beatrice is delighted, but does not realize that she has actually out-witted herself. It is still too early for her to know that DeFlores is her superior, and that he has her already within his power, and that he foresees the future much more clearly than she does.
It is only after Piracquo is slain in a vault in the castle and DeFlores returns with the murdered man’s ring still on the finger, that Beatrice realizes with a sense of horror at what she has done, and this embodies in a single image the moral crux of the play. By her involvement with DeFlores in the murder of Piracquo, she has indeed offered the “first fruits to sin” (“Women Beware Women”). She had not anticipated that the murder would involve bloodshed, and she realizes that she is as deeply implicated as DeFlores. She has become the deeds creature. She pleads her innocence in vain, reminding him of the cleavage separating their births, begs him to take all her gold and jewels and, “let me go poor unto my bed with her honour”. However, DeFlores tells her to look into her conscience and take responsibility for her actions and “fly not to your birth”.
Beatrice marries Alsemero, but she is already deflowered by DeFlores. Worse, she has been noticed talking secretly to DeFlores, and their complicity is rumoured. Alsemero is an amateur scientist and he plans to apply chemical tests for her virginity. She can cope with that by discovering and mimicking their effects, but she cannot face the first night in bed, so she sends her truly virginal but very willing maid into him in the dark. That makes another party to the crimes, and so another murder- DeFlores and Beatrice stage a fire and burn Diaphanta in it.
Beatrice, entranced with his efficiency says: “here’s a man worth loving”. This remark reflects a subtle but profound change in her personality, as she seems to have grown to love him. What constitutes the essence of the tragedy, according to Eliot, is “the habituation of Beatrice to her sin; it becomes no longer sin but merely custom.” In the end, Beatrice having conspired with DeFlores for so long, becomes more his partner and mate, than partner and mate of the man for whom she consented to these crimes. As Eliot puts it: “The tragedy of Beatrice is not that she has lost Alsemero, for whose possession she played; it is that she has won DeFlores…”
An adequate understanding of the play is not possible without grasping what happens in the sub-plot, and its significance to the main- plot. The presentation of madness in the main-plot is so subtle that critics have failed to detect it. Since madness at a sophisticated level of society is less noticed, the main-plot is concerned with less identifiable forms of madness based on a confusion of fantasy and reality.
Much of the aspect of the play, as M. C. Bradbrook has shown, is expressed by a series of themes or concepts, which underlie and prompt a great deal of the plays imagery and vocabulary. One of the most important of these themes is that of concept of change or transformation. The word ‘change’ occurs sixteen times in the play, and it has a variety of implications. “The Changeling” announces the way in which characters- especially Beatrice- change from one kind of sphere to another. The lovers in the sub-plot are changed by lust, while Beatrice changes from her sphere of public respectability to the world dominated by DeFlores, and the sub-plot.
The images of the ‘Castle’, the ‘Temple’ and the ‘Changeling’ are part of the action outlined. Both the Castle and the Temple are strongholds of decency, both admirable in themselves, and as modified in the action as a whole. Beatrice’s behaviour forces us to believe that she does not belong to the outwardly neat, well-ordered world of the Castle, or the ‘Temple’, but to the deeper Stygian world of the asylum, and to that of DeFlores, where she has always belonged. The murder of Alonzo does not belong to this underworld, but rather an indication of a schism in the main plot, though it has its own overtones of sex.
Closely linked with the theme of appearance and reality is the theme of sight and outward appearance. It is perhaps ironical that the fullest statements of the ‘sight’ and ‘judgement’ theme is by Beatrice herself, and it sums up the play as fully as any quotidian can: “Our eyes are sentinels unto our judgements… But they are rash sometimes…” By presenting DeFlores as physically repulsive creature, Middleton makes him a foil to the outwardly attractive, hypocritical Alsemero.
In the view of the powerful, uncontrollable forces within, the outward appearance of people like Beatrice cannot be taken at face value. Beatrice’s sexual relations become less intolerable than at first, but these relations are more a punishment than her sin. Her real sin is not her involvement in two murders, but the fact that she hardly seems aware of her guilt. The only explanation for her blindness is the assumption that she is insane.
Beatrice lacks self-awareness and never quite comes to a recognition of the truth about herself. She has a process of thought like that of Othello, whose judgements are rather pictures suddenly presented to it and, once presented, blocking out all other views.
DeFlores, on the other hand is fully aware of himself. He is driven to murder and blackmail by his lust, knowing all the time that he is courting damnation. It may be argued that it is better to be conscious of damnation, as DeFlores is, than morally obtuse. His grasp on reality however is not perfect either. His mad scheme to kill Diaphanta alarms even Beatrice, who realizes that it may “endanger the whole house”. DeFlores appears to be highly conscious of having sinned against conventional morality, but seems unrepentant. As Tomlinson has put it, he is at once “Middleton’s most compelling study in evil and his most remarkable exploration in abnormal psychology”.
“The Changeling” proves itself to be a play whose depth of focus is unique in the entire gamut of Jacobean drama. Its meaning and significance are the result of a fresh start in Jacobean inquiry, and one which depends a good deal on unswervingly naturalistic attitudes in the verse and dialogue. Together with the rest of Middleton’s work it separates itself from Jacobean drama generally; while at the same time it preserves, within the Middleton oeuvre: a separate and distinct identity. As T. S. Eliot has commented in his essay, “Thomas Middleton”, it is the “tragedy of the not naturally bad but irresponsible and undeveloped nature, caught in the consequences of its own action.”