What are the Main Themes to Emerge From The First Three Acts of ‘The Changeling’? Essay Sample

What are the Main Themes to Emerge From The First Three Acts of ‘The Changeling’? Pages
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Middleton and Rowley’s Jacobean tragedy portrays a world in which the characters are often caught between their reasons and their passions. It is a play of contrasts; between judgement and lust, measure and obsession, appearance and reality, combined with the theme of madness, provided obviously by the sub plot but also evident in the main plot through the ‘love sickness’ of characters such as Alsemero and Beatrice. The play also considers the position of Women in a patriarchal society, their stereotypical expected behaviour and the effects of women on the men around them. In addition there is also the theme of deception, between characters and perhaps characters deceiving themselves. This is often done, in particular in the sub-plot, to comic effect which heightens the tragedian themes evident else where in the play. There are many parallels and contrasts between the two plots and although seemingly unrelated they share key themes such as madness and appearance vs reality.

The theme of irrational passion is evident from the opening lines of Act 1 Scene 1, As Alsemero talks of his feelings for Beatrice and we see the two fall in love almost immediately.

“I love her beauties to the holy purpose,

And that methinks admits comparison

With man’s first creation”

Alsemero’s intent is to marry Beatrice and he cancels he sea voyage to do so. He compares his feelings with her to the Garden of Eden, Beatrice being Eve and Alsemero Adam. Religious allusions are prevalent in the play and the creation story is particularly fitting; the temptation into sinning reflects the position of Beatrice and Deflores, who she refers to as a ‘serpent’. It is clear that Alsemero’s feelings for Beatrice have affected him as despite the good weather conditions he refuses to leave. Both Alsemero and Jasperino talk of the changes in the wind which reflect the change within Alsemero and show the effects of his passions. When asked why he has suddenly changed his mind, and if there is something wrong with him Alsemero replies:

“Yes, Jasperino,

Unless there be some hidden malady

Within me that I understand not”

The dramatic irony in the statement is evident to an audience who know the play; Alsemero does not consider himself to be ill yet his sudden feelings for a woman he has only just met and does not know have caused him to act irrationally. The importance of the change in Alsemero is underlined by Jasperino’s statements that he has never known him to act in such a way:

“I begin to doubt, sir; I never knew

Your inclinations to travels at a pause

With any cause to hinder it till now.”

He believes he loves her and this over rides any other consideration, despite the advice of his servants that to travel now would be the best option. This reinforces the theme of lust and love causing the characters to make rash decisions. Alsemero declares his love for Beatrice almost immediately, Beatrice response to this is also ironic:

“Our eyes are sentinels unto our judgments,

And should give certain judgment what they see;

But they are rash sometimes, and tell us wonders

Of common things, which when our judgments find,

They can then check the eyes, and call them blind”

Beatrice states that it is important to be weary of decided on first appearances; one should not just trust the eyes but should make a reasoned judgement. However neither Beatrice nor Alsemero do this, again reinforcing the theme of irrational passions and behaviour. Her words are hollow as they are at odds with her actual behaviour which follows what her eyes tell her. Beatrice later states, after reflecting on Alsemero’s choice of friendship:

“Methinks I love now with the eyes of judgment”

Little has changed since their last meeting yet Beatrice believes she is acting rationally. This also brings in the recurring use of the imagery of sight, eyes and blindness to reflect the theme of Appearance vs. Reality and as a metaphor for reason and judgement.

Unreasoned emotion is also portrayed through the relationship between Deflores and Beatrice. The contempt and disgust Beatrice-Joanna feels for her father’s servant is somewhat unfounded, as Deflores states:

“She knows no cause for’t but a peevish will.”

Although disfigured and only a servant whereas she is daughter of a nobleman, Beatrice has no reason to dislike Deflores. Her irrational hatred, or ‘peevish will’ has no basis and emphasizes the view that Beatrice has little rational control over her emotions and a lack of reason, nor does she understand such emotion. As the scene ends Beatrice drops her glove on the floor, and her father instructs Deflores to pick it up, It is unclear whether this is intended for Alsemero or Deflores, or whether it was accidental. However it appears purposeful and underlines the idea of Beatrice’s sub conscious feelings manifesting themselves and her inability to control them. Beatrice admits she has overwhelming feelings for Alsemero but that her hatred for Deflores is perhaps even stronger. One may interpret that what she sees as vehement disgust for Deflores is actually underlined by a subconscious sexual attraction to him, one she cannot control. Sexual overtones are prevalent throughout the play, for example in Deflores description of the glove or Alibius use of the ring as imagery for intercourse.

Another key theme that Middleton and Rowley explore in the play is the place of women in patriarchal society. In a Jacobean context women were seen as inferior to men, and often viewed as less intelligent yet cunning and untrustworthy. They were not allowed to be sexually independent and were often treated as objects by their fathers and husbands. In both the main plot and the subplot the women inhabit a male dominated environment in which they are trapped; Isabella in the asylum and Beatrice in the castle. As a woman controlled by men, Beatrice-Joanna seems defined by sexual desire and deceit, again there are parallels with the Garden of Eden; Beatrice tempts the men and could be seen to lead them to sin. Beatrice-Joanna is an example of a woman sexually repressed and the ramifications of this, she becomes involved in a trail of murder, deceit and sex all triggered by her feelings for Alsemero and the fact she cannot marry him because her father wants her to marry Alonzo Piracquo. Beatrice says to Alsemero after his confession of love

‘Oh, there’s one above me sir’

Although usually such a phrase related to God, Beatrice is using it to describe her father, who in a sense wields God’s power over her domestically. She cannot follow her impulse so easily as she has a male, her father, to answer to. Later Beatrice says:

“What’s Piracquo

My father spends his breath for? And his blessing

Is only mine as I regard his name;

Else it goes from me, and turns head against me,

Transformed into a curse”

Her implication here is that the deliberate choice to go against her father’s wishes makes her immoral and causes her to commit sin. Her feminine cunning is also displayed by her flirtation with Deflores when she decides she needs him in order to kill Alonzo and through her use of her virginity as a bargaining tool for more time with her father.

As a parallel to the immorality of Beatrice-Joanna (whose barrelled name even suggests a deceitful double crossing nature) the audience is presented with Isabella in the subplot. As the wife to Alibius, a doctor in a mad house, she is treated as an object by her paranoid and jealous husband. Alibius shows how he views her by asking Lollio to make sure no one else sees her:

“Here I do say must thy employment be.

To watch her treadings, and in my absence

Supply my place.”

He is paranoid as he is older than her and fears she will be tempted by a younger man. In the third act Isabella asks why she has been locked up, to which Lollio replies:

“Tis for my masters pleasure, lest being taken in another man’s corn”

This displays his lack of trust in her but also his own fears and insecurity in being unable to satisfy his wife sexually. Isabella is a honourable women yet she is locked up by her husband, whereas he is the paranoid and perhaps deluded person who it may be more appropriate to lock up. There is also some irony here as Alibius has left his wife alone with Lollio, who also desires her. In addition both Franciscus and Antonio also try to persuade Isabella to sleep with them. However whereas Beatrice oversteps the boundaries by having her suitor, Alonzo, killed in order to be able to marry Alsemero, Isabella fulfils her role as faithful wife and does not wander even when two suitors make advances to her. Both women are restricted by the social roles as wives and daughters but behave very differently, Middleton and Rowley thus portray two very different women and their actions in a male dominated society. It is perhaps ironic that despite Isabella being the more virtuous of the two, it is her husband who is most suspicious, whereas Alonzo and Alsemero do not see Beatrice as she really is.

The theme of madness is arguably one of the most important and a central aspect of the play. Shown obviously in the asylum in the subplot, madness is also evident in characters of the main plot. The sub-plot offers us both a fake fool and someone who pretends to be a madman. By acting in their fake roles the audience is given a clear idea of what is meant by `fools’ and `madmen’. Lollio describes the inmates of the asylum as:

“…two sorts of people in the house, and both

under the whip, that’s fools and madmen; the one has

not wit enough to be knaves, and the other not knavery

enough to be fools.”

Antonio is the `fool’, Franciscus the `madman’. Yet both Antonio and Francisco want Isabella, showing that they, according to Lollio’s description, are neither foolish nor mad. In the first three acts, the madness demonstrated in the sub plot is comical and arguably not dangerous. In contrast the madness which is portrayed in the main plot produces a more lethal result. The madness present is a direct result of the foolishness of characters controlled by their passions. As a contrast to Isabella’s sanity, Beatrice seems insane. She is controlled by her passion and love sickness to the extent that she charges somebody to murder her fianc�. She is also blind to her sudden unfounded attraction to Alsemero yet convinces herself she is doing it with judgement, and at the same time is unconsciously attracted to Deflores. In turn the irrational feelings are also returned by Alsemero suggesting a lack of clear reason and perhaps minor madness. In addition to this Alonzo is also blinded by ‘love sickness’ or minor madness as he cannot tell that his advances and marriage are unwelcome by Beatrice. Although his brother warns him that there is `small welcome in her eye’

Alonzo does not take his advice and tells him to be quiet. Yet as Tomazo recognises Alonzo is affected by his desire for Beatrice and so cannot see that she does not want him:

‘Why here is love’s tame madness, thus a man

Quickly steals into his vexation’

As a mediator of the scene between Alonzo and Beatrice, Tomazo is not mad, foolish or under the impulse of passion and thus he can see that Alonzo is ‘vexed’ by Beatrice and is not acting completely sanely. Also, the madness of Deflores and his obsession to sleep with Beatrice shows how his passions make him commit murder and then rape.

The theme of appearance vs reality also emerges in the first three acts and is also entwined with deceit. What the characters say and what they really mean are often at odds. Middleton and Rowley show this most prominently through the use of asides. Beatrice’s reacts privately when her father tells her that Piracquo is arriving shortly:

‘That’s ill news’

Yet she allows her father to believe she wants to marry her suitor. Earlier in the first scene upon her father’s entrance and question about her worship ending she states:

“For this time, sir.

[Aside] I shall change my saint, I fear me: I find

A giddy turning in me”

Her former statement reflects her outward appearance whereas her asides display the reality of her thoughts as well as the effect of her passions. Also the relationship between Deflores and Beatrice is tangled in deceit and clashes of appearance vs reality; Deflores intentions in accepting Beatrice’s request to kill her fianc� appear seemingly as want for a monetary reward, yet Deflores intends on taking her virginity as his prize. However Beatrice is deceiving Deflores also, she suddenly starts to flirt with him, taking advantage of his desire for her:

Beatrice: Y’ave prun’d yourself, methinks: you were not wont

To look so amorously.

Deflores: [Aside] Not I;

‘Tis the same physnomy to a hair and pimple

Which she call’d scurvy scarce an hour ago:

How is this?

Here Beatrice flatters Deflores and displays her cunning nature as she knows he will do what she asks. It is evident from Deflores reaction that he recognises there has been a change, but to him it appears favourable, whereas in reality he is being used as a pawn by Beatrice.

Appearance vs Reality is also vital in the subplot. Within the madhouse it is essentially easier to interpret on the basis that the disguises and faked behaviours are often for comical effects and much more blas�. Outwardly Antonio pretends to be a fool and appears so to Lollio, yet in reality is sane and it is only part of a plot to woo Isabella. Lollio also appears to be a dutiful servant to Alibius in looking after his wife but his intentions are much more dishonourable. Even Isabella is much different to the audience than she appears to the characters, her dealings with Antonio and her speech to her husband shows she is intelligent and has foresight.

‘The Changeling’ overall is a play fuelled by fervour, lust and a lack of reason. The latter is caused not only by the former but also by madness, which could arguably be seen to derive from the passions in the first place. The themes of passion, madness, deceit, appearance vs reality and of women’s place in such a society are conveyed not only through the characters actions and words, but through the use of dramatic devices such as asides, for example particularly important for appearance vs reality, soliloquies, and through imagery and metaphor. The themes which have emerged from the play so far give a firm foundation for the development of the ideas within the plays and the morals it contains. Combined, the themes embody the title of the play, ‘The Changeling’ meaning a half-wit, a fickle person, or somebody swapped or changed for another; this reflects the changes that happen to many of the characters as the play progresses, many of whom who will eventually become unrecognisable.

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