Art Kavanagh

Talk about books: a fortnightly email about things I’ve read

Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, The Changeling

Front cover The Changeling, 1653

The last time, I wrote about two novels by Ian McEwan and said I said I might post some more on my personal site about the narrative trick that McEwan introduces at the end of Sweet Tooth. I did.


Today, I’d to discuss a work of joint authorship, a play written and performed in the early 1620s, though the earliest printed edition we have dates from 1651. It’s The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, an exhilarating concoction of lechery and treachery, lust and betrayal, murder and, somewhat incidentally, the quest for revenge. I’ve previously written about a collaboration between Middleton and Rowley, A Fair Quarrel and another play that is now almost universally attributed to Middleton alone, The Revenger’s Tragedy. I’ll almost certainly write about other plays by Middleton (whether works of sole authorship or written with others) in the future.

Boy meets girl

The Changeling begins almost like a romantic comedy. Beatrice and Alsemero have spotted each other in church and felt an instant, mutual attraction. The action is set in Alicante, and Beatice is the daughter of the local dignitary, Vermandero. Alsemero is a visiting nobleman. He immediately decides that he wishes to marry Beatrice.

The place is holy, so is my intent:
I love her beauties to the holy purpose,
And that, methinks, admits comparison
With man’s first creation, the place blest,
And is his right home back, if he achieve it.
The church hath first begun our interview,
And that’s the place must join us into one;
So there’s beginning and perfection too. (I.i.5–12)

Beatrice welcomes Alsemero’s attentions but, inevitably, there’s an obstacle to their happiness: just five days earlier, she was bethrothed to another nobleman, Alonzo.

              [aside] For five days past
To be recalled! Sure mine eyes were mistaken:
This was the man was meant me. That he should come
So near his time and miss it! (I.i.82–5)

Beatrice is caught between two men: Alsemero, whom she has just decided she loves, and Alonzo, whom she has recently promised to marry. Now, just 90 lines into the drama, enters the third: De Flores, a servant of her father’s. De Flores was born a gentleman but reduced in circumstances by “hard fate” (II.i.48) and is in love with Beatrice, though she can’t bear the sight of him.

Fates, do your worst; I’ll please myself with sight
Of her, at all opportunities,
If but to spite her anger. I know she had
Rather see me dead than living — and yet
She knows no cause for’t but a peevish will. (I.i.102–106)

De Flores will turn out to be both the apparent solution to Beatrice’s Alonzo problem, and her nemesis, the agent of her ever worsening predicaments.

Girl plots to murder inconvenient fiancé

In the second act, Beatrice and Alsemero meet secretly. They are seen by De Flores, who takes advantage of the opportunity to approach Beatrice, and agrees to kill Alonzo. He expects that Beatrice’s gratitude will be expressed sexually, and is insulted when she offers only money and Alonzo’s ring in recompense. When he makes his intentions and desires clear she is appalled.

BEATRICE Why, tis impossible thou canst be so wicked,
Or shelter such a cunning cruelty,
To make his death the murderer of my honour!
Thy language is so bold and vicious,
I cannot see which way I can forgive it
With any modesty.
DE FLORES           Push, you forget yourself!
A woman dipped in blood, and talk of modesty? (III.iv.120–126)

Boy marries girl (though not before she has been coerced into sleeping with her murderous accomplice)

Vermandero and his entourage believe at first that Alonzo has got cold feet and fled his responsibilities, leaving Beatrice free to marry Alsemero, which she does at the beginning of Act IV. In the meantime, De Flores has pressured Beatrice into having sex with him. She is dismayed when she discovers that her new husband has a “right physician’s closet” (IV.i.20) containing vials of various substances and a manuscript with the title “The Book of Experiment, Called Secrets in Nature” (IV.i.24–25). This volume contains instructions on how to determine whether a woman is pregnant and, much worse from her point of view, “whether a woman be a maid or not” (40).

On the pretext that her shyness and modesty require that she pass their wedding night in complete darkness, Beatrice arranges for her waiting-woman, Diaphanta, to substitute for her. Diaphanta is a virgin, though she has been flirting with Alsemero’s companion, Jasperino. She is also willing to go along with her mistress’s plan because she is irresistably attracted to Alsemero, and can’t understand why Beatrice is willing to give up her wedding night with him.

Of course the “plan” is utterly deranged. The virginity test requires that the subject — the suspected woman — be observed. If she passes, she will first gape, wide-eyed, then sneeze and finally succumb to a fit of laughter. If the room is to be too dark for Alsemero to recognize that the woman he is about to have sex with is not Beatrice but Diaphanta, it will surely be too dark for him to administer the test and observe Diaphanta’s reaction. Beatrice is clearly not thinking very clearly, but floundering in desperation.

Beatrice makes Diaphanta undergo the test first, to make sure that her waiting-woman is as virginal as she claims. So, when Alsemero’s suspicions about his new bride are aroused, and he insists on her taking the test, Beatrice is able to imitate Diaphanta’s reaction, which she had earlier observed. The substitution of Diaphanta in the wedding bed is now pointless: Alsemero is already persuaded, for now at least, of his wife’s “honesty”. But Beatrice has to go ahead with the plan anyway: Diaphanta knows too much and is not willing to give up her night with Alsemero.

Diaphanta was supposed to leave the room once the couple had had sex, allowing Beatrice to sneak in and take her place. However, she can’t drag herself away, with the result that Beatrice never gets to share her husband’s bed. This inflames her anger against Diaphanta, whom she is already coming to see as a dangerous loose end. Eventually De Flores decides to set a fire to get everyone out of bed before dawn can expose the trick. He will then use the fire as cover to kill the waiting-woman.

DE FLORES               This is my reach: I’ll set
Some part a-fire of Diaphanta’s chamber.
BEATRICE How? Fire, sir? That may endanger the whole house.
DE FLORES You talk of danger when your fame’s on fire?
BEATRICE That’s true; do what thou wilt now. (V.i.31–35)

It now becomes clear how much Beatrice’s attitude to De Flores has changed. When she hears the shouts of “Fire”, she comments:

How heartily he serves me! His face loathes one,
But look upon his care, who would not love him?
The east is not more beauteous than his service. (V.i.70–72)

And shortly afterwards she describes him to her father as “A wondrous necessary man, my lord” (V.i.91).

While all this has been going on, Alonzo’s brother Tomazo has been complaining about the murder and going around demanding justice. As the revenger figure — a staple of revenge tragedy — he is unusually ineffective. When he meets the killer shortly after the murder, he addresses him as “Honest De Flores” (IV.ii.37) and adds “My brother loved thee well” (40). Just one day later, he is not so well disposed, however.

O, the fellow that some call honest De Flores.
But methinks honesty was hard bested
To come there for a lodging — as if a queen
Should make her palace of a pest-house.
I find a contrariety in nature
Betwixt that face and me; (V.ii.9–14)

Tomazo goes on to say that De Flores is so foul that he wouldn’t hit him with a sword that he intended to use again “In way of honest manhood” (21). It’s worth noting that Tomazo hasn’t noticed anything “foul” about De Flores in the immediate aftermath of the murder but sees it only after De Flores has been given time to stew in his guilt. Tomazo at this point is the only character apart from Beatrice and De Flores himself to remark upon De Flores’s supposed ugliness. (For De Flores’s self-assessment, see II.i.37–39.)

In the end, the villains are unmasked, not through Tomazo’s efforts but as a result of Alsemero’s mounting suspicions, encouraged by his friend Jasperino and partly confirmed by Beatrice’s changed attitude to De Flores. Nor does Tomazo have a role to play in their punishment: De Flores fatally stabs his lover, then himself. So, strictly speaking, The Changeling is not a revenge tragedy at all, but rather a play that pushes the revenger figure to the sidelines, a demonstration of his growing irrelevance.

In a previous post, I suggested that the anonymous author of The Revenger’s Tragedy (almost certainly Middleton) turned the comic subplot into the main business, treating the revenge story as a formal and conventional (if grotesque) frame. The Changeling’s subplot is the work of William Rowley. He wrote the play’s final scene, which brings the two plots together and incidentally contains some of Beatrice’s most memorable lines, e.g. V.iii.149–161.

The subplot concerns a madhouse or asylum run by Alibius and his assistant, Lollio. Alibius divides his patients into two groups: madmen and fools. Two of Vermandero’s men get themselves admitted to the madhouse under pretexts: Antonio acts the fool and Franciscus pretends to be mad. Their object is to get close to Alibius’s beautiful, much younger and neglected wife, Isabella, while Alibius is away. But because they disappeared into the asylum at about the time that Alonzo was murdered, they come under suspicion of the crime. In the final scene, Vermandero is ready to have them executed to appease Tomazo when Alsemero unveils the real killers.

Antonio and Franciscus learn — and demonstrate — that to feign folly is itself the behaviour of a fool, and that someone who puts an antic disposition on is at least flirting with genuine madness. As Alsemero is listing the various ways in which they have all been changed by what has happened, Antonio chimes in:

Yes, sir, I was changed too, from a little ass as I was to a great fool as I am; and had like to ha’ been changed to the gallows but that you know my innocence always excuses me.
FRANCISCUS I was changed from a little wit to be stark mad,
Almost for the same purpose. (V.iii.204–209)

The subplot, then, underlines the extent to which madness and folly drive the actions of the characters, particularly Beatrice, in the main one.

Middleton was a versatile playwright, who wrote city comedy as well as tragedy, and was able to write a successful play either alone or working in collaboration with a range of coauthors, the most frequent of whom was Rowley. It’s now believed that he rewrote part of Measure for Measure after Shakespeare’s death. When I was writing about A Fair Quarrel, I remarked that its subplot, with its clandestine marriage between Jane and Fitzallen, was to some extent reminiscent of Measure for Measure. Shakespeare’s play also contains the device of the substituted bedmate, which is echoed in The Changeling, though it’s used here to a different purpose than in Shakespeare’s play.

In Measure for Measure it ensures the consummation of the betrothal or clandestine marriage between Angelo and Mariana, which Angelo has previously repudiated; it draws a parallel between that irregular marriage and the one between Claudio and Juliet, which Angelo has hypocritically condemned. In The Changeling, the device is less obviously purposeful, merely the fantastical gambit of Beatrice’s mounting desperation, and ultimately accomplishing nothing more than to prevent her from consummating her formally lawful and regular marriage.

Edition: I’ve referred throughout to the New Mermaids 2nd edition, 1990, edited by Joost Daalder.


This is a little later than promised. I said I’d send it out on 2 November, but it wasn’t quite finished so I held it over till yesterday, but my day job got unusually busy, so I didn’t manage to finish it then either. Anyway, here it is at last. The next one, which will be the 52nd post, will mark the end of the second year of Talk about books and is due on 16 November. Till then.


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