Fair warning: Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling can be difficult to read or watch. Most of the characters are a blend of the attractive and the disagreeable; they’re not individuals you’d want to meet or have a relationship with. The plot involves manipulation, sexual assault, scheming, and murder, and there’s a subplot that includes the use of the mentally ill as entertainment or comic relief. (Evidence suggests this unsavory practice was common in the early modern period.) As if that’s not enough, it’s misogynistic, like most early modern plays. To counter that aspect with a feminist discussion, I highly recommend the Changeling episode of “Not Another Shakespeare Podcast!.”
If The Changeling is stuffed with difficult subject matter and the characters are so awful, why is it so popular? Why does anyone bother? These are good questions, and the short response to both is that the play is extremely well-written. In performance it’s tense and exciting, and despite the unpleasant stuff can be an enjoyable two and a half hours. It’s not a morality play, but more of an exploration of things going terribly wrong due to…selfishness? An inability to see past one’s own desires? It’s hard to pinpoint. There are people in the play doing bad things, but are they bad people, or merely self-engrossed? Or something else entirely? At the close of the final act, rather than a feeling of moral superiority, there’s a sense of instability and confusion. Some characters do come to bad ends, but were they truly bad or just victims of circumstance? Did they simply make bad choices, or was the darkness in them all along? Could this be the meaning of the title?
In legend, a changeling was a being left in place of a human child stolen by fairies, a definition that doesn’t necessarily align with the play (we hear nothing of the characters’ childhoods). The inherent behavior of these beings was believed “monstrous,” however, which does fit with Middleton’s choice of title. As noted below, Antonio is called “the changeling,” but he’s not a child, and nearly every other character also enacts some sort of deception, bad behavior, or life shift. There are changes in relationships and loyalties, deaths and marriages, and attempts to be something or someone different. All these existential movements are destabilizing, creating a sense of dread or emotional vertigo.
Thomas Middleton was born in 1580 in London. His father was a laborer/bricklayer who did well financially, which allowed Thomas to spend some time at Oxford University. He returned to London and became a prolific playwright, authoring several well-received plays. During Middleton’s lifetime, the most famous was A Game of Chess, a work that got him in quite a bit of trouble for its unflattering take on several prominent royal and court figures. Middleton died in 1627 and is buried in a now unmarked grave in London.
The Changeling is believed to have had its first performance in 1622, although it was not entered into the Stationer’s Register until 1652. The setting is Alligant (or Alicante), Spain, and the plot centers on Beatrice-Joanna, daughter of Vermandero, a wealthy nobleman. Beatrice-Joanna is betrothed to Alonzo de Piracquo, but when she meets Alsemero, she regrets her impending marriage. She enlists one of her father’s servingmen, Deflores, to kill Alonzo, but Deflores’ idea of recompense is offensive: he wants to be repaid sexually, and when she refuses, he rapes her. For whatever reason, their trysts continue, despite Beatrice-Joanna’s new betrothal to Alsemero. Because of Deflores she is no longer a virgin, so she orchestrates a bed-trick on her wedding night, sending her maid Diaphanta to Alsemero in her place. The deed complete, Diaphanta becomes a liability and is also killed by Deflores. Alsemero later witnesses a tryst between Beatrice-Joanna and Deflores and learns of the two murders. Deflores kills both Beatrice-Joanna and himself when confronted.
Now for the subplot: Alibius, a doctor who oversees the local asylum, is married to Isabella, who is much younger and very beautiful. Alibius, as expected, fears for her chastity if young gallants visit (see “use of the mentally ill as entertainment,” above). As if on cue, two of Vermandero’s servants, Antonio and Franciscus, pretend to be mad and are admitted as residents. Isabella’s subsequent discovery of their ruse and her response plays off the Beatrice-Joanna plot, countering the actions of one strong female character with another.
Before delving into themes and what to watch for when reading/watching, here are the main characters and a short explanation of who they are:
BEATRICE-JOANNA: Vermandero’s daughter. When the play begins, she is betrothed to Alonzo; by the play’s end she is married to Alsemero. Beatrice-Joanna has strong feelings about Deflores (to say the least).
VERMANDERO: Beatrice-Joanna’s father, Spanish nobleman, and resident of Alligant/Alicante.
DEFLORES: A servingman to Vermandero. Some sort of facial scarring or skin condition renders him unattractive. He is besotted with Beatrice-Joanna.
ALONZO DE PIRACQUO: Beatrice-Joanna’s first betrothed. It doesn’t go well for him.
TOMAZO DE PIRACQUO: Alonzo’s brother. He attempts to warn Alonzo of Beatrice-Joanna’s apparent lack of affection, but is rebuffed. After his brother’s death, he arrives looking for answers.
ALSEMERO: A nobleman visiting Alligant. He meets Beatrice-Joanna at a religious service and is instantly smitten. He also dabbles in medicine/science.
JASPERINO: Alsemero’s companion. He joins the fun by wooing Diaphanta.
DIAPHANTA: Beatrice-Joanna’s ill-starred servingwoman and recipient of Jasperino’s amorous attentions.
ALIBIUS: A doctor in charge of the local asylum. He has trust issues due to his having a younger and very beautiful wife.
ISABELLA: Young, beautiful, and married to Alibius. She gives him no cause for jealousy, but he goes there just the same. Probably the most likeable character in the entire play.
LOLLIO: The play’s clown figure. Lollio is Alibius’ saucy, bawdy, and (in his mind) witty assistant.
ANTONIO: The dramatis personae lists Antonio as “the changeling,” but as will become clear, Antonio has no right to single ownership of this description. He has the hots for Isabella and pretends to be mad so he can be committed to the asylum and be near her.
FRANCISCUS: The dramatis personae lists him as “the counterfeit madman” although this description fits Antonio as well. Like Antonio, Franciscus feigns madness so he can be locked up in the asylum and attempt to woo Isabella.
There’s a lot to watch for in The Changeling. Pay attention to how many times sight, seeing, or eyes are mentioned or alluded to in the play. This is a central theme pointing to another very important aspect of the play: seeming or appearances. When Alsemero meets Beatrice-Joanna, he believes her to be associated with the holy (1.1.1-12); Jasperino urges Alsemero to his ship, but his friend tells him the wind only seems in their favor (15-16); Deflores appears to be merely a servingman but claims to have been born a gentleman (2.1.49). Was/is his physical appearance in some way associated with his downfall? Beatrice-Joanna seems to feel visceral disgust for Deflores, but by the end of the play is praising him; did her initial revulsion mask a subconscious attraction, or is the change due to something psychological? This handful of examples from the first two acts gestures to situations ripe with the potential for change, and makes the idea that one particular character is “the” changeling either disingenuous or an attempt to distract from other possibilities — perhaps to make their discovery more satisfying.
It’s not difficult to find performances of The Changeling online; there are videos, radio plays, discussions, and audio books. One of the most promising of the filmed productions is this 1974 BBC offering starring Helen Mirren. As of yet I haven’t watched it, but since you can’t go wrong with Helen Mirren I plan to remedy that as soon as possible. The complete text of the play is available (for free!) on the Folger’s extremely useful Early Modern English Drama website. For my blog posts, unless otherwise stated, all references are from the 1988 Penguin Classics Five Plays: Thomas Middleton, edited by Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor.
Let’s dig into this unsettling, sometimes offensive, but exceptionally well-written and enjoyable play…