That long excursion into Macbeth, now concluded, was for me both necessary and rewarding, but threw precious little light on what is supposed to be the central issue of this blog: an investigation of Middleton’s supposed greatness. It’s past time to get to the heart of the matter.
And so we turn to The Changeling, which I’ve just given a first reading.
I picked this play partly for its reputation. As Annabel Patterson says in her introduction for the Oxford Collected Works, “Like Hamlet, the play without which Shakespeare is unimaginable, it has defined Middleton’s canon around itself.” It held the stage for decades after its 1622 premiere (Pepys saw it 40 years later), and has been a popular subject of revival since the late 20th century.
Then, too, there was this intriguing item in Jonathan Bate’s recent essay on Middleton in the Times Literary Supplement:
Two years ago, Declan Donnellan, director of the theatre company Cheek by Jowl, had the inspired idea of staging a double bill of Twelfth Night and The Changeling. A steward in love with the lady of the house: play it as comedy and you have Shakespeare, as tragedy you have Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”, says Malvolio: and he is when he returns as De Flores.
There’s a bit more to it than that, of course, although the steward De Flores casts a long and menacing shadow across the play. His lady, Beatrice-Joanna, certainly goes to darker places than Olivia could have: darker places than could ever be found in the Illyria of Twelfth Night. She is in love with one man, but forcibly betrothed to another. She despises her father’s steward, that creepy De Flores, but knows he’s in her thrall. With a little prompting, he would probably do anything for her. Even a murder?
That calculus leads Beatrice-Joanna down the perilous road that so many Shakespearean characters have followed: commit (or instigate) a single terrible crime, get what you want, and then you’ll be happy and everyone else will just keep playing by the rules as if nothing had happened, right?
Of course not. Crime leads to crime, death to death, with the remorseless logic of an avalanche.
It’s very, very good: dark, haunting, hard to shake out of your mind. I still have a lot of reading and thinking to do, but my first reaction is that it deserves to stand in the first rank of the non-Shakespearean tragedies of the period, to be mentioned in a breath with Tamburlaine or The White Devil.
And how does it measure up to the Shakespearean tragedies? Well, let’s save that discussion for another day. But Shakes would have had no need to be ashamed of this play, had it come from his pen.
There’s a comic subplot, too, thought to be entirely co-author William Rowley’s work—not especially well-connected to the main plot, and tending to draw scorn from modern critics for its handling of mental illness. It’s not without merit, but my first impulse is to look on it as something of a distraction. We’ll see if that changes on a closer reading.
As Samuel Pepys wrote after the 1661 production he attended at the Whitefriars, “It takes exceedingly.” And so it does. I’m looking forward to digging into this one act by act in future entries.