The habituation of Beatrice
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.”