Sexual energy and moral order in Middleton's The Changeling
Hengeveld, Dennis Allen
Master of Arts
The Renaissance in England can best be characterized as a period that was neither medieval nor modern, but during which the decaying and emerging modern world views existed side by side. The modern emphasis on individualism, social mobility, and the doctrine of progress can also be found in seventeenth-century England. At the same time, the belief in an ultimate moral order and a Christian cosmosgraphy remained firm until at least the middle of the eighteenth century. Moreover, men of the Renaissance firmly believed that the best earthly form of government, in the commonwealth, in the community, and in the family, corresponded to the order God imposed on his creation as a whole. The great tragedies written during the English Renaissance were, I believe, at least partially the result of the tension that existed between these different world views. On the one hand, Renaissance protagonists possessed a large store of individual energy which made them heroic if not always good men. On the other hand, when they overstepped the bounds established for all men by moral law, whether that law was manifested in an earthly order or known through the revelation of God's will, they had to be destroyed. Thus, an audience could appreciate the hero and at the same time understand the necessity of his destruction. In Thomas Middleton's The Changeling energy takes the form of sexual desire. What Beatrice calls her "love" for Alsemero is really the same thing as De Flores's lust for her. As a result, murder seems to both of them an insignificant price to pay for sensual gratification. Beatrice and De Flores dominate the play's main action; while they are morally repugnant, they have a fascination for their audience. Everyday virtue seems pale beside their sins. But Beatrice must fall since she has severed all connection with the proper moral order, in this case the family structure, by murdering her fiance. Each of her evil actions necessitates the next, until finally the sins themselves cause her discovery. After she and De Flores have been destroyed, order is restored and a new family structure is built. While the forms energy and order take in Middleton's play are unique, their interaction and the resolution of the tension between them is perfectly in keeping with other Renaissance tragedies and with the beliefs of the age itself. At least in The Changeling, Thomas Middleton appears very much a man of his own age.