“Am I Not an Ass?”: Masochism and Reprobation in The Changeling

Gabriel Rieger
Concord University

Gabriel Rieger. "“Am I Not an Ass?”: Masochism and Reprobation in The Changeling". Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11):3.1-34 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-2/riegami.htm>

  1. For more than fifty years, sexuality and theology have been central to our understanding of The Changeling.  In her introduction to The Changeling in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, Annabel Patterson observes that the shifting cultural mores of the late twentieth century “make it time for a new account of The Changeling, one that might beg to differ from N. W. Bawcutt’s brilliant and humane introduction to his Revels edition in 1958” (1623).   She goes on to state that:
    Criticism of Jacobean drama was then predominantly ethical in tone.  Bawcutt declared that “the moral world” of the play “is the orthodox Christian universe of sin and punishment”, and at the end, as the betrayed husband offers his father-in-law the filial duty that his daughter had withheld, “moral order is finally established”.  Today, ethical judgement seems more complicated, and readers and audiences will have contradictory responses.  
    She goes on to declare that the “Christian-ethical vocabulary has been forgotten by readers accustomed to Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, for whom sexuality is the power to which we owe allegiance.”  There can be no question that sexuality is central to our understanding of The Changeling, but attempts to oppose a “sexual” reading of the tragedy with a Christian reading are misguided.  In the pre-Puritan world of Jacobean England, the divide between religion and sexuality was not so wide as one might imagine.  Sexuality colored religious thinking in some remarkable ways.  For the contemporary critic, any engagement with sexuality is likely to be rooted in psychoanalysis, and indeed there have been some attempts to read the characters of The Changeling, and their motivations, psychoanalytically, although these have largely served to highlight the difficulties in doing so.[1]  This has not, however, diminished the appeal of psychoanalytic readings, particularly for directors of the play in contemporary performance. In their 2004 article “Does Beatrice-Joanna Have a Subtext?: The Changeling on the London Stage,” Roberta Barker and David Nicol examine the history of stage representations of The Changeling, particularly interpretations of Beatrice-Joanna’s relationship to the character of De Flores. In the article, Barker and Nicol observe how, in “
    a striking example of the process by which critical reception of one production can lead to the establishment of accepted interpretations for the next,” there has developed a theatrical reading of Beatrice-Joanna as “a spoilt child” whose decision to suborn the murder of her fiancé is “only a precursor to her slow realization of her repressed, subtextual desire” for De Flores. In this reading, the play becomes what the critics, quoting Malcolm Rutherford,   call “‘a warped love story’” “that culminates in a blood-soaked romantic apotheosis” (2).  The authors go on to articulate how:
    Our paper contests this reading – now virtually canonical in the theatre - on two counts. First, we argue that its post-Freudian appropriation of an early modern text necessitates many overt misreadings and misinterpretations. To be sure, all contemporary performances of early modern playtexts depend on cultural appropriations, and a return to their ‘authentic’ meanings is probably neither possible nor desirable. But this particular appropriation is also questionable on contemporary feminist terms, for its erotic treatment of the central scene in which De Flores demands that Beatrice Joanna reward his murder of Piracquo with sexual favours risks affirming that Middleton and Rowley’s heroine actually desires a rape she pleads against in the lines they wrote for her. (3)
    The authors further declare that this “dominant theatrical reading” of the character “speaks productively neither to her cultural origins nor to our own constructions of gender” and is therefore “ripe for re-evaluation.”

  2. While I will not contest the authors’ assessment of the theatrical tradition surrounding The Changeling, I will note that the conflicted desire which directors have attributed to Beatrice-Joanna might be better attributed to the character of De Flores.  If recent theatrical representations have given us a Beatrice-Joanna drawn to De Flores and the degradation that he represents against her better judgement, and even against her will, we must acknowledge that the text has given us a De Flores who is drawn to Beatrice-Joanna in precisely the same way.  De Flores is covetous of Beatrice-Joanna’s beauty and, more subtly, her class position, but his feelings for her are nevertheless ambivalent. As surely as De Flores represents degradation for Beatrice-Joanna, she likewise represents degradation for him.

  3. In this essay, I posit an alternative reading of this tragedy, as well as a potential justification for that reading. I argue that The Changeling presents a narrative of masochistic degradation as an object lesson in spiritual reprobation, an object lesson intended specifically to answer the Arminian heresy which devilled Jacobean Calvinists (such as the playwright Thomas Middleton) in the 1620’s, the decade in which The Changeling was written and acted.  A close textual analysis of The Changeling reveals that the play does have a powerful masochistic subtext, but that subtext is not anchored on the character of Beatrice-Joanna; rather, it is anchored on her antagonist, De Flores. 

  4. While it is not my intention to undertake a “post-Freudian appropriation of an early modern text,” I will nevertheless maintain that the erotic (or eroticized) desire for degradation, what a contemporary reader would call “masochism,” did exist in Jacobean London, even if it was not articulated in Freudian terms.  Indeed, there have already been some “post-Freudian” analyses of The Changeling, including Emil Roy’s “Sexual Paradox in The Changeling” and Felicity Rosslyn’s “Villainy, Virtue and Projection”, although neither of these studies addresses the specific inquiry of my essay.[2]

  5. De Flores is the character who suffers the torments of conflicted, i.e. masochistic, desire, and it is De Flores who must attempt to construct a rational narrative out of his irrational compulsions.  The language which he employs in this attempt is drawn repeatedly, morbidly, to theology.  This morbid engagement with theology provides us with a potential explanation for the character’s compulsion, an explanation which is, not surprisingly, rooted in the particular political and religious circumstances of Jacobean London.

  6. De Flores demonstrates conflicted desire from his first appearance in the tragedy.  He interrupts Beatrice-Joanna’s flirtation with Alsemero in the first scene and undertakes the following exchange with her:
                DE FLORES:  Lady, your father –
                BEATRICE:                              Is in health, I hope.
                DE FLORES:  Your eye shall instantly instruct you, lady.
                                         He’s coming hitherward.
                BEATRICE:                                       What needed then
                                         Your duteous preface?  I had rather
                                         He had come unexpected: you must stall
                                         A good presence with unnecessary blabbing,
                                         And how welcome for your part you are
                                         I’m sure you know. (91-99)[3]
    Beatrice-Joanna’s insult is shocking in its vehemence and abruption, but it sets the stage for the action which is to follow. De Flores, in his position as servant, reacts to it only in aside, an aside which expresses the painful paradox of his desire.  He asks: 
    Will’t never mend, this scorn,
    One side nor other? Must I be enjoin'd
    To follow still whilst she flies from me?
    Well, 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. (99-101)
    In these lines,
    De Flores expresses the conflict inherent in his desire for Beatrice-Joanna.  Her scorn cannot mend on “One side nor other,” and so he is “enjoined” to “follow” her “whilst she flies” from him.  His circumstance is not constructed rationally; he assumes that it has been ordained by the “Fates,” and that Beatrice-Joanna has no cause to scorn him other than “a peevish will.” The choice to follow her is not, in De Flores’ own construction, a choice; he is “enjoin’d” to follow her seemingly against his own will. The word “enjoined” is significant here, carrying with it the implication of religious devotion, of divine compulsion. From his first appearance in the tragedy, De Flores constructs his desire for Beatrice-Joanna in theological terms.

  7. This paradoxical construction of desire is manifest throughout the tragedy. De Flores repeatedly acknowledges the extent to which his desire for Beatrice-Joanna discomforts and degrades him, and he laments the fact that he is nonetheless drawn to her. Indeed, if we were to read the character in contemporary Freudian terms we would call his desire for Beatrice-Joanna masochistic, because it represents a desire for his own suffering.  This desire for suffering has been remarked upon in regard to Beatrice-Joanna, and indeed serves as a central plank in what Nicol and Barker see as the traditional theatrical construction of the character.[4]  What may be less apparent, however, is the way in which the character of De Flores suffers.  The conventional reading of De Flores has been that he is a Vice figure, an instrument of degradation for Beatrice-Joanna, the “serpent” who destroys her paradise (Daalder, xxvi). Practically no attention has been thus far paid to the ways in which De Flores is a victim of his own, and his eventual lover’s, erotic appetites.

  8. I acknowledge that this is a potentially radical reading of the character and his tragedy, but there is considerable textual evidence to support it.  When we see De Flores lamenting the scorn that will “never mend” on “[o]ne side nor other,” i.e. the scorn that he can neither resist nor escape, it is clear that he finds it to be both attractive and repulsive, and this duality creates a tension that tortures him. We see even stronger evidence of this duality at the close of the same scene when De Flores stoops to retrieve the glove that Beatrice-Joanna has dropped as a courtly favour for her beloved, Alsemero. Beatrice-Joanna is disgusted and demands of him “Who bade you stoop?” before declaring that the gloves “touch my hand no more: / There, for t’other’s sake I part with this - / Take ‘em and draw thine own skin off with ‘em” (226-229).

  9. Far from being repulsed by Beatrice-Joanna’s contemptuous gesture, De Flores finds it weirdly alluring.  Indeed, he meditates on it and in so doing he reconstructs it as not only a degradation, but also as an erotic enticement.  It becomes for him an extension (and an inversion) of the courtly love narrative Beatrice-Joanna had intended for Alsemero.  Instead of pursuing the lady’s favour in the fashion of a courtly lover, De Flores pursues her scorn.  Instead of retrieving a love token, De Flores retrieves a token of contempt. He takes up the glove and declares:
    Here's a favour
    come with a mischief: Now I know
    She had rather wear my pelt tann'd in a pair
    Of dancing pumps than I should thrust my fingers
    Into her sockets here. I know she hates me,
    Yet cannot choose but love her:
    No matter: if but to vex her I'll haunt her still;
    Though I get nothing else, I'll have my will (229-235).
    De Flores constructs the dropped glove as a “favour,’ but he acknowledges that the favour comes “with a mischief”; it is both a love token and an insult. He follows this observation with a perverse fantasy in which he imagines himself flayed, seemingly at Beatrice-Joanna’s behest, and objectified. He imagines her desire as occasioning the loss of his agency and indeed even his identity; he is reduced to “a pair / Of dancing pumps” to be placed under her feet.[5] 

  10. While the character is fantasizing his own degradation, however, he is also fantasizing aggression.  He is apparently “thrust[ing] [his] fingers / Into her sockets,” defiling her dropped gloves with his unwelcome touch (Daalder xxvi).  Even as he fantasizes his own degradation, he enacts a metaphoric degradation on Beatrice-Joanna, using the glove as her surrogate.  The phallic implications of this scene can scarcely be overstated; De Flores is enacting a symbolic rape.  He is simultaneously aggressing and submitting, and this paradox reflects his bifurcated erotic desire. At the same time, De Flores is here inverting the conventional narrative of the courtly lover, picking up the love token that is in actuality a token of hatred and building an ironic quest narrative around it accordingly.

  11. For all of this, De Flores remarks that he “cannot choose but love” Beatrice-Joanna.  This love takes the form of a strangely skewed erotic desire, one that is seemingly inseparable from the contempt she expresses for him and the contempt he likewise feels for her.   In the face of his practical circumstances, however, he sees this separation as immaterial, remarking “No matter: if but to vex her I'll haunt her still.” De Flores derives satisfaction not only from the discomfort that Beatrice-Joanna is causing him, but also from the discomfort that he is in turn causing to her. There is something in his aggression against her that is personally satisfying.  In De Flores’ construction, erotic desire has been displaced onto a system of degradations, both experienced and inflicted.

  12. De Flores returns to this theme in II.i, again lamenting not only the degradations he suffers at the hands of Beatrice-Joanna, but the lengths to which he will go to pursue them. In lines 27 through 35 of the scene, De Flores declares that:
    Whatever ails me, now a-late especially
    I can as well be hang'd as refrain seeing her.
    Some twenty times a day, nay not so little,
    Do I force errands, frame ways and excuses
    To come into her sight - and I have small reason for't,
    And less encouragement: for she baits me still
    Every time worse than other, does profess herself
    The cruelest enemy to my face in town… .
    In this passage De Flores recognizes that he is unwell.  He suffers with a malady which he cannot name, identifying it only as “Whatever ails me.” Beatrice-Joanna’s presence, with all of its attendant humiliations, is life to him, and its opposite, her absence, is death in that to “refrain from seeing her” is equivalent to being “hanged.” De Flores experiences here a specific erotic compulsion against his own will and judgment.  He is once again, as he noted in I.i, “enjoined” to pursue her.

  13. Beatrice-Joanna, for her part, “baits” him with progressive intensity, professing herself to be his “cruelest enemy.”  This is an evolution in the character, at least insofar as De Flores’ perception is concerned; she not only hates him and finds his presence “vex[ing],” she is now aggressively taunting him. To bait in the Jacobean period carries with it the association of blood sport, particularly bear and bull baiting, with the implication that Beatrice-Joanna, despite her protestations to the contrary, derives some measure of pleasure from her abusive interactions with De Flores. At the very least, De Flores suggests as much.

  14. De Flores returns to the language of religious devotion in line 50 of the same scene, remarking how Beatrice-Joanna “turns her blessed eye” upon him, inspiring him to “endure all storms” before he takes his leave of it.  He characterizes the “storm” specifically as a “storm of hail” whose “stones” pelt him. While De Flores’ ostensible reference here is to a natural phenomenon, it is difficult not to make some association with a biblical stoning, particularly given his description of the “blessed eye” of Beatrice-Joanna which inspires him to endure the abuse. In this declaration, De Flores constructs himself as a martyr, one who suffers violence for the sake of God.[6]  The god of De Flores’ idolatry (to borrow Juliet’s phrase) is not the benevolent Christian God, however, nor even the wrathful God of the Old Testament; it is the “blessed eye” of the disdainful Beatrice-Joanna.[7]

  15. Throughout his interactions with Beatrice-Joanna, there is evidence that De Flores recognizes the perversity of his inverted courtly quest.  After having delivered her father’s summons to her in 2.1 and being scorned for it, De Flores remarks in aside:
    Why, am not I an ass to devise ways
    Thus to be railed at? I must see her still;
    I shall have a mad qualm within this hour again,
    I know't, and, like a common Garden-bull I do but take breath to be lugged again.
    What this may bode I know not. (II.i.77-82)
    What this bodes, of course, is De Flores’ descent into murder and his eventual death, as well as the death of Beatrice-Joanna. De Flores cannot understand what is happening to him here, although perhaps we can. The only explanations he can fathom for devising ways “to be railed at” is that he is stupid, i.e. “an ass,” or crazed, i.e. afflicted with “a mad qualm.” He once again characterizes his existence as bestial and engages the imagery of blood sport, in this case likening himself to a “Garden-bull” that cannot reason in its circumstance and does “but take breath to be lugged again.” De Flores reduces his entire existence to a spectacle of entertainment, degrading himself, through his language, even to the level of inhumanity. It is a degradation that he embraces even if he cannot understand it, declaring that “[w]hat this may bode I know not.”

  16. In attempting to excuse his “mad qualm,” De Flores reasons that he is simply awaiting Beatrice-Joanna’s eventual favour, but it seems unlikely that he really expects such a favour to come.  His own declarations notwithstanding, De Flores is not stupid. He merely lacks an understanding of his own nature.  De Flores does not pursue Beatrice-Joanna out of the hope that she will favour him; he pursues her because he craves the degradation she causes him, as well as the degradation he can eventually cause to her.

  17. The convenient term to describe this seemingly illogical desire to afflict and receive degradation is sadomasochism, but the term is anachronistic and, frankly, inadequate to describe the character of De Flores.  There were neither sadists nor masochists, at least insofar as we understand those terms, in the seventeenth century, although there were certainly those individuals who eroticized suffering and degradation, both their own and others’. This being the case, how are we to understand the character of De Flores?  A close reading of the tragedy makes it apparent that De Flores evinces an erotic orientation that we might today call sadomasochistic; i.e. he wishes to degrade, and to be degraded by, the object of his erotic desire.  What is less apparent is the reason for this.  What do the playwrights gain by constructing De Flores as one who eroticizes degradation, both his own and others’? 

  18. We know that the early moderns sometimes engaged in practices that we might call sadomasochistic, even if the term is anachronistic. In setting out to construct a sadomasochistic orientation for De Flores, the playwrights would have had models upon which to build.  Indeed, the rigidly hierarchical social system of early modern England was itself predicated on a network of highly visible degradations and elevations, and the unprecedented fluidity of Jacobean London would have brought this predication into sharp relief.  It is not surprising, then, to see these degradations and elevations eroticized on the stage.

  19. That said, there is another explanation for De Flores’ erotic desire for degradation, one that is even more specifically rooted in the Jacobean world.  De Flores, “enjoined” as he is to follow his scornful beloved, fits neatly into a narrative of reprobation entirely in keeping with his author’s Calvinist theology, and especially suited to the historical and political moment in which he exists.[8]  In Calvinist theology, the reprobate sinner is compelled, or “enjoined”, to embrace the degradation of sin, the consummate destruction of the self.  This theology fits neatly with De Flores’ character; he is aware that Beatrice hates him, “yet cannot choose but love” her.  His compulsory embrace of degradation, which is mysterious to him and which might strike the contemporary reader as masochistic, makes logical sense when read in the context of seventeenth century Calvinism. This perhaps raises another question; what is it about The Changeling, and its particular historical moment, which lends itself so particularly to Calvinist allegory?   

  20. A. A. Bromham has already examined the Calvinist dimensions of The Changeling in his The Changeling and the Years of Crises, 1619-1624: A Hieroglyph of Britain.  As Bromham notes:    
    In the early 1620’s the subdivision of the true religion from within seemed threatened not simply by royal actions and decisions … but by a group of churchmen within the Church of England, the Arminian faction, which began to gain influence in the latter years of the second decade of the century.  There seems at this time to have been a need to define clearly the true religion in a series of works….  The Changeling is … very concerned with matters of human knowledge and perception, with questions of how we can know truth, and this concern is linked to the Calvinist-Arminian controversy. (123)
    Arminianism was a source of considerable anxiety to English Calvinists, and to the nation as a whole in the Jacobean period. The Arminians, with their rejection of predestination and their perceived deviation from the principles of sola scriptura, were regarded by traditional Calvinists as not only heretical but also politically dangerous, being less antagonistic to England’s Catholic enemies. This became a particularly pressing issue as the reign of James progressed and the king began promoting more and more Arminians to positions of prominence.  

  21. To be certain, the confrontation between Arminianism and mainstream Calvinism did not emerge fully-formed in the seventeenth century.  It had been developing for centuries prior, and its seeds had arguably been sown in the 5th century, when Pelagius pioneered his doctrine of salvation sola fide, which was adapted by his disciples into what would come to be known as the Pelagian heresy of salvation through the combination of faith and works. This heresy, which St. Augustine had opposed in part through the doctrine of predestination, persisted in varying forms into the Middle Ages and beyond, when it was taken up by Jacob Arminius.  Arminius, a professor of theology at Leiden, was asked by officials of the city of Amsterdam to mount an opposition to a strain of antelapsarian predestination which was being promulgated by the followers of Theodore Beza. In constructing this opposition, Arminius reached the conclusion that predestination, as it was generally understood, could not be reconciled with Scripture unless it was contingent upon faith.  The ensuing controversy eventually led to the Synod of Dort in 1618, which set forth the doctrine of quinquarticular, or “five-point,” Calvinism (Bangs 138-141).  The Synod also effectively coalesced the varying Arminian factions into one essentially unified group and set the stage for the Arminian controversy which gripped London at roughly the same time, some four years prior to the initial performance of The Changeling.

  22. Religious ideology in Jacobean London was volatile in the extreme, although perhaps less so than it had been under James’ predecessor, Elizabeth.  While James was able to control the worst religious contentions in the early years of his reign, his staunchly Protestant subjects maintained a powerful antipathy toward the Catholic church, an antipathy expressed in pulpit rhetoric and pamphlets (including Thomas Middleton’s The Two Gates of Salvation or The Marriage of the Old and New Testament). While the Arminian faction considered themselves to be Protestant, they were not in step with traditional Calvinism and were widely suspected of harboring Catholic sympathies, if not outright Catholic tendencies.[9]

  23. While James was ostensibly a supporter of the Synod of Dort early in his reign, he softened his position as his reign progressed, owing in part to the strain placed upon his nation by the Thirty Years War. James was reluctant to commit English troops to the conflict, despite pressures from conservative Calvinists to do so.  While these conservative Calvinists were advocating for war, James found political allies in what might have once seemed an unlikely quarter, the Arminian faction.  Possibly as a result of this support, the king set about promoting some Arminians to positions of prominence, much to the consternation of conservative Calvinists (Bromham 124).

  24. Throughout this period of rising tension -- from 1618 into the 1620’s -- Thomas Middleton continued to produce socially and politically informed drama. Indeed, the playwright was not averse to commenting in his drama directly on current events.  He had addressed the Thomas Overbury murder case in his play The Witch (as well as in The Changeling), and perhaps most famously, was reprimanded and fined for satirizing recognizable public figures on the stage in his 1624 play A Game at Chess, a circumstance which likely hastened his retirement from the stage.  Given his demonstrated Calvinist sympathies and his inclination to topical drama, it is perhaps not surprising that Middleton would comment upon the Arminian controversy in his work.

  25. As Bromham demontrates, The Changeling might be read as a response to the growing influence of Arminianism in English culture and political life. Bromham posits in chapter four of his study that Alsemero serves as the play’s refutation of Arminanism, since he is the “religious changeling” who attempts to justify his devotions in the fashion of the Arminian bishops, but, considering the strangely conflicted desire evinced in De Flores, there is a case for reading De Flores as a refutation, as well (119). Whereas the Arminians rejected the notion of strict predestination, in The Changeling, Middleton presents his audience with a kind of dramatic parable of predestination, or more specifically of its related concept, reprobation.  We return here to De Flores’ line from 1.1.100, in which the character is “enjoined” to pursue Beatrice-Joanna and the painful degradation which she represents. The word enjoin carried with it a pair of interconnected meanings, both of which occur in the proto-reformation writings of John Wycliffe.[10]  In one sense the word meant simply “to join together,” which is appropriate to De Flores’ situation since he seeks conjugation with Beatrice-Joanna.  At the same time, however, Wycliffe uses the word to represent the imposition of a penalty, particularly a penalty in regard to spiritual reparation.  There is thus a strong connotation of punishment in the word, which is likewise appropriate to De Flores.  He is punished by his devotion to Beatrice-Joanna, and he is unable to escape that punishment even as he longs to do so.

  26. The importance of this duality can scarcely be overstated.  It fits neatly into a specific tenet of reprobation which was central to Calvinsim, but which had existed for some time previously, at least since the ninth century.   Florus, deacon of Lyons, had pointed out in his Defense of Predestination that:
    … there is a double predestination: viz. of some, who are elected into life; and of others, who are destined to death.  That men have, by nature, no free-will, except to what is evil.  That the elect are compelled to good. But that the reprobate are not compelled to sin: they are only compelled to undergo the punishment which, by sin, they have merited. (Toplady 1825, 317)
    We see in The Changeling a parable of reprobation which intersects neatly with Florus’ teaching.  De Flores is the reprobate sinner, consumed by his carnal appetites.  He is at the same time a Satanic figure, bearing in his very name the image of the de-flowerer, the despoiler of Eden. This identification underscores his reprobation.  Similarly, he is constructed by Beatrice-Joanna as a “serpent” at the beginning of the play in 1.1.223, and again at the end when she notes that she has “kissed poison” and “strok’d a serpent” (5.3.66) for the sake of Alsemero’s love.  In 3.4.165 she raises the question “was my creation in the womb so curst / It must engender with a viper first?”.  Throughout the tragedy, De Flores is constructed as the serpent, with not only all of the attendant lapsarian associations, but the implicit phallic associations, as well.  We see here the character intricately bound up with notions of both temptation and corruption, particularly carnal corruption.  De Flores’ masochism, his compulsion to experience degradation, is bound up with his Satanism; the two qualities are united in the context of Calvinist theology as a kind of reprobation.  De Flores, the reprobate sinner, is enjoined to embrace his degradation, even as he suffers the pain of that embrace.

  27. As we have established, one of the most striking differences, perhaps the defining difference, between Arminiansim and what we might call “orthodox” Calvinism is that the Arminians rejected, or at least qualified, the doctrine of predestination.  By constructing the character of De Flores as a reprobate sinner who literalizes his reprobation through his erotic embrace of degradation -- the sinner degraded to the level of “common garden bull,” subjected to “mad qualms” -- the Calvinist playwright presents an object lesson for his audience, illustrating and objectifying the power of reprobation and perhaps providing a partial answer to the Arminian heresy.

  28. This object lesson becomes clearer in 2.2 of the tragedy, when Beatrice-Joanna commissions De Flores to murder Alonzo.  De Flores describes the charge as “a service that I kneel to you for,” to which Beatrice-Joanna cautions “There’s horror in my service, blood and danger.”  De Flores responds without hesitation, finishing out the meter of her line when he replies:
                If you knew
    How sweet it were to me to be employed
    In any act of yours, you would say then
    I failed, and used not reverence enough
    When I receive the charge on’t. (121-124)  
    In Calvinist theology, nothing is so degrading as sin.  De Flores here entreats for sin in language which, as in his earlier ruminations, suggests a religious obligation.  He “kneel[s]” to Beatrice-Joanna for it, again placing her in the position of a divinity as he did in 2.1.50-51 when he endured “storms” for the sake of her “blessed eye”.  He underscores this notion when he refers to his insufficient “reverence” upon receiving the charge.  At the same time, he suggests the erotic enticement which the act represents for him when he declares the employment to be “sweet”, a word closely associated with both erotic pleasure and bodily corruption.[11]  He continues this association in line 134, when he declares that “the thought ravishes.”

  29. He is drawn, passionately, religiously, to embrace the sinful degradation, the “horror,” “blood and danger” which Beatrice-Joanna’s service represents.  This degradation is simultaneously erotic and corruptive, and the sensation of it overwhelms him.  De Flores’ lines here suggest the complexity of his emotions, as well as of his circumstances. 

  30. This complexity compounds as the tragedy progresses.  Critics have long noted the shift in the power dynamic between De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna in 3.4, but even after that shift, after De Flores has declared her to be “a woman dipped in blood,” no longer his divine superior but his equal, his attitude toward the deed, and toward himself, remains conflicted.[12]  In the dumb show which inaugurates the fourth act, “Alonzo’s ghost appears to De Flores in the midst of his smile, [and] startles him, showing him the hand whose finger he had cut off.” This is the first indication of De Flores’ conflicted sensibility following Alonzo’s murder.  We see a further example in 4.2 when he says of Tomazo, “I’d fain get off; this man’s not for my company. / I smell his brother’s blood when I come near him” before declaring that “[h]is company e’en o’erlays my conscience.”  He experiences a similar crisis in 5.1, when the ghost of Alonzo appears to him as “a mist of conscience.” In the following scene he draws his sword in response to a blow from Tomazo, but declares at line 32 “I cannot strike.  I see his brother’s wounds / Fresh bleeding in his eye, as in a crystal!”

  31. Even after De Flores has coupled with Beatrice-Joanna, even as he enjoys “all the sweets that ever darkness tasted,” he suffers remorse for the sin he has committed.   Even in the grip of this remorse, however, he cannot repent, because he is a reprobate sinner.  He has, in the words of Florus, “no free will, except to what is evil.”  He is “compelled to undergo the punishment which, by sin, [he has] merited.”  Even after he has attained what he assumed to be his desire, congress with Beatrice-Joanna, he is not at peace.  He continues to be drawn, restlessly, to his own destruction, even to the conclusion of the tragedy.

  32. Murder begets murder as the tragedy progresses, building a narrative which lends itself neatly to Bawcutt’s “orthodox Christian universe of sin and punishment,” the forgotten “Christian-ethical” framework, to return to Patterson, in which Middleton wrote. De Flores compounds his crimes of murder and adultery through his murder of Diaphanta, and indeed reifies his damnation when he sets the castle on fire.

  33. The ultimate expression of De Flores’ reprobation comes in the final act of the tragedy, at the point of his suicide. As he prepares, literally, to destroy himself, De Flores acknowledges that he and Beatrice-Joanna are “left in hell,” and that he has loved Beatrice-Joanna “in spite of her heart.”  Indeed, reflecting upon his life in preparation for his death, he “thank[s] life for nothing” but the “sweet” pleasure of his sin. We see here a consummate expression of reprobation, a compulsion to embrace not only to spiritual but also personal annihilation. Middleton’s object lesson is rendered complete.

  34. While much attention has been paid to representation of Beatrice-Joanna, to her degeneracy and her potential masochism, scarcely any attention has thus far been paid to the masochism expressed by the character of DeFlores, who openly acknowledges the extent to which he is drawn to degrade himself for the sake of his erotic desire, pursuing his beloved in the face of her antipathy.[13]  De Flores embodies both moral degeneracy and erotic appetite, and expresses sentiments that a contemporary reader cannot help but read as masochistic.  This masochism which he expresses is strikingly consistent with Calvinist notions of reprobation.  Considering this tragedy in the context of its time, it seems likely that our playwrights, particularly Thomas Middleton, whose Calvinist sympathies have been thoroughly documented, might have highlighted this aspect of the character’s nature as a means of illustrating, and underscoring, conventional Calvinist theology as response to, and a reaction against, the growing power and influence of Arminianism at the Jacobean court. Indeed, the reprobation of Beatrice-Joanna has long been established as a canonical reading (Bawcutt 25-26). What we might read as sadomasochism, a character “enjoin’d” to pursue a scornful beauty,  a character whose “mad qualm” directs him to be “lugged” “like a common Garden-bull,” the Jacobeans would likely read as an object lesson in spiritual reprobation, a degradation that is no less painful for being eroticized. In the hands of Thomas Middleton, the Calvinist playwright whose works engage so intimately with notions of erotic desire, the tragedy becomes a kind of parable, not only a spiritual but also a political manifesto, and one particularly suited to its historical moment. 

[1] See especially Roy and Rosslyn.

[2] To date there has been precious little scholarship devoted to the erotic desire for giving and receiving pain as it existed in the early modern period, although there is ample evidence that such desire did exist. The best overview of the topic to date is probably still chapter one of Ian Gibson’s The English Vice: Beating, Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After, entitled “Knowledge and Warnings about Sexual Flagellation before Freud.”  More recently there has been some excellent analysis of sadomasochistic representation in early modern dramatic texts, particularly Lisa S. Starks’ “‘Won with Thy Words and Conquered with Thy Looks”: Sadism, Masochism and the Masochistic Gaze in 1 Tamburlaine” in Marlowe, History and Sexuality: New Critical Essays on Christopher Marlowe, and “‘Like the Lover’s Pinch, Which hurts and Is Desired’: The Narrative of Male Masochism and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra”  in Literature and Psychology.

[3] I have taken all of my citations from the recent Oxford edition of The Changeling, edited by Douglas Bruster, in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works.

[4] The authors note that this “Freudian interpretation of Beatrice” has its root in criticism of the tragedy itself, particularly in Christopher Ricks, Peter Morrison and Joost Daalder. (28)

[5] We see here a literalizing of the erotic degradation inherent in De Flores’ position as servant.  See also Michael Neill’s “‘A Woman’s Service’: Gender, Subordination, and the Erotics of Rank in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries”, and Swapan Chakravorty’s “Servants and Masters: The Changeling” in his Society and Politics in the Plays of Thomas Middleton.

[6] The clearest antecedent here is probably St. Stephen, whose stoning is described in Acts 7:58, after he had seen “the heavens opened.”

[7] The association of pain with religious devotion features prominently in early modern texts.  As James C. W. Truman notes, in those texts “[p]ain is not just to be shunned, denied or avoided, but also to be embraced, even desired as a mark of one’s heroic virtue.  … The conception of the body’s pain as a ‘heroic suffering’ points toward a way pain could be conceived of as not marking the boundaries of transgression, but as central to a valorized identity – as the source of a heroic self.” “The Body in Pain in Early Modern England” Early Modern Literary Studies. 14.3. It appears to be at least partly so for DeFlores.

[8] As Daalder writes: “It will never be possible to work out exactly how the collaboration may have proceeded, and I do not think that, from a critical point of view, we need to know, or to try and establish who was the more important author.  On the contrary, I think we should approach the play as a fully integrated artifact” (xviii).  While critics have posited a division of labor in the writing of The Changeling, I will contend, for the purposes of my study, that we might read the influence of Thomas Middleton throughout the play, even in those scenes popularly supposed to have been authored by William Rowley.

[9] See also Nicholas Tyacke’s Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism c.1590-1640.

[10] “Enjoin.” Def.1a and 2a.  The Oxford English Dictionary. <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry_main/50075552 >

[11] CfThe Duchess of Malfi  2.1.61-63:  “[A]ll our fear, / Nay, all our terror, is lest our physician / Should put us in the ground, to be made sweet.”

[12] See Daadler, et al.

[13] Perhaps the most thorough examination of Beatrice-Joanna’s conflicted desire occurs in Sara Eaton’s “Beatrice-Joanna and the Rhetoric of Love: The Changeling (1622)”,  in which the author argues that Beatrice-Joanna’s seemingly conflicted desire is in fact the result of her “attempts to be as she is perceived (275).”



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© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).