Does Beatrice Joanna Have a Subtext?: The Changeling on the London Stage

Roberta Barker and David Nicol
Dalhousie University

Barker, Roberta, and David Nicol. "Does Beatrice Joanna Have a Subtext?: The Changeling on the London Stage". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 3.1-43 <URL:>.

  1. “This ominous, ill-faced fellow more disturbs me / Than all my other passions” (II.i.53-4): so declares Beatrice-Joanna, heroine of the main plot of Middleton’s and Rowley’s 1622 tragedy The Changeling, when she encounters her father’s servant De Flores in the play’s second act. She has just admitted to an overpowering attraction to the young nobleman, Alsemero, and has determined to find “[s]ome speedy way” to marry him in place of the suitor her father has chosen for her (II.i.23). These “other passions” seem quite disturbing enough; why, then, does Beatrice find De Flores so much more upsetting? Is her aversion to him a “passion” of fear and disgust, a premonition of the degradation that will ensue when her “other” passions place her in his hands? Or is it a “passion” informed, like the others, by sexual desire: a sign of her true, submerged attraction to him? By answering these questions, readers explain The Changeling’s main plot either as a morality play in which a woman is destroyed by her own sin (whose consequences include her rape and eventual murder at the hands of her fated scourge), or as a dark love story about the bond between two well-matched demon lovers.

  2. The more romantic of these interpretations has dominated the modern performance history of The Changeling. When the play reappeared on the professional English stage after an absence of almost 300 years, reviewers declared that now, at long last, audiences were ready for “a play whose central figure is a beautiful young girl who is driven by love to become a ‘cruel murderer’” (Darlington). Given that no less than five leading British actresses – Mary Ure, Emma Piper, Diana Quick, Miranda Richardson and Cheryl Campbell – have played Beatrice Joanna in major productions over the thirty years since Darlington welcomed this “formidable woman” back to the London stage, it is tempting to concur with his verdict, but a closer examination of critics’ reactions to their performances tells a different story. 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, theatre critics have developed a reading of Beatrice Joanna as a spoilt child whose amoral decision to murder her detested fiancé is only a precursor to her slow realization of her repressed, subtextual desire for De Flores. The play thus becomes “a warped love story” (Rutherford) that culminates in a blood-soaked romantic apotheosis.

  3. 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. The fact that the dominant theatrical reading of Beatrice Joanna speaks productively neither to her cultural origins nor to our own constructions of gender suggests that it is ripe for re-evaluation.


  4. Re-evaluation was precisely what The Changeling needed in the mid-twentieth century. It appears to have been a popular play, not only in its own time, but also in the years that followed the reopening of the theatres after the Puritan interregnum. In 1661, Samuel Pepys (that harsh critic of Shakespeare) remarked that he had seen The Changeling at the Playhouse, and that “it takes exceedingly” (qtd. in Daalder xl). Despite its early success, however, The Changeling disappeared from the stage after 1668 and was not revived professionally until 1961, when Tony Richardson directed the play at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Reviewing this production for the Express, W.A. Darlington offered one possible explanation for the play’s lengthy period of neglect. In the period after the Restoration, he opined, “[r]omance reigned supreme” and audiences failed to appreciate the savage qualities of The Changeling. Most particularly, Darlington was convinced that the career of the lovely but depraved Beatrice Joanna went “too strongly against the romantic tradition to be tolerable” for most audiences; such a story could be acceptable only to “the disillusioned people of the Restoration” or to “our disillusioned selves.” His argument was borne out by Philip Hope-Wallace’s review for the Guardian, which noted that a “thin-skinned purist” joining Richardson’s audience would be shocked to find the play’s macabre imagery producing “not the expected awe and hush but gales of hearty public school laughter.” One reviewer’s sign of increased discernment in the audience is another’s sign of degradation, but both reviews hint at a change of attitude in the early 1960s that allowed an appreciation of the play’s supposed anti-romantic tone.

  5. Despite this, the Royal Court’s representation of Beatrice did not meet with critical approval. While Robert Shaw’s DeFlores was generally admired for his “dark fire” (“Tragedy’s Close Likeness”), the object of his obsession proved less satisfactory. Mary Ure’s physical charms certainly met reviewers’ expectations: Darlington declared that her “fair beauty [was] most understandably irresistible to all these inflammable Spaniards,” and Robert Muller noted that she “sport[ed] a décolletage that must have raised wild hopes in even the soberest spectator.” For most reviewers, however, these attractions appeared more a handicap than a gift. The Times critic described Ure as having “the prettiness and lifelessness of a doll” (“Tragedy’s Close Likeness”), while Hope-Wallace excoriated her inappropriate “tendency to floating about the stage in a dollish way.” Her failure to convey the heroine’s “indomitable will” (“Tragedy’s Close Likeness”) was seen as a key contributing factor in the production’s overall timidity and lack of terror (Nathan). In Kenneth Tynan’s memorable metaphor, Ure was simply “a meringue miscast as a hamburger” (qtd. in Morley).

  6. Taken as a group, these reviews yield interesting insights into the assumptions with which critics greeted Beatrice Joanna’s return to the London stage. None doubted that the actress who played her must possess considerable physical attractions in order to justify the sexual desire that drives The Changeling’s main plot. But those attractions alone did not satisfy. The reviewers of the Royal Court production felt that the ideal Beatrice Joanna must also possess a fiery will and a very adult sensuality; it was here that Mary Ure was found wanting. A feminist critic might read these reviews as an index of a mid-twentieth-century shift, not just in audience sensibility, but also in reviewers’ willingness to accept (or even demand) a sexually and morally transgressive heroine who drives her own fate in a ‘classic’ love tragedy.

  7. This idea is complicated by critical reaction to the next major London production of The Changeling, Peter Gill’s 1978 staging at the Riverside Studios with Emma Piper and Brian Cox as Beatrice Joanna and De Flores. The charges that had been laid against Ure’s Beatrice were repeated and elaborated against Piper’s. In the development of an almost uniform consensus that Piper was not powerful enough to carry the role, she was variously described as overly-restrained (Young), “sedate” (Cushman, “Passion”), and lacking “tragic thrust” (Rev. of The Changeling, The Lady). John Barber wrote for The Telegraph that Piper had “no blood in her veins” and spoke too quietly the speeches that “were meant to be declaimed with fire.” The sexual connotations of the imagery of heat, blood and thrusting force used to construct the critics’ ideal Beatrice Joanna are clear, as is the repetition of the notion that an actress who lacks physical and temperamental dynamism can never truly embody Middleton and Rowley’s heroine.

  8. Piper did have some admirers. Foremost among them was Irving Wardle, who appreciated her subtlety and control, writing that “she leaves a trail of delicate ambiguities and half invitations to lovers and servants alike; cracking into demoralized anguish when De Flores calls her bluff, but capable even after that of regaining her status and keeping him guessing” (“Towering Summit”). Wardle’s reading raises the spectre of an alternative Beatrice Joanna to the one that was rapidly coming to dominate the reactions of reviewers: an enigmatic young noblewoman whose power comes from her class as well as from her sexual allure. A number of reviewers noted the “haughty disdain” of Piper’s Beatrice (Shulman), but most found it an inappropriate basis for the characterization; after all, as B.A. Young declared, Beatrice “need hardly care about her birth once she is so steeped in crime.” If Beatrice Joanna’s identity is defined primarily by her sexuality and her sin, her sense of aristocratic entitlement becomes an irrelevant distraction.

  9. Indeed, the reviews of Gill’s Changeling show critical discourse breaking down the class differences between Beatrice and De Flores in favour of an ever-greater rapport between the devilish duo. Where Mary Ure was said to have responded with “ambivalent surprise and repulsion” to the revelation of De Flores’ desire for her (Muller), Emma Piper appears to have suggested that Beatrice always felt an unconscious attraction to him. Michael Billington recorded that Piper’s Beatrice was “fascinated from the start by De Flores’s revolting pockiness”; when inciting him to murder, he noted, “she twists his hair, fingers his scares [sic], and offers him her lips as if to suggest extreme sexual arousal” (“The Changeling”). Barber, too, noted a “splendid climax” in which Beatrice “lets her hair go loose, tears off her jewels and clings passionately to her ‘wondrous necessary man’ De Flores” (“Changeling Set”). Both Billington and Barber called the relationship one of “love-hate.” In 1961, Muller had dismissed the effort “to see subtle psychological undertones in the portraiture of [The Changeling’s] characters” as “patently absurd.” In 1978, conversely, this quasi-Freudian reading of the heroine’s unacknowledged desire for her servant allowed Sheridan Morley to praise its “modern psychoanalytical streak.”

  10. The responses elicited by Piper’s Beatrice, then, suggest that reviewers were more than willing to applaud the depth of a play that represented its heroine as suffering from a repressed passion for a murderous servant, but also that they wanted to see that passion overtly expressed in the performance of the leading actress. Clearly, a convincing Beatrice Joanna needed to be earthy enough from the outset to respond plausibly when initiated into physical passion by the waiting De Flores. From this distance, it is useless to speculate on the fine gradations of acting that allowed Barber to praise Piper’s abandon in her meeting with De Flores but still to criticize her bloodlessness, or to ask exactly how an actress might successfully mingle an aura of repression with an adequate level of banked sensuality. What is clear is that the balance required to embody the critics’ developing image of the ideal Beatrice was indeed a delicate one: a fact emphasized when, only a few months later, Diana Quick’s Beatrice at the RSC provided the sexual dynamism that was missing from Piper’s performance.

  11. “With sequins glinting on her face, in evil scarlet robes and with a voluptuous exposure of bosom, Miss Quick makes Beatrice a ruthless addict of her own sensual drugs,” declared Felix Barker of the Evening News. If this image of Beatrice Joanna was diametrically opposed to that projected by the blonde and black-clad Emma Piper, it was entirely appropriate to the ethos of Terry Hands’ Aldwych production of The Changeling. Hands presented a similar reading of De Flores and Beatrice’s relationship to Gill’s, but without the (over)-subtlety noted by the reviewers of the latter’s version. In fact, Quick’s sexy Beatrice, clad in a series of salaciously revealing costumes, was so clearly akin to De Flores that reviewers began to see her repressed desire for him as a simple fact of the plot rather than as an intriguing new interpretation of it. As Barker explained, “Though Beatrice thinks she hates De Flores, she is a sensualist who responds to his hideous, snake-like fascination.”

  12. Some reviewers approved Quick’s ability to make Beatrice’s passions evident. According to Benedick Nightingale, “She suggests from the start that Joanna’s [sic] hysterical disgust conceals a cloying fascination, and so there’s an awful inevitability about her increasingly abject and sottish surrender” (“Alexandrian Duet”). Yet there was a general consensus that Hands and Quick had gone too far, with two moments in particular offending the critics. One was the scene in which Beatrice asked De Flores to commit the murder, at which point Quick “cast aside her flaming shawl and thrust her luscious breasts towards [De Flores]” (Jenkins). Many critics found this decision ridiculous; as Milton Shulman complained, “she so blatantly suggests a sexual reward that she sounds rather silly and perverse when subsequently she is shocked when De Flores demands exactly that payment” (“Tempting Beatrice”). A number of reviewers felt that this interpretation of the scene removed any sympathy for Beatrice: “Diana Quick’s Beatrice has no redeeming innocence (in that see-nipples-and-die costume, how could she?),” huffed Kenneth Hurren. Quick, concluded Barber, “misconceives the role … Instead of the slow corruption of an innocent, we get the display of a mere wanton.” Where Emma Piper’s Beatrice had been too chaste and reserved, Quick’s was not chaste enough; clearly, there were limits past which the overt display of sexuality that critics had missed in previous Beatrice Joannas should not go.

  13. Even more heat was generated by Hands’ decision to include a graphic sex scene in which DeFlores brutally took Beatrice from behind. This moment provoked a curious response from critics and spectators. Hands appears to have staged the sequence as a rape, and at least two critics referred to it as such (‘M.F.’, Holland). Despite this, a number of reviewers echoed Benedict Nightingale’s description of Emrys James’ De Flores as “a seducer who somehow manages to make menace tender and implacable sensuality gentle” (“Alexandrian Duet”) – hardly terms suggesting an attacker. Nightingale attributed this discrepancy to “over-statement” on Hands’ part, reasoning that
    To show the principles copulating like dogs in mid-stage…is a crudish and surely mistaken attempt to emphasise their moral ugliness by making them physically ugly as well. Would someone so swooningly sensitive [as DeFlores] to the honeypot as a whole – ‘she smells all amber’ – really be satisfied with a brusque rear-end poke?
  14. In other words, this reviewer encouraged prospective audience members to see Hands’ rape sequence, not as a fair interpretation of an ugly attack on Beatrice Joanna, but as a directorial mistake – and an insult to De Flores to boot.  The recorded reactions of the production’s actual spectators suggest that they agreed, taking Hands’ sex scene relatively lightly. Two reviewers reported that when Quick afterwards announced, “This fellow has undone me endlessly,” the audience was “in hoots and guffaws” (Holland; see also ‘M.F.’; italics Holland’s). Holland smirked that her complaint is “only too true,” while Robert Cushman explained, “her complaint […], wearily delivered, becomes a hilarious double entendre that Middleton…would surely have approved” (“Body”). ‘M.F.’ had a more complex response, writing that “One of her best delivered lines, rising from the awkward post-rape position of lying on her tummy on a box, is: ‘This fellow has undone me endlessly.’ No breast beating, but with pathos and regret, yet funny enough to raise some laughter.”

  15. Such formulations seem to welcome a sense of doubleness in the representation of Beatrice. Before her sexual encounter with De Flores, that doubleness depends on a mixture of the sensualism critics missed in Emma Piper and the innocence they missed in Diana Quick: combined, these qualities allow her to lust after De Flores while remaining unaware of the true nature of her feelings. After their relationship is consummated, the corrupted Beatrice Joanna becomes aware of the contradiction between her outward persona and her secret life of sin.  She can then exploit it discursively for ironic, even comic, effect. Thus, a liaison that has undone her former innocence and would destroy her life should it become known (hence the pathos and regret) can also be read as a naughty ‘undoing’ of her tightly-laced garments. Because the audience is allowed to share in this undoing, and has indeed been waiting for it since Beatrice’s attraction to De Flores became apparent, they can take pleasure in it. Reviewers of the Hands production objected when the outlines of this awakening were blurred by Quick’s obvious lasciviousness in the early scenes, but applauded the through-line of her journey from “spoilt child” to temptress (Cushman, “Body”). In the process, they established an aura of inevitability around the idea of a Beatrice who progresses from repression to expression.

  16. After this aura was consolidated by Piper’s and Quick’s otherwise contrasting interpretations, ten years passed before Beatrice Joanna again arrived on the London stage, this time in the form of Miranda Richardson in Richard Eyre’s National Theatre production. Having recently starred as murderess Ruth Ellis in the critically acclaimed film Dance with a Stranger, Richardson was a hot property in 1988 (Christy). Her perceived ability to “suggest…something darkly sinister under a doll-like beauty” (Billington, “Fateful Attractions”) boded well for the combination of apparent innocence and hidden corruption that critics had missed in previous Beatrices. Some found it: Kate Kellaway called Richardson the “perfect” Beatrice. But for many other critics Richardson, like Piper before her, was too subtle and restrained. Christopher Edwards, one of her most sympathetic reviewers, praised her “contained study of unknowing innocence waking up in a trap of sexual and moral consequences,” but confessed that hers was “a chamber performance given in a concert hall.” Less impressed, Maureen Paton dismissed Richardson as “over-mannered” and “so tiresomely petulant that she should be put in a play-pen.” Echoing Tynan’s dismissal of Mary Ure, John Peter called her “a well-bred kitten playing at being a cornered lioness” (“Is This a Breath”). Viewed as small-scale and cinematic, Richardson’s acting left many critics still pining for the elusive, ideal Beatrice.

  17. Another significant influence on critical responses to this production, however, was Eyre’s decision to relocate the setting to a nineteenth-century Spanish slave colony. The role of De Flores was given to George Harris, a black actor; Beatrice was thus re-envisioned as the daughter of a slave owner, and De Flores as “a black major domo” (Peter, “Is This a Breath”). As Jim Hiley pointed out, this decision immediately gave a reason for Beatrice’s revulsion to De Flores in the opening scene: she was responding with the “gut racism” typical of a well-brought-up colonial white girl. De Flores, meanwhile, was played by Harris as “tall, handsome, and immensely dignified” (Peter, “Is This a Breath”). Instead of sporting a facial disfigurement that might be seen as reflecting his inner corruption, he was only ‘ugly’ insofar as he was not white. This choice generated some potentially racist implications of its own, fixing De Flores for Peter Kemp as “a man of primitive drives which, once released, cannot be stopped” and a savage whose “alien background…has gouged itself into his personality.” But many critics found that it increased their respect for De Flores, here seen as a man so used to racist dismissals that he was “barely nonplussed” by Beatrice’s insults (Hiley). When Beatrice finally realized that he was “a wondrous necessary man” (V.i.91), she was merely reaching the level of enlightenment that many spectators had already achieved.

  18. Playing to a liberal London audience in the dying days of Apartheid, this staging could thus be seen as encouraging its spectators to formulate an ideologically sympathetic reading of Beatrice’s burgeoning intimacy with De Flores. The love between them rose up in defiance of the institutions of racism and slavery, and the Spanish lady’s transgressions of class and patriarchy were superseded by her transgression of racial boundaries. In this context, as Michael Coveney wrote, miscegenation, rather than rape or murder, “was reactivated as a tragic taboo,” and De Flores’ sexual demands evidenced a rather more admirable form of “experimental lust” than they had done in past productions. It even became possible for some critics to read Beatrice and De Flores as “naïve souls, lost without the codes of their rigid society” (Hiley), rather than as personifications of devilish corruption.

  19. In this production, Beatrice’s ‘undoing’ – the spiralling fall into sin triggered by her lust for Alsemero and her decision to murder Piracquo ­– was counterbalanced by her growing ability to see past the veil of race and to acknowledge her own desire. To amplify this effect, Richardson seems to have begun the play by emphasizing the character’s immaturity and conservatism; her Beatrice was “a spoilt Sloane, more imperious than sexually obsessed[, with a] suggestion of priggishness [that gave] a poignant irony to her corruption” (Annan). In the first half of the play, she remained highly conscious of her exalted place in the hierarchies of her world. There was thus a radical shift between her initial (racially motivated) disgust and her later lust for De Flores, although reviewers disagreed about the moment at which the shift occurred. Irving Wardle noticed a change in Richardson’s manner when DeFlores called her “the deed’s creature,” at which point, he said, “all her defences collapse, and he leads her off stage as a tottering invalid” (“A Fine Balance”). Milton Shulman located the change rather later, claiming that Beatrice’s coldness turned to “hot lust” after DeFlores’ attempts to protect her in Act 5 (Rev. of The Changeling). Either way, many critics concurred that this marked shift – and the taboos it defied – gave power to a production in which “there is no embrace without fear, and passion is acted with an ardour that makes you feel you have never seen an embrace on the stage before” (Kellaway).

  20. In Eyre’s production, then, the initial sense of a subtextual lust for De Flores lurking beneath Beatrice’s textual disdain was more subtle than it had been in some previous versions; David Browne wrote that this Beatrice fell in love with DeFlores “although she would have been the last to believe it before hand [sic]”. But the Freudian interpretation still dominated reviewers’ expectations. Christopher Edwards maintained that Beatrice’s “apparent loathing of the very sight of De Flores is just a perverse erotic twist of her nature.” Maureen Paton, who disliked the production and griped that the relationship between Beatrice and De Flores “so lack[ed] electricity that it could barely run a light-bulb,” nevertheless took their submerged desire as a given, remarking that “they are supposed to be attracted to each other by a dangerous mixture of fascination and repulsion.” Michael Billington, by now a leading proponent of the Freudian reading of the role, saw Richardson’s early tendency to treat DeFlores with “patrician disdain” as an instance of her deplorable over-subtlety (“Fateful Attractions”). He insisted that “she underplays the heroine’s ungovernable sexual obsession with De Flores,” and all of Beatrice’s textual protestations of loathing served him only as evidence of her lust: De Flores, he wrote, “clearly awakens fierce sexual longings in his mistress: the more she condemns him as a ‘standing toad-pool’ the more you feel she is aroused by him.” Despite Richardson’s failings, however, Billington was eventually satisfied that his interpretation was present and correct, noting that she came “into her own in the later scenes of degradation.”  He particularly approved her “rancidly sexy” reading of the touchstone line, “This fellow has undone me endlessly.” Once again, we can see a reviewer reacting to The Changeling – and encouraging audiences to react to it – in a manner that maximizes our sense of Beatrice’s final relationship with De Flores as an expression of her true self, and minimizes any tendency to see her as a rape victim.

  21. Although this ever-more-dominant Freudian reading of The Changeling was not univocal, the play was almost universally seen as a dark love story. Jack Tinker admired the production for its emphasis on the depths of depravity to which Rowley and Middleton’s characters sink; for him, Beatrice Joanna was not so much enlightened by her corruption as she was “poisoned by all the forbidden forces she herself ha[d] unleashed”. Tinker applauded Eyre’s transposition of the play’s setting precisely because he felt that it allowed “the master-slave undercurrents of the plot [to take] on a vivid savagery as Miss Richardson’s gilded mistress and her lusting servant engage in a dance of death that taints all it touches.” Though more conventionally moralist than some, this reading nonetheless reiterates a belief in Beatrice’s love for DeFlores as an important factor in the play. Many critics concurred that the key turning-point of the play came with Beatrice Joanna’s realization that “she and De Flores are of a kind” (Osborne). For those who accepted this premise, the racial politics of Eyre’s casting inevitably engendered some sympathy for the doomed pair. As Eyre wrote in his programme note, The Changeling became in this interpretation a play about “passion [that] has to be concealed, suppressed or diverted in the interests of the social order” (qtd. in Peter, “Is This a Breath”). Beatrice’s initial love for Alsemero fit into this category, too; but it was merely the forerunner to her more taboo and violent love for De Flores. Rather than an indictment of the moral degradation occasioned by these passions, Eyre’s offered a critique of the oppressive social order that forced them into poisonous (but liberating) channels. The romantic reading of The Changeling could scarcely go further.

  22. It could, however, achieve an even more unassailable position in the critical repertoire, as it did when Michael Attenborough’s RSC production arrived at the Barbican Pit in 1993, having opened the previous year at the Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Attenborough’s version was perhaps the most conservative of all major London Changeling revivals. It set the play in 1630s Spain – that is, in the location its authors imagined for it and in a period only a decade later than the play’s composition. Its reviewers reported conventional Caroline costumes, a “simple set, a yellow-brick wall from which a few brass reptiles and one overblown crucifix obtrude in mildly symbolic style” (Nightingale, May 27, 1993), and no overt bodice-ripping or sado-masochistic sex. Beatrice Joanna and De Flores were played by Cheryl Campbell and Malcolm Storry: both white RSC actors with established classical credentials. In other words, most of the forms of overt directorial intervention that had proved controversial in previous productions were here eschewed, and those who had longed to see The Changeling ‘played straight’ finally got their chance.

  23. Of course, what passes for a ‘straight’ interpretation of a classic playtext is often the one that most closely reproduces a particular culture’s established assumptions about it. The critical reactions to Attenborough’s Changeling suggest that a number of the discourses that had been building around the play since 1961 had now gained the status of truisms. Once again, an actress satisfied a few reviewers while failing to measure up to the expectations of many. Paul Taylor praised Campbell, declaring that she “powerfully conveys how Beatrice lives in the self-centred world of a child”; Jeremy Kingston, too, applauded Campbell’s transformation from a “spoilt brat” with a “jutting lower lip” into a murderess whose mind is “fatally misruled by impulse.” The notion that Beatrice Joanna’s amorality was rooted in her status as a spoilt daughter of privilege had clearly become canonical; but so, too, had the punishing demand for a perfect balance between the character’s original naivety and her awakening sensuality. While Kirsty Milne found Campbell’s Beatrice “a woman of spirit and sensuality,” her colleague at the Daily Telegraph thought her “irritatingly fluttery” (Rev. of The Changeling). Nick Curtis noted that her “wily manipulations [were] a parody of girlish flirting…indicative of the uncertain path Attenborough steer[ed] between po-face and parody.” John Peter, meanwhile, sounded a familiar note with his complaint that Campbell, “where she should be sultry or imperious, …is merely petulant and bitchy: not a dangerous tigress, but an indignant pussycat” (Rev. of The Changeling) – almost a direct reiteration of his charges against Richardson in the Eyre production. The difficulty of conveying Beatrice Joanna’s complex journey was becoming axiomatic.

  24. But what is most striking about the reviews of Attenborough’s Changeling is the extent to which most critics now accepted the romantic interpretation of Beatrice’s relationship with De Flores as a matter of simple fact. Some habitués of past Changelings, such as Jane Edwardes, used it as a stick to beat the newcomer with. “Sparks hardly fly between [De Flores] and the self-centred Beatrice,” Edwardes wrote, concluding that “without the itching, frenzied desire of the protagonists, the play’s flaws are all too evident.” Others disagreed, feeling that the actors did manage to achieve the established goal; thus, Lyn Gardner noted that Campbell “mark[ed] her mixture of attraction and repulsion for De Flores with a mad sexual frenzy,” concluding with satisfaction: “She positively itches.” Two more critics believed that Campbell and Storry’s agon actually offered the deepest reading so far of the fatal attraction between the murderous mistress and her all-too-compliant servant. Benedict Nightingale described the interaction thus:
    Right from the start there’s a fascination in Joanna’s [sic] revulsion. By the end she is glorying in De Flores, …and generally giving the impression that she has slummed her way to the sort of dark ecstasy Freud is supposed to have discovered. … [De Flores] cannot be in the same room without mentally digesting her, top to toe, and she cannot be near him without enjoying his cannibalism. Nearly 400 years after its creation, their sick symbiosis still has the power to appal.
  25. While the affair between Campbell and Storry clearly did not engender any sympathy in Nightingale, it struck him as prophetic in its evocation of the unconscious, sado-masochistic desires usually associated with the insights of twentieth-century psychoanalysis. Malcolm Rutherford agreed that the production’s take on this relationship was its key selling-point. Moreover, he did sympathize with De Flores and Beatrice, writing that
    This Changeling is presented as a warped love story, and becomes in the end rather moving. […] [De Flores and Beatrice] become partners in evil: she is no less infatuated than he is. As they die together, they are in a way as striking as Antony and Cleopatra or Romeo and Juliet. Only their world is different.
    In the apotheosis of the romantic reading of The Changeling, Beatrice and De Flores join the company of the great tragic lovers of the early modern canon.

  26. Strikingly, Rutherford attributes this success to Attenborough’s “fundamental rethinking” of the play. Read within the context of the play’s twentieth-century reviews, however, Campbell and Storry’s representation of the “sick symbiosis” between Beatrice and De Flores looks more like the culmination of a long-growing tradition that sees this twisted romance as the nexus of the play’s greatness. As Nightingale’s review in particular suggests, the notion that Beatrice Joanna’s feelings for De Flores are characterized by a repressed attraction that flames into sexual passion has become for critics the wellspring of the play’s continued relevance. The majority of reviews of all five major twentieth-century productions of The Changeling give Alsemero short shrift and refer to the subplot (a main source of the play’s popularity in its own time) either derisively or not at all. Only the dangerous liaison of Beatrice and De Flores, critics imply, rescues The Changeling from being one of those neglected plays which “too often turn out to be pretty boring” (Dungate). The key source of its enduring fascination is its depiction of a nubile and beautiful young girl, not yet in touch with her own rampant sensuality, who is initiated into the mysteries of sex and evil by a Svengalian lover and who finds her ultimate consummation on the point of his knife. Romantic indeed.


  27. One might argue that this interpretation of The Changeling, whose theatrical career we have traced, actually originated on the page rather than on the stage. After all, the seeds of it are contained in T.S. Eliot’s celebrated disquisition on the play in Elizabethan Dramatists. For Eliot, The Changeling is “the tragedy of the not naturally bad but irresponsible and undeveloped nature, caught in the consequences of its own action”; he writes that “Beatrice is not a moral creature; she comes moral only by becoming damned” (85-6). Her “habituation” to crime (86), as Eliot calls it, leads to her identification with De Flores so that in the end she becomes “more his partner, his mate, than the mate and partner of the man for the love of whom she consented to the crime. Her lover disappears not only from the scene but from her own imagination” (87). Thus, when she calls De Flores a ‘wondrous necessary man’ “her praise is more than half sincere” (87). Another of The Changeling’s influential readers, Una Ellis-Fermor, agrees with Eliot about the “undeveloped” nature of Beatrice-Joanna, reading Beatrice as “a woman sleep-walking” (147) who is incapable of contemplating the consequences of her actions or of resisting the impulse of her whims. She develops “a world of experience” from her encounter with DeFlores, who “pushes her resolutely to the realization from which her life of a spoilt child has hitherto shielded her” (147). Since Eliot’s and Ellis-Fermor’s readings predate the revival of The Changeling on the twentieth-century stage and are often cited in reviews of theatrical productions of the play (e.g. Billington, “Fateful Attractions”; Coveney; Grant; Gardner; Nightingale, “Absurd”; “Tragedy’s Close Likeness”), we may guess that they influenced reviewers’ demands for a spoilt Beatrice whose relationship with De Flores leads her to a realization of her true nature and its consequences. Nevertheless, Eliot and Ellis-Fermor differ from many of the play’s theatrical critics insofar as they see Beatrice as moving toward identification with De Flores, rather than love (Eliot 87, Ellis-Fermor 148).

  28. Love, in fact, seems to have triumphed onstage and in the review pages of London newspapers considerably before it appeared in academic discourse. To be sure, an undeveloped hint of the Freudian interpretation of Beatrice can be found in Christopher Ricks’ influential essay on “The Moral and Poetic Structure of The Changeling,” in which Ricks ponders briefly whether we can “take [Beatrice’s] initial loathing for [De Flores] as sexual in origin” (302-3). Nevertheless, in literary criticism the strongest cases for Beatrice’s unconscious desire for De Flores have been advanced by more recent articles: Peter Morrison’s essay, “A Cangoun in Zombieland: Middleton’s Teratological Changeling” (1983), and Joost Daalder’s introduction to his 1990 New Mermaids edition of the play. Not only does Morrison believe that Beatrice loves De Flores, but his iconoclastic attitude to previous critics stresses that he is the first to articulate the idea in detail. In contrast to what he sees as the dry formalism of his forbears, Morrison offers a self-consciously passionate response to the play. His Beatrice is born into a society that expects her to be merely beautiful and vapid; she is conditioned to aim for better and better suitors as they appear (227), but is doomed to frustration because her repressed sexual desires cannot be satisfied by the bloodless “zombies” that she is expected to love (230-1). For “sexually-charged” Beatrice, De Flores is the “ultimate other,” “a monstrous manifestation of [the] secret self” that her social world has engendered but forbidden her to explore (232). In this reading, the encounter of Beatrice and De Flores in Act Three, Scene Four is a “terrible seduction scene” in which a “wholly aroused” Beatrice “gets what she desires and despises” (232).

  29. Six years later, Daalder is even more explicit, bringing to his reader’s attention “one of the main facts of the play that we might readily overlook – and will overlook if we take things at face value – namely, that Beatrice is attracted to De Flores without knowing it” (xxv). Protesting that he uses Freudian terms only “for want of a better vocabulary, and not because I believe the play to match a modern intellectual system,” Daalder nevertheless insists that Beatrice’s attraction to De Flores “is ‘unconscious’: it exists in a part of her mind which she refuses to acknowledge, and her ‘conscious’ attitude is to deny what her unconscious tells her” (xxv). Daalder’s protests notwithstanding, this is a modern reading rooted in Freud and Stanislavski (although John Stachniewski has described a Calvinist notion of the unconscious in Middleton’s tragedies, he does not see it as referring to Beatrice’s love for De Flores, but to her lack of awareness of her “reprobate character” [230]). Moreover, Daalder dismisses the idea that De Flores punishes Beatrice sexually, insisting that when he demands sexual favours in return for the murder of Piracquo, De Flores “brings into action…a deep current of feeling for him of which Beatrice has not been aware. Her sexual enjoyment at the end of this scene is obvious…[and t]his is not an emotion produced by bullying, leave alone something like rape, as is so often claimed” (xxviii).

  30. Given that both Morrison’s and Daalder’s readings were produced after the two 1978 productions which saw the definitive emergence of the Freudian/romantic interpretation of the Beatrice/De Flores relationship, it is worth wondering whether they were influenced by those productions and by their reception in the popular press. Certainly Daalder goes out of his way to defend the overt sexuality of Hands’ production against its detractors, arguing that it “presented, in visual language, a duality in Beatrice which the text wishes us to imagine” (xlii). At the very least, his sense of the text’s “wishes” seems to have been born out of a lengthy cultural process through which a modern interpretation of The Changeling gradually gained the currency required to dominate both reviews aimed at influencing audience responses to the play and an edition intended to shape students’ comprehension of it. However, we would argue that a return to the text that supposedly “wishes” us to read the play in this manner shows that the Freudian/romantic reading of The Changeling is actually a misreading in which Beatrice’s hatred for De Flores is turned into love, and her misery into lust.

  31. That misreading is epitomised by Michael Billington’s response to the 1978 Riverside production. Claiming that Middleton pre-empted existentialism and psychoanalysis by three centuries, Billington singles out a line spoken by Alsemero when Beatrice tells him of her inexplicable loathing for DeFlores: “There’s scarce a thing but is both loved and loathed” (I.i.124) (“The Changeling”; also qtd. in Nightingale, “Alexandrian Duet”). This, Billington suggests, “is the Freudian love-hate relationship in a nutshell.” When read in context, however, the line means something quite different. Alsemero comforts Beatrice by telling her that everyone has a meaningless hatred, for innocuous things such as oil, wine, or, in his case, cherries. According to Alsemero, a thing may be loved by one person and loathed by another; and indeed, this is true of DeFlores, since he is in “good respect” with Beatrice’s father (I.i.134) even though Beatrice despises him.

  32. If we choose, pace Daalder, to take the play at “face value,” we find that Alsemero’s comment makes perfectly good sense, for desire in The Changeling can be read as quite straightforward in its targets. Whether or not she is subconsciously attracted to De Flores, Beatrice’s tragedy originates in the fact that she is consciously attracted to Alsemero: a man who, despite his virtues, is not the one her father wishes her to marry. In the terms of the play, there is nothing wrong with desire itself; as Alsemero suggests, desire and aversion begin as morally neutral idiosyncrasies of particular human organisms. But desire must be directed toward goals approved by patriarchal authority. Beatrice’s “giddy turning” (I.i.154) when she meets a man more attractive than the “complete gentleman” (210) chosen by her father is not in itself a fatal sin. Rather, her moment of hamartia comes when she decides to behave in a manner that she knows might destroy her social and familial standing:
                             What’s Piracquo
    My father spends his breath for? And his blessing
    Is only mine as I regard his name;
    Else it goes from me, and turns head against me,
    Transformed into a curse. (II.i.19-23)
    As Beatrice implies here, her conscious choice to act on a lust that contravenes her father’s wishes is quite enough to damn her. She will recognize this in the play’s final scene when she actually begs her father to speak the “curse” she has earlier prophesied, telling him to “cast [her] to the ground regardlessly” (V.iii.152).

  33. De Flores is the effective executor of this curse, as the dying Beatrice Joanna emphasizes when she laments that
    Beneath the stars, upon yon meteor
    Ever hung my fate, ’mongst things corruptible;
    I ne’er could pluck it from him. My loathing
    Was prophet to the rest, but ne’er believed;

    Mine honour fell with him, and now my life. (V.iii.154-58)
    The subject of Beatrice’s declaration that her prophetic disgust for De Flores was “ne’er believed” is vague – did she disbelieve the warnings of her own loathing when she approached De Flores about Piracquo’s murder, or did those around her disbelieve them when they viewed De Flores as a harmless and useful servant? What is clear is that Daalder is overstating his case when he declares that Beatrice’s loathing “must have been bound up with the sexual urge which she now concedes she was led by” (115). In asserting that De Flores has taken both her honour and her life, Beatrice concedes no such thing. Rather, she recognizes the justice of the intuition she had expressed earlier in the play when she admitted, “I never see this fellow but I think | Of some harm towards me” (II.i.89-90). The nature of that harm becomes apparent at the end of her tragedy when her hopes have been dashed and her husband has become disgusted with her. Only then does she see that DeFlores was the “meteor” upon whom hung her fate: both a warning of doom and the agent of it. Having failed to trust her instincts, Beatrice was fated to end in his clutches from the moment she “changed from [her] first love”, a change that was, in the terms of her society, “a kind | Of whoredom in [her] heart” (III.iv.143-4).

  34. As we have seen, theatrical productions – or rather, the reviewers who recorded and interpreted their choices for posterity – have often taken Beatrice’s unambiguous loathing of De Flores and turned it into unacknowledged lust. In order to do this, all Beatrice’s expressions of hatred, fear and dejection have to be reversed. This is easy enough if one assumes that Beatrice is playing “the maid’s part, still answer nay, and take it” (Richard III III.vii.51). De Flores himself thinks she is doing so; having repeatedly demanded from Beatrice a sexual “reward” in place of the financial one she had envisaged, De Flores takes the cowed woman into his arms and gloats, “’Las, how the turtle pants! Thou’lt love anon | What thou so fear’st and faint’st to venture on” (III.iv.169-70). DeFlores is able to read Beatrice’s audible fear as sexual arousal and to offer the kind of encouragement typically given to shy early modern newlyweds; but Beatrice herself is silent on the point, and an actor playing her part could just as easily enact her terror in a manner that contradicted De Flores’ complacent conclusion.

  35. Again, it is quite true that Beatrice begins to display apparent affection and respect for De Flores after their sexual encounter, notably in the exchange so beloved by the play’s reviewers in which she responds to her father’s assertion that De Flores is “good on all occasions” by concurring that he is “[a] wondrous necessary man, my lord” (V.i.91). But the celebrated irony of this remark hangs partially on the fact that Beatrice calls her servant “necessary” – not, after all, quite the same thing as “desirable” or “admirable.” All of the praise Beatrice grants De Flores in the second half of the play is couched in the rhetoric of necessity: “I’m forced to love thee now,” she tells him with a marked lack of steamy passion, “’Cause thou provid’st so carefully for my honour” (V.i.47-8, italics ours). Beatrice comes to love DeFlores not out of desire, as he himself expects, but out of a desperate dependence that does not erase her earlier physical repulsion: “His face loathes one,” she admits, “But look upon his care, who would not love him?” (V.i.70-1). Because De Flores is the only person capable of maintaining the illusion of her chastity and because he does it with such cunning devotion, Beatrice must conclude that “[h]ere’s a man worth loving!” (V.i.76). The old adage “fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity” describes exactly the situation in which she finds herself; her transformation originates more from her desperation to maintain a semblance of obedience to the patriarchal code than from the fulfillment of any hidden desire.

  36. That Beatrice has not achieved such fulfilment is evident in her final moments, in which the difference between The Changeling and such tragedies of romantic apotheosis as Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra could not be more apparent. Daalder describes Beatrice’s death in the closet as the culmination of her masochistic desires: assuming that DeFlores and Beatrice are engaged in intercourse while DeFlores stabs her, he reads her cry “O, O, O!” (V.iii.139) as a combined scream and orgasm (114). It should, however, be noted that Alonzo utters exactly the same cry when DeFlores stabs him (III.ii.18). If, as seems likely (Daalder 46), Alonzo is murdered in the same space of the stage that is later used to represent Alsemero’s closet, the parallel between their identical cries may be intended to emphasise the idea that Beatrice’s murder is her punishment for Alonzo’s death, rather than the culmination of her lust.

  37. Moreover, it is important to resist the temptation to conflate Beatrice’s response to her final downfall with De Flores’ response to his. For De Flores, his conquest of Beatrice’s chastity is the fulfilment of his desires: “I thank life for nothing | But that pleasure,” he says, and dies calling for Beatrice to join him (V.iii.168-9, 175-7). But Beatrice ignores him, crying “Forgive me, Alsemero, all forgive! | ’Tis time to die when ’tis a shame to live” (V.iii.178-9). At the point of death, she still pleads for a version of the happy ending that she had dreamt of: simultaneous reconciliation with the man she desired and with her father. Her liaison with De Flores was merely a desperate means to achieve a goal stymied at every turn by the structures of patriarchal Alicante. Middleton and Rowley’s playtext never suggests that Beatrice takes any pleasure in her brutalisation; that pleasure has been read into it by post-Stanislavskian actors and post-Freudian critics in search of the all-important subtext. If we are willing to discard the idea that theatrical and literary power hangs on the presence of such a subtext, we may find Beatrice’s longings rather homelier than those of the masochistic character constructed by the twentieth-century stage and its spectators.

  38. As W.B.Worthen writes, performance of classic playtexts is not a matter of reproducing the authorial intentions or cultural assumptions that first produced them. Rather, it is “a way of interpreting ourselves to ourselves” in which each generation remakes “the cultural tradition embodied by the work” in its own image (191). Thus, it might be argued that a post-Freudian appropriation of Middleton and Rowley’s playtext is perfectly legitimate on its own terms: an interpretation that speaks to and for our time, rather than a futile attempt to enact onstage the more historicized meanings for which academics so love to plead. Yet the case of Beatrice Joanna problematizes this argument, for the very reviews that promulgate the Freudian reading of her character demonstrate its risky connotations in a contemporary context. As critics’ descriptions of the laughter that greeted Beatrice’s line, “This fellow hath undone me endlessly” (IV.i.1) in Hands’ sexually graphic production suggest, this reading allows the audience to remain content that Beatrice really wants De Flores even if the director stages the characters’ climactic confrontation as a brutal rape scene. Although the victim may seem unwilling, in fact it’s all a bit of saucy fun: no means yes, and one need not feel pity for a heroine whose corruption is also her awakening to her true nature. In a world where rape victims are still subjected to humiliating cross-examination about their sexual pasts on the witness stand, this is hardly a productive way of interpreting ourselves to ourselves.

  39. Moreover, the ideal Beatrice Joanna we have seen constructed by so many critics out of the foundations laid by Eliot and Ellis-Fermor is a figure who inhibits contemporary actresses from exploring some of the more potentially interesting reaches both of their own ranges and of Middleton and Rowley’s character. The reviewers’ Beatrice is a spoilt child, never quite aware of what she is doing, who finally recognizes her own wicked sexuality in the arms of an underling whose sadism grants her an illicit jouissance. She embodies a fantasy of woman as both virgin and whore, unconscious yet culpable, lacking in agency yet still sinful. She is the childlike femme fatale, object of a brutal masculine lust that is legitimated by her responsive capacity for evil. Indeed, this Beatrice affirms masculine power in all its forms: the power of De Flores justly to identify her ‘true’ desires, and the power of Vermandero and Alsemero justly to condemn her “deformed” mockery of virgin innocence (V.iii.77). She is an Eve who accepts the fatal apple because she desires the serpent. It is scarcely surprising that no one actress in our time has ever succeeded in embodying this overdetermined Beatrice to the satisfaction of more than a minority of critics.

  40. As Darlington observed in 1961, Middleton and Rowley’s heroine can be read quite differently: as a “formidable woman” who sees quite clearly what she desires and pursues it with a ruthless sense of her own power and agency. Her tragedy is not that she cannot recognize her lust for De Flores, but rather that Alsemero, “the man [who] was meant me” should come “so near his time and miss it” (I.i.84-5) – and that she responds to this dilemma with sinful plotting rather than with modest resignation. This reading of the play is faithful to the contexts provided for it by recent historicist scholars, who argue that it reflects early modern reactions to the problem of excessive feminine self-will (Burks 776), to the proposed alliance of Prince Charles with the potentially scheming Spanish Catholic Infanta (Malcolmson 334), or to that notoriously seductive English sinner, Frances Howard (Hopkins 152).

  41. Just as Marjorie Garber has given this historicist reading a contemporary slant by celebrating Beatrice Joanna’s ability to fake orgasm à la Meg Ryan, twenty-first century actresses might take it as an opportunity to create a contemporary interpretation of Beatrice Joanna. A forceful young aristocrat who pursues her own will without considering the consequences, who faces retribution at the hands of the servant she assumed she could dominate, and who ultimately recognizes her own hamartia, this Beatrice is the antithesis of the blinkered sex kitten of recent stage tradition. Middleton and Rowley’s intentions in shaping Beatrice’s story are likely best summed up by the title of their primary source text, John Reynolds’ The Triumphs of God’s Revenge against the Crying and Execrable Sin of Wilful and Premeditated Murder (1621).  For a modern audience, however, their representation of the sheer bad luck she suffers in meeting Alsemero at a time when her father (who admires Alsemero immensely) cannot reject Piracquo without losing face only highlights the deficiencies of a marriage system that denies daughters the right to choose their own husbands. While the theatrical reading we have outlined reinscribes patriarchy, this alternative questions the moral consequences of its foundational trade in women.


  42. In Angela Carter’s short story “The Bloody Chamber,” Bluebeard’s wife looks back on their courtship and their brief, brutal marriage. She remembers with particular vividness the moment when she first perceived her husband’s lust for her and found repulsion and attraction vying in her breast: “And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me…. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away” (Carter 11). Reviewers of the Changeling productions we have studied here have often performed a similar operation on Beatrice Joanna. Seeing her through De Flores’ eyes, they have found in her the potentiality for sexual corruption that he perceives. This reading implies that the tragedy could have been averted if only Beatrice had recognised her longing for a bit of rough, and had not pretended to fancy the aristocratic squares a woman of her class was expected to marry.

  43. Middleton and Rowley’s play is in fact more interesting than this crude attempt at interpreting ‘what women want.’ In the early modern terms inscribed in their playtext, Beatrice Joanna is a sinner who strays from the path of righteousness and who is appropriately punished when her appointed scourge takes from her precisely that virgin honour she so wanted to save for the lover of her choice. She is not ignorant of her own will; rather, by pursuing it too vehemently, she loses it. In contemporary terms, this trajectory invites a provocative feminist reading. From a feminist standpoint, Beatrice Joanna’s career can be (re-)read as critiquing every aspect of patriarchal ideology: its presumption in attempting to control feminine desire, its brutality in gaining control of feminine bodies, its hypocrisy in rejecting the crimes committed by women for the sake of the men they love (V.iii.78) – and, not least, its naivety in assuming that women cannot commit evil deeds on their own initiative. The story of Beatrice Joanna invites a modern audience not to see women through the eyes of male lust, not to assume that no means yes or vice versa, but to judge women according to their own desires. We might be doing Beatrice Joanna, and ourselves, greater justice if we believed her loathing, taking her sins and her repentance at face value.

Works Cited

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© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).