Comparison of Shakespeare’s and Middleton’s Tragedies

Categories: ComparisonShakespeare


Comparing Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Middleton’s The Changeling seems to be a very unusual topic for the first sight. The earlier is a festive merry comedy and the latter is said to be a revenge tragedy, moreover, is claimed to be a later transformation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Certainly, if we look at the structure of The Changeling on the surface we see a plot of a conventional drama of revenge, but as we observe closer it becomes evident that The Changeling lacks some of the significant features a tragedy has to retain.

As far as the situation is concerned the plot could turn out to be a comedy. After some conflict and misunderstanding Beatrice and Alsemero could get married and live happily ever after, as it happened to the two couples in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact in the latter the basic situation was even more complicated, Hermia’s father knew that she wanted to marry Lysander and he opposed to it, but in The Changeling the lovers did not really have an objection from the ‘paternal’ side.

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What are the differences then?

How could Shakespeare write his merriest comedy from a situation that turned out to be a cruel revenge tragedy for Middleton? The first part of he answer definitely lies in the different periods they lived in. The Elizabethan and Jacobean age, although they seem to retain little difference for us, hold numerous significant contrasts. Their world picture and understanding life differed in a lot, and so did their dramatists and audiences.

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Considering the title, characters and the structure of he plays we cannot see outstanding differences between them.

Both the titles have comic connotations, suggesting a happy ending to the audience. As for the characters, The Changeling lacks the tragic hero and more importantly the Machiavellian malcontent, which was necessary for a revenge tragedy. What we find instead are simple, everyday individuals who find themselves in a peculiar situation which they cannot handle. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream we also find various situations of disharmony, misunderstanding, quarrel and stress, but they all turn into order by the end.

The main contrast is in the attitude of the personae, that is the handling of the situation in a positive or in a negative way. The structural similarity is the use of a subplot, which in both cases serves as an emphasis of the main plot. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the mechanicals’ earthly word and speech is aimed at stressing the different worlds of the play and also serves laughter. In The Changeling the mad-house plot serves same reason, but as it is a satire it makes us realise that the world of apparently normal people is full of madness, while in a madhouse everything turns out to be fine.

Raising these points now we have to have a closer look on the two dramas and see that the so called revenge tragedy is rather comic and the happy comedy held more tragic signs than the actual tragedy.

Tragedy and comedy

The division of drama into comedy and tragedy has always been the first aspect of literary criticism. We have fixed ideas in our minds what are the so called tragic and comic elements. Using Norhtrop Frye’s terms, in tragedies these are the great tragic hero, conflict with something grand, like fate, gods, fortune.

According to Frye the tragic hero is somewhere between the divine and the “all to human”, apparently a type which cannot be found in The Changeling. On the other hand if we put the typical pattern of comedy onto the plot of the drama we can see that it is consistent, whereas, adapting again Frye’s definition, what normally happens in a comedy is that a “young man wants a young woman, that his desire is resisted by some opposition, usually paternal, and that near the end of the play some twist in the plot enables the hero to have his will. These patterns tend not to change with time, but certainly in transitional periods the emphasis could shift. The Jacobean period being the age of crisis in both literary and social aspects, it has developed its own characteristics as tragedy and comedy are concerned. Jacobean drama was more concerned with revenge and blood but the focus was not on the individual but on a social type. The same tendency occurred in the comedies, they were rather satires, parodies than real merriment.

Jacobean pessimism, like today that of the post-modern took a reaction against the optimism of the preceding age, which is pointing towards the comedies of the French Classicist period, rather than having roots in the Elizabethan.

The titles

As I have mentioned, the titles both carry the connotation of change, but in a symbolic way, examining how the human power can accept change, how it can adopt to different troubled situations.

They both have comic connotation and both suggest some passivity on the side of the characters, that is, they are changed by an external force, something that is standing outside them. The word ‘changeling’ had different meanings for the Jacobean audience, but mainly carried the act of change, transformation from one thing to the other. As the word ‘dream’ would have the same connotation, as our dreams are alterations of real life and of the self.

The word ‘changeling’ had four different meanings that time: a person given to change, a half wit, a woman who had sexual intercourse or an ugly and deformed child changed by the fairies. Midsummer night, being the shortest night of the year also suggests change, change in the moon and season, demonstrating the difference in performance at night or day. As Martin White puts it The Changeling is built on a structure of antitheses ironically inverted and juxtaposed.

These are castle/asylum, madness/sanity, reason/passion and appearance/reality. These antitheses are also present in the latter, substituting the castle for Athens and the asylum for he forest. The world turned upside down is comic in Shakespeare’s time, the theme of change is more important than that of the characters; on the other hand Middleton stresses the change of characters, and “the action turns upon the contrast between the character’s demands upon life and their limitations when an unwanted set of circumstances reveals them.

The characters

In spite of this difference The Changeling also has the elements of comedy. As the characters are mediocre, they differ from the heroes of grand tragedy. In Jacobean times contemporaries would have seen The Changeling as a drama which has a plot based on a conventional revenge tragedy, but Middleton’s handling of the plot and the characters managed to end up in story of a group of quite ordinary people whose fate is the logical consequence of their stupidity and simplicity.

On the contrary the protagonists of A Midsummer Night’s Dream are really remarkable as they do not accept their fate and the will of the father, but they try to break out of it by escaping to the wood, that is, by responding positively to the situation. This is the basic difference between the acting of the couples, Hermia-Lysander and Beatrice-Alsemero. Hermia: But I beseech your grace that I may know The worst that may befall me in this case, If I refuse to wed Demetrius. (I. 1. 62-4) Lysander: I am, my lord, as well-derived as he, As well-posessed: My love is more than his, [… And, which is more than all these boasts can be, I am beloved of beauteous Hermia. (I. 1. 99-104) However, Beatrice does not ask his father for permission for marrying Alsemero, she is just asking for more time, and Alsemero does not seem to act either, as he says “I must part and never meet again / With joy on earth. ” (I. 1. 205). He wants to leave, which clearly demonstrates his passive attitude. They cannot face a situation that is not favourable for them, they are not fighting for their love, which is evident from the fact that much of what they say they say as ‘asides’.

Their main problem is the lack of communication and mistrust, although Vermanendro likes Alsemero, and what is more, later admits that if he had another daughter he would give her to Alsemero. So the changes mentioned above has to come in a different way: in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the lovers started to act and the fairies interfere with the magic juice, which causes a crookedness in the play but here all the obstacles are turned into advantages. The remarkable thing is that they never stop communication, which would allow for a tragic outcome.

Even when the lovers are completely crossed they manage to cope with the situation, thus making everything in the best possible way, and they are never ready to submit to their fate. Alsemero and Beatrice are entirely the opposite, their failure of communication with each other and their surroundings result in the murder of Alonzo. They are both shallow personalities, going on their own way. Alsemero, when first speaking to Beatrice, immediately kisses her and admits that he loves her. As Beatrice is concerned she has an ignorance of the world and even of herself. Her incapability of seeing reality changes her from a maid to a whore and a urderess, as Farr claims. She is a conventional spoiled child; like a princess in a fairy tale she is acting without calculating the human element. She thinks she will not be guilty as De Flores kills her fiance, and also fails to realise that De Flores will not be satisfied with money. She acts without thinking and consideration, as she says: I shall rid myself Of two inveterate loathings at one time, Piraquo, and his dog face. (II. 2. 146-8) Being unable to see what is going on Beatrice unquestionably thinks that this is the best solution for her problem, using a man she hates for killing another man she hates.

Reality is not revealed to her even by putting this improbable situation into words. The treatment of the heroine illustrates the difference of Middleton’s drama from the typical revenge tragedy of the age. In fact, no one has the cause to kill in this drama, as Farr puts it: “Middleton’s presentation is not the conflict between passion and power but the unmasking of lust by the logic of commonplace happenings. ” The other difference is De Flores, who is not a characteristic malcontent either. He is in love with Beatrice and it is his lust that makes him a murderer.

Although he is always one step before Beatrice and we can assume that he is aware of his murder we do not have the same feeling towards him as towards the typical malcontents in tragedies, such as Iago or Richard III. We feel pity for him from the beginning for the undeserved loathing of Beatrice. He is not evil, he would not have done anything bad to Beatrice or anybody else. It is Beatrice who is evil, but just to a limited extent as she cannot realise the weight and consequence of her ideas and thus starts behaving in a negative way, opposed to the lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She is the ‘deed’s creature’ (III. . 137), nothing else but an unthoughtful person who cannot part reality from her passion. She still thinks at the end that it is a significant basis for her self defence that ‘love has made me / A cruel murd’ress. (V. 3. 64-65). On the contrary in A Midsummer Night’s Dream it is the situation that is foolish not the characters: they are intelligent people in an inherently foolish situation, but the plot does not lack the hint of a tragedy, which is present on two levels. On the one hand, it is threatening with the harsh Athenian law, and on the other, it is there in the subplot, in the performance of the mechanicals.

Also we must not forget that the closest drama of Shakespeare is Romeo and Juliet, which has much resemblance with this plot. But here, although the characters are the playthings of the fairies, they manage to understand the experience of irrational love and so their behaviour is not at all irrational or foolish.

The structure

Concerning the structure the outstanding similarity is the use of a subplot. It has two functions, reinforcing the twin themes of the dramas, which are castle/madhouse and reality/illusion.

The main plot and the subplot are not together at all throughout the action but the presence can be felt in both cases. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the subplot is the earthly world: the language is ordinary and has a very big contrast with the poetic lines of the lovers, especially with the rhyming couplets of the fairies. In The Changeling the characters of the main plot speak in an ordinary way, and there is more wit in the speech of the madhouse people. Both subplots serve as the comic elements in the drama, but with a different aim.

The theme of the jealous husband and the wife is a social satire on the one hand, and on the other, it acts as a reflection and foreshadow of the action of the main plot. It demonstrates the crookedness of the world, that apparently mad people can handle the situation in a better way while sane people’s relationships end with four cruel murders. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, however, the function of the subplot is just the opposite. The play acted by the mechanincs, despite its clumsiness, is a tale of woe, suicide and fatalism, quite contrary to the play which contains it.

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Comparison of Shakespeare’s and Middleton’s Tragedies. (2018, Oct 02). Retrieved from

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