Comparing Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Middleton's The Changeling

Categories: William Shakespeare

Introduction

William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, two illustrious playwrights of the English Renaissance, left an indelible mark on the world of theater. Their works, though distinct in style and content, provide valuable insights into the literary landscape of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Shakespeare's reputation as a master of both tragedy and comedy is legendary, with iconic plays like "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet" standing as timeless classics. In contrast, Middleton, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is often associated with darker, more morally ambiguous works such as "The Changeling.

" While Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is celebrated as a festive, merry comedy, "The Changeling" is labeled as a revenge tragedy, and some even claim it to be a later transformation of Shakespeare's "Othello." Despite these apparent disparities, a closer examination reveals intriguing similarities and differences between the two plays.

Contextual Differences

One crucial aspect to consider when analyzing these works is the historical and societal context in which they were written.

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The Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, although they may appear similar to modern eyes, harbored significant differences in worldview and societal values. These disparities also extended to the playwrights themselves and their audiences. While the titles, characters, and basic structures of the two plays may seem similar, the underlying nuances reveal striking distinctions.

Both titles, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Changeling," carry comic connotations that suggest a happy resolution. However, it is crucial to delve deeper into their meanings. In the Jacobean era, the word "changeling" conveyed multiple interpretations, including a person prone to change, a half-wit, a woman who engaged in sexual intercourse, or an ugly and deformed child altered by fairies.

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Similarly, "Midsummer night" alludes to change, reflecting alterations in the moon and seasons, highlighting differences between daytime and nighttime performances. Martin White aptly describes "The Changeling" as built upon ironic inversions and juxtapositions, emphasizing concepts such as castle/asylum, madness/sanity, reason/passion, and appearance/reality. These same antitheses find resonance in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," albeit with substitutions - Athens for the castle and the forest for the asylum. The inversion of worlds was inherently comic in Shakespeare's time, underscoring the theme of change more prominently than the characterization of individuals.

Tragedy and Comedy

Traditionally, the division of drama into comedy and tragedy has been a cornerstone of literary criticism. Tragedies typically feature a grand tragic hero in conflict with forces like fate, gods, or fortune. According to Northrop Frye, tragic heroes straddle the divine and the "all too human," a characterization seemingly absent in "The Changeling." Conversely, the template for comedy revolves around a young man's desire for a young woman, resistance from some form of opposition (often paternal), and a plot twist near the end that allows the hero to fulfill his desires. Although these patterns tend to endure over time, transitional periods can shift the emphasis. The Jacobean era, characterized by literary and social turmoil, imbued its tragedies and comedies with unique characteristics. Jacobean drama leaned toward themes of revenge and bloodshed, albeit with a focus on societal archetypes rather than individual protagonists. This trend extended to Jacobean comedies, which were more satirical and parodic than genuinely humorous.

Jacobean pessimism, akin to post-modern disillusionment today, reacted against the optimism of the preceding Elizabethan era, aligning more with the comedies of the French Classicist period than their Elizabethan predecessors.

The Characters

Despite these differences, "The Changeling" retains elements of comedy, primarily due to its portrayal of average characters, distinct from the grand tragic heroes of traditional revenge tragedies. Jacobean audiences may have initially perceived "The Changeling" as a revenge tragedy based on conventional tropes, but Middleton's treatment of the plot and characters ultimately transforms it into a story about ordinary people whose fates result from their own foolishness and simplicity.

Contrastingly, the protagonists of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" are remarkable because they do not passively accept their fate or the will of their parents. Instead, they actively defy it, as exemplified by the contrasting actions of Hermia-Lysander and Beatrice-Alsemero. Hermia and Lysander assert their love and defy Hermia's father's wishes, whereas Beatrice and Alsemero do not engage in a similar struggle. Beatrice merely requests more time from her father, while Alsemero contemplates leaving indefinitely, displaying a passive attitude. This difference in their response to adversity sets the tone for their respective narratives.

Communication plays a crucial role in distinguishing these couples. Despite facing numerous obstacles and misunderstandings, Hermia and Lysander maintain open lines of communication, which ultimately allows them to navigate their challenges successfully. In contrast, Beatrice and Alsemero's failure to communicate with each other and their surroundings leads to the tragic murder of Alonzo. These characters are portrayed as shallow and self-centered, unwilling to fight for their love. Notably, their lack of communication is evident through their frequent use of 'asides,' revealing their inability to address their issues directly.

The stark contrast in their handling of adversity is illustrated by the murder of Alonzo, which underscores the consequences of their passive and selfish behavior. While Hermia and Lysander's love story ultimately prevails, Beatrice and Alsemero's inability to confront reality leads to their undoing.

Beatrice, in particular, is portrayed as ignorant and disconnected from reality. Her inability to perceive the gravity of her actions transforms her from a maiden into a murderer. She acts impulsively, using De Flores to kill Alonzo, believing that money will be sufficient compensation. Her actions lack forethought and consideration, leading her to exclaim, "I shall rid myself of two inveterate loathings at one time, Piraquo, and his dog face" (II. 2. 146-148). Her inability to grasp the consequences of her actions epitomizes her thoughtlessness and inability to distinguish reality from her passions. She continues to see her actions as justifiable, even declaring, "love has made me a cruel murderess" (V. 3. 64-65) at the play's conclusion.

Conversely, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," it is the situation itself that is inherently foolish, rather than the characters. Hermia, Lysander, and the other lovers are intelligent individuals thrust into an irrational and chaotic situation. Their behavior remains rational and well-considered throughout the play, even as they navigate the challenges posed by the fairies' magic.

The Structure

Another significant parallel between these two works lies in their use of subplots. Both subplots serve to accentuate the main plot's themes, which revolve around the concepts of castle/madhouse and reality/illusion.

In "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the subplot centers around the mechanicals and their amateurish performance. This earthly world, depicted with ordinary language and stark contrast to the poetic lines of the lovers, adds a layer of humor and serves as a stark juxtaposition to the fairy realm. In contrast, "The Changeling" features a subplot set in the madhouse, which offers both humor and satire. This subplot highlights the idea that the world of seemingly sane individuals is filled with madness, whereas in the madhouse, everything appears normal.

Both subplots introduce comic elements, but their aims differ. In "The Changeling," the subplot acts as a social satire, critiquing societal norms and revealing the absurdity of conventional relationships. It also foreshadows the main plot's events, illustrating how the supposedly insane characters handle their situation more effectively than the ostensibly sane characters.

Conversely, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the subplot serves as a source of humor through its inept performance, providing a humorous contrast to the main plot's romantic entanglements. This subplot, despite its clumsiness, serves as a tale of woe, suicide, and fatalism, in stark contrast to the play that contains it.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Changeling" may appear to be polar opposites in terms of genre, a closer examination reveals that their differences stem from the distinct historical and societal contexts in which they were written. Both plays utilize comic elements, but their aims and outcomes diverge. "The Changeling" transforms what initially appears to be a conventional revenge tragedy into a story about ordinary individuals whose actions lead to their own downfall. In contrast, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" presents intelligent characters navigating an irrational world with wit and humor.

Ultimately, these plays challenge our preconceived notions of comedy and tragedy, highlighting the complexity of human behavior and the malleability of genre conventions within the ever-evolving realm of dramatic literature.

Updated: Nov 15, 2023
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Comparing Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Middleton's The Changeling. (2018, Oct 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/comparison-of-shakespeares-and-middletons-tragedies-essay

Comparing Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Middleton's The Changeling essay
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