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. 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. 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.
II. 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...
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