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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

III. Middleton and Rowley

§ 14. The Changeling

After the experiment of The Witch, Middleton seems to have returned to his collaboration with Rowley, and it is to this period that we must assign the play by which both are now chiefly remembered, the tragedy called The Changeling. It is Rowley who begins the play, and thus introduces and characterises both Beatrice and De Flores. The germ of both is there, and the rest of the play is but its growth. But, even in this opening, there are distinct, though slight, traces of Middleton, as if collaboration had begun already. Middleton takes up the thread in the second act, and has both hands upon it in the third, though, at the end of the great scene, Rowley seems to snatch the whole web out of his hands and to twist it into an abrupt end. In all this part, mainly written by Middleton, there is a restraint never paralleled elsewhere in his work; nowhere else are words used with such fruitful frugality, or so much said in so little. And this bareness, this fierce reticence, lead up, with a stealthy directness, to that outbreak of evil joy when De Flores cries

  • O this act
  • Has put me into spirit!
  • and the modest murderess answers in astonishment
  • Why, tis impossible thou canst be so wicked,
  • Or shelter such a cunning cruelty
  • To make his death the murderer of my honour!
  • The whole scene is written in words of white heat; Middleton has distilled into it the essence of his own genius and of the genius of Rowley; in Leigh Hunt’s famous and revealing words concerning De Flores, it is “at once tragical, probable, and poetical” beyond almost any single scene in the Elizabethan drama—a scene unlike anything in Shakespeare, but comparable, not as poetry but as drama, with Shakespeare. And it is on the level of this great scene that the play ends, in a splendid horror, and it is Rowley who ends as he began the dreadful lives of De Flores and of Beatrice. Rowley’s underplot and some of Middleton’s intermediate action do what they can to deform a play which, but for them, would be a noble and complete masterpiece. Yet the single impression left upon our minds is scarcely affected by them. The play is De Flores, and De Flores seems to grow greater as he passes from one to the other of the two playwrights, as they collaborate visibly at his creation. This great creation is the final result and justification of Middleton and Rowley’s work in common; for it is certain that De Flores as he is would never have been possible either to Rowley or to Middleton alone.