IN ACT 3 OF THOMAS MIDDLETON and William Rowley's The Changeling, in a scene that recalls and revises Beatrice Joanna's earlier "seduction" of the loathsome De Flores, De Flores makes evident his intention to commit rape. Beatrice kneels and sues for deliverance, but he refuses, raises her, and, as she shivers in mute fear, declares:
'Las how the turtle pants! Thou'lt love anon
What thou so fear'st and faint'st to venture on.
These lines are clearly meant to recall the epithalamium from Ben Jonson's masque Hymenaei, composed to celebrate the scandalous marriage of Frances Howard and the Earl of Essex. By repeating Jonson's invocation to marital consummation at the end of a rape scene, Middleton does something similar to what the passage itself does——insists, that is, on the coincidence of fear and desire, of virgin and whore, of marriage and rape. And while the playwright makes the connection between these apparent opposites explicit, he seems to be merely spelling out paradoxes and problems that are already present in Jonson's poem and in the epithalamic tradition in general.
This essay explores how The Changeling anatomizes, criticizes, and simultaneously participates in the assumptions implicit in that tradition. Here and in his other plays, Middleton succeeds, through a complex network of allusions, in foregrounding the frightening male fantasies at the heart of the tradition. At the same time, the play's powerful manipulation of dramatic structure enables it, in contrast to lyric and other nondramatic versions of those fantasies, to paper over the contradictions it uncovers, presenting its culture's nightmares in their most compelling form.