Who is the Changeling?

That is a hard question to answer quickly. This is due in part to the fact there are several definitions of a changeling that might be in play. The OED lists five definitions of Changeling.

A Fuseli painting of fairies stealing a child C.1790
A Fuseli painting of fairies stealing a child C.1790

1. One given to change; a fickle or inconstant person; a waverer, turncoat, renegade. arch.
Earliest known use in 1555

2. A person or thing (surreptitiously) put in exchange for another. Obs.
Earliest known use 1561

3. spec. A child secretly substituted for another in infancy; esp. a child (usually stupid or ugly) supposed to have been left by fairies in exchange for one stolen.
Earliest known use 1584

4. A half-witted person, idiot, imbecile. arch.
Earliest known use: 1642

5. The Rhetorical figure Hypallage. Obs.
Earliest known use: 1589

Each of these definitions could apply to characters in the play. I’ll go through them quickly.

Definition #1. Someone given to change and fickleness. Alsemero fits the bill in how quickly he falls for Beatrice. Beatrice fits the bill as she changes from Alonzo to Alsemero then to De Flores. Diapahnta can also be seen as a fickle changeling as she seems to be ready to bed Jasperino, but has no qualms about bedding Alsemero later. Tomazo’s instant change to De Flores late in the play is also fits the bill. As a turncoat or renegade, De Flores, Alsemero, Beatrice, Diaphanta, Lollio, Antonio, and Franciscus all fit the bill.

Definition #2 something put in exchange for another. Diaphanta is the most obvious in this case as she beds Alsemero in place of Beatrice, but Alsemero could also fit in how Beatrice works to swap him for Alonzo. Antonio and Francisco also fit the bill in passing themselves off as mad men in the asylum.

Definition #4 (#3 is at the bottom, it is the most interesting.) Well there is an asylum of half-wits, and Antonio and Franciscus are rather half-witted as well. Ailbius is certainly an idiot.

Definition #5 For examples of hypallage in the Changeling check out the article summary here (third essay), and if you are interested you can download the full article.

Definition #3 The changeling of fairy lore has a long history, and certain traditions that follow it. First a very brief look at those traditions.

When they steal human children fairies will usually replace them with something, often one of their own, either a child, or an adult. Sometimes they replace the child with a glamoured object that will behave like a baby for a certain amount of time before reverting to a log, or rock. Fairies steal children for one of two reasons, wither to raise the human child, or to take advantage of the human parent, either to raise their own child, or simply as an easy way to be fed and have a good home.

The fairy changeling left with the human parents will usually be unusual in some way, either more intelligent than a baby should be, perhaps a certain hair color, a birthmark, already having teeth. They will usually feed until gorged, and cry all night. Some folklorists believe that the tradition started to explain such conditions as Down syndrome. There are several ways to see if it is in fact a changeling you have, the most common is to begin brewing beer in something like an egg shell, an acorn, or a thimble. When the baby asks what you are doing explain you are brewing beer, the usual answer will be something like “I have been alive 300 years but I have never seen anyone make beer in an egg-shell” at that moment you confront the changeling and it must leave and return your baby. Traditions change from region to region, but this is a common idea in the British Isles.

Only three characters really fit the bill with this definition, De Flores, Beatrice and Isabella. De Flores, with his goblin like appearance and demeanor, could be a metaphoric undiscovered changeling. Isabella, who is about the most pure and moral character in the play, is trapped in a house of mad-men. She could represent a child stolen by fairies forced to live in their world. Beatrice certainly is a metaphoric fey child changeling. In fact I think you can argue that Isabella and Beatrice are the true changelings of the play. That they in fact were the pair switched, metaphorically of course. Isabella displays the traits that Beatrice, as the daughter of a noble, would be expected to display: abstinence, loyalty, compassion, and reason. Beatrice shows the traits one might expect from the wife of an elderly asylum keeper: adultery, conspiracy, giving over to passion, and disloyalty.


For an essay that looks deeper into a character who is a metaphoric changeling you can read my essay on Jane Eyre. I wrote this about 5 years ago in undergrad, and I has nothing to do with early Modern Drama, but it does explore the changeling lore in relation to a literary character.

The fact that nearly everyone in the play could actually fit into one definition of a changeling actually makes the play far richer than if only one character was the changeling.

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