Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"What the Act Has Made You": Approving Virginity in the Changeling

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

"What the Act Has Made You": Approving Virginity in the Changeling

Article excerpt

By any material reckoning, virginity does not exist. It can't be weighed on a scale, sniffed out like a truffle or a smuggled bundle of cocaine, retrieved from the lost-and-found, or photographed for posterity.

-Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History.

Deep within the secret vaults of Vermandero's castle, Alonzo de Piracquo's lifeless body slumps to the cold floor. Just minutes earlier, Piracquo hung up his sword in order to follow De Flores, unhindered, into the locked, narrow passageways running throughout this "most spacious and impregnable fort" (3.1.4).1 But De Flores, Vermandero's most trusted servant, betrays his master's intended son-in-law, bludgeoning him from behind with a heavy key and then twice driving a rapier through him, each time hissing, "I must silence you" (3.2.18-19). Alonzo succumbs to his wounds quickly, falling silent without ever knowing that his own betrothed, Beatrice-Joanna, ordered the assault so that she might rid herself of "two inveterate loathings at one time: / Piracquo and his dog-face [De Flores]" (2.2.147-48). With her father's choice of a husband dead and her dog-faced assassin on the run, Beatrice figures, she will be free to fulfill her impulsive desire to marry Alsemero, a handsome stranger just arrived in Alicante. But things will not be so simple.

Unexpectedly, Beatrice's hired killer soon turns on her and assaults the very core of her social being. Rather than money, De Flores demands that Beatrice hand over her virginity as payment for permanently silencing Piracquo. At first she resists with desperate reasoning and verbal pleas, but reluctantly, without words, she yields to her hired assassin's sexual blackmail. In order to go ahead with a marriage to Alsemero, then, Beatrice must counterfeit the precious social identity that her body no longer warrants. For a time, she passes herself off successfully, and neither the sense, wisdom, nor technology of Valencia's confident patriarchal powers can correctly read the flesh of this "virgin" bride as an utter forgery, a transgressive performance. In the end, though, Beatrice's false identity and fraudulent union unravel, and the play comes to its tragic climax which reveals "but one thing, and that is she's a whore" (5.3.107). The Changeling horrifies and captivates by building its main plot around the troubling possibility that female virginity, for all its social value and significance, does not exist outside the highly subjective act of reading its uncertain, manipulable signs. In doing so, the play undermines patriarchal order by showing that the stability and security of ideal human constructs, be they impregnable forts or impregnable virgins, are always threatened by the disordered, untamable flesh that lurks within.

"I Pray, Bury the Finger": Unwelcome and Inextricable Flesh

Just after completing the contracted murder, De Flores spots the glimmer of something useful in the dim silence of the vault:

O, 'tis a diamond

He wears upon his finger. It was well found:

This will approve the work.

[He struggles with the ring]

What, so fast on?

Not part in death? I'll take a speedy course then:

Finger and all shall off. [He cuts off the finger] So, now I'll clear

The passages from all suspect or fear.


The murder scene ends with De Flores dragging the corpse of Alonzo de Piracquo offstage, working doggedly to clear the passageways of the incriminating flesh and blood. Tucked away in his pocket, though, he keeps both ring and dismembered finger, and the macabre detail makes for a perplexingly risky move in De Flores's otherwise well-planned and well-executed attack. Middleton and Rowley, this essay contends, add the fused ring and finger to their source in order to emblematize a key notion, at work throughout their play, about the uneasy intersection of artificial and organic, the inseparability of grotesque and classical. The dead man's finger, stubbornly lodged within the circumference of the ring, represents the persistence of disordered flesh within finely wrought civilization and order. …

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