Toxic Renaissance Relationships in Literature: Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores (The Changeling) and Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles (Doctor Faustus)

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Doctor Faustus (c. 1592) by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) and The Changeling (c. 1622) by Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) and William Rowley (c. 1585-1626) are concerned with human nature, gulling and sin. The relationship’s of Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores in The Changeling and Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus are founded on arrangements which entail the committing of atrocious acts, followed up by damnation. The Changeling functions as domestic Jacobean tragedy, one which is played out by a mistress and her servant. Andrew Dickson eloquently expresses the nature of Jacobean tragedy when he writes of it as: ‘a shadowy universe in which sexual and political betrayal combine with incest, insanity, forced marriage and ferocious honour codes’[1].


The Changeling [2015], staged at Shakespeare’s Globe. Written by Thomas Middleton & William Rowley. Directed by Dominic Dromgoole. Hattie Morahan as Beatrice-Joanna and Trystan Gravelle as De Flores.

In terms of plot structure, The Changeling is convolutely staged within a rigid societal structure, stemming from the loss of Beatrice’s virginity to disfigured servant De Flores, an act which binds them in infamy. Such a toxic relationship is concerned with moral purity and the bastardisation of it, which, relates to highly prevalent biblical themes in the culture of that time, citing contemporary fears of ‘original sin’ and the consequential ‘fall’ of humanity[2]. Edward Engelbert connects The Changeling’s atrocities to a proverbial blindness, one where ‘blindness shuts out the consequences of impulsive acts, and with, what amounts to an idée fixe, the chief characters then seek to impose their wills on an unbending and indifferent world, victimising those equally as blind’[3].


Doctor Faustus woodcut from the 1620 title page.

In Doctor Faustus, this blindness extends to dealings with the devil: Faustus is beguiled by spectacle and ‘ravished’ by magic. Turning a blind eye to the disciplines which had previously governed him (law, logic, science and theology), Faustus’s necromancy conjures a demon and a pact binds each in service to the other. Throughout their acts, Faustus is blind to the possibility of salvation, represented by the intervention of a good angel who urges repentance, which steers his course to eternal damnation. Mephistopheles is bound to Lucifer, the ultimate power for evil, which renders all gulling futile and finite. The overarching theme of these two plays is one of consent and abuse: Each relationship is dependent on mutual consent, yet, powers of mortality are abused to meet ends outside of that power. Through these relations, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton and William Rowley remind the audience of earthly confines, deathly binds and the ultimate downfall triggered by sinful acts.

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The relationship of Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores wrests to convolute the social order: Staged in close, domestic quarters, societal fears and anxieties can be manifested in a contemporary horror. To this end, the play deploys shock tactics relevant to and received by a Jacobean audience as a means of provocation. Whilst Doctor Faustus calls on the literal devil, The Changeling arguably evokes a more frightening, human, evil, accounted for in the sinful nature of certain liaisons and behaviour throughout the play. The actions performed by Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores are indeed demonic and, are prompted by an internal drive rather than an enabling external factor shown elsewhere as occult or dark forces given flesh. Devoid of this, it is the relationship which is taboo and, enacted by two fundamentally flawed human beings.

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Supporting this, critic Helen Gardner is among those who aligns The Changeling in the canon with Doctor Faustus and Macbeth, each of which deal with a critical evil. Comparing Beatrice to the characters of Faustus and Macbeth, Gardner notes the particular absence of ‘supernatural temptation’[4] as and instigator in The Changeling. It is this play which relies solely on human agency to drive forward the evil and Gardner writes that ‘Middleton gains an effect that is beyond the natural by the wonderful invention of De Flores’[5]. She further allows that ‘what Mephistopheles is to Faustus, what the “supernatural soliciting” and the horror of the deed are to Macbeth, De Flores is to Beatrice-Joanna’[6]. This insight allows us to view Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores as accomplices united in malevolent intent and, when taking each character as an individual, the horrific bend of each becomes ever more pronounced.


The Vitruvian Man, L’Uomo Vitruviano, a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1490. Accompanied by notes based on the work of the architect Vitruvius. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

In Doctor Faustus, the figure of Faustus poses a malcontent, similar to the rebellious streak in Beatrice-Joanna’s marital position and De Flores’ longing for her above his appointed station. However, in the case of the Faustus, his ambitions represent ‘the heroic aspiration’[7] of the archetypical ‘Renaissance man’[8]: This being a quest for universal knowledge. Faustus struggles in a ‘violently divided universe’ between ‘God and Lucifer’[9], two entities which govern his existence on earth. Indeed, his is a figure ‘bombarded […] with conflicting accounts of his identity, position and destiny’[10], accumulating with his demise. Faustus’ ruin, in the question of agency, is arguably self-inflicted: His condition at the start of the play is one of ‘divine discontent, the unwearied and unsatisfied striving after knowledge’[11] and this persists throughout as the great expectations he burdens himself with are amplified by a power both limited and limitless. Mephistopheles represents this power and Faustus’ eternal quandary which is pushed to the point of damnation.


Eric William Ravilious, Doctor Faustus Conjuring Mephistopheles.

In The Changeling, Beatrice-Joanna uses the lower body of De Flores to act on her behalf, whilst, in Doctor Faustus, it is an entirely ‘other’[12] being who comes to Faustus’ aid. As the devil’s representative, Mephistopheles is taken on as Faustus’ unearthly personal servant. Interestingly, Mephistopheles is arguably a character of invention: Christopher Marlow derives him from Germanic folklore[13] and brings him into the English literary canon as an assistant to Lucifer. His origins as a demon in German myth[14] are thus transferred and elaborated on to account for the warring forces of good and evil in the play. Mephistopheles stands as a deviant by occupation, whose task is to deviate Faustus which is shown through debasement.


Here are David Burke and Anna-Calder Marshall, The Changeling, 1970 at The Lyceum, Edinburgh Festival.

De Flores is a character who, as a servant, is base and considered by Beatrice-Joanna to be ugly, a fact of which he appears to be aware of himself in his own character appraisal. Mephistopheles, too, is described to be hideously ugly, a physical characteristic which is revealing of his attributes. Faustus cannot bear to look at Mephistopheles in this form and, by asking him to assume another, Mephistopheles alters his appearance for Faustus. This differs from De Flores who makes no attempt to mask his ugliness in his front to the world. I would argue that behind the more palatable facade of a friar, Mephistopheles public-front mirrors that of Beatrice-Joanna, whose ugliness is internal and integral to her character. Moreover, Mephistopheles and De Flores become complicit in the actions of those they serve on account of their perceived worldliness: Indeed, Mephistopheles introduces Faustus to the Seven Deadly Sins and De Flores’ background in The Changeling is one of ill-repute from what he refers to as hard fate.


Northern Renaissance wood carving of Adam and Eve in the Garden by Hans Buldung Grein.

Gardner’s essay dissects a reading of The Changeling’s plot to ‘the deforming of a creature in its origin bright and good, by its own willed persistence in acts against its own nature’[15], citing the transformation of Beatrice-Joanna who moves from being ‘idealised’[16] to unforgivably ‘degraded’[17]. Human nature therefore comes under close scrutiny, taking into account the religious climate of Jacobean society, which, depended on a highly biblical reading concerning the nature of sin and its forms. Behaviour becomes monitored and weighed by example, with the consequences of good and bad shown to be rewarded or punished. In The Changeling, Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores carry the blame and are damned: Such a curse can be read into the Biblical roots of original sin, understood as the fall[18]. Beatrice’s temptation to pursue her own desires and her acting upon it mirrors the ‘Eve-Woman’, a popular construct in Renaissance literature[19].


Eve, the Serpent and Death, Hans Baldung, c. 1510s – 1520, oil on panel, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

In a patriarchal society, woman comes from man and Beatrice-Joanna is initially a pawn for alliances, family name and social standing[20]. However, this model is inverted beyond recognition in The Changeling, with Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores’ ‘one-ness’ an affront to order and expectation. The dependency fostered between the two becomes unsavoury (sordid) and this is self-implicated. Beatrice-Joanna represents the Renaissance polarity between ‘seeming’ and ‘being’[21] by initially being associated with ‘classical pretensions’[22] – notably her virginity – and, in association with De Flores, becomes reduced to the ‘grotesque’[23] of a lower order, both socially and morally. Their nature is shown to be fundamentally corrupt. Throughout the course of the play, De Flores is aware of his similarities to base creatures such as ‘an ass’[24] and “swine”[25] and he is baited to perform atrocious acts. These acts are undertaken to achieve what he perceives to be his deliverance: Beatrice-Joanna. When the two start to negotiate, this triggers further digressions in a tactical bind (highlighting the importance of contractual arrangements in Doctor Faustus) and De Flores eventually succeeds in reducing his mistress to a form of sexual enslavement[26].


Avarice (Avaritia) from the series The Seven Deadly Sins by Pieter Bruegel the Elder ca. 1525 – 1569, Brussels.

Together, the drives of Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores are shown to be desire, murder and sex, bound up in an animalistic, futile effort. At the same time, this chain of gross misuse serves to bastardise the relationship between ‘servant’ and ‘mistress’[27] beyond any conceivable repair in terms of Renaissance convention. The Changeling stages treacherous acts executed by Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores within the domestic world. Concerning Jacobean drama, Pascale Aebischer writes how ‘the household was simultaneously familiar and reassuring, and alien and threatening’[28], pertaining to the paradoxical nature of Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores’ dealings. Andrew Dickson is particularly aware of these conventions in The Changeling concerning its staging when he writes:

‘If The Changeling’s plot seems suffocating, then so too is its setting: locked inside a Spanish castle from which there appears to be no escape, its characters are forever flitting from room to room, navigating a warren of Escher-like spaces in which some figures materialise as if from nowhere, others disappear without trace. In Richard Eyre’s 1988 production at the National, the set was dominated by an enormous iron grille, staircases rising dizzyingly to either side; when Declan Donnellan of Cheek by Jowl brought the play to the Barbican in 2006, he and designer Nick Ormerod built a false auditorium on stage, plunging the audience into the sepulchral recesses of the theatre itself.’[29]

I’d argue that the relationship between Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores is thus rendered claustrophobic, co-dependent and therefore dangerous. Indeed, Wall’s argument that ‘[t]he drama of the period fuses these representations to show how domesticity, in part because of its dis-orientating character, paradoxically enabled people to imagine new identities and subject positions’[30] is relevant to The Changeling which navigates these transgressions. De Flores’ line: “She had rather wear my pelt tanned in a pair / Of dancing pumps than I should thrust my fingers / Into her sockets here” (1.2.225-227) summarises the character’s parasitic toxicity through intimacy with Beatrice-Joanna. This male fantasy alludes to Beatrice-Joanna wearing De Flores, of him violating her body and the two becoming melded. Sarah Eaton rightly observes the play’s use of ‘frequent asides that reveal to what extent the public, idealised language masks the characters’ other assessments’[31] and how the dialogue between Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores is notably in this “private”[32] vein. For example:

Bea. [Aside] Again

— This ominous ill-faced fellow more disturbs me

Than all my other passions.

DeF. [Aside] Now’t begins again;

I’ll stand this storm of hail though the stones

pelt me.


This is the language of conspiracy, which De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna seamlessly deal in, revealing ‘physical corruption’[33]. The evidence of this corruption is readily presented physically to Beatrice-Joanna in ‘favours’ from De Flores which parody those of courtly love. For example, Diaphanta’s body is brought to Beatrice-Joanna as a token of the deed. Here, the ultimate lack of remorse is physiologically sociopathic.


“Mephistopheles Offering His Help to Faust,” illustration to Goethe’s Faust, lithograph by Eugène Delacroix, The Bettman Archive.

In Doctor Faustus, the relationship between Faustus and Mephistopheles is enacted through a series of spectacle and trickery. In an introduction to the B text, Matthew R. Martin writes: ‘When confronted  with the prospect of converting the Faustbook into a play, then, Marlowe and any collaborators and revisers would appreciate the crowd-pleasing potential of the narrative’s comedy as much as the opportunity that its tragic protagonist provided for serious psychological and theological meditation’[34]. From this ‘crowd-pleasing’ principle, the concept of spectacle within the writing becomes paramount. Indeed, early in the play, Faustus alludes to the performance of great feats were he to have magical powers and lackeys from the spirit world:

 “I’ll have them wall all Germany with brass, / And make swift Rhine circle fair Wittenberg. / I’ll have them fill the public schools with silk, / Wherewith the students shall be bravely clad”[35]

These grandiose wishes are based on materialism and the grandeur is rendered false by the actuality of Faustus’ powers and their extent allotted through demons. Indeed, there is a highly temporal nature to the magic performed by Mephistopheles and Faustus from the bargain struck with Lucifer. These are rooted in temporary, immediate pleasures which Faustus puts before his ‘eternal fate’ in an ultimate display of hedonism. Mephistopheles appears to warn Faustus against such frivolity in the lines “Oh, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands, / Which strike a terror to my fainting soul” (1.3.80-81), however, given his status as a demon in hell, Mephistopheles’ attitude towards torment proves arbitrary. Supporting this, the demon’s constant deception of Faustus shows an ultimate careless disregard for the doctor’s soul. For example, Mephistopheles negates the severity of a contractual agreement with Lucifer by pandering to Faustus’ misconceptions.


Faust, Deal with the Devil print, 1895, by Ary Scheffer. Engraving by H. Eichens.

The blood bond signature is attained by assuring Faustus: “And then be thou as great as Lucifer” (1.5.52), yet, Lucifer’s claim to Faustus’ soul far outweighs this misleading promise used to merely humour him in the context of the bargain. Here, the taunting of Faustus at the hands of the devils Mephistopheles, Lucifer and Beelzebub in Act 2 becomes telling in terms of Faustus’ inferiority and powerlessness: He is reduced to a grovelling apology “And Faustus vows never to look to heaven, / Never to name God or to pray to him, / To burn his scriptures, slay his ministers, / And make my spirits pull his churches down” (2.1.92-95) to pacify and appease the rioting demons. From this point, the relationship between Mephistopheles and Faustus becomes based on a tedious balancing act “in pleasure and in dalliance” (3.2.61-62) and Faustus’ previous lofty aims become subjected down to the base desires and cheap thrills which Mephistopheles can provide. This constitutes a living hell whereby Faustus cannot attain any constants, for example fleeting encounters with prostitutes substitute meaningful matrimony, receding only further into damnation. As in The Changeling, the question of who is enslaved to whom becomes ever more apparent, pressing and ambiguous.


Of Gluttony and Rebelling, woodcut is attributed to the artist Albrecht Dürer. Illustration from the book Stultifera navis (Ship of Fools) by Sebastian Brant, published by Johann Bergmann in Basel in 1498. Univesity of Houston

From these observations, the examined relationships in Doctor Faustus and The Changeling  present pairings or couples who deviate from the societal norms and, in doing so, isolate themselves from certain standards of behaviour. In this light, Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores become privy to murder whilst Mephistopheles and Faustus work outside of earthly laws to attain ill-conceived ends.  It appears that the punishment for doing so if manifold: Each become trapped in unsatisfactory relationships, be this sexual or based on desires, and, the circles which they choose to move in lead to mirroring cycles of self-destruction through debasement of character. I would argue that these relationships are born from various insecurities, in Faustus’ case, the weighing pressure of success in a Renaissance context and, in Beatrice-Joanna’s, ambitions outside of what is expected for her. This fosters a toxic co-dependency with their counterparts, Mephistopheles and De Flores, who act out their desires in a limited framework: Beatrice-Joanna cannot marry whom she chooses and Faustus cannot attain the level of greatness to which he aspired. Each of these plays demonstrates how through perverse acts of free will, mortal sin is met with damnation.

Killing ‘the Angel in the House’ here…
The Medieval image of Eve here…
‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ women in Medieval art here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!


Sources Used: 

[1] Andrew Dickson, ‘Jacobean Tragedy of Love and Death’,The Guardian, 20 January, 2012. <; [accessed 11 October 2016].

[2] R. S. White, Natural Law in English Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 228.

[3] Edward Engelberg, ‘Tragic Blindness In The Changeling And Women Beware Women.’, Modern Language Quarterly, 23.1 (1962).

[4] Helen Gardner, “Milton’s Satan and the Theme of Damnation in Elizabethan Tragedy,” in A Reading of Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 99-120.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jonathan Dollimore, “Subversion through Transgression: Doctor Faustus (c. 1592)” in Staging the Renaissance, ed. by David Scott Kastan and Peter Stallybrass (Routledge, 2012), p. 122.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Richard Wilson, Christopher Marlowe (Routledge, 2014), p. 237.

[10] Ibid, p. 238.

[11] Pamela Bickley and Jenny Stevens, Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama: Text and Performance (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), p. 261.

[12] David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992), p. 196.

[13] Thomas Willard, “Images of Mortality in Early English Drama” in Death in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: The Material and Spiritual Conditions of the Culture of Death, ed. by Albrecht Classen (Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 2016), p. 420.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Manuel  Aguirre, The Closed Space: Horror Literature and Western Symbolism (Manchester University Press, 1990), p. 57.

[16] Sara Eaton, ‘Beatrice-Joanna and the Rhetoric of Love in The Changeling in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. by Sue-Ellen Case (JHU Press, 1990), p. 238.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Malcolm Hebron, Key Concepts in Renaissance Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 94.

[19] Ibid, p. 121.

[20] Debora K. Shuger, Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance: Religion, Politics and the Dominant Culture (University of Toronto Press, 1997), p. 219.

[21] Sara Eaton, p. 238.

[22] M. Burnett, Masters and Servants in English Renaissance Drama (Springer, 1997), p. 104.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Gabriel A. Rieger, Sex and Satiric Tragedy in Early Modern England: Penetrating Wit (Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2009), p. 78.

[25] Thomas Middleton & William Rowley, The Changeling, e.d. by Michael Neill, New Mermaids (Methuen Drama, London: A & C Publishers Limited), 2.2.43. All subsequent references are to this edition.

[26] Avril Horner, “Canetti, The Unicorn and The Changeling” in Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts, ed. by Anne Rowe (Springer, 2012), p. 167

[27] Lisa Hopkins and Matthew Steggle, Renaissance Literature and Culture (A&C Black, 2006), p. 101.

[28] Pascale Aebischer, Jacobean Drama (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 168.

[29] Dickson, ‘Jacobean Tragedy of Love and Death’.

[30] Wendy Wall, Staging Domesticity: Household Work and English Identity in Early Modern Drama (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 6.

[31] Sara Eaton, p. 277.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Mathew R. Martin, Doctor Faustus: The B Text (Broadview Press, 2013), Introduction.

[35] Christopher Marlowe, Dr Faustus: Based on the A Text, ed. by Roma Gill, New Mermaids, Second edition (London: A & C Black Limited, 2004), 1.1.87-90. All subsequent references are to this edition.

3 thoughts on “Toxic Renaissance Relationships in Literature: Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores (The Changeling) and Doctor Faustus and Mephistopheles (Doctor Faustus)

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