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The Changeling Boy

Sheila Brown as the Changeling Boy in Max Reinhardt's 1935 Midsummer.

The Changeling Boy does not always appear onstage; after all, it can be hard to direct children, and he doesn’t have any lines. Even so, he’s an extraordinarily important character: he serves to further — and ultimately resolve — the conflict between Oberon and Titania.

When he does appear onstage, he is often played by a six to ten year old. A few more adventurous productions have cast him with an older actor — “since to an immortal, any mortal of any age is a youth.”

Mary Ellen Lamb, “Taken by the Fairies: Fairy Practices and the Production of Popular Culture in A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:

The forest episodes of A Midsummer Night’s Dream capture another cultural significance circulatin around fairy lore and the pranks of Robin Goodfellow, one that played a crucial role in the separation of the middle and upper classes from the common culture. In the childhood memories of upper-class males such as John Aubrey common culture was transmitted primarily by female caretakers. Thus while Bottom’s tryst with the fairies literalizes a white lie signifying an illicit sexual encounter, Titania’s relationship with Bottom also evokes distinctly maternal elements. Bottom literally takes the place of the changeling child in Titania’s affections, and the implications of this substitution for an infantilized Bottom have been well discussed by critics such as Gail Kern Paster, Louis Montrose, Meredith Anne Skura, and Allen Dunn.

"The Fairy Flew Away with the Changeling," Arthur Rackham.

William W. E. Slights, “The Changeling in A Dream”:

… we learn that the boy, who started life as an Indian
prince, is “lovely,” “sweet,” and “loved” by Titania. Oberon’s competing and exclusive claim suggests that perhaps, as Puck implies, no one in fairyland has a rightful claim to him. Anyone who wants the changeling, for whatever purpose, may have to withhold him “perforce,” that is, forcibly. On the other hand, the line, “she, perforce, withholds the loved boy,” also opens the possibility that Titania herself is acting under some form of compulsion.

An 1862 political cartoon about the American Civil War, by John Tenniel (the illustrator of the original Alice in Wonderland books). Lincoln is Oberon; the state of Virginia is Titania, protecting her slave/changeling boy.

… Ruth Nevo remarks wittily that “Oberon might mend his marriage more effectively by getting Titania with child than by trying to get Titania without child.” Though there is something vaguely absurd in the critic turning marriage counsellor to the Fairy King, Nevo has rightly seen that parenting emerges as central to Titania’s consciousness. The Fairy Queen places herself in loco parentis when the Indian queen dies in childbirth. Now she must nurture and protect a child who, to her mind, is more adopted than kidnapped from the human realm. In Titania’s eyes, the fact that he straddles the border between human and fairy in no way obviates his need for mothering.

Sanjali Desilva as Changeling Child and Karen Slack as Titania. Photo by Casey A. Cass, University of Colorado Photo Department.

So why is the Changeling Boy from India? Why didn’t Shakespeare write the fairies stealing a child from Athens, wherethe play is set, or from Britain, which seems more natural for fairies who are so British?

Europeans had been trading with India for a few centuries — when Columbus sailed West from Spain in 1492, he was searching for a sea passage to India and East Asia — and exploration and colonization were increasing in Shakespeare’s time.  A few years after Midsummer was written in 1600, the East India Company was founded to trade spices between England and the Indies.

India was a fascinating place in the English consciousness: a place of riches, luxurious goods like spices, unexplored and fantastic. It was also one of the farthest places most people could imagine. By giving Titania and Oberon a foothold in India (not only does Titania apparently have devotees there, but Oberon has returned to Athens “from the farthest steppes of India” for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding), Shakespeare tells his audience that these are characters of far-reaching influence and high status — and the changeling boy, an Indian prince, is a worthy addition to their court.

caretakers. Thus while Bottom’s tryst with the fairies literalizes a white lie signifying an illicit sexual encounter, Titania’s relationship with Bottom also evokes distinctly maternal elements. Bottom literally takes the place of the changeling child in Titania’s affections, and the implications of this substitution for an infantilized Bottom have been well discussed by critics such as Gail Kern Paster, Louis Montrose, Meredith Anne Skura, and Allen Dunn.

One response

  1. Pingback: Europe and India in Shakespeare’s time « CMU's A Midsummer Night's Dream

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