by Angela White
In late seventeenth-century London, Aphra Behn was the first woman to earn her living as a writer. As a playwright, she wrote plays that reflected historical and cultural aspects of the Restoration from a female perspective. In 1677, she penned one of her most notable plays, The Rover; or The Banished Cavaliers. Behn’s play debuted during the height of the Restoration period, which for theater meant more female agency on the stage because women were allowed to take on female roles for the first time. Behn places the action of her play in Spanish Naples, just before Lent in the midst of carnival, which is a setting fit for emphasizing the urge to break free from societal constraints. Through the stories of Florinda, Hellena, and Angellica, Behn integrates strong elements of feminism and libertinism by focusing on issues of marriage, self-identity and representation. Each of these character types represents a different aspect of a woman’s struggle to define herself during the Restoration.
Florinda’s character encompasses the Restoration woman’s struggle to gain agency in marriage. Before arriving at carnival, Florinda is trapped in the midst of a battle between following her own desire and the desires of her family. She wants to marry the English colonel Belvile, but must obey the patriarchal orders of her father and brother to marry who they see fit for her. In Katherine Quinsey’s book Broken Boundaries: Women & Feminism in Restoration Drama, Peggy Thompson points out that during the time that Behn wrote, male relatives often negotiated marriage contracts for the women in their family, but did so “not to protect their wards’ autonomy and property, but to enhance familial and dynastic interests” (Quinsey 73). In Florinda’s case, these interests would lead her to marry a rich elderly man named Don Vinciento. In a conversation with her brother Don Pedro during the opening scene, Florinda claims that she hates Don Vinciento, despite the fact that her brother says he could provide a good life for her in his “ancient villa belonging to the family of Vincentios these five hundred years,” (1.1.113-114). However, the prospect of marrying a man for property and stature is not appealing to Florinda, and she goes on to compare the tradition of arranged marriage to slavery, calling it an “ill custom” (1.1.77).
This “ill custom” was not generally espoused during the Restoration. In Susan Staves’ article, “Behn, Women, and Society”, she describes how prior to the challenges of the Civil Wars, the Church of England taught that children had a “religious obligation to honour and obey their parents” (13). But during the Restoration, the church clergy and “most decent people” felt that while the daughter was still obligated to listen to her parents in terms of a suitor, she should still have the ability to choose who she wanted to marry (13). This shift in perspective gave women a sense of agency in who they chose to marry, which is important to Florinda’s character because it allows her to break free of her social limitations. In her conversation with Don Pedro, Florinda rejects the patriarchal order of marriage and then ventures off to carnival with her sister Hellena, defying her brother once again as he had just ordered her not to go.
With Florinda’s sister Hellena, Behn exposes the struggle of self-identification, specifically in terms of faith. Hellena has been set on the path to become a nun, and as she ventures off to carnival with her sister, the masquerade is a tool for her to free herself from societal restraints and experience real love. As noted earlier, the Church of England was very influential during the Restoration. Behn incorporated religion into The Rover, but she presented a critical view of church customs by portraying such strong libertine ideals from a devout character like Hellena. In the first scene Hellena tells Florinda that she would like to see her and Belvile together because she hopes he has “some mad companion or other that will spoil [her] devotion” (1.1.42-43). She is enraptured with the idea and confesses to her sister that she thinks it is “very pretty to sigh, and sing, and blush…and long to wish to see a man” (1.1.13-14). Throughout the action at carnival, Hellena is determined not to return home and become what is expected of her. This illustrates the libertinism that goes against the patriarchal order ingrained in her religious devotion.
Hellena’s libertine values are very apparent when she meets Wilmore. Their courtship begins immediately and she tells him that vowing to die a maid is “foolish” (1.2.179). Wilmore and Hellena are both looking for an escape at carnival. When he arrives on shore, Wilmore tells the cavaliers that his “business ashore was only to enjoy [him]self a little this carnival” (1.2.77-78) hinting that he is looking for female companionship to occupy his time on the island. Hellena’s feelings of oppression, curiosity and yearning for male companionship connect the libertine elements of these two characters together. In her article, Staves discusses how a central problem for Behn “was to work out the sharply different consequences of libertinism for women” (19). While Wilmore, the libertine man, thrives on sexual conquest and fails to yield anything constant outside of the moment, Hellena, the libertine woman, experiences her feelings as “proof that she is desirable” while also threatening her sense of identity (20). This contrast is evident in the plot since Wilmore has sexual desire for Hellena as well as the fair courtesan, Angellica Bianca.
Despite their increasing agency in choosing a marriage partner, women in the Restoration were nonetheless valued as commodities. Angellica Bianca is an example of this as her struggles stemmed from social perspectives of value within the marketplace. The Staves article mentions that Behn was intrigued by the “’value’ of women in her society and experiment[ed] with dividing and isolating elements of conventional female value” (21). In her profession, Angellica usually takes on the dominant role in choosing a mate. “Nothing but gold shall charm my heart” (2.1.164), she proclaims after hearing about the cavaliers seeking to purchase her for the 1,000 crown price tag. The amount that the men are willing to pay represents her value and elevates her idea of self worth.
Angellica’s role reflects a need for representation and agency for women during the Restoration. She wears no mask, unlike Florinda and Hellena when they go to carnival, and has a reputation outside of carnival based on her profession. Staves insightfully describes her character type as “Behn’s version of a maximally desirable woman [who] simultaneously possesses beauty, the power to evoke desire in men, wealth, and wit” (21). Unlike Florinda and Hellena, who seek to gain independence, Angellica’s conflict is between the powerlessness of love and maintaining control of a powerful commodity. In the second act, the cavaliers gaze at Angellica’s picture and discuss the contracted price. Words such as “stock” (2.1.21) and “quality” (2.1.60) are used. When Wilmore meets with Angellica’s woman in the second scene, he proposes that he split the cost with his friends and each would share an equal portion of her time (2.2.48-56). Though this is a blatant insult to her profession, Angellica is intrigued and implores Wilmore to continue his pursuit. She claims that she has never been in love before (2.2.123) but she falls for Wilmore, who argues that placing a price on sexual pleasure is a “sin” (2.2.15). With the argument of conventional morality on her mind, she in turn gives him her power by breaking the rules of her profession, allowing him to be with her at the cost of his love alone (2.2.155-65). Like Florinda and Hellena, Angellica broke the rules of her society for love, but the end result did not help her position in the marketplace.
Though each of these women was a valuable social commodity in their respective situations, Florinda began with no sense of agency, and the power shift in her patriarchal environment gave her more agency to choose who she would marry. Hellena began with the same level of agency as her sister, being forced into a life as a nun, but the shift in power allowed her to take on a new identity with a man which in turn gave her more agency in her devotion. Angellica, on the other hand lost power by falling in love. It left her vulnerable and decreased her level of agency which lowered her social value and self-worth.
Through Florinda, Hellena, and Angellica, Behn was able to bring to life some of the ideals of the Restoration while also critiquing popular movements within the era. Each of these characters endures a social struggle that fits into a bigger picture for the time. Marriage, self-identity and social representation are all topics that women of the Restoration were faced with and characterized what it meant to be a woman during that time. Behn’s execution of these elements makes The Rover a critical part of the history of Restoration Theater.
Behn, Aphra. The Rover. TheBroadview Anthology of Restoration & Early Eighteenth-century Drama. Peterborough, Ont.:Broadview, 2003. 220-273. Print.
Quinsey, Katherine M., ed. Broken Boundaries: Women & Feminism in Restoration Drama. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1996.73. Print.
Staves, Susan. “Behn, Women, and Society.” The Cambridge Companion to Aphra Behn. By Derek Hughes and Janet M. Todd. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2004. 12-28. Print.