Opening of Behn’s The Rover
It is imperative for drama to require much more consideration regarding the intended audience than other literary forms, since in the end, a play is meant to be a performance. In drama and its theatrical depiction, the spectators experience the authorial vision in a defined form unlike when they’re made to read and rely on their own visualization and imagination. As a result, playwrights are often seen to incorporate popular tastes and perspectives while penning their scripts. Whether they are actually influenced by these, or they happen to be simply commenting upon them, objectively or otherwise, the relationship between theatre and the relevant epoch is undeniable. Moreover, it is a mutual process, for just as natural it is for the writer to be swayed by social factors, similarly, it is inevitable that at some level, the writer should endeavour to give back to the society his own individual insights on the prevailing circumstances. The extent that a writer might go to for this purpose, apart from his own determination and character, depends on his estimate of the perceptive ability of his audience, the general cultural atmosphere and relevant restrictions such as that of censorship.
Therefore, for Aphra Behn, as a female playwright in seventeenth century England, it was inevitable that she camouflage her subversions and polemical insights in the guise of wit and comedy. While Behn’s works in her time would have generally been understood as elaborately written comedies integrating the staples of Restoration drama, the discerning individual can distinguish subtle commentary regarding gender notions, property laws, class structures, etc. Whether these were really intended on the writer’s part, or were worked into her prose in a subconscious matter-of-fact fashion, or whether they merely happen to stand out given their retrospective analysis in the twenty-first century, is of course a question which is out of the scope of this assignment and also somewhat immaterial. Although, in her own words, Behn reveals that she had to “write to please an age which has given several proofs it was by this way of writing to be obliged”; indicating that she was well aware of the limitations imposed upon her as a professional female playwright.
However, right from the beginning of The Rover, it is clear that the main theme concerns restrictive social constructs regarding women. The scene opens with a dialogue between the two sisters Florinda and Hellena, and at the surface, it could be categorized as a stereotypical conversation between two young girls regarding fanciful subjects accompanied by a generous dose of wit and chiding. A parallel could be drawn here to the conversations between Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It; although, coming from a female writer, the Florinda-Hellena dialogue comes across as much more natural. Moreover, given the latter scenes of mistaken identities and comic situations arising due to them, further connections could be drawn to Shakespearean drama. Nonetheless, the first quip itself provides a subtle indication that the play shall move along subversive lines, as signified by the purported nature of the female protagonist, Hellena: “What an impertinent thing is a young girl bred in a nunnery! How full of questions!” All through the play, it is seen that Hellena is constantly reminded about her imminent life in a nunnery, and when her actions and speech go against the perceived idea of a nun, she is further reprimanded for it. For the very image is such a strong one that it overpowers the rest of the individual’s personality, when perceived by others. A sober life of celibacy, austerity and renunciation – a complete contrast to Hellena’s inquisitive and vivacious nature, as could be warranted by another retort from Florinda: “Hellena, a maid designed for a nun ought not to be so curious in a discourse of love”
The light-hearted dialogue thus moves on to the subject of love and consequently to the predicament of Florinda, where she must marry against her will even though she admires Belvile. However, Florinda is seen to be aware of her own situation and the social nuances regarding marriage as she states, “I understand better what’s due to my beauty, birth and fortune, more to my soul, than to obey those unjust commands”. Here one might find an echo of Alisoun’s mercantile view of marriage as seen in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath. The respective dilemmas of the two girls, betray careful characterization on the part of Behn, possibly to comment upon the patriarchal workings of society. Marriage was (and in certain areas, still is) deemed an essential life support for ‘respectable’ women, and more often than not, matches were made based on monetary interests. Apart from that, women were left with few options, the nunnery being a common recourse. However, in the case of Hellena, hers wasn’t a voluntary decision. Taking this argument further, it could be said that in the eventual non-conformity of Florinda and Hellena, where they both refuse to adhere to the rules forced upon them by a patriarchal society, Behn was taking a stance herself, with a clear attack on prevalent gender notions. Therefore, she could be said to be a pioneer feminist, even before the movement was actually formulated. As Virginia Woolf states in her famous essay, A Room of One’s Own – “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”. It might be added here that Behn was the first English woman to earn her livelihood as an author.
Behn then moves on to reveal the basic plot and characterization in the scene and what follows is an assertion of Hellenda’s will: “Nay, I’m resolved to provide myself this Carnival, if there be e’er a handsome proper fellow of my humour above ground”. This happens to be the first mention of the Carnival, which then remains a constant presence in the play. Critics maintain that the carnival needs to be viewed as a hyperbolic metaphor for the general debauchery of the Restoration era, as it is seen as an atmosphere of uninhibited gallivanting and licentiousness thanks to the convenience of disguise as part of the masquerade. However, whether Behn wilfully intended it to be so is of course debatable; but Shyamala Narayan corroborates the historical context as, “The return of Charles to the throne brought about a deliberate reversal of the Puritan ethic and created an atmosphere in which promiscuity and systematic frivolity became the norm”. The dialogue then finally ends with a similar assertion from Florinda: “I have I know not what that pleads kindly for him (Belvile) about my heart, and will suffer no other to enter”
The marriage debate is stirred again with the entry of their brother, Don Pedro, where both the parties lay forth their arguments with precision. While Florinda implores her brother: “I would not have a man so dear to me as my brother follow the ill customs of our country and make a slave of his sister”, Pedro continues to assert the common viewpoint: “But you must consider Don Vincentio’s fortune, and the jointure he’ll make you”. To which Florinda again echoes her earlier sentiment: “Let him consider my youth, beauty, and fortune, which ought not to be thrown away on his age and jointure”. Thus, Behn reflects upon the generally accepted mercenary view of marriage and the state of female inheritance laws, due to which, family members seemed to try and wash their hands off their women. At the same time, Hellena takes up Florinda’s cause in her characteristic saucy manner, emphasizing the sheer unfairness of the match with Don Vincentio: “And this man you must kiss, nay you must kiss none by him too, and nuzzle through his beard to find his lips. And this you must submit to for threescore years, and all for a jointure.”
Subsequently, Pedro cuts short Hellena’s amusing tirade with a reminder of her future as a nun. To which, Hellena retorts in the first aside of the play; a technique that Behn uses with great efficiency for her dramatic purpose. Pedro finally exits after putting forward an alternative and suitable match for Florinda in the form of Antonio, eliciting the following response from her: “I’ve no defence against Antonio’s love, for he has all the advantages of nature, the moving arguments of youth and fortune”. Thus, all through the scene, the transactional nature of marriage remains a lingering theme.
Finally, in the last part, the girls manage to convince Callis, their governess, to allow them to attend the carnival with her acting as a chaperone. However, in an aside, Callis reveals her own desire to be a part of the masquerade and thus puts forth her concern as a mere excuse for the same. Therefore, it might be deduced that while the carnival is a place that must be frowned upon by women of a decent household, secretly, it holds a fascination for all; and so they begin their preparations for the adventure: “Come, let’s in and dress us”. Having introduced all major characters and themes in the first act, Behn thus sets the tone for the rest of the play.
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