The Duality of the Libertine Philosophy in Aphra Behn’s The Rover
First performed in 1677, The Rover captures and explores the Libertine philosophy through the words and actions of Cavalier characters. The playwright, Aphra Behn, seems to hold contradicting vindications in this work: a rewarding look at the Libertine lifestyle and a call to arms against the misogyny exhibited by the Libertines in the play. These contradicting messages come together, however, when one reviews the complete philosophy that Behn holds in the work. Throughout The Rover, Aphra Behn expresses both approval and disapproval of the Libertine lifestyle by rewarding the sexual promiscuity exhibited by her male Libertine characters, but punishing, however subtly, the misogynistic violence and hypocrisy towards the female characters that the Libertines also take part in.
Behn identifies Libertine characters in her work by their promiscuous actions and words. Hellena describes the behaviors of Willmore for us when she says, “Well, I see our business as well as humours are alike: yours to cozen as many maids as will trust you, and I as many men as have faith” (Behn 36). This is setting up the promiscuous characteristic of the Libertines, which is validified when Willmore says to Angellica, “By heaven thou’rt brave, and I admire thee strangely / I wish I were that dull, that constant thing / Which thou wouldst have, and nature never meant me: / I must, like the cheerful birds, sing in all groves, / And perch on every bough, / Billing the next kind she that flies to meet me; / Yet, after all, could build my nest with thee, / Thither repairing when I’d loved my round, / And still reserve a tributary flame” (Behn 78).The Libertine characters also express vocal disapproval of marriage, which explains why they value free sex and promiscuity so deeply. We see this when Willmore says, “All the honey of matrimony, but none of the sting, friend” (Behn 34). Willmore is explicitly saying sex outside of marriage is better because there are no marital responsibilities to uphold. Behn also includes threats of sexual violence towards women and the dehumanization of women as part of the promiscuity of her male Libertine characters.
The Libertine characters (and Blunt, who is somewhat of a Libertine groupie) exercise threat of violence towards their love interests in many places throughout the text. Belville exhibits this violent streak when he says to Florinda when she attempts to refuse his advances in the garden, “Come, no struggling to be gone; but an y’are good at a dumb wrestle, I’m for ye, look ye, I’m for ye” (Behn 45). Belville ignores her nonconsent and threatens to have sex with her regardless of whether she struggles or not. The character Blunt, after finding Florinda in the street, threatens this: “I will kiss and beat thee all over; kiss, and see thee all over; thou shalt lie with me too, not that I care for the enjoyment, but to let thee see that I have ta’en deliberate malice to thee, and will be revenged on one whore for the sins of another. I will smile and deceive thee, flatter thee, and beat thee, kiss and swear, and lie thee, embrace thee and rob thee, as she did me; fawn on thee, and strip thee stark naked, then hang thee out at my window by the heels, with a paper of scurvy verses fastened to thy breasts, in praise of damnable women” (Behn 67).This unwarranted threat of extreme degradation towards Florinda comes not from anything she herself did, but from the lifestyle that Blunt is living. Pedro says about Florinda when she is trapped between in the hands of Libertines, “I am better bred, than not to leave her choice free” (Behn 73). By saying that the only choice Florinda has in her rape is what man can rape her, and then the underlying threat all the men will rape her no matter who she chooses is an example of how violent these men act. This kind of threat of sexual action without the woman’s consent or choice is characteristic of the Libertines in the play. We see an example of the dehumanization when Blunt says, “Our cupids are like the cooks of the camp: they can roast or boil a woman, but they have none of the fine tricks to set ‘em off, no hogoes to make the sauce pleasant and the stomach sharp” (Behn 10). By comparing women to meat, and even food, Blunt is reinforcing the lifestyle of using women up that his colleagues and himself lead. She includes these examples of sexual violence to emphasize the lack of choice or freedom that the women in her work have. By identifying which characters represent Libertines and inscribing their beliefs into their words and actions, Behn enables the reader to then question whether her work is attempting to validate Libertine philosophy, deconstruct the lifestyle, or perform a mixture of both.
When one asks whether or not Behn approves of the Libertine philosophy in this work, one has to be open to receiving a complex answer. Behn seems to approve of the lifestyle when she makes the Libertine men criticize Blunt, who can be described as a Roundhead, by mocking him for being a fool; “I hope ‘tis some common crafty sinner, one that will fit him. It may be she’ll sell him for Peru; the rogue’s sturdy, and would work well in a mine” (Behn 17). By emphasizing the foolery of one who participates in Libertine behavior, but doesn’t outwardly call himself that, Behn is placing the other Libertine men in a more honorable, in a limited sense, light. The ending is also somewhat of an approval of the Libertine ways. Belville says, “Faith, sir, I am as much surprised at this as you can be. Yet, sir, my friends are gentlemen, and ought to be esteemed for their misfortunes, since they have the glory to suffer with the best of men and kings: ‘tis true, he’s a rover of fortune, Yet a prince, aboard his little wood world” (Behn 83). This introduces the ending where the Libertine men are rewarded for the sexual plot of the play.
This happy ending, however, may be used as evidence for Behn’s disapproval of the Libertines. Behn subtly critiques the Libertines with her use of female characters and the creation of the situations her male characters get into while in pursuit of those female characters. The before-mention ending is quite a happy one for the male characters, but it leaves a slightly unsavory taste in the reader’s mouth. The reason for this is the misogyny that Behn includes in the actions and the speech of the male characters. If she approves of the ideas behind the Libertine lifestyle, she seemingly disapproves of the misogynistic habits that Libertines, at least the ones in her play, practice. These disapproval of misogynistic behavior is seen in two ways. The first way is by giving her female characters a sense of individual agency to argue back against the ways of the men. Hellena expresses this when she responds to Willmore, “Why must we be either guilty of fornication or murder if we converse with you men? And is there no difference between leave to love me, and leave to lie with me?” (Behn 15). Behn uses this response as an example of slight criticism towards the misogyny of the Libertines. A sense of agency can be seen also when Hellena says to Florinda, “Like me! I don’t intended every he that likes me shall have me, but he that I like” (Behn 33). Florinda saying that she doesn’t intende to let any man have her, but instead choose who she has sex with, Behn is proposing an answer to the problem of misogyny within the lifestyle. Another way Behn expresses disapproval of the misogyny the men in her work prey upon is by putting the Libertines in humiliating or degrading situations because of their ruthless pursuit of the women. The most obvious scene in this way would be when Pedro and the other men are threatening to rape Florinda, and the audience knows that Pedro would be committing incest and he does not. His ignorance is due to his lack of acknowledgement towards women’s consent and voice. Behn includes this to say that misogyny doesn’t work in the Libertine lifestyle.
It should be evident that, in The Rover, Behn expresses an approval for the underlying Libertine philosophy and yet a disapproval for the misogynistic behaviors of her Libertine characters; now, one can ask what Behn writes as the answer for this disparity in the Libertine lifestyle. We see in the examples set up beforehand in this paper and in other times throughout her text that Behn believes that fixing this misogynistic strain in the lifestyle and allowing women the same freedom and ability to choose with sex is the answer for a truly happy ending for all the characters involved. It is clear now that Behn is critiquing the Libertine philosophy while she is celebrating it. She can only do this to a limited extent, however, since her very audience is made up of mostly Libertines. She subtly criticizes the lifestyle in order to both make a living from her writing and to get the Libertines to actually listen to her message. The very fact that the characters at hand are actually Cavaliers representing Libertines works for her benefit because if a Libertine was to catch onto the subtle criticism and rouse an argument against her work, she could use the excuse that the characters are not actually Libertines.
Aphra Behn wrote The Rover in an effort to address three different ends. Firstly, she wrote the play to entertain her Libertine audience. Secondly, she wrote it to display the lifestyle in an artistic fashion. Lastly, Behn used the play to both approve of the Libertine philosophy and criticize the misogyny practiced by its followers. She displays the lifestyle by creating sexual promiscious characters that consider themselves “Cavaliers” of their time, and she includes women who are both victims of these men and agents fighting against the misogyny presented by these men to subtly criticize the way Libertines in her time treat women’s choice and freedom.
Behn, Aphra. The Rover and Other Plays. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.
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First performed in 1677, The Rover captures and explores the Libertine philosophy through the words and actions of Cavalier characters. The playwright, Aphra Behn, seems to hold contradicting vindications in […]