THE ROVER: Aphra Behn

Discuss the interplay of the private and the political in Aphra Behn’s “The Rover”.

While analyzing the interplay of the private and the political in Aphra Behn’s “The Rover”, we need to bear in mind that we cannot fully understand Behn’s writing without recognizing the ideological complexities of, and ambiguities in the text. Her work challenges traditional literary values and destabilizes traditional aesthetic and historical assumptions about the literary culture of the English Restoration. As Robert Markley astutely observes, Behn’s “vision challenges the Puritan ideology of self-denial…….the masculinizing of desire – the creation of women as other and as object – that is crucial to a social ideology which insists on the indivisibility of feminine chastity and feminine identity.” Behn’s complex combination of royalism and feminism can then be seen as a form of resistance to Puritan rational thought and the new individualism, which was, as Foucault argues, an ideology of internalized (sexual) discipline, a strategy in which the self regulates the self and in which women are objectified and female desire is denied (History of Sexuality). As Molly Rothenberg argues that owing to her political inclinations of a Tory apologist and a proponent of women’s sexual freedom, Behn draws upon a variety of incommensurate discursive strategies and political values to ground her critique of repression. Thus, her work does not establish or exhibit any inherent political ideology; in fact its theoretical and historical significance lies in its disclosure of the necessarily fragmentarily ideological conditions of its productions, its registering of the discursive crises with late seventeenth century constructions of nature, politics, and sexuality and as Finke believes, “its history of conflict, contradiction, political debate and turbulence.”

The most striking instance of the interplay between the private and the political in the play is seen in reduction of personal feelings and relationships to physical commodities owing to the gradual political and economic transition from a system based on household industry to something more approaching the capitalist order of external production of commodities, where women are written not as a subject but as an object of exchange. As Elin Diamond quotes, “In the unraveling of its intrigue plot, Aphra Behn’s The Rover not only thematises the marketing of women in marriage and prostitution, it ‘demonstrates’, in its gestic moments, the ideological contradictions of the apparatus Behn inherited and the society for which she wrote.” In Rover, in the first scene itself, we are exposed to how Florinda and Helena’s personal feelings of love and passion are overridden by their father’s and brother’s desire for a mercenary marriage and a profitable property arrangement through nunnery. The dowry system among propertied class had been in place since the sixteenth century, but at the end of the seventeenth century there were thirteen women to every ten men, and cash proportions had to grow to attract worthy suitors. As the value of women fell by almost 50 per cent, marriage for love, marriage by choice, became almost unthinkable. Women through marriage had evident exchange value that is the virgin became a commodity not only for her use value as breeder of the legal heir but for her portion, which through exchange generated capital. If, as Marx writes, exchange converts commodities into fetishes or ‘social hieroglyphics’,  signs whose histories and qualitative differences can no longer be read, women in the seventeenth century market took on the phantasmagoric destiny of fetishised commodities; they seemed no more than objects or things. As Margaret Cavendish observed, “sons bear the family name but daughters are to be accounted as Movable Goods or Furniture that wear out.” Also as per the rules of primogeniture, sending a daughter to the nunnery was a more profitable option and would imply not departing with the dowry amount. Willmore critiques the marriage institution for its basis in ‘portion’ and ‘jointure’ – an arrangement that follows the logic of a market deal. To him, the language of marriage is also the language of money; that works as an evil impediment to friendship. A scathing critique of marriage as an institution comes from Angellica when she confronts Willmore with the question of how while he accuses her of adding a monetary value to love and passion, mercenary marriages are no better than prostitution. Two centuries later Engel merely restates these comments when he says “marriages turn into crassest prostitution – sometimes of both partners – but far more commonly of the woman, who only differs from the ordinary courtesan in that she does not hire out her body on piecework as a wage worker, but sells it once and for all into slavery.” Elin Diamond argues that if we incorporate feminist psychoanalytic theory, the virgin’s masquerade is significant of that fact that in a socio-political economy where “women are dependent on male keepers and traders, private female desire is always already a masquerade…..and there is a lack of access to phallic privileges, to material and institutional power.”

Throughout the play, we are confronted with numerous situations where the conflict between personal relations built on love and understanding and economically beneficial mercenary arrangements under an evolving sense of capitalist interest is displayed. Hellena’s and Florinda’s rovings and their disguises signal both their ingenuity and vulnerability. Ironically the virgin’s, the gypsy masquerade, represent their actual standing in the marriage market: exotic retailers of fortune (or portions). Their masquerade defers but does not alter the structure of patriarchal Paintings, Person, and Body Exchange. In contrast to the virgins ‘ramble’ are the stasis and thralldom that attend the courtesan Angellica Bianca. While the virgins are learning artful strategies of concealment, Angellica’s entrance is a complicated process of theatrical unveiling. She arrives first through words, then through painted representation, then through the body of an actress who appears on a balcony behind a silk curtain. She is also the site of a different politics, one that explores desire and gender not only in the text but in the apparatus itself.  The representation of Angellica both constitute and represent the theatre apparatus, serving as meta-critical commentary on its patriarchal economy, its habits of fetishistic consumption. This is well manifested in the scene of Willmore acquisitively claiming possession of one of Angellica’s portrait. What does this gest show? Willmore removes her portrait, to quote Elin Diamond, in “the way a theatre manager might life off a piece of the set – because without buying her, he already owns her”. Her paintings are materially and metonymically linked to the painted scenes of the stage, which were of course owned through the theatrical hierarchy, by patentee and king – who in Behn’s fiction, validates and empowers Willmore. As innumerable accounts make clear, Restoration theatre participated in the phallic economy that commodified women, not in the marriage market, but in the mistress market: the king and his circle came to the theatre to look, covet and buy. Thus, this was the politics of the theatre wherein it became a means of gratifying the private needs of the aristocracy. The answer to the question “Who is selling Angellica?” is then, the theatre itself, which like Willmore, operates with the king’s patent and authorization. When Angellica sings behind her balcony curtain for her Italian admirers, and draws the curtain to reveal a bit of beautiful skin, then closes it when monetary arrangements are discussed, she performs the titillating masquerade required by her purchasers and by her spectators. We need to keep in mind that this is the seventeenth century, where unlike the sixteenth century, female characters are being played by women themselves. Thus, Angellica’s actions and gestures, is mastery’s masquerade, not to demonstrate freedom, but to flaunt the charms that guarantee and uphold male power. Also in the play there is a blurring of the boundaries of the categories of noble women and a whore, and all are reduced to their value as sexual commodities. On this level, the play presents a dramatic world dominated by the two principal patriarchal definitions of women, but in which the boundary separating one category from the other has become blurred. In the case of both Florinda, the play’s quintessential “maid of quality,” and the prostitute Angellica Bianca, the role reversals arise out of contrasting bids to move from subjection into subjectivity. It is Florinda’s rebellion against the commodification of forced marriage that destabilizes her position within patriarchy, while Angellica Bianca’s self-construction as Petrarchan mistress charts the attempt of a woman excluded from the marital marketplace to turn her beauty into an alternative form of power. Also in this respect, one needs to analyze the vulnerability of her characters in these struggles to escape patriarchal devaluation. Women are easy targets in a world of male sexual hegemony. This is brought out in an unsettling manner in the situation of Florinda. We are told that Belvile had saved her from the ‘licensed lust of common soldiers’ at the siege of Pamplona. Later the drunken Willmore pounces upon her the moment he sees her at garden gate as though actualizing the casual sexual interest he had shown in her (without knowing her relationship with Belvile). Similarly, she narrowly escapes another attempted rape by Blunt who is bent on taking revenge on any available women for Lucetta’s deception. In such a world, Florinda’s suitors, Vinceto and Antonio, may well be seen as respectable but disguised equivalents of Willmore and Blunt. Of course, the latter do not chase women purely as financial adventure but the commodification of women is the common link between the two groups. Most of the men in the play are quite inept in the language of courtship and compliment and at the same time believe woman and whore to be interchangeable categories. They ridicule Belvile’s love for Florinda as inferior to ‘love’ or pleasure available from a cheap whore and yet display loyalty and respect to their friend’s mistress. Love and commercial sex become interchangeable terms. When the men discuss how the entire town has been fired by the beauty of newly arrived Angellica, Frederick comments, “Tis pretty to see with how much love the men regard her, and how much envy the women.” Belvile’s cutting repartee put this ‘love’ in proper commercial light: ‘she’s exposed to sale, and four days in the week she is yours, for so much a month.” Women as a whore and women as Petrarchan mistress may seem to be sharply oppositional, yet the play suggests a disturbing inter-relation, a kind of mutual sustenance. Angellica is a courtesan who is wooed and worshipped like a romantic heroine. Dueling which derives from a chivalric code of honour, becomes a somewhat absurd expression of irresponsible violence; moreover, the men duel for the possession of a whore and leave off and bow as soon as the whore commands them. In the duel on the Molo, where the motif of mistaken identities reaches a climax, the text goads us to question whose honour is being defended, “that of Florinda or that of Angellica.” Such a confusion of categories is brought out startlingly in the uproariously farcical Blunt-Lucetta episode. Throughout the second and third scenes of the Third Act, mercenary sexual bargain and fraud are overlaid with an absurdly tilted rhetoric of Platonic love at which Lucetta is inept but Blunt is not. The naïve and crude Blunt more accustomed to cheap whores and the clap is stung by Lucetta’s feigning and is impressed by the fact that she is a person of quality. When he argues that “with such clothes, such jewels, such a house, such furniture and so attended”, Lucetta could not be a whore, Belvile’s reply emphasizes the confusing similarities between a whore and a woman of quality. “Why yes, Sir, they are whores, though they’ll neither entertain you with drinking, swearing, or bawdry; are whores in all those gay clothes and right jewels; are whores with those great houses richly furnished with velvet beds, store of plate, handsome attendance and fine coaches.” The basis of this thin line of demarcation between whore and woman is of course the commodification of women. The links between marriage and prostitution, woman and whore, love and commercial sex and so on suggest a world of crisis and transition, the history of which centered on the emergence of a capitalist economy.

The play also brings out the politics of class set during the Interregnum when many royalists, referred to as “Cavaliers” had followed Prince Charles into exile. The leading male characters in the play – Belvile, Wilmore and Frederick – are all supporters of the English king in exile and lack property or wealth.  They signify the decline of the aristocracy amidst a rising bourgeois under a rising capitalist order and market economy. We are shown how Belvile’s lack of economic excess and thereby his reduced status in the politics of class hierarchy acts as a hurdle towards the consummation of his personal relationship with Florinda.  Ned Blunt, who is clearly satirized in the play, represents the rising commercial class with excess of wealth. We are also shown the politics of nation and identity with the Cavaliers being from England and the Italian Don Pedro and Antonio and the conflict between having underlying nationalistic tendencies too.  Also the representation of Willmore is an exposition of the sexual politics of the period wherein predatory individual desire is grounded on a social and political context which allows man almost a legitimate authority to perpetuate crimes against women, as seen during the 3 attempted rape scenes involving Florinda that are called not rape, but seduction, retaliation, or “ruffling a harlot” and the blame is conveniently as tradition goes put on the provocative beauty of the woman.   The rationale that beauty invites violation has existed for ages, spanning from before Behn’s time to the present day. For example, Pete Beidler’s article about rape and prostitution states that, in the fourteenth century, “it was considered less sinful for a man to have sex with a beautiful woman because the sin was really her fault, not his” (A Companion to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). While beauty or “provocative” actions were apparently acceptable excuses for rape during Chaucer’s time, Behn obviously feels that they possess little validity. The Rover not only illustrates projection of blame by a perpetrator onto his victim, but also presents it as a problem. By presenting examples of men blaming female victims for the violence they (the men) inflict upon them and simultaneously illuminating the inherently violent tendencies of the male characters (as depicted through various scenes of dueling and fighting at the slightest pretext), Behn is urging her audience to question, criticize, and ultimately reject the historical rationale that the beauty or conduct of a female invites and justifies violation by a male. Wilmore’s bold bawdy language and irresponsible sense of behaviour also tends to serve as his conflict as an individual to the codes of conduct expected of a man of his class. However, his character gets justified in his projection as a “rake”.

Another aspect of the interplay of the private and the political in the Rover, which in fact forms a very integral part of the play, is the assertion of their inner desires by the women of the play and its implications in the political sphere. There was a clear assumption in Aphra Behn’s time that women are inferior to men in every respect. In the words of the Anglican Homily on Marriage, one of the series of Homilies from which clergymen were ordered by law to read every Sunday in church from 1562 onwards: “the woman is a weak creature not endowed with like strength and constancy of mind, therefore, they be the sooner disquieted, and they be the more prone to all weak affections and dispositions of mind, more than men be.” Having been assigned a sub-ordinate status, it was demanded of women that they be chaste, obedient, pious and silent. Chastity assumed a particular importance, being linked to the whole economic and social structure. Richard Allestree, author of a popular conduct manual, The Ladies Calling (1673), declared that ‘the principal and distinct scenes in which a woman can be supposed to be an actor, are these three: virginity, marriage and widowhood.” Thus, Behn’s heroines asserting themselves and their private desires and actively working towards the pursuit of these personal needs through masquerades and numerous disguises of gypsies and the male; and negotiating a space for themselves in opposition to the patriarchal structure are a strong political statement for women’s sexual freedom and emancipation by the playwright. Slavaggio suggests the Behn’s plot reveals her “deep dissatisfaction with the plot of the conventional love story”, and she therefore attempted to make women into desiring subjects through “varied and fantastic expressions of female desire.” However, there are certain ambiguities in the representation of her women. As Anand Prakash states, “the problem with Florinda is that she has fought her battle within the parameters of marriage, such as constancy, loyalty, sweet sentiment, perseverance and fortitude.” Thus the ideal of the female devoid of rights and social power and looking up to men for protection and upkeep under the parameters mentioned above is nothing but a justification of the existing norms of orthodoxy and stability. In this case, Florinda may have succeeded in her individual case but as a figure denoting an alternative set of rules of equality and companionship in marriage, she represents failure. For Florinda, the successful end of her individual struggle has ironically meant her subsumation into the existing institution of matrimony. The fact that her method of pursuit cannot challenge existing systems of patriarchy is well elaborated in the various scenes of abuse and threat of rape that expose her vulnerability. However, Hellena belongs to a different category, in the sense that she discusses, bargains, calculates and resists from not within but outside the accepted canons of behaviour. Although Heidi Hunter, argues that the gypsy or male costume that Hellena takes on during her pursuit “is not empowering in this royalist satire” as Willmore is bale to see through it  and is able to use it against her, thereby proving that the masks of gypsy and the male page force Helena again into the traditional role of a “disempowered object of male desire”, it is difficult to see Hellena in that image in the end of the play when she has captured Willmore with a merry war of wit, in the best tradition of Restoration Comedy, which also however makes a bold political statement in terms of alternation of gender qualities expected when Willmore declares, “I am called Robert the Constant”, to which the heroine retorts, “I am called Hellena the Inconstant.”

In fact, Aphra Behn, as a female playwright in the seventeenth century, herself represents a conflict between the private and the political. First, because knowledge was supposed to be the prerogative of men, and second, because by doing so she would be ‘violating’ feminine ‘modesty’ in that she would be moving from the private ‘domestic’ sphere into the public masculine world. In Goreau’s words, “To publish one’s works……was to make one-self ‘public’, to expose one to ‘the world’.” (Reconstructing Aphra Behn) Catherine Gallagher asserts that in her prefaces, Behn capitalized on the symbol of “the professional writer as a newfangled whore”. In effect, Behn (like her female characters is empowered through self-alienation) – fracturing her identity and selling it “piece-meal”. But, as Gallager astutely implies, this process of female self ownership through the “fracturing and multiplication” of self is also problematic because there are “moments when the veiled women and her private desires confronts the impossibility of being finally gratified” This fracturing of female identity then quite possibly elides female desire. Jane Spencer suggests that the act of female dissembling, and in particular the donning of the mask of the courtesan, a gypsy “celebrates women’s actions……in pursuit of their desires.” But, Spencer points out that the veil of the prostitute does not finally undermine the equation of female worth and sexual virtue and therefore, this attempt, ultimately “reinscribes female desire within a patriarchal text.” However, Ellen Pollack believes that the recognition of the female characters in the play that she is “a representation within a homo-social matrix of desire” ultimately allows her to move beyond the “limits of typical love plot” and beyond the limits of patriarchal law and try to build an alternative political and social order where her private desires and wishes can be met without conflict with the outside world.

Thus, in conclusion, it can be said that the interplay of the private and the political in the lives of the heroes and heroines of Aphra Behn’s “The Rover” and the playwright herself can be interpreted as principal characters more or less totally negating the commodity centered contemporary ethos and searching for a paradigm that was closer to genuine freedom and principled existence. In the words of Judith Kegan Gardiner and Jacqueline Pearson, “she imagines a new social order free of Capitalist interest in which men and women are equals. There is present a longing for community, a society in which the radical values of liberty, equality and fraternity would be possible for women and defined in women’s terms.” — a value system that would emerge somewhere in future, a system capable of naturally extending Hellena’s opposition to her father and brother to the level of Willmore’s spontaneity.


  • Remaking the canon: Aphra Behn’s The Rover by W.R.Owens
  • Aphra Behn’s The Rover: An Anatomy of Pleasure by Dr.S.Chakraborti
  • The Rover as a Restoration Comedy by Shyamala A. Narayan
  • Whether She Be of Quality or For Your Diversion: The Harlots and The Ladies in The Rover by Anannya Dasgupta
  • Gestus and Signature in Aphra Behn’s The Rover: Elin Diamond
  • “Designing” Women Socially and Market-wise: Glimpses of the Restoration Strategy in The Rover by Anand Prakash
  • Rape and the Female Subject in Aphra Behn’s The Rover by Anita Pacheco
  • Aphra Behn’s The Rover: Sex, Violence, and the Projection of Blame by Gwen Taylor
  • Introduction to Re-reading Aphra Behn: History, Theory and Criticism by Heidi Hutner
  • The Restoration and early eighteenth century: Wikipedia

3 Responses to “Rover: Aphra Behn”

  1. 😀 This blog is what I needed 😛

  2. sanjit mandal Says:

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  3. clodaghmc Says:

    I have an exam on this play on Monday and this really helpful, thank you!

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