The Rover overview
One of Aphra Behn’s most successful and celebrated plays, The Rover is a classic Restoration comedy, dealing with the romantic intrigues of a group of English gentlemen on holiday in Naples over carnival weekend. It is set during the Interregnum, and its subtitle, The Banished Cavaliers, is a reference to Royalists who had gone into exile along with Charles II.
The Rover’s central character is the rakish libertine Willmore, who falls in love with every woman he sees – one character describes him as a ‘rogue … stark mad for a wench’ – including Helena, a young noblewoman supposed to be about to enter a nunnery, and Angellica, a courtesan. Meanwhile Helena’s sister Florinda is in love with the English Colonel Belvile, but her brother Don Antonio has sworn her hand to his friend Don Pedro. The plot unfolds around various bed-tricks, unrequited loves across differences of class and culture and cases of mistaken identity. It is written in a mixture of verse and prose, and is full of innuendos and satirical references to English society, though it is set in Naples.
Ultimately, the play ends with most of its main characters married or paired off, and Willmore has the final lines, uttered just before he is led off to his own wedding ceremony: ‘no other dangers can they dread, / Who venture in the storms o’ th’ marriage bed’.
The Rover was an instant success; its run was extended, and Behn made good money from the box office proceeds. Subsequent generations, however, especially 19th-century critics and audiences, looked less favourably on the play, finding its subject matter coarse – this coincided with a much harsher critical attitude to Behn overall. It was only in the 1970s, when Behn’s work began to be critically re-evaluated, that The Rover started to be widely produced again.
Behn based The Rover on an earlier work, Thomaso, by Thomas Killigrew, which had been written in 1654 but was not published until ten years later. Behn herself wrote in a postscript to The Rover that her version ‘would have been sooner in print, but for a report about the town (made by some either very malicious or very ignorant) that ’twas Thomaso altered’, clarifying, ‘That I have stolen some hints from it may be a proof, that I valued it more than to pretend to alter it …[.]’
- Aphra Behn
- First performed 24 March 1677, Duke of York's Theatre, London
- Full title:
- *The Banish'd Cavaliers*
- Article by:
- Matthew White
- Politics and religion
The 17th century was a time of great political and social turmoil in England, marked by civil war and regicide. Matthew White introduces the key events of this period, from the coronation of Charles I to the Glorious Revolution more than 60 years later.
- Article by:
- Diane Maybank
- Theatre and entertainment, Politics and religion, Satire and humour
Diane Maybank introduces the characters, conventions and historical context of Restoration comedy, and explores what the genre has to say about gender, courtship and class.
- Article by:
- Elaine Hobby
- Theatre and entertainment, Politics and religion, Satire and humour, Gender and sexuality
Aphra Behn's The Rover engages with the social, political and sexual conditions of the 17th century, as well as with theatrical traditions of carnival and misrule. Elaine Hobby introduces Behn's play and explores how it was first performed and received.
Related collection items
Related teachers' notes
These activities allow students to explore how Aphra Behn uses character types and tropes associated with carnival in The Rover. Students can relate this to the play’s context of production, and to comic theories relating to the carnivalesque.
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