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The Rover: An introduction

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.

Aphra Behn’s best-known play today, The Rover, was probably also the most successful in her own time. It was often revived and many times reprinted in the first half of the 18th century. Set at carnival time in Naples in 1656, the play presents its 1677 audience with the imagined exploits of a group of ‘banished Cavaliers’. Taking its audience back to the world of Royalist continental exile, the play would have sparked ever-ready memories of the civil wars of the 1640s, which had resulted in the execution of Charles I in 1649. At that time, many of the king’s supporters – the Cavaliers – had fled to continental Europe. Interwoven with this, the play explores the attempts of its heroines to exert some control over their destinies.

First edition of Aphra Behn's The Rover, with 18th-century prompt-book notes

First edition of Aphra Behn's The Rover, with 18th-century prompt-book notes

Title page of the first edition (1677).

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Usage terms Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London. [D.-L.L.] (XVII) Bc [Behn]
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Libertinism and marriage

The Rover’s banished Cavaliers are spending time in Naples – an Italian city ruled by the Spanish, a place that therefore combined, in the English mind, the supposed lasciviousness of Italians with the intensely patriarchal family structures of Spain.

The play’s representative Italians are the ‘Jilting Wench’ Lucetta, who strips and robs Blunt and dumps him in the sewer, and the fabulously beautiful Angellica Bianca, a famous courtesan from the Venetian Republic who is much fought over. The men’s desire for these Italian women echoes a widespread Restoration libertine commitment to indulging the senses and rejecting marriage.

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

Moyses Walens collected images as souvenirs from a trip through Italy and beyond in the early 17th century. This scene shows a blindfolded man being led into a bedroom by a courtesan.

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The Spanish sisters Florinda and Hellena (and their cousin Valeria) are dominated by their brother Pedro. Pedro is confident that he can force Florinda to marry his powerful friend Antonio, and save the cost of a dowry for Hellena by sending her back to her nunnery (1.1.5). Act 5 threatens to descend into a gang-rape: found to have the longest phallic symbol (his sword), the patriarchal Pedro’s near rape of his sister Florinda is only prevented by Valeria’s quick-thinking intervention (5.1.71).

Mary Astell's Reflections Upon Marriage

Mary Astell's Reflections Upon Marriage

Mary Astell’s pithy proto-feminist Reflections Upon Marriage (1700) was a radical treatise exposing the inequalities of early modern marriage practices.

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Within this Naples framework, Behn explores the roles available to Restoration women and men, and the implications of the libertine idea that marriage was an outmoded institution. Here, the play’s most powerful voice is that of Angellica, who sees prostitution as a better choice than marriage. When the rakish Willmore remonstrates with her for charging for sex, she points out to him that men routinely have sex for money: when a man marries he gets his wife’s dowry. Financial advantage, not a woman’s personal characteristics, determines the choices men make:

When a Lady is propos’d to you for a Wife, you never ask, how fair – discreet – or virtuous she is; but what’s her Fortune? – which if but small, you cry – she will not do my business – and basely leave her, though she languish for you. (2.2.27)

Photographs of the RSC's The Rover, 2016

Photographs of the RSC's The Rover, 2016

Angellica played by Alexandra Gilbreath and Joseph Millson as Willmore.

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Niccholes’s Discourse of Marriage and Wiving

Niccholes’s Discourse of Marriage and Wiving

The Discourse of Marriage and Wiving (1620) offers man-to-man advice on ‘how to chuse a good wife from a bad’, and how to address the tricky task of understanding women.

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In one of the play’s many densely patterned ironies, Angellica’s challenge to Willmore foresees what is to happen. Attracted to both Angellica and Hellena, the rake chooses the heiress when the courtesan unwittingly reveals to him that his attractive ‘gypsy’ is in fact fabulously wealthy:

... my Gipsie worth Two Hundred Thousand Crowns! – oh how I long to be with her. (4.2.54)

Under early modern marriage law, Hellena’s riches will become Willmore’s if she marries him – which, believing that she has won him through her wit, is what the nunnery-raised teenager agrees to do.

When Angellica draws a gun on Willmore as she embarks on vengeance ‘for the publick safety of our Sex’, asking him, ‘How many poor believing Fools’ he has ‘undone’ (5.1.74), she makes explicit a patterning that runs throughout The Rover, where one woman’s situation is always connected to that of others. This is striking, given that the lives of these women would have been categorised as quite different from one another in their culture. For instance, both the virtuous Florinda and the courtesan Angellica use their pictures to communicate with their lovers – Angellica allowing Willmore to keep one he steals (2.1.23), Florinda handing hers to Belvile to tell him who she is (3.1.37). Both virgin and whore also believe that they can stop men fighting over them, but they are ignored (2.1.23; 4.2.50). In a similar parallel, Willmore calls both Angellica and Hellena ‘Angel’ (2.2.28; 3.1.37). But, as is emphasised in the text that follows, an ‘angel’ is not just a celestial being but also a gold coin. Both women prove a source of wealth to Willmore, and both derive their money from the same ‘Old General’ – the uncle who left Hellena her tremendous fortune as well as the deceased keeper of Angellica (5.1.75; 5.1.82; 2.1.15). Any reading or performance of the play will offer more echoings of this kind. It is clear that Behn crafted The Rover with considerable care, expecting us to see her female characters as variants on a single theme, not as competitors.

Restoration masculinity

Most of the play’s men, by contrast, are in constant conflict with one another. Simmering aggression is manifested both in verbal jousting – for instance, the ridicule that Blunt so fears – and in sword fighting. The problem that men were only too inclined to defend their ‘honour’ through duelling was indeed a frequent concern in the 1670s. There had been yet another parliamentary discussion of how to stop duels as recently as October 1675. Particularly interesting in this respect are Belvile’s dilemmas over his long-standing affection for the libertine Willmore, which seem to come to a head after the rake’s drunken attempted rape of Florinda:

WILLMORE Whe, how the Devil shou’d I know Florinda?
BELVILE Ah, plague of your Ignorance! if it had not been Florinda, must you
be a Beast? – a Brute? a Senseless Swine. (3.6.44)

Elizabethan fencing manual

Elizabethan fencing manual

Two men demonstrate the art of fencing. Duelling with swords remained popular throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries despite numerous attempts to ban the practice.

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Within minutes, however, Belvile’s affection for Willmore reasserts itself as he worries that Antonio, whom Willmore has drunkenly injured, might be Willmore. He wishes ‘pray Heaven the Rogue is safe, for all my Quarrel to him’, and finds himself arrested. Although Belvile might be certain that his friendship with Willmore means he should forgive him whatever he gets up to, the play’s events offer another perspective on the dominant conventions of Restoration masculinity. As she presents such encounters, Behn shows that Restoration libertinism has dangerous repercussions for women.

This often aggressive masculine culture is not the only important context for Behn’s representation of her Spanish and English men. The Cavaliers’ naval and military language illustrates her care to fully imagine their perspective (see e.g. Morretta’s referring to the camp laundress, 2.2.25; and also Willmore’s gun-ship metaphors, 4.6.45; 5.1.79). These men also serve, though, to represent dominant male attitudes to romance, and thereby offer a critique on this male culture. For instance, in the context of Restoration guidebooks on how to train – i.e. ‘man’ – a hawk, Willmore’s extended use of hawking metaphors as he secures his hold on Hellena is chilling (5.1.79–81). The popular literature that describes gentlemanly occupations explains that hawks – always female in these accounts – must first be ‘seeled’:

Seeling is, when a Hawk first taken is so blinded with a Thread run through the Eye-lids that she sees not, or very little, the better to make her endure the Hood. Unseeling is when you take the Thread away. (Nicholas Cox, The Gentleman’s Recreation, 1668, p. 78)

Once she is calm, she must be tamed – ‘manned’:

All Hawks generally are manned after one manner, that is to say, by watching and keeping them from sleep, by a continuall carrying them upon your fist, and by a most familiar stroaking and playing with them, with the wing of a dead foul, or such like, and by often gazing and looking them in the face, with a loving and gentle countenance, and so making them acquainted with the man.

After your Hawks are manned, you shall bring them to the Lure by easie degrees, as first, making them jump unto the fist, after all upon the Lure, then come to the voice, and lastly, to know the voice and Lure, so perfectly, that either upon the sound of the one, or sight of the other, she will presently come in, and be most obedient which may easily be performed, by giving her reward when she doth your pleasure, and making her fast when she disobeyeth. (Gervase Markham, Country Contentments, p. 30 of 1668 edition)

The Book of Falconry or Hawking by George Turberville, 1575

The Book of Falconry or Hawking by George Turberville, 1575

Turberville employs the gendered language of falconry in his illustrated manual.

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Hawking metaphors figure frequently in late 1670s comedies, but such practices also underlie Petruchio’s ‘taming’ of Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Such metaphors certainly fit the world of this play where the virtuous Florinda is repeatedly threatened with rape while striving to believe that, as gentlemen, neither Willmore nor Blunt will follow through (3.5.43; 4.5.64).

Carnival, disguise and misrule

In its setting during the Naples carnival, The Rover uses a long-standing theatrical tradition, in which a topsy-turvy world can reveal and temporarily challenge the norms of the everyday. Through the disguises in which the Spanish sisters and their cousin venture onto the streets, Florinda can arrange an elopement with her beloved Belvile, and Hellena and Valeria can find their love-matches:

HELLENA And dost thou think that ever I’le be a Nun? or at least till I’m so Old, I’m
fit for nothing else – Faith no, Sister; and that which makes me long to
know whether you love Belvile, is because I hope he has some mad
Companion or other, that will spoil my devotion; nay I’m resolv’d to
provide my self this Carnival, if there be ere a handsome proper
fellow of my humour above ground, tho I ask first. (1.1.2)

The Fight between Carnival and Lent

The Fight between Carnival and Lent

This painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder depicts the opposing, balanced forces of carnival and Lent.

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Dressed as a gypsy – a member of a society living at the edges of Restoration culture – or as a man, a young woman can attempt to forge her own destiny. Willmore, meanwhile, tells his fellow Cavaliers that he has left the Prince (James, Duke of York) on his ship in the Bay of Naples and come ashore to ‘enjoy my self a little this Carnival’ (2.1.8), setting the scene for his drunken assault on Florinda.

Photographs of the RSC's The Rover, 2016

Photographs of the RSC's The Rover, 2016

Photograph of the company of The Rover in full carnival costume.

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At the same time that carnival enables the unfixing of identities and destinies during a short period of misrule, this very setting – along with the skill of the actors required for the constant duelling – produces a high-energy entertainment. As the play is punctuated with song and dance and street scenes, the audience is swept along with the rebellious dreams and desires. As Twelfth Night shows perhaps most famously, however, such a suspension of rules can only ever be temporary, and the workaday world returns. In this case, the mercenary motives that underlie Willmore’s choosing of Hellena over Angellica come to the fore, and Florinda is required to forgive the men who have just tried to rape her (5.1.73).

Casting The Rover in 1677

The 1677 edition of The Rover includes a list of the actors who played all of its main parts. Since playwrights often created roles with the known strengths of particular actors in mind and then worked with the cast during rehearsals, reflecting on casting can help us imagine the experience of The Rover’s first audience. The famous pairing of Thomas Betterton and William Smith as the friends Belvile and Willmore, for instance, repeats their starring roles in many Restoration plays. Similarly, when Behn has Blunt refer to his ‘Shape and Size’ as features ‘not to be despis’d’, along with his ‘other inviting signs’, the playwright is making use of the height and girth of the great comedian Cave Underhill (2.1.18). The virtuous Florinda, who is so determined to think well of ‘gentlemen’ and is wholly committed to her Belvile, was created specifically for Mary Betterton, wife of Belvile’s creator, Thomas Betterton, and perhaps the only Restoration actress never accused of sexual improprieties. Significant too is Behn’s confidence in the emerging talents of the woman she cast as Hellena, Elizabeth Barry. Barry went on to be widely acknowledged as England’s first great actress, enjoying a career that lasted until 1713 and during which she switched to the tragic role of Angellica Bianca. The wit and beauty that attracts Willmore to both Hellena and Angellica were Barry’s trademarks, along with her facility for playing young men in ‘breeches roles’.

Photographs of the RSC's The Rover, 2016

Photographs of the RSC's The Rover, 2016

Faye Castelow as Hellena, disguised as a young man in the ‘breeches role’, and Millson’s Willmore in Act 4, Scene 2.

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Reception of The Rover and Behn as the first professional female playwright

Behn’s career as a professional playwright was already well established when The Rover appeared. Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, had had an unusually long first run (six consecutive nights) in 1670, and it had been followed by The Amorous Prince, The Dutch Lover, Abdelazer (her only tragedy) and The Town-Fopp, all with her name on their title pages. Two anonymous plays of this period, The Counterfeit Bridegroom and The Debauchee, are also often attributed to Behn. After the great success of The Rover, Behn continued to write regularly for the Duke’s Company, and she was one of the few playwrights still having new plays performed in the 1680s after London audiences fell off as political tensions rose. At the same time she also established herself as a respected poet, translator and author of prose fiction (her most famous work, Oroonoko, which tells of a slave uprising, was published in 1688).

Portrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely

Portrait of Aphra Behn by Sir Peter Lely

Portrait of Aphra Behn at the beginning of her literary career.

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Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, 1688

Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, 1688

The horrors of the slave trade are exposed through Behn’s graphic and emotive account of the cruel realities of life in English colonial settlements.

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That success was not without its gender-specific challenges. Behn’s postscript to The Rover suggests that it was partly because she was a woman that critics were quick to accuse her of stealing her play from Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso:

I will only say the Plot and Bus’ness (not to boast on’t) is my own: as for the Words and Characters, I leave the Reader to judge and compare ʼem with Thomaso, to whom I recommend the great Entertainment of reading it; tho had this succeeded ill, I shou’d have had no need of imploring that Justice from the Criticks, who are naturally so kind to any that pretend to usurp their Dominion – especially of our Sex – they wou’d doubtless have given me the whole Honour on’t. (p. 85)

Four years earlier, her preface toThe Dutch Lover had associated that play’s poor reception with the views of a man sitting in the pit on its first night – ‘a long, lither, phlegmatick, white, ill-favour’d, wretched Fop’ – who had loudly advised the audience ‘that they were to expect a woful Play, God damn him, for it was a womans’ (The Dutch Lover, sig.A4v).

Despite such complaints, from its first known performance on Saturday 24 March 1677, The Rover was a hit. It was even performed at court in February 1680, and either it or its Second Part (1681, and dedicated to the Duke of York) was staged before a series of different monarchs on 22 January and 29 October 1685, in January 1687 and in November 1690. After 1700, performances in the public theatres were advertised in the newspapers, and from this we know that The Rover was revived at least once in every season from 1700 to 1743, with regular revivals continuing until 1760. Given that it had become a staple in the repertoire by the 18th century, we can assume that The Rover was regularly performed during the period 1678–99, too.

Of particular interest in this connection is the copy of the 1677 Rover in Senate House Library, London, which is a prompt-copy that was marked up for performances in the 1720s. This shows that although the 18th-century printed editions of the play barely changed, production might cut lines then thought improper, such as Hellena’s spirited defence of Florinda in Act 1, Scene 1, or Angellica’s getting the last word in her confrontation with Willmore in Act 4, Scene 2.

First edition of Aphra Behn's The Rover, with 18th-century prompt-book notes

First edition of Aphra Behn's The Rover, with 18th-century prompt-book notes

In this 18th-century adaptation of The Rover, Hellena is made less confrontational by cutting her speeches in Act 1, Scene 1.

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Usage terms Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London. [D.-L.L.] (XVII) Bc [Behn]
Held by © Senate House Library

First edition of Aphra Behn's The Rover, with 18th-century prompt-book notes

First edition of Aphra Behn's The Rover, with 18th-century prompt-book notes

Act 4, Scene 2: The box drawn round Angellica’s closing speech indicates that it was cut for performance, giving Willmore the last word. The notes in the margin are the prompter’s warning that in another 20 lines or so, Pedro, Belville and Willmore will enter upstage on the prompter’s side of the stage, and Frederick will enter soon after on the other side.

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Usage terms Courtesy of Senate House Library, University of London. [D.-L.L.] (XVII) Bc [Behn]
Held by © Senate House Library

It is in keeping with these sorts of cuts that by 1760, The Rover had fallen out of fashion; we know of no further performances until the 20th century.

However much of a nuisance the ‘Report about the Town’ that Behn had stolen her play from Thomaso might have been, it could be that that concern also provided a convenient smokescreen for the ways in which The Rover might be interpreted as criticising and mocking her Cavaliers – and, indeed, male culture more generally.


Banner image: Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

  • Elaine Hobby
  • Elaine Hobby is Professor of Seventeenth-Century at Loughborough University. Having worked across the full range of published writings by women in the seventeenth century, she is now wholly focussed on Aphra Behn. She is one of the General Editors of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Aphra Behn (Cambridge University Press, 2020–22), and Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded project, Editing Aphra Behn in the Digital Age.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.