Is The Rover a feminist play?  If so, how is it portrayed?

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The Rover or The Banish’d Cavaliers is a 1677 play by Aphra Behn . The action explores the amorous relationships and adventures of a group of English men and women in Naples during Carnival. While the word feminist and the theory of feminism was not present at the time the...

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The Rover or The Banish’d Cavaliers is a 1677 play by Aphra Behn. The action explores the amorous relationships and adventures of a group of English men and women in Naples during Carnival. While the word feminist and the theory of feminism was not present at the time the play premiered, there is distinctly a feminist reading to the play, specifically consistent with first-wave feminism. The genre of the play is referred to as Restoration comedy, which followed the prohibition of public plays in Puritan society. The genre encourages the use of crass language and sexually explicit plot points.

First-wave feminism promoted the idea that men and women should be equal under the law and have the same opportunities in their careers. The female playwright, Aphra Behn, is one of the first women to earn money as a playwright.

Secondly, the plot of the play focuses on a group of women who, in many ways, act like men. In previous plays, women were written as the object of men’s desires and were afforded limited agency. One of the major storylines in The Rover revolves around the female character Hellena’s sexual pursuit of the male protagonist Willmore.

Furthermore, this play depicts women who are concerned with pursuing their passion and desires, not simply pursuing lives as wives and mothers, which is an important distinction from previous works of literature.

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The words "feminist" and "feminism" did not appear in English until the nineteenth century. This means that, in reading earlier works as feminist, we will always be reading into them a concept their writers might not have recognized. It is quite clear, however, that certain works written before the nineteenth century share the preoccupations of at least first-wave or "equality" feminism: the education, enfranchisement, and above all, agency of women.

Aphra Behn is often viewed through a feminist lens, since she was one of the first women in England to earn her living by writing. Virginia Woolf said that she also earned women "the right to speak their minds." However, her plays are often rather similar to those of male Restoration dramatists. They feature strong, intelligent women, but the women have to work within a patriarchal framework and use their brains in a manipulative, clandestine manner.

The Rover is named after its male protagonist, Willmore, but he, despite his name, is the passive object of pursuit by Hellena, a young woman determined not to become a nun. Her sister, Florinda, shows a similar determination in arranging to marry Colonel Belvile. Although the sisters' object is marriage, it is difficult to see how they could have much more agency in a seventeenth-century play. Critics, including John Dryden, noted that Behn's drama focused more on the women than its source material, Thomaso, or The Wanderer by Thomas Killigrew. By the standards of its time, therefore, The Rover is remarkably consonant with feminist ideas and concerns.

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It is quite easy to make the case for viewing The Rover as a feminist work. First and foremost, the work centers on women, without making them into jokes or portraying them through demeaning stereotypes. Much feminist theory has noted the importance of simply telling women's stories, given the massive tendency outside of feminist works to exclusively tell the stories of men.

Beyond this basic fact, the plot revolves largely around women asserting their autonomy and driving the course of their lives through pursuing the relationships that they want in opposition to the relationships they are pressured to pursue. While some might criticize the feminist value of a play that is centered on marriage and relationships, it still represents these women pursuing their desires and asserting agency over their lives, which is aligned with core feminist values.

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Certainly a good argument can and has been made that the play is feminist in nature. The female characters are intelligent and bawdy, feeling there is nothing wrong with their sexual behavior. They aren't the property of the male characters in the play, and Behn, the playwright, uses her women to make fun of society during the Restoration period. During this time, women were either pure and chaste, or they were loose and lewd. Behn's females are strong women who have the courage to defy a patriarchal society that allows men to determine how a woman should behave in proper society.

Behn's feminist views are more developed in Part II where marrying for money is considered to be the same as having sex for money. She makes fun of arranged marriages and marriage in general, showing the hypocrisy of men in marriage. There is no doubt that Behn is making fun of a society that turns women into objects of possession, who are incapable of intelligent thought.

For more of an in-depth look at this play as feminist in nature, go to the enotes site below.

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