Essays and Criticism
Women and Divorce
Given that she was writing plays in a male-dominated profession and society, it is perhaps not surprising that Behn would be concerned with issues such as the status of women and the gender inequalities in social institutions such as marriage. Many of her plays, including The Forc’d Marriage, deal with the topic of unsuitable, unhappy marriages and how they might be ended. During the Restoration era in England, a divorce was not easily attained, but Behn writes with an awareness of the legal practices of the time.
Notably, the play is set not in Behn’s own time but in an unspecified time and place, apparently an ancient warrior culture in which men hold all the power, masculine values of courage are lauded, and women are given away as the rewards for valor in battle. This is significant because, according to Derek Hughes in The Theatre of Aphra Behn, the idea underlying many of Behn’s plays is that “the subjection of women is an irrational survival from archaic societies which depended upon military strength.” Hughes continues, commenting on the fact that at the time it was men who controlled the writing of history: “Men exercise the power of the word because it is always underwritten by that of the sword. The source and continuing support of men’s supremacy is in their capacity for violence . . . For Behn, civilization is . . . founded on violence.”
Hughes’s point is amply demonstrated in the play. In this society, men wield the power and cannot imagine things being any other way. The plot is propelled solely by the forced marriage of Erminia to Alcippus and the determination of Erminia and her true love Philander to circumvent it. Erminia, since she is officially powerless, relies on her strength of character and her determination to honor her true feelings when she stands up to Alcippus and refuses to submit to him sexually on their wedding night. She does this in spite of the aggression that Alcippus shows against her. On the wedding night (act 2, scene 3), for example, when Erminia insists that she is an unwilling partner and will never give her heart to Alcippus, he reacts as if he is on the battlefield rather than in the bedroom. Flying into a rage, he grabs her arm, pulls a dagger, and threatens to kill her, neatly inverting the values of good and evil as he does so: “Recal that Folly, or by all that’s good, / I’ll free the Soul that wantons in thy Blood.” Masculine virtues may serve this anonymous kingdom well when war and conquest are called for, but they serve Alcippus poorly at this moment. It does not seem to occur to him that threatening to kill his wife might not be the best way to win her love. Puffed up with righteous indignation, he implies that if he were to kill her right then, her “ungrateful Soul” would go to hell. Erminia holds her nerve, keeps talking, and manages to mollify the supposedly noble warrior—the “generous Youth,” whose virtues Orgulius cannot stop talking about in the first scene—who is in the grip of a homicidal rage because his will has been thwarted by a woman. Erminia knows she must keep talking to save her own life.
To be fair to Alcippus, however, one might say that he is limited by the warrior code of his society, which emphasizes the need for glory on the battlefield and the upholding of male honor. If the thought of having sexual relations with Alcippus offends Erminia’s honor, he perceives her refusal as an affront to his own sense of honor—his legitimate expectation of what is due to a husband from a wife. This is why he reacts violently to her words. It is also clear that the fierce emotions simmering below the surface are not going to be subdued for long, and when in act 4 the plot veers toward tragedy, it can hardly be a surprise. When Alcippus finally does strangle Erminia, suspecting her...
(The entire section is 1563 words.)