The Forced Marriage

by Aphra Behn

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 879

Because The Forced Marriage was Aphra Behn’s first play, she modeled it largely on the accepted romantic tragicomedies with which the audiences were familiar. Such plays contained standard prologues and high-flown speeches assigned to the chief characters. Yet even in Behn’s earliest effort, she diverged from the mainstream.

Generally, the prologue, a device that could be traced back to Roman comedy, served to tell the audience what to expect from the play, providing a theme, a moral, or even a capsule version of the plot. Behn introduces a male actor who not only announces that the author is a woman but also maintains that with this play women are going to use their wit as a weapon. Then a female actor joins him to suggest that women will be the victors in the contest between the sexes, because their beauty will benefit from their wit. Furthermore, by proving that they are more than merely decorative, women will be able, when they are old, to retrieve “the wandering heart.”

Then Behn inserts a bit of autobiography that must have been well known but that she showed great daring in mentioning. She had been married to a Dutch merchant who left her penniless at his death. Before turning to writing to support herself, she had been briefly employed by the British government as a secret agent: Her knowledge of Holland was useful to her own country, then engaged in rivalry with the Dutch. In her prologue she touches upon her past activities by mentioning the word “spy.” She warns that spies have been planted all over the theater—but only to discover how the audience has received the play. The prologue concludes with the assertion that its only aim is to prove constancy in love, adding that “when we have it too/ We’ll sacrifice it all to pleasure you.” It is an artful hint that while fidelity is to be admired, sex might be more fun. Although a certain amount of license was permitted women in elegant society, it was not considered proper for them to utter such sentiments.

Within the play itself, the characters boast no special individuality; they are very much prisoners of the tragicomic style. Yet Behn endows her women with attributes not usually found in the heroines of the day. They weep copiously, to be sure, for such was the fashion, but they also try to find a solution to their problem instead of simply wringing their hands and waiting for men to rescue them. They understand the necessity of submitting to the authority of a king or a father, but they also rebel against the situation. Moreover, whereas men are quick to express their anger and even quicker to draw their weapons, the women are far more willing to conciliate, to compromise, to seek some measure of justice. Erminia and Galatea are reasonable; it is the men who display emotion in a crisis. Behn, in short, reversed the universal, still-accepted theory that women rely only on their feelings and men on their intellect.

In other plays of the time it was taken for granted that marriages were to be arranged between men and women who were social equals. Yet Behn gives her audience not one but two couples who not only challenge the class code but also are successful in defying it. The old general, shocked that his daughter Erminia has so far forgotten herself, her position, and her father’s orders that she has dared to fall in love with a prince, finally realizes that love may be more important than custom. The King, expecting his daughter Galatea...

(This entire section contains 879 words.)

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to make a royal match, is equally reconciled to this new order. There were few playwrights in her day who dealt with this subject as effectively as Behn.

The question of form was also of concern to her. After William Shakespeare had perfected the use of blank verse in iambic pentameter, it became the preferred mode of expression until the theaters were closed in 1642 by order of the Puritan dictatorship. When the Stuart kings were restored to the throne and the theaters were reopened in 1660, the new dramatists, now dazzled by all that was French—the manners, the clothes, the fashions—succumbed as well to the French style of writing poetry. They adopted the Alexandrine, a longer meter than the pentameter, and the couplet rhyme scheme, which was favored over the simple rhythms of blank verse. The precision of the French language is perfectly attuned to the couplet, but English, with its looser structure and wider range of vocabulary, seems confined by such devices. In England, a literary battle raged between these poetic forms. Behn, who had a talent for turning out witty couplets, also had a good ear that prevented her from discarding the sonority of blank verse. Her solution was to employ both types of poetry in The Forced Marriage, not always to its best advantage, yet indicating that she had given some thought to the matter. In 1675, five years after she wrote this play, John Dryden, the most distinguished poet, dramatist, and essayist of his day, published his manifesto in the preface to his tragedy All for Love: Henceforth, blank verse must be considered more suitable for tragedy than the couplet.