(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 879 words.)