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The Forced Marriage: Or, the Jealous Bridegroom, although seemingly conventional in structure and subject matter, offers a perspective that is different from that of other plays of the period. In contrast to the usual pairing off of young couples according to the dictates of their parents, this play explores the freedom of choice that the two heroines have dared to demand. Princess Galatea wants the young General Alcippus, who is not her social equal, for her husband; Prince Philander hopes to make Erminia, who is also not of his class, his bride. Both women believe that they have the right to pick their mates—just as much right as men have. Thus, while the play uses mistaken identities, misinterpretations of motives, misreadings of situations, and all the devices dear to such plots, Aphra Behn succeeds in putting a novel idea before her audience. Furthermore, in her prologue she alerts everyone in the theater to the fact that they are witnesses to a rare event: A woman has dared to write a play.

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At the opening, the King announces his gratitude both to his son, Philander, and to his favorite, Alcippus, for their bravery in battle. To show how devoted the two young men are, they deliver speeches in which each praises the other for being more responsible for the victory. When the King offers to make Alcippus his new general, the young man first declines the honor, feeling embarrassed because he is in the presence of the old general, Orgilius. The latter cedes his position willingly, however, and so the audience is introduced to a group of well-intentioned, heroic, and reasonable men who respect one another and, while appreciating their own worth, are not conceited. This pleasant atmosphere is soon dissipated when the King inquires of Alcippus how he may reward him further, and his new general asks for the hand of the old general’s daughter, Erminia, a request that both the father and the King are happy to grant. In separate asides to the audience, Erminia and Philander declare their horror at the news.

After everyone leaves except for Alcander and Pisaro, the friends respectively of Philander and Alcippus, the two discuss Erminia and her seeming treachery, as if to suggest that she had encouraged Alcippus to ask for her hand and basely deserted the prince. In short, she is held responsible for a political decision to dispose of her future without once being asked for her own feelings in the matter. Later, Erminia meets Princess Galatea, and the two women share their grief: Each loves a man that neither can hope to marry. Their dialogue, for all its “soap-opera” quality, is an honest exploration of a woman’s dilemma when she is forbidden to follow her own heart. Their predicament has indeed made them sisters. Both understand, however, that they cannot challenge the decrees of the King, and Behn gives them strong speeches lamenting their powerlessness. When Erminia appeals to her father, he is angry with her because she dared to fall in love with the prince without asking permission. Reminded of her duty, Erminia submits.

Meanwhile, the two rivals, having discovered that they love the same woman, threaten each other with swords. When the princess hears that her brother, the prince, wished to take the life of Alcippus, she is devastated; at this point the brother realizes that she is in love with his enemy. Despite the intricacies of the plot and the tightening of the screws, some relief is in the offing. Erminia says that she will marry Alcippus but will never share his bed—a promise that relieves both the prince, who loves her, and his sister, who loves Erminia’s intended.

Alcippus, however, has no intention of permitting such an arrangement; he has become jealous of the prince and does not trust his bride. He pretends to depart on a mission but plans to return and spy on his wife. Meanwhile, the prince has begged to see Erminia. As is usual in such plays, his presence is discovered by the angry husband, who unexpectedly makes his reappearance. After a fair amount of harsh words and some swordplay, the King intervenes and the truth is revealed: Erminia has never ceased to love the prince and, despite the wedding ceremony, has remained chaste and faithful to him. Alcippus, finally moved by such devotion and flattered that the princess has been in love with him all the time, resigns Erminia to the prince and proposes to the princess. With the blessing of the King and the old general, Erminia’s father, the play comes to a joyful end.

Context

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When The Forced Marriage was produced in 1670, England had changed considerably from what it had been ten years before. The austerity of Puritan rule had given way to the excesses of the Restoration; even the theater had changed. Formerly only boys and men had been members of theater companies, but now women were admitted to the stage and brought a new realism to their roles. There was greater freedom in discussing sex, and a number of popular plays on the subject drew large audiences. Yet while critics on the whole enjoyed such comedies written by men, they disapproved of Aphra Behn for making use of the same material because she was a woman. After her death, poet laureate Alexander Pope complained that she was always getting her characters into bed (she had deserted romantic tragedy for comedy, to which she was more suited and which gave her greater latitude); he failed to mention the fact that male playwrights were equally busy doing the same thing.

The success of The Forced Marriage, which enjoyed a run of six days—a near-record for the time—encouraged Behn to continue to write. Tired of the attacks on her plays, she defended herself eloquently against the charge of vulgarity, asking why men were permitted and women forbidden freedom of expression. In the preface to a later and better play, The Lucky Change (1686), she wrote:All I ask is the privilege for my masculine part—the poet in me (if any such you will allow me)—to tread in those successful paths my predecessors have so long thrived in. . . . If I must not, because of my sex, have this freedom, but that you will usurp all to yourselves, I lay down my quill, and you shall hear no more of me, no not so much as to make comparisons, because I will be kinder to my brothers of the pen than they have been to a defenceless woman.

Behn did not lay down her quill, however, but went on to produce eighteen plays and many novels. The most famous of them, Oroonoko (1688), has been compared to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) in its plea for racial justice. In addition, she was the author of a number of poems and translations and was the first Englishwoman to earn her living by her writing. She also took an important part in the casting of her plays. For The Forced Marriage she engaged a nineteen-year-old college student eager to become an actor and gave him the role of the King. He suffered such stage fright on opening night that he forgot all of his lines; only Behn’s quick action in finding a substitute at the last minute saved the play from disaster. The young man, Thomas Otway, went on to become a famous playwright and always defended the reputation of the woman who had given him his first chance.

Despite what might be called today her feminist point of view, Behn exerted no influence on later writers, because the kind of comedy at which she and her fellow playwrights were adept was going out of fashion. Its frankness and sophistication alienated a more idealistic audience; Restoration comedy sank into disfavor and did not enjoy a revival until the beginning of the twentieth century. Even then, while William Wycherley, author of The Country Wife (1675), and William Congreve, author of The Way of the World (1700), were rediscovered and fittingly applauded, Behn languished in obscurity, her name still tarnished by the accusation of coarseness. Yet thanks to recent scholarship, she too has been rediscovered. The gross unfairness of the judgments against her have been exposed, and several of her plays, notably The Lucky Chance and The Rover (1677), have been performed in London to great acclaim. Both her art and her life seem very modern despite a distance of more than three hundred years.

Bibliography

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Bevis, Richard. English Drama: Restoration and Eighteenth Century, 1660-1789. London: Longman, 1988. A survey of the major writers of the period. Provides a discussion of Behn’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer, with the greatest attention paid to her comedies. She is given high marks for the way she handles dramatic intrigues; the author notes that even if her plots are sometimes silly, she carries them along by the sheer vivacity of her style.

Carlson, Susan. Women and Comedy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991. The author explores the connection between women and domestic comedy. She contrasts the male writers of comedy, who give their heroines only limited freedom, and shows how women writers such as Behn create unorthodox, liberated types.

Duffy, Maureen. The Passionate Shepherdess. London: Jonathan Cape, 1977. The author, a leading Behn scholar, has unearthed new information about Behn’s early life. In addition to supplying the reader with a full biography, she devotes a large part of the book to assessing Behn’s place in the Restoration theater. This is one of the most valuable sources on Behn, supplying helpful notes to each chapter, a comprehensive bibliography, and a number of illustrations of Behn and her circle.

Sackville-West, Victoria. Aphra Behn. New York: Russell & Russell, 1970. One of England’s most eminent writers discusses the life and accomplishments of a woman she believed to have been misunderstood and underrated in her day and for long afterward, a person of whom “one cannot take leave without respect.”

Summers, Montague. Introduction to The Works of Aphra Behn. 6 vols. New York: B. Blom, 1967. Aside from the monumental task of rescuing Behn’s works for publication, since she had been out of print for many years, Summers contributed a valuable essay on her life and letters in his introduction to volume 1. He successfully refuted attacks on Behn’s ability and talent and was mainly responsible for engaging Victoria (Vita) Sackville-West’s interest in Behn. All subsequent scholars have made this collection the foundation of their studies.

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