Aphra Behn's The Rover: Evaluating Women's Social and Sexual Options Following the collapse of the Puritan Protectorate in 1660, the halls of court seemed to buzz with a festive attitude: “Out with the old and in with the… older.” Cavalier revelries under Charles II regained the notoriety of their pre-Cromwellian counterparts. Britain’s king led his noblemen by example with a hedonistic lifestyle of parties, sex, and extravagant spending. The social and sexual freedom of this “libertinism,” however, did not extend to ladies. Although women might crave higher degrees of autonomy and sexual expression, their lives still fit within the boundaries of three roles: nun, prostitute, or wife. Between the categories of “virgin” and “whore” lay a void, not a spectrum; one could give “the whole cargo or nothing” (Behn 164). Performed in 1677, Aphra Behn’s play, The Rover, speaks to this double standard, which limited her female peers’ sexual desires to the realm of convent, brothel, or home. Set loose in the topsy-turvy world of Carnival, her characters demonstrate the active, complicated game required of women seeking to secure personal happiness. The dangers of the chase and the play’s tidy conclusion, on the other hand, suggest at how ladies neither could nor should stray too far into the masculine roles of wooer and possessor. Late Stuart society, Behn seems to lament, offered no place to the sexually free, libertine woman. The fall of the Puritan Commonwealth did little to dispel the political and religious tensions that affected the early Modern British conception of womanhood. Even after the Protectorate’s end, Roundhead beliefs dictated “the necessity for female subordination and obedience” to her husband, as ordained by several Bible verses (Hughes 295). Eve’s role in the division of mankind from God “fuelled…[a cultural] conviction of the weakness and sinfulness of women” (295). Thus female sexuality was perceived as a spiritual flaw to manage. Male governance of the female body, once responsible for Adam’s downfall, led to a Puritan “masculinization of desire—the creation of woman as other and as object—that [was] crucial to a sexual ideology that insists on the indivisibility of feminine chastity from feminine identity” (Hutner 104). By appropriating sexuality, Roundhead men narrowed the confines of women’s acceptable roles in society to one alone: the wife, family-oriented and sexually pure. Neither Catholic nun nor transgressive prostitute met Puritan expectations for women. Written seventeen years after Richard Cromwell left England, The Rover responds to these vestiges of Puritan belief in English society. In her epilogue, Behn mocks the strait-laced prudishness that would turn humor into a form of sinful self-pleasure: “The devil’s in’t if this [play] will please the nation / in these our blessed times of reformation” (Behn 242). She disparages judgmental leaders, who “damn everything that maggot disapproves,” want to censor theatre, “and to dull method all our sense confine” (242). Her derision places under public scrutiny the validity of Puritan disapproval. If an audience member doubts the sect’s condemnation of one aspect of society, other frowned-upon practices might be thrown into question. Accusing the Puritan voice of restricting the audience’s sense encourages the public’s examination of normative understandings of the English culture, specifically in regards to gender. Royalist libertinism seemed to offer the sexual liberation for which Behn hoped to attract support. The movement romanticized the image of the wealthy court rogue as passionate womanizer and at least allowed for “women’s free enjoyment of sexual pleasure” (Staves 21). As one scholar wryly remarked, however, “the idea that late Stuart ideology created a liberating space for women is as false as a school child’s notion of the jolly cavalier” (Owen 15). The transition back into the loose, showy world of the monarchy merely...
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