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Eighteenth-Century Life 28.3 (2004) 1-19

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Carnival Politics, Generous Satire, and Nationalist Spectacle in Behn's The Rover

Ball State University

In the epilogue to The Rover. Or, the Banish't Cavaliers (1677), Aphra Behn demarcates a set of faulty interpretive practices and directs the audience to the proper reading of her play by negative example. The unidentified speaker begins by performing a hysterical, puritanical reaction to the basic elements of the play: "The Banisht Cavaliers! a Roving Blade!/ A Popish Carnival! a Masquerade!"1 Here, Behn attempts to school her audience in the politics of reading by anticipating, parodying, and therefore dismissing, a particular anti-Catholic, anti-court hermeneutics of paranoia that she associates with the "Conventickling" Dissenters of the "Mutinous Tribe" (ll. 5, 7). Even more moderate members of the audience rule "With th' Insolence of Common-Wealths" (l. 16) when they presume to judge the play, which is a classic formulation of Behn's Royalist politics. Two members of this caviling commonwealth are singled out for Behn's particular scorn, and their negative pronouncements are also mockingly quoted by the speaker of the epilogue. The first is the "Politick grave Fool" (l. 17) who derides contemporary plays like The Rover as "slight airy Toys" (l. 25); the second is one of the "younger Sparks" (l. 30), who proclaims, "Damn me, I'm sure 'twill never please the Court" (l. 33). These disparaging utterances about Behn's play are lifted from their supposed origins, repeated in a new context, and essentially altered and turned back on their fictive sources by [End Page 1] the parodying delivery of the epilogue's speaker. Behn is telling her audience to disregard the judgment of those who underestimate the serious political message of The Rover and who erroneously believe that the Stuart court would not be pleased by her nationalist and Royalist depiction of the Cavalier exile during the Interregnum.

The interpretive guidance offered by Behn's epilogue has not been heeded by modern critics, who have neither fully addressed the play as a serious rewriting of the Stuart exile nor accounted for its remarkable appropriation of Elizabethan nationalist discourse in the service of a pro-Stuart agenda. Because The Rover was performed just before the eruption of the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis, it has not been included in recent considerations of Behn's more strident political plays written during those turbulent times.2 In general, most scholars have viewed it as primarily concerned with gender politics and have only peripherally considered, or excluded altogether, national political and religious issues.3 In fact, much recent work follows a critical approach that confirms the young Spark's assessment, which Behn herself derides in the epilogue. Focusing on Willmore's drunkenness and blundering, his attempted rapes of Florinda, and his creating difficulties for Belvile, many scholars have argued that Behn's play represents an earnest feminist attack on the character of the rake and the sexual audacity of the Stuart court, while others have asserted a more general ambivalence about Cavalier libertine ideology.4 Janet Todd argues that Willmore's character is ambiguous, both "macho and sexually attractive to desperate southern women" and a "ridiculous" and nearly "villainous" drunk; but, unlike other critics, she suggestively remarks that "Some of the serious ambiguity in The Rover may have been gained by time."5 Given Todd's discussion of James' admiration for the play (221), along with the fact that there were three known performances of The Rover at court, it is difficult to believe that the work was viewed by Charles II or James II as a serious or even ambivalent depiction of their experience in exile or of the conduct of their court.6

The fact that the play was embraced by the court suggests that The Rover expresses a pro-Stuart ideology, yet its position was moderate and flexible enough to allow its survival beyond its historical moment and, unlike her plays of the later Exclusion Crisis period, stay in the repertoire...


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