The Rover by Aphra Behn – An Analysis of Subversive Elements in the Restoration Play

The Rover is a Restoration comedy about three exiled Cavaliers and their amorous adventures with a group of women in Naples during Carnival time. It is clear from the beginning that the play’s subject matters are love and marriage, viewed from a woman’s perspective. The opening scene introduces two sisters: the stubborn Florinda and the outspoken Hellena, the former is in an arranged marriage to an elderly man called Don Vincentio yet loves Belvile, one of the Cavaliers. The latter is destined for a nunnery.

Conflicts are immediately established between the young women and their patriarchal society as neither Florinda nor Hellena is content with their prospects: ‘With indignation; and how near so far my father thinks I am to marrying that hated object’ (I.1.17-18) and ‘And dost thou think that ever I’ll be a nun? Or at least till I’m so old I’m fit for nothing else? Faith no, sister’ (I.1. 28-29). The world of these women appears to be restrictive and oppressive.

Ned Blunt is a foolish companion of the Cavaliers and acts partially as a comic foil to cast the other male characters in a better light. The ‘marketability’ of women is a notion that is alluded to in the first act and is clearly apparent in the scene where the hapless Blunt is robbed by a prostitute called Lucetta. During this short scene, Blunt mentions money on two occasions: ‘She’s damnably in love with me, and will ne’er mind settlements’ (III.2.13-14), referring to the prostitutes of his native England as ‘mercenary prodigal whores’ (III.2.23). Throughout the scene, Blunt assumes he is controlling the proceedings when in reality it’s Lucetta.

The subversive elements in The Rover are arguably embodied in the female characters, most notably Florinda and Hellena, but also Lucetta. The oppressive patriarchy can be viewed as the status quo of which the women are rebelling against. This patriarchy is represented in the figure of the sisters’ overbearing brother Don Pedro, who, in the absence of their father, is arrogantly enforcing his female siblings’ destinies.

However Florinda and Hellena are aware of their limitations and are determined to escape. When Pedro reveals to Florinda how much Vincentio desires her (I.1.52), she responds with: ‘I hate Vincentio, sir’ (I.1.56) and when he tells Hellena that she is ‘not designed for the conversation of lovers’ (I.1.78) she retaliates with an aside: ‘Nor saints yet awhile, I hope’ (I.1.80). The notion of women being innately subversive is strengthened further when Blunt avenges himself against Lucetta’s theft by attempting to rape the virginal Florinda in act IV, purely on the grounds that she is also a woman: ‘Ha, what’s here? Are my wishes granted? And is not that a she creature?’ (IV.5.21).

The Rover is decidedly revolutionary as its subversive elements are largely uncontained. Behn uses her subversive elements as a means to make a ferocious attack on the institution of arranged marriages. Although her play is preoccupied with private affairs, it would still appear to convey a political agenda, such as highlighting the concerns of women during the Restoration era.