The plot of "The Rover" revolves around love, courtship, and marriage; most characters spend the entirety of the play either chasing after a personal love interest, or else orchestrating matrimonial arrangements for others. Consider, for example, Florinda and Belvile’s mutual efforts to be together, Hellena’s persistent pursuit of Willmore, or Don Pedro’s exhausting—and ultimately futile—efforts to set Florinda up with Don Antonio. Throughout "The Rover," each character pursues his or her respective ideal of romance and partnership, and it is through these efforts that we may come to better understand the ways in which the union between a man and woman—either in the informal sense of love, or the formal bond of matrimony—was conceived of in the seventeenth century, when Aphra Behn penned her most successful play.
When "The Rover" premiered in 1677, English society at large held a conception of marriage that emphasized an obligation on the part of children to honor and obey parents with respect to potential partners. The Church of England positioned this obligation as a religious duty, while pervading seventeenth century economic as well as legal ideology supported the notion that matrimonial arrangements should be dictated by transmission and increase of family property rather than love (Staves, 13). It was not uncommon for playwrights of the time to explore this arguably limiting custom; Behn was among several writers who sought with their work to present forced marriage as a dilemma that, particularly in comedy, could be overcome by outwitting lovers (Staves, 15). "The Rover" serves as an example of such a story; initially condemned to marry an old but financially secure Don Vincentio, Florinda eventually averts her preordained “destiny” with the help of her lover, Belvile, and several friends. Her marriage to Belvile may be understood thus as a commentary on the power of love to succeed over economic motives in the realm of matrimony. Behn further invites us to question in this play the very necessity of the institution of marriage. Must marriage necessarily follow love? And where does courtship play into the equation? Willmore in particular presents as a character who values very little the institution of marriage; he enters the play a “rover” not only in the traditional sense, but also in the terms of his sexual promiscuity—what Hellena likes to refer to as an “inconstancy” in his nature. Marriage represents stability and constancy—two things that apparently have very little influence in Willmore’s world. Rather, the English captain—a lustful and unfaithful character simultaneously pursuing two different women—is interested in immediate physical pleasure. Interestingly, however, his promiscuity and unfaithfulness does not entirely deter his female love interests. In fact, Hellena admits to being in love with what she refers to as the Englishman’s “unconstant humor” (Behn, 85). The relationship thus becomes—like Florinda’s marriage—one that defies custom. Although dangerous and potentially dishonorable, there is something undeniably attractive about Willmore’s free, roaming spirit—a sort of libertine approach to life and love that captures the imagination of and ignites desire in his love interests. The reader is by extension invited to consider the perhaps unnecessarily constricting rules that society attaches to love via marriage.
The fact that Hellena and Willmore ultimately get married, however, complicates the relationship between love and marriage. Willmore is certainly a character that displays inconstancy in his actions and his words; the fact that he ultimately agrees to wed—a long-term commitment to one woman—seems uncharacteristic. It is curious also why Hellena, a woman who openly admits to being attracted to Willmore’s inconstancy, and who herself seems to reject custom in other aspects of her life (e.g. disobeying her father’s wishes that she become a nun), is so intent on marrying Willmore. Isn’t it enough for the two lovers to be united simply by love, rather than formally under the law? Perhaps ending the play with a forthcoming wedding is a sort of compromise—Hellena has rejected life as a nun and with it the custom of obeying paternal command, but she still clings to the societal custom of marriage in order to maintain some degree of stability.
Gender roles and female agency
The Rover undoubtedly contains some powerful female characters in sisters Florinda and Hellena. The two noblewomen are introduced in the first scene as confident and independent characters that know both what they want and how to get it. Florinda has set her sights on Belvile, and Hellena is determined to escape what she considers a loathsome life as a nun. Neither sister is prepared to accept the role that she has been assigned by their father, and both express multiple times their determination to disobey paternal (and fraternal) commands. This sort of rebellious behavior is out of the ordinary for female characters in seventeenth century theatre (Burke, 121).
To further distinguish her female characters, Behn writes regularly witty and bawdy lines for some of her “chaste” female characters—particularly Hellena (Burke, 122). As Professor of English Helen Burke also points out, Behn develops chaste or “virgin” female characters that show initiative and daring that might be more regularly assigned to cavaliers and courtesans in other contemporary plays (Burke, 122). This demonstrated motivation to advance the plot means that the female characters take on a disproportionate degree of agency in The Rover relative to the male characters. Consider Hellena as a prime example of this agency; from the very opening of the play, she is presented as a woman with confidence and drive. Her leadership and bold defiance, as well as her ability to manipulate others, are all put on display when she convinces Callis to allow both her and her sister Florinda to attend the carnival, despite being ordered by her brother to spend the evening locked up in her room. Not only does Hellena actively disobey her bother’s orders in this scene, but she also effectively manages to convince her sister to join her in rebelling against restrictive patriarchal/fraternal commands.
Hellena is perhaps the most independent and outspoken of all female characters in "The Rover," but the theme of female agency can also be seen in other female characters. Consider Lucetta, for example, who designs and executes a clever albeit cruel plan to cheat Blunt out of his possessions. Like Hellena, Lucetta knows what she wants, she knows how to get it and, most importantly, she actively pursues that which she desires. The men of "The Rover," on the contrary, take more of a back seat. Consider Belvile, for example, who spends his time at the beginning of the play passively lamenting his predicament. Even though he becomes increasingly involved in plans to orchestrate a forbidden relationship with Florinda, it is Florinda, not Belvile, who takes the initiative to alter their destiny; she both designs (and largely executes) the plan that leads them to marriage.
The Rover Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Rover is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.