Scene one opens with Florinda and Hellena, the daughters of a noble Spanish family, engaged in conversation in a chamber. Hellena, destined to become a nun, asks her sister about love; she is particularly curious about her sister’s latest love interest. Florinda brushes off her sister’s curiosity, claiming that she cannot possibly understand love, as she has never been a lover. Hellena proceeds to talk about an English colonel named Belvile, whom their brother brought to visit Florinda. Mention of Belvile makes Florinda blush, and Hellena continues to list possible suitors who might be the reason behind Florinda’s apparently love-struck state. When Hellena mentions Don Vincentio, a rich old man whom the girls’ father wants Florinda to marry, Florinda makes clear that she hates Vincentio and has no intention of marrying him. Hellena continues to press her sister for answers, insisting that it is Belvile for whom she pines. Florinda reminds her sister that, as a maid destined to become a nun, she should not be so curious about her sister’s love life. In response, Hellena reveals that she too has no intention of carrying out the designs that her father has made for her; she is asking her sister about love and Belvile because she hopes that he “has some mad companion that will spoil [her] devotion” (l. 37). Hellena subsequently makes known her plans to attend the upcoming citywide Carnival. Hellena continues to ask her sister about Belvile, and Florinda eventually reveals that she knew the English colonel before he arrived in Naples, and that she is in love with him.
The sisters’ brother Don Pedro enters the chamber, along with his servant Stephano, and the girls’ governess, Callis. Pedro asks Florinda when she last saw Don Vincentio, her lover; she replies that she does not know, for she cares not. Don Pedro reminds his sister that their father commands that she love Vincentio for his vast fortune, and because Vincentio has a passion for her. As he puts on his masquerade outfit for the carnival, Florinda tells her brother that she hates Vincentio, and that she has confidence in her brother’s ability to divert their father’s will to have her marry such a man. She proceeds to tell her brother that she values the colonel Belvile for having protected her when she was in danger during a conquest in Pamplona. Pedro respects his sister’s admiration for the colonel, but implores her to consider the wealth of Vincentio. Florinda maintains that her youth and beauty should not be wasted on such an old man that she has no feelings for, regardless of his fortune. As Pedro continues to argue that fortune must be considered before heroic acts, Hellena joins the conversation, arguing against Florinda’s marrying Vincentio for his money. Pedro discredits Hellena’s opinion as an uninformed nun who is, “not designed for the conversation of lovers” (I.i, l 94). Hellena proceeds to voice her opinion regards such an arranged marriage, deeming her sister’s predicament even worse than her own. Hellena suggest that the son of the Viceroy, Don Antonio, would be a better fit for Florinda. Tired of her outspoken insolence, Don Pedro instructs Callis to lock Hellena up for the duration of the Carnival that is about to take place in the city.
After commanding Callis to lock up Hellena, Don Pedro tells Florinda that, if he had it his way, she would marry Don Antonio rather than Don Vincentio. Like his sisters, he too hates Vincentio. Florinda agrees to go along with her brother’s plan. When Pedro and Stephano leave, however, Florinda reveals that, although she cannot logically argue that marrying Antonio would be unfavorable, she does not want to be with him.
Hellena pleads with Callis to refrain from locking her up. Initially resistant to Hellena’s pleas, Callis is eventually convinced to let both of the girls attend the Carnival, if they wear disguises and allow her to supervise them. Hellena wants to enjoy her freedom, she claims, before becoming a devout nun for the rest of her life. Stephano enters the chamber again to let Florinda know that her outfit for the carnival is ready, and that her cousin Valeria is waiting to attend the Carnival with her. In an aside, Florinda determines to write a note to Belvile and pass it to him if she runs into him at the carnival. The girls get dressed before heading to the carnival.
In the opening scene of “The Rover,” we are presented with two uncharacteristically independent, confident, and headstrong female characters. Hellena’s inquisitive nature and Florinda’s outspoken honesty set them apart from the typical seventeenth-century female character, which was typically a reserved, passive, and obedient personality. Both women thus demand attention from the audience, immediately establishing a tone for the play that lends itself to the exploration of a number of themes revolving around female independence and autonomy. Consider not only the topic of the sisters’ conversation, but also the explicitness with which these topics are explored: the sisters discuss their preordained futures with contempt and insolence. Hellena is particularly candid with her remarks regards religion and arranged marriage, making clear on several occasions that she has no intention of obeying her father’s orders that she become a nun, and advising her sister to reject Don Vincentio as a husband. The imagery that she evokes when describing life married to an old man is powerfully repulsive:
And this man you must kiss, nay you must kiss none but him
too, and nuzzle through his beard to find his lips. And this
you must submit to for threescore year, and all for a
jointure. (I. i, l25-128.)
This use of imagery is but one example of Hellena’s notable ability to poignantly present her case, and effectively persuade others to side with her throughout the play. She has an uncanny ability to manipulate others with her words—a skill that becomes particularly apparent at the end of the opening scene, when she successfully manages to convince her governess, Callis, to allow her to participate in the carnival despite strict orders form her brother, Don Pedro, that she not be allowed out of her room. This persuasiveness may be understood as a critical component of her personhood, contributing largely to her capacity as a powerful and inspiring leader. Not only does Hellena take charge of her own life, but she also arguably sets in motion her sister’s rebellious actions when she implores Florinda to “be ruled by [her]” at the carnival and outwit the men attempting to control her life.