When one pictures the literary and theatrical world of 17th century England, it is hard to believe that a woman as extraordinary and seditious as Aphra Behn was able to write and publish such revolutionary plays at the capacity she achieved. Having already seen six of her plays produced for stage, she was something of an “anomalous figure” in the theatrical community (Behn 14). However, the first known edition of her Restoration comedy “The Rover” was published anonymously with reference to the author as male in the prologue. One can speculate that due to the bawdy nature of “The Rover” Behn felt it was safer to publish anonymously considering the themes explored in the play. Anne Russell explains the struggle Behn faced: “At every stage of her career, she was attacked for indelicacy and immorality, both inappropriate for a woman writer” (Behn 14). Despite its “indelicacy and immorality”, “The Rover” is a progressive tale that challenged gender norms, enforced themes of independence for women, and criticized patriarchal power structures in a humorous, light-hearted way. Behn’s use of subversive humour is best exemplified in the character Hellena, who, through her quick wit and bold personality, manages to defy preconceived notions of a “woman of quality” through her active courtship of Willmore, her use of crossdressing, and her desire for the “inconstant”.
Throughout the play Hellena is depicted as a witty, courageous, and stubborn young woman destined to become a nun, at her own displeasure. Early in the first scene she expresses a curiosity about falling in love and attempts to get her sister Florinda to reveal details of her own love life to her, despite Florinda’s insistenc...
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... it before ultimately revealing, “I am called Hellena the Inconstant” (Behn V.i. 465-470).
Behn’s use of humour throughout “The Rover” is subversive and unyielding; each character has their own quirks and comedic moments, however it is Hellena who proves throughout the entirety of the play to be one of the most delightful and entertaining characters. Hellena entirely disrupts societal norms of women of her time period, she is an inspirational and empowering character with a charming wit and bold perspective. Behn’s use of Hellena to explore radical notions of their era such as women taking back their independence, women taking charge of their sexuality, and women exploring gender roles and the effect of their clothing is an moving tale. Through skillful use of comedy, Behn is able to weave a story rich in crowd-pleasing delights and protofeminist discourse alike.
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