Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"'Tis Pity That When Laws Are Faulty They Should Not Be Mended or Abolisht": Authority, Legitimation, and Honor in Aphra Behn's the Widdow Ranter

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

"'Tis Pity That When Laws Are Faulty They Should Not Be Mended or Abolisht": Authority, Legitimation, and Honor in Aphra Behn's the Widdow Ranter

Article excerpt

Aphra Behn's tragicomedy The Widdow Ranter, or, The History of Bacon in Virginia was staged posthumously in November 1689, but it was most probably written in 1688.[1] Although by the summer of 1683 the Whigs had suffered total defeat, the ideological and theoretical repercussions of the political discourses constructed at the time of the Exclusion Crisis were inescapable. They had set a number of fundamental discursive premises that effectively circumscribed much of the subsequent political problematics. In this sense, while The Widdow Ranter is obviously not part of the Tory propaganda drama of the early 1680s, it is inscribed, nonetheless, in the crucial political debate on government, its origins, and the prospects of resistance that originated in the Exclusion Crisis.[2] This debate and its ramifications implicated theoretical discourses and social practices in interrogation, or, conversely, reconfirmation of received notions of authority.

In the context of the remarkable polarization of the political ideologies in the 1680s, and notwithstanding Behn's Tory partisanship, The Widdow Ranter is exceptional. It makes a number of concessions to conceptions of government normally associated with oppositional politics and, in this sense, defies reductive Whig-Tory ideological distinctions. The play is a complex and deeply contradictory text; while reinscribing conservative notions of political legitimacy, at the same time it challenges the concept of lawful authority. Behn problematizes the origins of authority, its principles of legitimacy, and the position of the individual in the face of an incompetent or absent authority. In a gesture that to a certain extent interrogates her unrelenting support of the monarchical order, she considers the possibility of individual reaction as an alternative origin of political legitimacy when lawful power is either absent or abusive. Individual resistance in the form of populist leadership, embodied in Bacon, emerges as this alternative. Behn, however, wants to show that power which draws its strength from popular mobilization constantly undermines its basis. The people as a possible origin of political legitimation are clearly incompatible with her fiction of legitimacy, which incorporates resistance only in the form of doomed heroic action. Crucial to her vision of a political order, which, for all its deficiencies, is essentially correct, is the choice of a heroic rebel whose ethics of honor serves, in the last analysis, as stabilizer of the very order that his political action seeks to counter.

The plot of The Widdow Ranter is based on the popular British uprising in Virginia in 1676 led by Nathaniel Bacon, the son of an English squire, who, having lost his fortune by extravagance, was sent by his father to the colony (1674) in order to repair it. In Virginia Bacon bought a plantation and within a year he became a councilor. Because he, like others, was suffering the raids of the natives without being sufficiently protected by the colonial government (the defense issue being a chronic problem in the colony) he headed volunteers in the war against the Indians without commission by Sir William Berkeley, the governor. Although twice declared a rebel by Berkeley, he gained enough popular support to be able to seize Jamestown and force the governor to flee the town, which he burnt to the ground. The rebellion was put to an end by Bacon's death from fever, followed by harsh reprisals on his supporters.[3]

From the rebellion we can derive two discursive points of specific interest to my argument. First, in his Manifesto, Bacon, in an impressive rhetorical display, justifies his cause as follows:

If to plead the cause of the oppressed, If sincerely to aime at his Majesties Honour and the Publick good without any reservation or by Interest, If to stand in the Gap after soe much blood of our dear Brethren bought and sold, If after the losse of a great part of his Majesties Colony deserted and dispeopled, freely with our lives and estates to indeavour to save the remaynders bee Treason God Almighty Judge and lett guilty dye. …

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