Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Rape, Patriarchy, and the Libertine Ethos: The Function of Sexual Violence in Aphra Behn's "The Golden Age" and the Rover, Part I

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Rape, Patriarchy, and the Libertine Ethos: The Function of Sexual Violence in Aphra Behn's "The Golden Age" and the Rover, Part I

Article excerpt

Modern feminist scholarship has redefined rape not as an act of uncontrollable sexual desire, but as a violent act men use against women to exert and maintain power and control over them.2 Rape, as a form of public violence, serves as a tool to keep women powerless, less able to move freely within the public sphere; a dark park at night becomes a threat and behind bushes could lurk a rapist - even in the world of dramatic comedy. If men rape in order to exert power over women, that implies women have power, or at least embody the potential to act out against male authority. In this essay I argue that in The Rover men attempt to rape women in order to curb precisely this potentiality for power and freedom - but in all three instances of attempted rape in the play, a rape never actually occurs; therefore, in the context of the play, rape does not represent a violation on a defenseless female body, rather it signifies the capacity for women to usurp male authority.

Behn's depiction of rape on die Restoration stage is directly connected to libertinism, an ideology that she both embraced and exploited. The restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 kindled the libertinism that marked die seventeenth century both in sociocultural and dramatic contexts.3 Behn embraced not only Charles' politics, but also the romping sexual fun at die palace; Üius, her Tory inclinations mark an ideological combination of both political and sociological, public and private. By extension, her depiction of sexual licentiousness on the stage reflects her politics, particularly in a character like Willmore. Libertinism as a cultural movement was a sexual liberation for both women and men, resulting in intrigues, dissembling, and revised gender roles - a newfound power for the seventeenth century woman - a prospect which men must have found both enthralling and frightening. I believe it is this revisioning that spawns Behn's attention towards rape on the Restoration stage; if gender roles have been disrupted and women's roles shift from subjugation to empowerment, patriarchal authority becomes threatened. Behn, aware of the shifting roles, uses rape as a symbol of men attempting to control women; in contrast, women's ability to escape the threat of rape - a symbolic overthrow of male authority within the play - also representa women's potential to be free of patriarchal control not only in the fictional world of the play, but in the real world, a prospect which to Behn, particularly as a female playwright within a predominantly male sphere, must have found appealing.

Certainly Behn's ideals played into her portrayal of sexual liberation on the stage, particularly her idealized vision of a world without sexual constraints, as we see most clearly in her poem "The Golden Age." Before discussing The Rover, in order to contextualize the play within Behn's wider views of sexuality and violations, I will first analyze Behn's poem, in which she imagines an age of pre-lapsarian love, a golden age of sexuality:

The stubborn plough had then

Made no rude rapes upon the virgin Earth;

Who yielded of her own accord her plenteous birth . . .

Beneath whose boughs the snakes securely dwelt.

Not doing harm, nor harm from others felt; (III)

Right and property were words since made . . .

And rapes, invasions, tyrannies

Was gaining of a glorious name:

Thou wert not known in those blest days,

Thy poison was not mixed with our unbounded joys:

Then it was a glory to pursue delight,

And that was lawful all, that Pleasure did invite,

Then 'twas the amorous world enjoyed its reign;

And tyrant Honor strove t' usurp in vain. (V)

Be gone! and let the Golden Age again

Assume its glorious reign;

Let the young wishing maid confess

What all your arts would keep concealed. (X)

(my italics)

Behn immediately establishes a connection between a world of idealized sexual love, and a world without rape. …

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