Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Subject in the House: Aphra Behn's the Forc'd Marriage, or the Jealous Bridegroom1

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

The Subject in the House: Aphra Behn's the Forc'd Marriage, or the Jealous Bridegroom1

Article excerpt

As Lois Potter has observed the correlation between scaffold and stage in seventeenth-century literary discourse demonstrates the contemporary awareness of the theatricality of the "performance" of Charles I and the "Commonwealth actors", in the trial and execution of the king.2 The Restoration theater, like its Tudor and early Stuart predecessors, was as much a political arena as the court was a theatrical arena In her dedication of The Lucky Chance [1687] to Laurence Hyde, Aphra Behn writes:

[Plays] are secret instructions to the people, in things that 'tis impossible to insinuate into them any other Way .... Plays have been ever held most important to the very Political Part of Government.3

While Behn's prologue is meant to compliment the Earl, then Lord High Treasurer, she also suggests a contemporary, mutual compliance between the playwright and die state.

The politicality of Behn's plays during die Popish Plot and die Exclusion Crisis has been frequently observed; die political expression in her early plays has not. Yet in her first-produced play, The Forc'd Marriage, or the Jealous Bridegroom (1671), as I will demonstrate here, she voices ardently her political opinion. Typically this play is explored in relation to gender issues, with particular reference to die inevitable conflict between love and honor, and the disconcerting consequences of forced marriages. That die political aspects of this play are predominately overlooked is surprising given die public nature of die role Behn undertook so early in die first decade of die Restoration. Her unusual trip to Surinam and her employment in espionage for Charles II, signals unequivocally that Behn is "publicly" political. Her public, political voice finds expression in The Fore 'd Marriage, a restoration-type play, similar to those of her male colleagues. This play is an ardently loyalist play, one which re-enacts the events surrounding the return of the monarchy, while poignantly reinforcing Stuart political ideology.

That Behn's The Fore 'd Marriage has not been recognized as a political text is perhaps a consequence of the problematic language in the polemics and politics of this period. The use of tropes to encode one's political ideology to avoid prosecution had proved the only viable solution during the Civil Wars and the Interregnum.4 Thus, the Carolean audience was familiar with coded references and adept at discovering and interpreting political meanings imbedded in a literary context.5 One of the more popular of these literary tropes seventeenth-century writers employ utilizes concepts of the familial order. The wife, both compliantly subordinate and submissive to her husband, is suitably analogous to the social order, in which the common classes are subservient to the genteel classes. In the same manner, the private personal relationship between husband and wife also functions as a trope for the public, political order, in which the subjects (in the body of the wife) are submissive and obedient to the king.

This political treatment of the familial order was not new and had, in fact, been transcribed in the political works of James I. In a speech delivered to the Lords, James I declared:

What God hath conioyned then, let no man separate. I am the Husband, and all the whole Isle is my lawfull wife; I am the Head, and it is my body.6

Thus, the husband/wife correlation of king/subject was one of images exploited early in Stuart political ideology, an absolutist ideology which was to prove problematic for the entire Stuart line. In the panegyrics on the celebration of the return of the monarchy, this iconography is reemployed; the restoration is perceived as an elaborate marriage ceremony, in which England is represented as the bride, and Charles II as the bridegroom.7

In his political works, James I also renders his interpretation of the "body" of the body politic. "As for the thing itself, It is composed of a Head and a Body: The Head is the king, the body are the members of the Parliament," who are representative of the gentry and burgesses of the towns. …

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