Gender in The Recruiting Officer
George Farquhar’s 1706 play The Recruiting Officer delves into the careers and personal antics of a male ensemble cast in Restoration era Shropshire. Among these men are the two competing officers Plume and Brazen, the tough Sergeant Kite, and the gentleman Worthy–all of whom, though very different in temperament, have one thing in common: corrupt motives. These men spend the better part of five acts plotting their way around the law and around general moral conduct, and they do so at the expense of others, most notably their female counterparts. The play is a comedy, and while his primary purpose may not have been to provoke social change, Farquhar certainly employed a conspicuous focus on gender as a basis of conflict and humor. And, as the corruption of the men contrasts so sharply with the exploitation of the women, the roles of female characters in The Recruiting Officer draw what most readers today would consider negative attention to men and to the conventional construct of male superiority.
The sexual objectification of females was unprecedented in neither life nor literature in 1706, but few playwrights broached the subject as forwardly and shamelessly as Farquhar. His male characters, particularly the promiscuous Captain Plume, did not equivocate on their sexual intentions. During the very first interaction between Plume and Worthy, after Worthy complains of Melinda being a jilt (i.e. a woman who rejects a lover), Plume responds, “A jilt! pho! is she as great a whore?” (I.i.) He then expresses his pity at her refusal, suggests that Worthy “redouble his attacks” (I.i.), and even proposes ways in which Worthy might deprive her of any self-respect: “She must be reduced to a meaner opinion of herself…. Suppose we lampooned all the pretty women in town and left her out” (I.i.), effectively prompting her to relent to his interests. The nature of the men’s sexual exploits is so plainly misogynistic that it evokes a sense of injustice in the reader and, whether consciously or subconsciously by Farquhar’s intent, vilifies the men as a whole. This subtextual criticism is established further in Plume’s exploits with his own love interests. He pines after a clever and relatively independent girl, Sylvia, and is disheartened to learn that “she would have the wedding before consummation” (I.i), whereas he wanted consummation before the wedding. Again, the reader notices here a distinction between the modest and immodest priorities of women and men respectively. After finding that Silvia has allegedly left for the country, Plume declares himself “above administering to the pride of any woman” (III.i.) and minutes later tries to take advantage of a young country maiden called Rose. Here, Farquhar once again leaves room for the reader to develop their own criticisms of Plume’s moral code, or lack thereof.
In addition to exploiting women for sex, the male characters in The Recruiting Officer seek another, perhaps less expected, exploit from them: money. Farquhar presents the patriarchal structure of 1706 English society with a challenge early on in the play when both Sylvia and Melinda become the heirs to their fathers’ fortunes–fortunes which would traditionally have been inherited by males. This development has its ups and downs for the men of the play. On one hand, they’re eager to indulge in the inheritance with their potential lovers; in fact, Captain Brazen correlates a woman’s wealth very directly with the respectability of marrying her when he brags, “I might have married a German princess, worth fifty thousand crowns a-year…”(III.ii). On the other hand, the men believe the task of courting a wealthy woman to be equally as difficult as it is rewarding, given the women’s newfound financial independence. Worthy offers his very negative perspective on the independence of women when discussing how “fortune drops in their laps, pride possesses their hearts, a maggot fills their heads, madness takes them by the tails…” (III.i), to which Plume agrees. Again, Farquhar succeeds in passively ridiculing misogyny through Worthy’s statement, which ironically rebuked what, upon men, had always been an accepted superiority complex. The moment the tables turn and the women are at a financial advantage, the men’s tone shifts to self-pity and indignation, and their focus becomes to exploit the women and regain the upper hand. These tones and focuses, though primarily for the sake of driving humor and plot, may definitely elicit from the reader some judgment toward the men and injustice on behalf of the women.
Farquhar’s twist on the patriarchy did more than just establish a selfish motive for the male characters; it also set a foundation for the autonomy of the females, giving them opportunities to stray from the generalizations under which the male characters so often placed them. Throughout the entire play, men try to uphold the idea that females are a different, less agreeable and less clever species than themselves, only desirable at particular times and for particular reasons. Plume exemplifies this prejudice when he speaks of “the common jealousy of her sex, which is nothing but their avarice of pleasure” (I.i). Again, Farquhar uses irony to negate generalizations like these; it is in fact the male characters who are notably self-interested, as evidenced by their desire for sex and money and few other things. The male characters also imply their assumption of female stupidity and impressionability time and time again simply by virtue of their attempts to take advantage of them. The women of the play are not unaware of these prejudices. Melinda at one point confronts Kite’s misogyny with, “…do you think, sir, that because I’m a woman I’m to be fooled out of my reason or frightened out of my senses?” (IV.ii) The actions of Sylvia also contribute to a more subtextual feminist undertone; though not a direct confrontation to misogyny, Sylvia’s dress-up escapades display a rebellious nature and a curiosity toward the freedoms that she knows the societal bounds of womanhood are depriving her of. Disguising herself as Jack Wilful, as deceptive an action as it is, is not motivated by corruption but rather by a thirst for equality. And her success in this deception serves as a prime example of female cleverness and adaptability. Sylvia’s end goal is of course to marry Captain Plume, and while this marriage is in literal terms a sacrifice of autonomy, it is a gain of it in a much deeper-rooted way. It is a choice that Sylvia makes of her own accord and by her own means, against the wishes of a patriarchal figure and for the intrinsic value of her own happiness. Through this positive female character development, Farquhar offers a subtle but nonetheless present paradigm of feminism–and an ultimate alternative to male superiority.
George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer is a critically acclaimed piece of the Restoration era, and for very good reason. Combining a generous amount of humor and a few underhanded criticisms of societal norms, Farquhar successfully added to the ongoing conversation of gender inequities and exploitation. And so, whether Farquhar’s initial purpose was to make his audiences laugh or to get them thinking about the treatment of women, it is clear now that he has succeeded in both.
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George Farquhar’s 1706 play The Recruiting Officer delves into the careers and personal antics of a male ensemble cast in Restoration era Shropshire. Among these men are the two competing […]