The Mask of Marriage: Virtue, Honor, Reputation and Female Identity in the Sexual Economy of The Rover

February 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

In The Rover, Aphra Behn illustrates a world in which sex and economic exchange unite under the mandates of the patriarchy. In such a society, sexuality is commodified, and a woman is either sold into the marriage market (by her family, in an effort to secure wealth and class status), or she sells her own marketable wares to the highest bidder. Female identity, then, is also bound up in matters of sexuality. Who one is as a woman is linked to the (constructed) role or station she occupies in society — a role or station, that is, which is itself defined by a particular kind of sexual activity or expression. All of these markers are, of course, ultimately subject to the determining male gaze: a woman is who or what she is perceived to be. The Rover, therefore, suggests that “female identity” is quite a fluid concept, varying along the spectrum of sexually-based perception and economic function. In a society where the line between “kept woman” and “woman of quality” is so potentially ambiguous, so thinly drawn (since both “types” are implicated and active in the sexual market economy), virtue, honor and reputation play a significant role in making this distinction. For the plays three main female characters, Angellica, Florinda and Hellena, their loss, temporary absence and maintenance of “honor,” respectively, illustrate the importance of virtue in the market economy. Ultimately, Hellena will embody the lessons about virtue modeled for her by Angellica and Florinda, thereby creating for herself a life that celebrates and echoes the spirit of Libertinism. As a courtesan, Angellica Bianca enacts a sexual economic and social role in which her virtue, both in terms of her “honor” and “virginity,” holds no value. Sex, not virtue, is the commodity that belongs to and defines the “prostitute.” Angellica relies heavily on her sexual credit, on men believing her sales pitch and buying her goods, to make her own living and to carve out her appropriate space in society. She has no time for foolishness such as love, stating that she is both “resolved that nothing but gold shall charm (her) heart” (II.i.135-136), and thankful to have been born under a “kind but sullen star” that has kept her from falling in love (II.i.139). When Angellica first appears in the play, she is a famous courtesan whose very image arrests the attention of Naple’s male population. Upon seeing her picture (Angellica’s form of self-promotion/advertisement), Willmore comments, “How wondrous fair she is” and curses the “poverty” that prevents him from affording her price, a poverty of which he “ne’er complain(s) but when it hinders (his) approach to beauty which virtue ne’er could purchase” (II.i.102-105). From Willmore’s language, it is clear that Angellica is conceived of as an object of “purchase” distinctly outside the realm of “virtue.” “Purchase” and “virtue” are binary terms – if Angellica embodies market value, she must necessarily lack “honor” value). What happens, however, if Angellica wants to take back the honor she relinquished as a prostitute? What if she wants to explore love – explore “relationship” possibilities outside a life of paid sexual service? She encounters such a desire – and dilemma – in the rake figure of Willmore. When Willmore convinces Angellica to sleep with him for free, she essentially surrenders the “market power” her position as a courtesan has afforded her. Her value is not in virtue, but in sex. However, when she offers that sex for free, she loses her influence as a prostitute. In her soliloquy, Angellica confesses:In vain, I have consulted all my charms, In vain this beauty prized, in vain believedMy eyes could kindle lasting fires.I had forgot my name, my infamy,And the reproach that honour lays on thoseThat dare pretend a sober passion here.Nice reputation, though it leave behindMore virtues than inhabit where that dwells,Yet that once gone, those virtues shine no more. (IV.iii.396-405)In her role as a courtesan, Angellica had in essence insulated herself from the “reproach” of the mainstream public. In her context, quarantined from “that general disease of (her) sex so long” (II.i.137-138), protected in what she later calls her “innocent security” (V.i.270), she had found a place of acceptance insofar as she was idolized, lusted for and doted upon. However, once she offers her heart to Willmore, who does not dote on her, who is false in the “vows” he initially swears (II.ii.148), she is exposed to the judgments and expectations of a different value system. In this context, she is reminded of her “infamy,” her questionable reputation and how no one would take seriously her desire for love (the “sober passion here”). Angellica’s soliloquy also reveals her awareness of how dearly a good reputation is valued, for it emphasizes how much such a reputation “costs.” In adopting a “nice reputation,” one abandons (or “leaves behinds”) less-honorable “virtues”; that is, virtues that are more in line with the Libertine spirit: bawdiness, “saltiness,” fun, freedom, etc. However, “once gone” the qualities of a good reputation – honor, purity, virginity – are forever lost and leave no trace of the “bolder” virtues they supplanted, for both sets of virtues “shine no more”. More importantly, however, Angellica is here realizing that she cannot recover and the honor she would need to secure love. She echoes this understanding in a speech to Willmore later in the play, where she says:But when love held the mirror, the undeceiving glassReflected all the weakness of my soul, and made me knowMy richest treasure being lost, my honour, All the remaining spoil could not be worthThe conqueror’s care or value.Oh how I fell, like a long worshipped idolDiscovering all the cheat. (V.i.268-279). In her prostitution, Angellica had been continually shielding herself against feelings that would have interfered with het trade. Once unguarded, Angellica is confronted with hard truths exposed (“reflected”) in the “undeceiving glass” of her unreciprocated love for Willmore. Her romantic desires lay bare all the “cheat(s)” of her profession, the vain “charms” and “prized beauty” mentioned in the earlier soliloquy. More tragically for Angellica, however, is the recognition that her “richest treasure” had not been her good looks or sexual appeal, but her “honour.” Without that virtue, all she has is body, the “remaining spoil”. However, it is the body with the virtue that is “worth/The conqueror’s care (and) value.” “Value” here is multivalent: it means both market or economic value, as well as the love and respect awarded a woman of good repute. In both economies then, the one of commodity exchange and the one of care, Angellica is denied space once she expresses her love for Willmore. Without the mark of honor, a woman in subject to base treatment and ill regard, as evidenced by Florinda when she temporarily “loses” her virtuous distinction. Unlike Angellica, Florinda is a “woman of quality,” an upper-class Spanish lady who has retained her good reputation. However, she is still a member of the sexual economy in that she finds herself a begrudging participant of an arranged marriage. Her father “designs” for her to marry the “rich old Don Vincentio,” (I.i.16-17), a relic of Spanish Imperialism (having made his money plundering Spanish colonies) who will increase Florinda family’s wealth and social standing. Florinda, however, dreads a possible future as the wife of Don Vincentio, calling him a “hated object” (I.i.19) on whom the qualities she recognizes as her marketable goods, her “youth, beauty and (initial) fortune” (I.i.74), would be wasted. Hellena agrees that Don Vincentio would be an inadequate lover, commenting that he is too old to reproduce with Florinda – able to “perhaps increase her bags, but not her family” [I.i.84]) and “figuratively” identifying his sexual defects through the metaphorical image of his “foul sheets” (i.i.115). The other man in Florinda’s family, her brother Pedro, also views her and her unspoiled sexuality as a potential bargaining chip. He would like her to wed Don Antonio, who is both Pedro’s good friend and the viceroy’s son. Therefore, Pedro might be motivated by some sense of male camaraderie, but is more likely advocating for his chum in order to increase his own political influence and status. In either circumstance, Florinda’s romantic wishes are completely ignored, for she has fallen in love with the Englishman Belvile. During a street-masquerade, disguised by her vizard, she freely makes a promise with Belvile to meet her later that night. Ironically, it is this disguised exchange that will lead to the obfuscation of her honor and confusion surrounding her chaste identity.Florinda leaves the carnival scene to await Belvile in a garden for their arranged rendezvous. Unexpectedly, however, she encounters the rakish Willmore, who does not recognize her as “Florinda,” a decent woman and his friend’s love interest. As far as he is concerned, she is simply a beautiful woman alone at night, and thus suspect for being both unaccompanied and a wanderer in the dark. Therefore, she must be a prostitute, and Willmore accordingly declares her, in sexual excitement, to be “a very wench!” (III.v.16). An attempted rape scene proceeds, with Willmore pressuring Florinda to consummate their meeting hastily – for, in pausing too long, she would be allowing a quick “accident” to become a blamable act of “willful fornication” [III.v.35-38]. She could claim rape but, as Willmore points out, who would believe her intentions as being “honorable”? “Why, at this time of night,” he asks, “was your cobweb door set open, dear spider – but to catch flies?” (III.v.53-54). Not only does Willmore’s question/accusation rob Florinda of any redemptive virtue, it also inverts the rape scenario by painting Florinda as the predacious party, with the “spider” catching “flies” in her “cobweb”. It is not until Belvile enters and recognizes his lover that Florinda’s identity as a “lady” is affirmed. Furious at the shame and harm that might have come to Florinda, Belvile wonders how Willmore could have mistaken her for a prostitute: “Coulds’t (thou) not see something about her face and person, to strike an awful reverence in thy soul?” (III.vi.23-24) No — apparently in the dark of night, to male eyes blind with lust and desire, there is nothing innately glowing about a female’s virtue to distinguish her from an “errant harlot” (III.vi.20). In the unrecognized figure of Florinda, Willmore simply saw “as mere a woman as (he) could wish” (III.vi.25). This episode of mistaken identity confirms Angellica’s observation that, indeed, once the title of “good reputation” is lifted, its associated virtues in women “shine no more.” In a rather tragicomic turn, Florinda finds herself in a similar situation later in the play, when she accidentally wanders into Blunt’s chamber. Recently robbed and humiliated by a prostitute pretending to be a lady, Blunt sees in Florinda the opportunity to avenge his embarrassment: “(I) will be revenged on one whore for the sins of another” (IV.v.52). Thus, he and Frederick attempt to entrap Florinda in forced group sex. It is not until Florinda gives Blunt a ring, showing him a physical representation of her virtue, offering a token of value rather than demanding one it as a prostitute would, that the men question their assumptions. “I begin to suspect something;” says Frederick, “and ‘twould anger us viley to be trussed up for a rape upon a maid of quality” (IV.v.123-125). These rape scenes and the rapidity with which they transpire, underscore the extreme fluidity of female identity. Although ostensibly out of place, “formally” incongruous in a comedy, they are significant for the way they demonstrate how deeply the “female self” is enmeshed in matters of sexual activity and male perception. Clearly, “honor” is not an innate quality, but one that must be corroborated by social status. This is precisely the “social” game that Hellena will play in order to ensure her happy ending. From the lessons modeled for her by Angellica and Florinda, Hellena understands the importance of female honor. Like her counterparts, Hellena is implicated in the economic exchange between the sexes, fully recognizing and appreciating the value of her quality wares. In the first scene of the play, for example, Hellena speaks of herself as a rare-find object d’art, “fit” for love. She asks Florinda, “Have I not a world of youth? A humour gay? A beauty passable? A vigour desirable? Well shaped? Clean limbed? Sweet breathed?” (I.i.38-40). In possession of these traits, it seems Hellena has appraised herself to be quite a catch, placing a high value on her contribution to the sexual market. It is this recognition of herself as commodity that motivates her decision to play the field before leaving for the nunnery and beginning “her everlasting penance in a monastery” [I.i.135]. She sets her sites on the Libertine Willmore, whom she meets in disguise at the street-masquerade. Her intentions, her priorities, are rather ambiguous. Whereas Florinda adores Belvile and Belvile alone, with a desire to ultimately marry the Englishman, Hellena may be more interested in extending the moment of flirtation, the space of play and experimentation represented by the masque. “Is there no difference between leave to love me, and leave to lie with me?” she asks Willmore, who is anxious to have her in his bed (I.ii.189-190). This is perhaps Hellena’s attempt to prolong the thrill of the carinvalesque, and evidence of how she is a type of female rover. For Hellena, the best way to extend Saturnalia is to don the mask of marriage.In order for Hellena to be accepted by her social context while in a contradictory pursuit of multiple love experiences, she must retain her virtue. By the end of the play, she is anxious to secure Willmore’s marriage vow, which, as a rake, Willmore is of course disinclined to offer. But her wish for marriage stems not out of a desire to share some intimate, monogamous bond with the tamed Libertine. Evidence of this can be found in her objection to Willmore’s proposition of sex without/before marriage:‘Tis but getting my consent, and the business is soon done. Letbut old gaffer Hymen and his priest say amen to’t, and I dare laymy mother’s daughter by as proper a fellow as your father’s son, without fear of blushing. (V.i.424-427)From this language, which undermines the “religiousness” of the marriage sacrament with its allusion to the pagan god Hymen, it seems that Hellena’s motives for marriage have little to do with some need to be “virtuous” in the pious, Christian sense. Rather, Hellena understands how the institution of “marriage” would bless, or “say amen to”, her name. Functioning as a cloak protecting her honor before the judgmental eyes of the patriarchy, the label of “marriage” would afford Hellena the opportunity to have varied sexual relations, if this is indeed her desire, as her intentions remain ambiguous, reflecting the openness and limitless options she wants from life. In this way, marriage acts as the ultimate disguise. It places a permanent mark of virtue upon a woman, allowing her the sexual freedom of a Libertine without fear of losing her honor and facing the misfortune experienced by the non-virtuous, “fallen” prostitute figure of Angellica. That Angellica is simply rushed off the stage at the end of the play, unable to join the inner-circle of the “good” characters, unable to be involved in the resolution of the comedic plot, is a formal parallel to her narrative of “ostracism” in 18th-century patriarchal society.Because the women in The Rover speak of themselves as commodified objects, content to be agents or members of the sexual economy, it seems that Aphra Behn is not launching a full critique of the patriarchy in her play. Additionally, the fact that Willmore is included as one of the characters in the happy restoration of peace in the comedy, suggests that Behn is also not condemning Libertinism. Instead, her play demonstrates the role of the woman in Libertine society. Angellica, Florinda and Hellena all represent ways that women can negotiate their role within the mandates of a patriarchal context — either successfully (Florinda, Hellena) or tragically (Angellica). The most successful character, Hellena, seems able to reconcile her honest desires with social expectation. She, as a female rover, plays the system and can be both free and accepted, both sexual and virtuous, and live the kind of robust life that Aphra Behn – in this way a Libertine herself – fully endorses.

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