One remarkable woman who fought against the gender-based restrictions of the seventeenth century was the English playwright, Aphra Behn, who loudly complained about the lack of educational opportunities for women. After being married to, and separated from, a merchant of German or Dutch extraction, Behn ended up being a spy for England against Holland in the 1660s.
It was after this period that Behn entered the very competitive area of writing plays for a living. She flouted the prevailing ideology of the time that said women were inferior to men in all respects. Following the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, professional theatres reopened for the first time since being closed in the early 1640s. One of the most striking differences between the plays in Shakespeare’s times and the Restoration drama was the fact that women were now allowed to be professional actresses and their roles were no longer taken by boys.
Behn produced two successful plays within six months of each other: The Forced Marriage and The Amorous Prince, both romantic tragicomedies. But her third, The Dutch Lover, was criticised. It was still a patriarchal world, and her work was often accused of being full of immorality. Society was scandalised because Behn was a woman, and it was therefore ‘unnatural’ to write in this way. This led to her publishing a defiant feminist manifesto, objecting to the criticism of her plays on the basis of gender. Three years later she was again producing successful plays beginning with the heroic tragedy Abdelazar, followed by a comedy, The Town Fop, in 1676.
It was another six months before The Rover, one of Behn’s most enduring plays, was performed in 1677. But her success led to even more criticism and attacks on her personal life, and she complained again of being victimised simply because she was a woman. Added to that was the charge of using someone else’s work. Behn never denied that the play was loosely adapted from Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso, or The Wanderer, written in 1654, but claimed she had his permission to rewrite it. Partly dealing with near rape, prostitution and the restrictions imposed on women, the play is set in Naples, which was then part of the Spanish Empire. The Rover focuses on love and marriage from a woman’s point of view.
The Rover recently began to receive the attention it deserves in the canon of English literature, four centuries after it was first performed. Aphra Behn was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1689 and her epitaph reads:
‘Here lies a proof that wit can never be
Defence enough against mortality.’
What a woman!