Analysis of Aphra Behn’s The Rover
Hobbes’ theory of human nature and commonwealth is applied in Aphra Behn’s The Rover, typically through the example of Willmore and Hellena’s marriage which marks the ending of the play. The system of marriage, within the setting of The Rover is a representation of the commonwealth and the societal structure described in Hobbes’ Leviathan. Marriage between Willmore and Hellena is a prime example in explaining the basic theory Hobbes claims of human nature because, in contrast to the romantic relationship between Belvile and Florinda, they marry each other for the sake of personal benefit and advantage by forming a symbiotic relationship void of true love. The essay’s purpose is to prove this symbiosis as well as reveal the irony of mistrust and constant fear of betrayal by focusing on the character development of Hellena as she accepts and adapts to the Hobbesian state of nature after her fateful encounter with Willmore. Further explanation on Hellena’s dynamic persona will also be described based upon the origins of her name and what it connotes in reflection to her changed character.
It is easy to assume that Willmore and Hellena’s relationship is different from a property marriage commonly practised during the historical time period of The Rover and as love marriage, innocent from the calculative nature of using young, unmarried men and women as commodities for the material gain of their family. However, the continuous referrals to ‘love’ evident in both Willmore and Hellena’s speech are deceiving and diverge away from its common definition. When wooing Hellena for the first time, Willmore claims how he has “a world of love in store” for her (1.2.176–177). Yet, it is soon evident that Willmore’s definition for love is interchangeable with lust when Hellena questions the “difference between leave to love… and leave to lie,” only to be answered with a rather disheartening, matter-of-fact comment by Willmore: “they were made to go together” (1.2.229–231). For Willmore, love is akin to sexual pleasure than a spiritual connection with the beloved, and by pursuing Hellena as an object of his sexual desire, Willmore is following and striving to obtain personal happiness in the context of Hobbes’s definition of “felicity… [as] a continual progress of the desire” (57).
Fulfilling his desire for self-serving purposes is Willmore’s chief aim in life, and Hellena realizes this disappointing truth about her charmer after a moment of jealousy caused by Willmore’s attraction towards Angelica Bianca. Hellena becomes aware that her wariness and mistrust of Willmore is based upon just grounds when he fails to keep “his word with [her]” to pursue the famed courtesan, which proves that he is “a fellow that… loves every new face he sees” (3.1.24, 22–23). After feeling “angry and afraid… that mad fellow [Willmore] should be in love with anybody but me,” Hellena learns that her emotions push her to be vulnerable in her relationship with Willmore, thus giving her the disadvantage (3.1.30–32). Due to this turning point, Hellena matures “to be beloved,” by having the upper hand between herself and Willmore instead “to love” (3.1.53–54). Like Willmore, Hellena decides to be self-serving rather than to be selfless; she asserts to gain love than to give love.
Love is a sign of weakness when analyzing the uneasy power dynamic between Willmore and Hellena. Their relationship ensues like a battle where whoever loves more is bound to lose. Hellena is particularly more wary of love than Willmore since she witnesses how he victimizes Angelica Bianca by manipulating the “general disease of [her] sex… that of being in love” (2.1.167–168). Even though Willmore and Hellena marry each other by personal choice away from the manipulative interference of the older generation, their marriage lacks autonomy as much as property marriage because they are not free to express any kind of genuine emotion to each other, in fear of losing power over one’s partner. Therefore, Willmore and Hellena are in the Hobbesian state of nature, where the “perpetual and restless desire of power after power… ceaseth only in death”, but on a smaller scale than the commonwealth in the form of marriage (57). Since there is no intrinsic value of trust between these lovers but only a surface idea of trust that the other will keep his or her side of the “bargain”, Willmore and Hellena, underneath the pretence of love, are in a state of “war…of every man against every man” (5.1.516) (Hobbes 76).
In order to subdue this warring state, the battle of the sexes, Hellena chooses marriage as her medium. Despite the innate fear of losing the power dynamic, the benefit of marriage overrides the state of being unmarried. “The power of a man… is his present means to obtain some future apparent good”, and Hellena asserts this power through marriage (Hobbes 50). “[V]oluntary actions and inclinations of all men tend… the assuring of a contented life”, and for Hellena, life in a nunnery designed by her brother is not her definition of a ‘contented life’ (Hobbes 57). From the very beginning of the play, Hellena shirks away from the very idea of spending her life as a nun: “dost thou think that ever I’ll be a nun? Or at least till I’m so old, I’m fit for nothing else” (1.1.38–39). Thus, marriage functions as an asset since it prevents Hellena from being a nun. Nevertheless, Hellena’s regard of marriage as a sufficient solution to the problem is questionable due to the negative connotation of her married life as “ventur[ing] in the storms o’th’ marriage bed”, serving as a warning that creates dark undertones to the seemingly happy ending (5.1.635). Value and legitimacy of marriage are ironically challenged and questioned by none other than Hellena herself when she depicts marriage as a “worse confinement than a religious life”, and she also claims that she would “rather be a nun than be obliged to marry as [Don Pedro] would have” her (1.1.110–111) (1.1.166–167). It is ironic that Hellena would much rather marry the unloving rake, Willmore when she claims that marriage is ‘worse confinement than a religious life.’ Perhaps for Hellena, following the social norms of her times holds more importance than listening to her innate, subdued desires.
Consequently, the only pure merit Hellena achieves through her marriage to Willmore is that it is a match formed by her own choice instead of an authoritative third person. However, Hellena’s belief that she has authority is illegitimate, a false sense of hope and in turn, proof of her lack of authority due to her lack of choices. To escape the confinements of a nunnery, Hellena confines herself in an unbreakable marriage vow with Willmore. There is no true freedom for Hellena since the only alternative is another prison whether it be the restriction of a convent wall or within Willmore’s arms in a stifling embrace. Hellena bargains her virginity through marriage with Willmore to gain autonomy from her controlling brother and jail keeper, but what she does not realize or refuses to admit is that her actions only serve to substitute her jail keeper from a brother to a husband. “Fear of oppression disposeth a man to anticipate or to seek aid by society; for there is no other way by which a man can secure his life and liberty”, but in the case of Hellena, the belief that she has her ‘life and liberty’ secured through her consummation with Willmore is completely false (Hobbes 59).
With a husband who has “an inconstant English heart”, Hellena must become “Hellena the Inconstant” in order for her not to become another victim of his like Angelica Bianca (1.2.168) (5.1.536). Hellena may have achieved ‘liberty’ from the oppression of her family, but she failed to attain ‘liberty’ over her emotions since she is not free to express love without restraint in fear of exposing her vulnerability. Therefore, Hellena is still in a condition of instability and will continue to be in a Hobbesian state of ‘war’ even after her marriage since she is in a “disposition… [where] there is no assurance” (Hobbes 76). As an individual, “when going to sleep… locks his doors”, Hellena and Willmore “are both upon [their] guards” — guarding their hearts away from each other’s possession even as husband and wife (Hobbes 77) (5.1.501). It is ironic how the bond between husband and wife, which is supposed to be the most intimate of all human relations, is revealed to be the most perturbed and distant in the play.
The only way for Hellena to be free from developing potential affection for Willmore and gain control over her relationship is to get even with him by stripping away her “tender heart”, a marker of her girlhood and naive dream of love (1.2.186). Hellena transforms herself into another ‘Willmore’ after she comes to the understanding that “equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of [their] ends” (Hobbes 75). In order for her marriage to be successful and a symbiotic relationship for the both of them, Hellena uses her knowledge of Willmore’s desire for “[n]ew joys, new charms, in a new miss” (4.2.419). By being unattainable and mirroring his rogueish actions, Hellena “see[s]… [their] business as well as humors… alike; [his] to cozen as many maids as will trust [him], and [she] as many men as have faith” (3.1.225–227).
Still, it is rash and dangerous to assume that Hellena’s identity is only defined through Willmore, with her character development having no ends than to lose her original individuality by becoming Wilmore’s clone. Rather, it is interesting to note Hellena’s progression and change throughout the play as a coming-of-age and self-actualization. Experiencing the world outside of her family home, meeting Willmore, and using her wit to undertake multiple disguises is itself an adventure regardless of the outcome. One of Hellena’s key characteristics is distinguished by the implication of her name — its connection to Helen of Troy. Whether intended by Behn or not, like Willmore, whose ‘will’ always screams out for ‘more’ due to his appetite for women and sex until they are obtained and conquered, Hellena’s name has a close relation to Helen of Troy since the character traits of Helen are deeply embedded in creating Hellena’s unique individuality.
Helen of Troy is “strictly contained within the gender ideologies… yet she has a remarkably assertive voice” and so does Hellena (Blondell 350). Hellena goes against the norms of femininity defined by her culture by changing her own fate through her own actions, which is contrasted with Florinda whose character is more defined by inaction and from being physically domineered by various men. Hellena's character correlates with the modern interpretation of Helen of Troy where she is depicted as a woman who outwitted the influential men of her society and strategically used her marriage with those men to secure her authority. For example, as “once wife to Menelaus, …wife to Paris, …[and] wife to Deiphobus, Helen of Troy is known to act as a…participant in the betrayal of Troy and the cruel murder of Deiphobus” — as an active individual as much as her male counterparts, instead of a bystander (Sundwall 155). Sundwall even claims that nothing can “be more natural and credible than that her [Helen of Troy] eye is not… roving” since she remarries three times for her own advantage (155). Like Helen of Troy, Hellena senses the need to execute the method of ‘roving’ more than the rover himself in order to have him under her control. Both women’s power over their men are derived from refusing to be “attainable as an object of desire” (Blondell 353). They exert their authority by being more unconstant than their husbands.
Another parallel between Hellena and Helen of Troy is in their ambivalent persona. Both women are neither a representation of Eve or the Virgin Mary, the good and evil, the two main categorizations used to label women throughout history. Hellena is physically a virgin yet she desires sexual experience, and because she is more deceptive at concealing her emotions and apt in outwitting Willmore than Angelica Bianca, the prostitute, she is a character who conveys a duality of the two extremes. This quality originates from the Helen of Troy and “her irreducible complex of beauty and evil”, where the distinction between the Virgin and the Whore becomes murky, and it becomes impossible to define women with only two extreme dimensions (Blondell 352). Hellena reflects the ambivalent nature of Helen of Troy, which allows her character to be complex and engaging as she is “dangerous but desirable, object but agent, beautiful but destructive” (Blondell 355). The femme fatale nature innately shared with Helen of Troy allows Hellena to be desirable, which is an asset to survive in a society where she is born with the disadvantage of her sex.
In the Hobbesian commonwealth, “[t]o show any sign of love… of another is to honour, …[t]o contemn, or less to love… than he expects is to dishonour, for it is undervaluing” (52). This statement summarizes the Hobbesian state of nature Hellena must conform to where love is commodified and must be exchanged wisely. Hellena uses her femininity and wit to reach her goals, yet her achievement comes with a price, the loss of her hopes in true love and romance, a dream that can only be dreamt by people like Belvile and Florinda. It is a dire, sick rendering of society even though the example studied in this essay through the marriage deal between Willmore and Hellena can almost be perceived as comedic and lighthearted. The comedy is undermined because the stark reality of Willmore and Hellena’s relationship, when based on Hobbes’ theory, is that there is absolutely no sign of affection or even a hint of sincerity between the two. The hero and heroine live in a world where they cannot afford to love since “love… the undeceiving glass… reflect[s] all the weakness of [the] soul” (5.1.312–313).
Behn, Aphra. “The Rover; or, The Banished Cavaliers.” The Broadview Anthology of Restoration & Early Eighteenth-Century Drama, Ed. J. Douglas Canfield and Maja-Lisa Von
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Hobbes, Thomas, and Edwin Curley. Leviathan: with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668. Indianapolis, IND, Hackett, 2007.
Blondell, Ruby. “Refractions of Homer’s Helen in Archaic Lyric.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 131, no. 3, 2010, pp. 349–391., www.jstor.org/stable/40983352.
Sundwall, McKay. “Deiphobus and Helen: A Tantalizing Hint.” Modern Philology, vol. 73, no.2, 1975, pp. 151–156., www.jstor.org/stable/436329.