Carnivalesque and Masquerade in Aphra Behn’s ‘The Rover’

Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!

The Rover (p.1677), Aphra Behn’s renowned Restoration Comedy, interweaves issues of gender relations, social hierarchies and identity in a carnivalesque backdrop wherein masquerade is used as a device to pit characters against social rebellion and to test their virtue. The women in the play, or the “Virgin Commodities”, as critic Elin Diamond chooses to call them, employ the masquerade as a means of hiding their identity and emphasising their otherwise subdued sexuality. The so-called gentlemen and cavaliers use this to their advantage, and we find a darker side of male domination manifesting on the streets of Naples as the boundaries between “women of quality” and “prostitutes” become blurred during the carnival. In this assignment, I shall attempt to illustrate how identity, both individual and social, is put in question throughout the play by means of the masquerade.

The idea of the carnivalesque was developed by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin in his study of the seventeenth-century prose satirist, Francois Rabelais. The carnival for Bakhtin was an event in which all rules, inhibitions, restrictions and regulations which determine the course of everyday life are suspended, and especially all form of hierarchy in society. The concept is derived from the practice of medieval carnival when the people would enjoy a holiday from their labours and in the process ridicule the authorities of church and state. Carnival was also considered a period of indulgence focusing on the pleasures of the body vis-à-vis eating, drinking and promiscuous sexual activity. Aphra Behn constructs The Rover in the Carnival preceding Lent where masquerades, costumes, disguises, overindulgence and theatricality are commonplace, allowing an exploration and subversion of social ideals and realities. A reversal, or rather an outright rejection of social roles is most apparent in the character of Hellena. As per her family’s expectations, Hellena is to join a nunnery, thus saving her father of a second dowry. However, she sees the nunnery as a place of confinement and instead of ‘rightfully’ dismissing the indulgences of the Carnival (which include sexual gratification), she chooses to adorn the mask of a gypsy and embrace its pleasures.

In the first scene itself, we see Hellena as an uncharacteristically outspoken, confident and headstrong woman, ready to flout her father’s wishes. While she and her sister Florinda discuss the latter’s admiration for the English colonel Belvile, she says:
“And dost thou think that ever I’ll be a nun? Or at least till I’m so old I’m fit for nothing else? Faith no, sister; and that which makes me long to know whether you love Belvile, is because I hope he has some mad companion or other that will spoil my devotion. Nay, I’m resolved to provide myself this Carnival, if there be e’er a handsome proper fellow of my humour above ground, though I ask first.” (I.i.34-38)
Hellena finds her “mad companion” in Willmore, “the rover”. The two engage in what could be seen as a teasing sexual banter in the seventeenth century at the Carnival, and Hellena agrees to sleep with him as long as he stays loyal to her. Even though Willmore keeps shifting between Hellena and the courtesan Angellica Bianca in the course of the play, and also attempts to rape Florinda in a drunken state, Hellena ultimately pursues him out of love. Towards the end, she cleverly manipulates love games by dressing up as a boy and professing her love for the rover. In both instances, Hellena is able to engage with Willmore only because her masquerade allows her to do so. As Terry Castle claims in his book Masquerade and Civilization: the Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (1986), Carnival masks provided a detachment from identity, and thus provided also a sort of detachment from traditional morality. Masks were particularly significant as aphrodisiacs: “conventional wisdom held that someone donning a mask, especially a woman, experienced an abrupt loss of sexual inhibition”. Hellena is thus able to assume an identity which is more liberating, or to put it simply, more “male” in nature. This “maleness” affords her a certain amount of power and authority in the play.


Florinda too, is able to make use of the same advantages that the Carnival offers and goes out to seek Belvile, much against the expectations of her father and brother. As Elin Diamond notes in her essay Gestus and Signature in Aphra Behn’s The Rover (1989), Florinda and Hellena don gypsy costumes to join the carnival masquerade and “to evade the patriarchal arrangement of law and jointure laid down by their father and legislated by their brother Pedro”.

Willmore’s character aligns perfectly with the aspirations of the Carnival. The promiscuity seen at masquerades is in keeping with the ‘looseness’ of the rover. Willmore is a hedonist, with a simple aim of maximising pleasure in life. He says to Hellena:
“…‘tis more meritorious to leave the world when thou hast tasted and proved the pleasure on’t. Then ‘twill be a virtue in thee, which now will be pure ignorance.” (I.ii.209-211)
He would much rather die after indulging in all the carnal sins than to live without knowing what real pleasure is. According to scholar Susan Staves this libertine attitude, “the seventeenth-century revival of classic Epicurean hedonism that first came to England from France”, was an ideology that Behn was strongly attached to. Perhaps that is why, despite Willmore’s multiple sexual indulgences and misbehaviour, he still ends up in favourable outcomes and a ‘happy ending’ in Behn’s comedy.

However, even as the masquerade exemplifies Willmore’s identity, it also subverts it at the same time. It is at the Carnival that Willmore finds a constant lover whom he is ultimately betrothed to. The fact that Willmore promises himself to Hellena at the conclusion of the play dissolves his societal role as a rover.

A darker, grimmer side of the Carnival is exposed when the women in the play enter a different system of domination, outside the captivity of their homes. Willmore, a self-proclaimed “rampant lion of the forest” (I.ii.110), assumes that any woman out on the streets during the Carnival is available for sex. He attempts to rape Florinda whilst he is drunk. Later on in the play, Florinda is also nearly raped by Blunt and Frederick. Here, Aphra Behn seems to critique how women who don’t adhere to their predefined social roles are automatically assumed to be prostitutes available for sexual domination. Behn speaks through Hellena who boldly questions, “Why must we be either guilty of fornication or murder if we converse with you men?” (I.ii.208-209). Behn also shows how chastity and prostitution are the only two alternatives available to women. The odds of having a happy ending are tipped in favour of Hellena who is chaste and untouched. Angellica Bianca, who is also in pursuit of Willmore as a lover, is forced to come to terms with the fact her profession would never allow her lead a normal married life. Her social identity would forever be that of a commodity, a means to an end. The Carnival thus also becomes a means to assess the sexual double standards by which women are judged by men.

The masquerade thus challenges individual and social identities in terms of women’s sexual liberties and patriarchal domination. The stance that Aphra Behn takes on masquerades is associated with social change, and she dramatises a cultural conflict between moralistic and transgressive imperatives, equanimity and adventure.

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