'Once a Whore and Ever'?: Whore and Virgin in The Rover and Its Antecedents

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Author: Nancy Copeland
Editors: Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau
Date: 2007
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Play explanation
Length: 4,343 words

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[(essay date spring 1992) In the following essay, Copeland argues that Behn challenges Angellica's status as a whore and uses her to question the value of female chastity.]

In her Postscript to The Rover, Aphra Behn claimed, in response to accusations of plagiarism, that "the sign of Angellica" was "the only stolen object" that she had appropriated from Thomas Killigrew's Thomaso (1.13, 130). She had, in fact, borrowed considerably more, and her debt has been duly documented.1 Nevertheless, her disingenuous claim does point to an "object" that is of particular significance to her play. The courtesan Angellica Bianca, "stolen" from Thomaso, is the vehicle for meanings that suggest the difficult position of the female subject in a period when, in the words of Harold Weber, "sexual change could both elevate and degrade women at the same time" (152). Thanks to the presence of this unusual character derived from an earlier comic tradition, a courtesan is brought together with the "gay" heroine of Carolean comedy to produce a conjunction that, by complicating both the progress and the resolution of the action, exposes an inherent contradiction in contemporary attitudes toward female sexuality. While Killigrew's Angellica demonstrates the simple truth of the adage "once a whore and ever," in Behn's play the resemblance between Angellica and Hellena, the momentary idealization of Angellica's libertinism, and the lack of closure in the play's treatment of her, call into question the value of female chastity and challenge her consignment to the status of "whore."

I

The main plot of The Rover is, like Thomaso's, built around the comic topos of the hero's choice between virgo and meretrix. Thomaso is the successor of the many Jacobean city comedies that represent the same subject. Of these, Marston's Dutch Courtesan (1605) is exemplary: the "Fabulae Argumentum" announces that "The difference betwixt the love of a courtesan and a wife is the full scope of the play ..." (3); further, the play is, according to Richard Horwich, in many respects, "a sort of encyclopedia of popular attitudes toward courtesans ..." (272 n.8). The view of the subject finally endorsed by the plot is expressed in Act V by the hero, Freevill, in a comparison of his virtuous wife-to-be, Beatrice, with his vengeful cast-off whore, Franceschina:

O heaven, What difference is in women and their life! What man, but worthy name of man, would leave The modest pleasures of a lawful bed, The holy union of two equal hearts, Mutually holding either dear as health, The undoubted issues, joys of chaste sheets, The unfeigned embrace of sober ignorance, To twine th'unhealthful loins of common loves, The prostituted impudence of things Senseless like those by cataracts of Nile, Their use so vile takes away sense! How vile To love a creature made of blood and hell, Whose use makes weak, whose company doth shame, Whose bed doth beggar, issue doth defame! (V.i.65-79)

Inscribed in this passage is the absolute distinction between virgin and whore that is a commonplace of Elizabethan and Jacobean...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420076011