Masked Criticism: the Whore and the Breeches Role as Articulators of Sexual Economic Theory in the Intrigue Plays of Aphra Behn.
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Leslie A. Wade
Aphra Behn was an important playwright in the Restoration, second only to John Dryden in the number of plays produced during the period. In some of her early plays based on Spanish intrigue comedies, she uses the roles of whores and cross dressed women to articulate her criticism of the sexual economy within patriarchy. Masks and disguises create confusion in all the plays. Her characters, plots, structure, humor and economic concerns change with each successive play. The first play in the series, The Dutch Lover (1673) is a tale of romance where women are exchanged between men for the benefit of the men. In the central utopian portion of the play, women make their own choices about mates and benefit from those choices. Behn's most popular play, The Rover (1677), is a play set firmly within capitalism and critiques that system's use of women. All the characters rail against the selling of female flesh, whether in marriage or in prostitution. This play reinforces themes of the fool who cannot tell, the difference between whores and ladies. The third play The Feign'd Curtizans (1679) was clearly written at the same time as The Rover , with similar romances and similar criticisms of the system. The humorous subplot of two fools tricked by a clown (all three played by the best comedians of the period) threatens to overwhelm the romance. The last play of the series, The Second Part of The Rover (1681) is a continuation of the characters and adventures of The Rover. It reprises many of the themes, but the play is much darker and the women have very few choices. The men are no longer looking for sexual playmates, but marriageable women with large fortunes to secure their own futures. The breeches role and the role of the whore perform the same function. They embody the idea of women for sale, women on display. The whore does that within the text. The breeches role displayed the legs of the actress in a provocative way that was as much advertisement for the actress's sexual availability as the vizard masks which real prostitutes wore in the streets. The vizard becomes an emblem of Behn's dramatic technique. As the vizard both marks and masks the identity of the wearer, the spectacle of woman for sale (as both whore and breeches role) both articulates and masks Behn's criticism of a sexual economy where women are sold and men are not.
Politz, Mary Katherine, "Masked Criticism: the Whore and the Breeches Role as Articulators of Sexual Economic Theory in the Intrigue Plays of Aphra Behn." (2000). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 7163.