In political terms, King Henry V and The Rover are conservative plays
King Henry V and The Rover have a political content but the exploration of that content is specific to the playwright. King Henry V encourages the audience to share in the experience of the King’s journey through the war with the French and the political problems that surround the king’s position. However, The Rover is concerned with political issues surrounding gender relationships, concept of courtship and marriages and the opinions of women, contrasted directly with those of men. In context, the plays had to be slightly conservative, King Henry V was written n the later years of Elizabethan era, between 1595 – 1599.
At this time there was constant political unrest and fear of rebellions from the large Catholic minority. Similarly, Aphra Behn, writing The Rover in 1667 had seen much political unrest through her life. Working in the Restoration theatre allowed much more freedom of speech but a playwright had to be careful not to offend Charles II, as Behn herself was imprisoned for this very reason. In Act 1 scene 2 we see the King’s search for justification for the war with France. He eminds the Archbishop of Canterbury that he should not ‘fashion, wrest or bow your reading’ (King Henry V, page 130).
The horrors of war are explicitly described and the justification of battle should be appropriate to prevent a ‘waste in brief mortality. ‘ (King Henry V, page 131). On the surface the King is clearly seen to be a thoughtful and consistent Christian. However, the subversive element is contained in the fact that we actually know the clergy to be partially corrupt. The Archbishop has a personal interest in the war as it will divert attention from a bill waiting to be assed which will mean that the church will ‘lose the better half’ of their ‘possession.
Therefore the explanation of the ‘sallic’ law and the biblical references to hereditary possession is slightly tainted with a personal benefit. It is also apparent that the King is actually divesting his responsibility onto Canterbury. This is also evident in Henry’s references to the Dauphin – blaming him on many occasions for the war when actually the decision to commence battle had already been solved. Henry rests the power of responsibility with others and, ‘within the ill of God,’ (King Henry V, page 150) Another subversive element is the consistent reminder of the former character of the King.
Canterbury remarks in Act 1 Scene 1 that ‘His companies were unlettered, rude and shallow. ‘ (King Henry V, page 126). Henry V is shown to have reformed his character as the Constable advises the Dauphin in Act 2 Scene 4 ‘you shall find his vanities forespent. ‘ (King Henry V, page 189) The juxtaposition of the scenes of patriotism contrast directly with the ‘low- life’ scenes with the King’s former companions shown to be bawdy, rude, and self-serving. This lso emphasises the fact, that despite the Chorus’s declarations of absolute unity, there are always going to be dissenters.
It is interesting that Falstaff, a popular comic figure dies and Nell Quickley attributes this to the King’s neglect of his former friend; ‘The King has killed his heart’ (King Henry V, page 163). This is again brought to our attention in Act 4 Scene 7 when Gower remarks; ‘our king is not like him in that: he never killed any of his friends. ‘ (King Henry V, page 313) The Southampton conspiracy dictates otherwise – the King did order the killing of his friend Lord Scroop for potentially a treasonable offence.
However, he also sought justification of the conspirators’ deaths from them, admonishing the responsibility from himself. Appearance and reality is an essential theme in King Henry V. In Act 4 Scene 1 the King borrows the cloak of Sir Erpingham and under the guise of a common soldier he faces individual characters. The scene with Williams shows the king’s remarkable aptitude for persuasive argument. Williams highlights the specific horrors of war. The king’s argument is that ‘Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every soldier’s soul is his own.
Although the King’s argument is strong there is something uneasy about his ability to deceive people readily in this manner. In one instant this could be described as a perfectly acceptable trait of any leading politician but with deception comes the elimination of absolute trust. The King’s rhetoric seems to be at the core of most of the subversive elements. The language and imagery he uses are highly persuasive and effective to the purpose. His speeches to the soldiers before the battles of Harfleur and Agincourt are strong and powerful.
At Harfleur he ncourages them to ‘Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage. ‘ (King Henry V, page 202) He makes the patriotic themes of honour and courage explicit and incites passion within those who hear him, referring to them as a ‘band of brothers. ‘ (King Henry V, page 291) He manages to turn his military from an under-fed and apprehensive huddle to a fierce fighting force of men. However, when wooing Katherine he speaks in prose and declares he cannot ‘look greenly nor grasp out my eloquence. ‘ (King Henry V, page 355) This is contrary to the impression we have gained through his political rhetoric throughout the play.
So, is the King a passionate leader or an adaptable politician who can manoeuvre his language to suit his purpose? In contrast to the heavy military element of King Henry V, Aphra Behn’s The Rover provides us with an insight into a woman’s perspective of marriage and courtship through the Restoration era. Restoration drama dealt with the follies and affectations of high society, which provides a light relief to the Puritanism ethic. (Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon, page 132) The Rover opens with Florinda and Hellena discussing their potential futures.
This itself is nteresting that Aphra Behn chose to give women a public voice from the outset, and not only that, but the will and courage of the women is striking. Florinda is slightly more restrained than the feisty Hellena but they are both opposed to the idea of arranged marriages. Hellena remarks that Florinda’s potential marriage to Don Vincentio would be ‘exposing her to a worse confinement than a religious life. ‘ (The Rover, page 161) The carnival element of The Rover allows Hellena to enter into a public domain in search for a husband to saver her from the fate of entering a convent.
The repartee that ensues between Willmore and Hellena is witty and comic. Behn portrays them as equals – they are frank about their sexual desires and have similar amusing rhetoric. Willmore’s argument being that if he were to claim her virginity before she took orders ‘Then ’twill be a virtue in thee, which now will be pure ignorance. ‘ (The Rover, page 169) Hellena language comically engages with his as she returns with ‘you design only to make me fit for heaven’ (The Rover, page 170) The fact that Hellena finally ‘wins’ her man sends out a strong message of sexual equality. Her triumphant ending is hat he finally agrees to marriage.
Behn seems to suggest the being outspoken, equal and frank about sexual desires will lead a woman to happiness, which was the absolute antithesis of a society where women were meant to be silent and pious. Using the introduction of Angellica allows Behn to subvert the male conventions of her time by presenting a courtesan as a sympathetic figure. Angellica is seen to be proud, independent and has no remorse for her prostitution. By placing her paintings outside her home she is equating sex with a commercial activity which Behn uses to highlight is the same as an rranged marriage, however Angellica has had the return of independence.
Sex and money were intricately tied together. The intellectual dual between the rogue Willmore and Angellica is heightened emotionally by the fact that Behn manoeuvres the language into blank verse instead of prose. Angellica, being won over by Willmore’s argument declares; ‘the low esteem you have of me, perhaps / May bring my heart again: / For I have pride, that yet surmounts my love. ‘ (The Rover, page 187) In contrast, the consistent Belvile and Florinda are equally virtuous and loyal to each ther but they are fated to endure hardship in their courtship.
Though Florinda is not quite a raucous as Hellena she is equally adamantly opposed to an arranged marriage with Don Vincentio. In a retort to Don Pedro she exclaims; ‘I hate Vincentio, sir, and I would not have a man so dear to me as my brother, follow the ill customs of our country, and make a slave of his sister . ‘ (The Rover, page 160) Though Florinda is not as active as Hellena she is certainly not passive. In her efforts of courtship she too gives Belvile a locket with her picture, advertising her wares, analogous to Angellica’s trade.
She also actively arranges meetings and purposefully deceives her brother in a effort to marry Belvile. This behaviour would most certainly have not been acceptable in normal society but Behn portrays it in a way that the audience actively engages with Florinda and Belvile – wanting them to marry. The third plot concerning Lucetta and Blunt also has a feminist inclination. Lucetta’s deception of Blunt is striking in the fact that Lucetta is not punished for her behaviour. On reason for this is the fact that Blunt is not a particularly likeable character.
His stupidity and self-deceit lead him to the entrapment. His later anger doesn’t serve to endear him any more to the audience than previously with his condemnations of ‘damnable women [… ] A generation of damned hypocrites. ‘ (The Rover, page 226) the other element is the fact that Florinda is almost made to pay for Lucetta’s crimes as Blunt uses his anger as an excuse in his attempt to rape her; ‘Sir, must I be sacrificed for the crimes of the most infamous of my sex. ‘ (The Rover, page 226) The political trend in both King Henry V and The Rover are both subversive to a point.
As a pectator of King Henry V I would perhaps think the play exemplified an excellent leader and his astounding ability to reform himself for the good of his nation. I think the subversive elements of King Henry V are mainly contained within the text itself and a close reading provides us with an insight into the potential corruption of governing bodies. In contrast to this, The Rover is overtly subversive, it literally turns society’s values on its head – proving that women have the potential to be an equal voice alongside that of men.
The weaker sex is shown to be the male counterparts o a point – with Willmore’s insatiable lust and Blunt’s self-deceit. The women are witty, intelligent and independent within their own right. I think the strongest message comes from Angellica – advertising her wares and running and commercial business – just like Behn. Most women had to face the same choices and those that didn’t conform were often morally attacked. Behn’s message to me is clear – the route we follow does not necessarily make women ‘good’ or ‘bad’ beings, pride, independence and following the intrinsic soul is what makes women human!