Episode One

Weathering Behn’s World

Written and produced by Marlee Bush and Hughes Green (cite)

Climate can refer to meteorological climate, natural surroundings, or the established setting. Nature can refer to a person’s predisposition arising from their setting or the environment in which they live. Behn uses literal and figurative metaphors from nature, as well as disease allusions related to plagues or poxes to develop characters’ deportments, romances, and mannerisms.

Show Notes

Segment 1: Nature in Oroonoko

In this segment, Hughes and Marlee consider the ways in which metaphors derived from the natural world of employed in Behn’s novella, Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (1688) to cultivate setting, characterization, and emotions. A central juxtaposition is the dichotomy of the physical state of nature with the metaphorical state. Of particular interest is the use of temperature as an indicator of passion, as well as love, romance, and affection.

In this segment, the following resources are mentioned:

  • Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” In Oroonoko, and Other Writings. Edited by Paul Salzman, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Behn, Aphra. “The Rover.” In The Rover and Other Plays. Edited by Jane Spencer. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Dickson, Vernon Guy. “Truth, Wonder, and Exemplarity in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 47, no. 3, 2007, pp. 573–94, doi: 10.1353/sel.2007.0024.

Segment 2: Metaphors of Disease

In this segment, Marlee and Hughes analyze the context and relevancy of attitudes, habits, and ideas associated with the Great Plague of the seventeenth century. The correlation between love as a disease and disease hindering growth is considered, with the support of a brief staged reading of an episode from The History of the Nun (1689), before concluding the episode.

In this segment, the following resources are mentioned:

  • Behn, Aphra. “The History of the Nun.” In Oroonoko, and Other Writings. Edited by Paul Salzman, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Behn, Aphra. “The Rover” and “The Emperor of the Moon.” In The Rover and Other Plays. Edited by Jane Spencer. Oxford University Press, 2008
  • Gardiner, Judith Kegan. “The First English Novel: Aphra Behn’s Love Letters, The Canon, and Women’s Tastes.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 8, no. 2, 1989, pp. 201–22, doi: 10.2307/463735.
  • Taetzsch, Lynne. “Romantic Love Replaces Kinship Exchange in Aphra Behn’s Restoration Drama.” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700, vol. 17, no. 1, 1993, pp. 30–38, url: jstor.org/stable/43291625.


(CW) Note this episode makes reference to the enslavement of people of color.

ELIZABETH. Author, spy, political propagandist, Aphra Behn was one of the first English women to earn a living by her pen. Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the English Civil Wars, expanding transatlantic slave trade, and settler colonialism in the Americas, with frankness and complexity Behn’s work engages a range of topics, from gender identity to political power.

My name is Elizabeth Tavares and I am so pleased to welcome you to “Aphra Behn: The Podcast.” This limited series celebrates the 350th anniversary of the first public performance of a work by Behn, surveying major trends across translations of romances and scientific texts, timely plays, erotic poetry, and inventive novellas. Researched, written, and produced by University of Alabama undergraduates during the coronavirus global pandemic in the spring of 2021, this series offers a primer to one of the most influential writers in English you’ve never heard of.

Listen to the seven episodes, covering topics from climate and gambling to gossip and marriage, in any order. Each episode includes a special feature, including short performances from plays and interviews with world-class scholars. Want to learn more? Check out our website for show notes as well as links to popular and scholarly resources. We’re grateful to the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies, the Samford Media Center, and the Alabama Digital Humanities Center for their support of this project. And thank you for listening. Now on with the show.

MARLEE. Welcome to Aphra Behn: The Podcast. We’re your hosts: Marlee Bush.

HUGHES. and I’m Hughes Green. For today’s episode, we will be discussing climate in Aphra Behn’s works as it relates to seventeenth century nature and disease.

MARLEE. Specifically, we will be analyzing several of her works including Oroonoko, and The Rover among others, as well as performing a scene from The History of the Nun.

HUGHES. Behn’s works consist of an interplay between the physical, actual state of nature, and the metaphoric, literary implication of nature as it relates to her characters and their emotions.

MARLEE. In Oroonoko, nature is used as a central metaphor for the state of human agency specifically as it pertains to the Suriname people and others. We see this when the speaker observes, “and these people represented to me an absolute idea of the first state of innocence, before man knew how to sin: and ’tis most evident and plain, that simple nature is the most harmless, inoffensive and virtuous mistress.”

HUGHES. This reveals two dichotomous points in nature: that of simple, or uncontrived nature, and that of artificial, or altered nature.

MARLEE. Simple nature refers to the physical state of ecological nature as being “harmless” until it is altered by man’s presence and manipulation. This reveals her view of the Suriname people as representing “the first state of innocence” meaning untouched by man or westernized culture.

HUGHES. Artificial nature can be associated with humankind’s alteration of nature through exploitation, destruction, or misinterpretation of their environment. It encompasses the environment’s effects on human passions, inclinations, and characters’ roles in society and vice versa.

HUGHES. Oroonoko includes both of these aspects of nature evinced through the characters and settings of the story. Originally, the indigenous people and Oroonoko live in Kormantse, West Africa, where they are free from the exploitations of nature, as well as from the modern enticements incident to England. However, when they are beguiled and abducted by slave ships, their relationships to nature all immediately change. Oroonoko, an idolized figure of nobility, assumes leadership, having his name changed to the latinized Caesar, an exalted title indicative of the glories of imperial Rome. The narrator describes this unjust enslavement and its effect upon the natural name of Oroonoko by saying, “I ought to tell you, that Christians never buy any slaves but they give ‘em some name of their own, their native ones being likely very barbarous and hard to pronounce.” All of the indigenous peoples’ names, including Oroonoko’s, serve as indicators of their rank natural to their environment. Once they are stolen from their homeland, their names and stations are forcibly acculturated to match England’s perception of its industrialized environment.

MARLEE. Behn introduces a paradox here when describing Oroonoko’s nature, especially when comparing his nature to the other inhabitants of West Africa. She specifically, says, “Besides he was adorned with a native beauty so transcending all those of his gloomy race.” The narrator is literally associating “gloomy” and black in a negative connotation, meaning, Oroonoko’s looks and countenance, unnatural to Africa, are actually what define his “native beauty” according to the narrator. The indigenous people’s facial features, part of the original state of being she critiques, while natural, is seen as unnatural through the lens of English beauty. In his article, “Truth, Wonder, and Exemplarity in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko,” Vernon Dickson argues, “Behn’s first meeting with Oroonoko impresses on the audience that he wondrously defies and surpasses current understanding, creating a perfect model of aristocratic manhood physically, socially, mentally, culturally, politically, and morally.”

HUGHES. The ambitions, desires, and personalities of all characters are molded through their living in a western or native mindset shaped by their detachment from nature or affinity to it, respectively. Oroonoko’s education derives from the Frenchman’s teachings which is characterized by occidental knowledge and regal instruction. The speaker reinforces this characterization when she says, “He had nothing of barbarity in his nature, but in all points addressed himself as if his education had been in some European court.” The conception of civilization is rooted in this stark contrast between a cultivated, tame environment and that of barbarity marked by an unkempt overgrowth of surroundings.

MARLEE. Likewise the environment is consistently used as a metaphor for characters’ emotions.

HUGHES. The novella portrays emotions as having extremes of hot and cold, similar to how the climate of a region is affected by periods of inclement, mild, or peaceful weather. Additionally, certain passions, symbolized through climate, assume their own temperature and degree of clemency or inclemency.

MARLEE. For example, in the play The Rover, the wondering Royalist rogue when she has Willmore say, “I’m glad to meet you again in a warm climate, where the kind sun has its god-like power still over the wine and women. Love and mirth are my business in Naples; and if I mistake not the place, here’s an excellent market for chapmen of my humor.” By mentioning the climate as warm and then alluding to its “god-like power” over wine and women, it sets a certain atmosphere of joviality and camaraderie. The sun’s balmy rays which suffuse the vineyards of grapes that eventually turn into wine, directly affect the quality of the wine. This in turn, could lead to the wine being more potent or inebriating, thus exerting an influence upon the attitude of the drinker. The heat of action and the sun’s rays are literally personified in this example as giving motion and liveliness to their bathers. In this, heat serves as a catalyst for the quickening of the spirit, while wine serves as the product of nature that bibulously intoxicates and embraces the drinker in “mirth.”

HUGHES. By contrast, Willmore acknowledges the degrees of relationships, with hazardous love being placed higher than “cold” friendship when he says, quote, “For a friend I cannot promise, thou art of a form so excellent, a face and humor too good for cold dull friendship; I am parlously afraid of being in love, child, and you have not forgot how severely you have us’d me.” Perhaps love is too extreme or warm of an emotion for Willmore to bear properly. Friendship is also criticized as being placid or cold, similar to a fixed marble statue or that of a frozen climate.

MARLEE. References to nature and heat stand out in The Rover as when, for example, Willmore says to the expensive courtesan and sex worker, Angelica, “Faith, no child, my blood keeps its old ebbs and flows still, and that usual heat too, that cou’d oblige thee with a kindness, had I but opportunity.” In mentioning, “ebbs and flows” alludes to a river in that it can stop, move faster, or slower, or an emotion that can come and go. Heat as the temperature of his blood would lead to the blood flowing faster, whereas we’d expect a slower flow if it was cold. This is a reference to the humoral theory of medicine which states that your emotions and well-being are attributed to the flow and quality of your blood. So far we’ve discussed nature in Oroonoko and The Rover as well as the use of language related to temperature and climate. Now we will talk about disease language inside other works of Behn’s as well.

MARLEE. In addition to climatological metaphors, Behn also employs a set of allusions related to disease, contagion, and memento mori. The ubiquity of disease metaphors arise from the then-common experience of surviving and detesting the pandemics. This directly connects to the contemporary Seventeenth century individual regularly suffering from outbreaks of plague particularly virulent with the Great Plague of 1665.

HUGHES. For example, in The Rover, Willmore is bartering with Moretta concerning the going rate of sex work, which prompts Moretta to remark, “pox on him, he’ll fret me to death: abominable Fellow, I tell thee, we only sell by the whole piece.” A common imprecation among seventeenth century individuals was to cast a “pox” or curse an individual by hoping they contract a disease. Death is also invoked in this line when Moretta claims that she is so flustered that her own emotions will bring her to face either the personification of Death, or death as a state of nonexistence.

MARLEE. Similarly, in The Rover when Blunt says, “Ha, how sweetly they chime! Pox of poverty, it makes a man a slave, makes wit and honor sneak, my soul grew lean and rusty for want of credit.” Behn is referencing the depleting nature of the plague, and the interrelated way poverty is like disease in that it causes one to waste away. It’s alluding to her understanding of the effects of a plague upon a civilization, and the disease’s subsequent deterioration of finances and health. With the loss of public confidence through poverty engendered by widespread disease, there is a redoubled negative effect hindering the prosperity and generative nature inherent to society.

HUGHES. As L. Taetzsch observes of Behn’s plays, “while youth and fair form are essential for romantic love, wealth is irrelevant. That is, in Behn’s plays, it is ideally irrelevant yet difficult to dislodge when the end pursuit of love is marriage.” The destructive and often climactic tendencies of disease to envelop and mentally obsess an entire population of individuals is also related to the equally infectious, tumultuous infatuations associated with love and affection. Similar to
how a disease consumes an individual both mentally and physically, love is also given these similar attributes as something that must either be quenched through satiation or extinguished through rejective un-fulfillment.

MARLEE. The Emperor of the Moon echoes this same set of metaphors, for example when Doctor Baliardo and Scaramouch are in conversation about Doctor Baliardo’s daughter and niece. Specifically the doctor wants Scaramouch to keep a closer eye on them, and keep them away from all men. In turn Scaramouch says, quote, “What antidote is there to be given to a young wench, against the disease of love and longing?” He is relinquishing the concept of love as being a disease that night not have a cure. As J. Gardiner observes there is a long scholarly tradition of reading the quote, “plots of many of these novels as psychologically reinforcing female subordination.” If so, the metaphor of love as a disease to which women must be given an antidote as a critique of English’s patriarchal courtship system. By extension, love as a disease afflicts women differently than men.

HUGHES. Furthermore, there are miraculous remedies to love such as how there are cures or aliments for disease itself. Some individuals may be destined by fate or simply physically prone to contracting illness or being overwhelmed by the surfeit of love as suggested in The History of the Nun. In a private conversation between Katteriena and Isabella, the layer asks, “And is it a disease that people often recover?” which prompts Katteriena to answer, quote, “Most frequently, and yet some die of the disease.” So plagues and curses, like love, can be overcome, but Isabella seems victim to love’s snares.

MARLEE. We’re now going to read from Aphra Behn’s novella, The History of the Nun, particularly a scene between a stricken young woman in love, Isabella, and her confidante, Katteriena, that reinforces her use of disease language in reference to love.

KATTERIENA [HUGHES]. Ah, my dear Sister! I believe, that Paleness, and those Blushes, proceed from some other cause, than the Nicety of seeing the Picture of a Man in your Chamber.

ISABELLA [MARLEE]. You have too much Wit, to be impos’d on by such an Excuse, if I were so silly to make it; but oh! my dear Sister! it was in my Thoughts to deceive you; could I have conceal’d my Pain and Sufferings, you should never have known them; but since I find it impossible, and that I am too sincere to make use of Fraud in any thing, ’tis fit I tell you, from what cause my change of Colour proceeds, and to own to you, I fear, ’tis Love, if ever therefore, oh gentle pitying Maid! thou wert a Lover? If ever thy tender Heart were touch’d with that Passion? Inform me, oh! inform me, of the nature of that cruel Disease, and how thou found’st a Cure?

HUGHES. The outward indications of “paleness” and “blushes” correspond with the whiteness of sickness and the blushes of fever respectively. The connection to disease in these instances can also relate to the paleness or lack of heat brought on by winter or feverish blushes brought on by summer. However, in this instance, blushes are used as concealments for love while paleness is attributed to the mortifying shock of love being discovered by another.

MARLEE. When she says, “the nature of that cruel disease,” is is a specific example of Behn using love to portray a disease. It highlights the idea that the symptoms of love, or what proceeds from it, is something that is required to be overcome, or allayed through a palliative, similar to other legitimate illnesses and diseases of the physical body. Definitive cures were almost unheard of in Behn’s time, so it was up to the individual to personally overcome the plague or the labors of love. It’s also important to note that Isabella is a nun and has pledged her loyalty to God, so she can never get married. With that idea in mind, the implications of love become a lot worse. Like a disease, it’s something she feels like she can’t control and something detrimental to her health, well-being, and career.

HUGHES. From this, it is evident that Behn’s usage of romantic diction is clearly connected to the extremes of emotion brought on by the afflictions of disease and the sometimes consumptive nature of love. Love, like a disease, is infectiously widespread and can sometimes be detrimental if it is not satisfied or eliminated completely. This particular disease language almost places love in a negative, almost destructive light because the joys of romance are replaced with the inevitable thoughts of failure, unrequited love, and sadness. This attitude is arguably seen in the universally melancholic attitude attributed to the recent events of the plague and its effects upon everyday society.

MARLEE. We’ve been able to identify numerous patterns throughout Behn’s works that relate to climate. Her uses of climate throughout her writings can lead to many different interpretations of nature, both inherently simple and contrived. We’ve discussed many examples of this in Oroonoko as well as her other works, like The Rover. There, Behn implements the use of climate in order to convey meaning through heat and temperature. At the same time, her use of climate extends to the use of disease language in reference to love. This was quite apparent in The History of the Nun and many of her other works.

HUGHES. Indeed, Behn’s many literary works reveal a plethora of information regarding contemporary topics such as climate, disease, and love. From the unique diction she employs that is unique to the times, to the unorthodox themes she explores, Aphra Behn provides readers with bountiful insight into the past, its social conventions, and the bygone world. The faithful reading of these plays allow individuals to delve deeper and experience more intrinsic points found in nature itself through an all encompassing climate that shapes characters, molds ideas, and creates new forms of expression. Through the relations of simple nature to artificial nature, extreme emotional polarities to warmth and frost, and expressive characterization through disease language, Behn is able to deliver a truly memorable rendition of life.

MARLEE. Thank you so much for joining us on this journey and Weathering Behn’s World!