Gendering Covert Skill
Written and produced by Emma Brennan, Emma Dunn, and Emily Johnson (cite)
In this episode, Emma, Emma, and Emily take a look at how Behn’s characters use covert skill to make their own way in a world working against them. The episode features an interview with Dr. Claire Bowditch (Loughborough University), general editor of the new Cambridge Edition of the Works of Aphra Behn.
Segment 1: The Rover
- Lucetta, a “jilting wench,” traps one of the main characters, Blunt, by luring him into her house with her beguiling charm and then plunging him into darkness. By looting his discarded clothing, Lucetta effectively uses her sexuality combined with her covert skill to make a fortune for herself.
- Hellena, a woman who will soon be forced into a nunnery by her brother, disguises herself as a man to traverse the streets of Carnival unhindered and seek out her own fortune: a marriage to a man of her choosing.
- Later Hellena uses her wit to negotiate her relationship with her chosen man, Willmore, and successfully secures her future by her own means.
Segment 2: Interview with Dr. Claire Bowditch
- So much of The Rover has to do with mistaken identity, why do you think Behn is drawn to telling stories and making social critiques through the veil of deceit?
- What do you think about the way Behn manipulates contemporary gender roles in The Rover? We’re particularly interested in the incident with Lucetta and Blunt. What do you think Lucetta’s deceitful nature and Blunt’s naivety tell us about gender roles at the time and how Behn manipulates them?
- How does Behn promote female autonomy in The Rover, despite her female characters often being mistreated?
Segment 3: The History of the Nun
- Isabella, the titular nun of our story, vows herself to the church from an early age, not knowing that one day she’d fall madly in love. Only her skilled dissembling keeps her secret hidden until she can escape to her lover.
- When her first husband dies in battle, Isabella reluctantly remarries only to find out her husband escaped the grave and came back for her! Crushed under the shame she knows will come when her two marriages are discovered, Isabella uses the covert skills that saved her before and murders them both, freeing herself from the guilt.
Segment 4: The Emperor of the Moon
- Doctor Baliardo, a wealthy scientist that believes in a superior race of moon people, religiously guards his daughter and niece from improper suitors, much to their chagrin. The girls and their secret lovers trick the doctor into believing that the men are actually from the race of moon people, through elaborate costuming and feigned dreams.
- The doctor, fully believing this scheme, is finally brought to an extravagant interpretation of the Emperor of the Moon’s descent. Overcome with joy, Doctor Baliardo grants his daughter and niece his blessing to marry their suitors, giving the girls what they had wanted as well as the security of his approval.
Works referenced in this episode
- 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.
- Fitzmaurice, James. “The Language of Gender and a Textual Problem in Aphra Behn’s The Rover.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 96, no. 3, 1995, pp. 283–93, url: jstor.org/stable/43346105.
- Hultquist, Aleksondra. “Adapting Desires in Aphra Behn’s The History of the Nun.” The Eighteenth Century, vol. 56, no. 4, 2015, pp. 485–506, doi: 10.1353/ecy.2015.0035.
- Hutner, Heidi. Rereading Aphra Behn: History, Theory, and Criticism. University of Virginia Press, 1993.
- Ingrassia, Catherine. “Aphra Behn, Captivity, and Emperor of the Moon.” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700, vol. 41, no. 2, 2017, pp. 53–67, doi: 10.1353/rst.2017.0023.
- Nash, Julie. “‘The Sight on ‘t Would Beget a Warm Desire’: Visual Pleasure in Aphra Behn’s The Rover.” Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700, vol. 18, no. 2, 1994, pp. 77–87, url: jstor.org/stable/43293586.
- Owens, W. R., and Lizbeth Goodman. Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon. Routledge, 1996.
- Pacheco, Anita. “Rape and the Female Subject in Aphra Behn’s The Rover.” ELH, vol. 65, no. 2, 1998, pp. 323–45, doi: 10.1353/elh.1998.0013.
- Rahman, Arifa Ghani. “Negotiating Masculine Circles: Female Agency in Aphra Behn’s Work.” Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, vol. 12, no. 4, 2020, pp. 1–9, doi: 10.21659/rupkatha.v12n4.03.
(CW) This episode makes reference to “gypsies,” a term used as a racialized epithet for the cultural group known as Romani, who have historically experienced genocide, enslavement, and a range of hate crimes across Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
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.
EMMA DUNN (ED). Welcome to “Aphra Behn: A Woman’s Covert Skill.” We’re your hosts, Emma Dunn,
EMILY JOHNSON (EJ). and Emily Johnson,
ED. And in this episode, we hope to dive deeper into the covert skill that revolves around Aphra Behn–not in her personal life, but in her writing.
EJ. Covert simply means to hide–and we will be discussing this in the form of both physical concealment, such as with masking, disguise, and lighting, and metaphorical concealment of the truth or diversion of attention, such as with trickery and feigned dialogue. As Florinda, the protagonist of The History of the Nun exclaims, “this woman watches me so, I shall get no opportunity to discover myself.” Women are stuck between wanting to know more, and having to deceive or hide in order to do so.
ED. We will explore how Behn utilizes these covert skills to criticize the social restrictions of women at the time and show how often deceit was the only way in which they could gain autonomy for themselves.
EJ. First, we would like to look specifically at Behn’s The Rover, a play in which she uses different forms of trickery and disguise to give her female characters a greater sense of agency over their ability to succeed financially and choose a partner in marriage, which plays as a critique on the lack of female autonomy in the heavily patriarchal society she was living in.
One instance we see in which covertness is being utilized through lighting and candles is with Lucetta in The Rover. Lucetta is a character described as a “jilting wench” in the cast list of the earliest recorded performance of this play. To translate this to modern terms, she can be described as a sex worker, which is, as Heidi Hutner states, one of the “limited choices available to women of her age” to achieve agency, though in prostitution “female sexuality represents itself for male pleasure.”
Lucetta traps and robs another character, Blunt, a country bumpkin that is currently holding his friends’ cash. Lucetta initiates this trap by telling him to “Hold, sir, put out the light, it may betray us else.” Not only does Lucetta trick him by blowing out the lights, she also manages to conceal her identity in the dark. There is no way for Blunt to identify and accuse her after—if he even dares to for threat of embarrassment. Not only is “he a stranger to [Lucetta], but to the country, too,” so no one will be able to catch Lucetta, or her gallant, Phillipo. Blunt is at her will in this moment–even exclaiming that he is her “humble servant,” which further increases Lucetta’s autonomy and power over her actions. In this scenario, Lucetta must resort to covert skill in order to achieve what she wants and succeed in robbing Blunt. This trickery and manipulation of lighting allows her to hide her true intentions from him. She could not have acted in any other manner than covertness, because “had [she] been coy, [they] would have missed this booty,” and she would be left with no money.
ED. Another way in which we see covert skill being employed is in Hellena’s use of disguise, through which she is able to choose her own partner. When Hellena comes upon Willmore speaking with Angellica, she is dressed as a man, and she uses this disguise to spy on him to see if he is faithful to her. When she finds he is not, she claims that his “unconstant humour” actually “make [her] love him,” though she still decides to “vex him for this.” As she messes with Willmore, telling him that he has another girl waiting for him (whom he believes to be a third girl), it is revealed that Angellica may actually know the gypsy girl’s true identity as Hellena, claiming the “gypsy” is “a Spanish woman made up of no such dull material.”
Angellica still doesn’t realize Hellena is right in front of them, though at this point Willmore has discovered this. Hellena makes a few comments aside, such as “Oh lord, what does he say? Am I discovered now?” and “I am undone if you discover me.” It’s evident in Hellena’s fear of being found out that she was not supposed to be roaming the streets of Carnival, flirting and searching for men. She was expected to listen to her brother, Don Pedro, who was pushing her to go into a nunnery. The only way Hellena could escape the opinion of her brother was through her disguise, which allowed her to do as she pleased for this one night and avoid the male gaze.
In allowing Hellena to observe without being observed, Behn has, as Julie Nash states, “produced a heroine who occasionally controls both the gaze and her own pleasure,” giving Hellena a greater sense of autonomy over her body and her future. Arifa Ghani Rahman further emphasizes this point when she states that “the use of a mask and a disguise gives Hellena the opportunity to observe, without being subjected to scrutiny herself, the actions of the man she loves.” Hellena had to resort to covert skill in order to achieve this agency. Hellena escapes the outlook of her brother with her disguises and is even able to dominate a situation in which she could have been made a fool as her lover flirts with another woman.
Hellena also exhibits covertness in her demonstration of her wit–through which she is able to weigh the risks and benefits of certain actions and see through to Willmore’s true intentions. Later in the play, Hellena tries convincing Willmore to finally seal the deal and propose to her and does so with her wit. Hellena implies that he is deathly loyal to his friends, but not in love, to which Willmore explains he is fearful of love. She then makes a bold statement–claiming she will “find out all of [his] haunts, to rail at [him] to all that love [him], till I have made [him] love only [her] in [his] own defense, because nobody else will love,” essentially saying she will turn away anyone that shows interest in Willmore so that he can have no one but her. This catches Willmore’s attention, saying he hates “a coy demure mistress” and prefers “a mad mistress when mewed,” which makes perfect sense as earlier he had stated to Angellica that he would only marry “one that has wit enough to manage an intrigue of love.”
Willmore asks Hellena to “retire to [his] chamber” but Hellena, does not fall for this ploy, saying she does not want to be stuck with “a cradle full of noise and mischief, with a pack of repentance at [her] back.” Hellena won’t so much as give him a kiss, and proceeds to walk away when Willmore proposes. She knows the ploys and sweet talk men will use to get a woman into bed and does not want to become stuck with a child and no marriage. She is able to twist the conversation on its head in a way that gives her power of Willmore–she knows the only thing he wants is sex, and she uses this to her advantage.
Interestingly enough, James Fitzmaurice states that Hellena’s main concern is not marriage, but “the marriage proposal” and if Willmore “proposes, she wins.” Marriage for many in this time is like a game, and she wanted to be a player, not a side piece. To be able to choose her own husband, and on top of that, a husband that was a womanizer and refused to settle down, is a major success for her–one she achieved through her wit and proper analysis of risk.
EJ. It’s important to note that Hellena is demonstrating a reversal of gender roles in finding “the chase” of Willmore more interesting than the actual marriage. This is usually a trope used with men, but here we see it with a woman, which further emphasizes that the only way women could achieve what they want, which in many cases is what men already have, is through their covertness. Hellena seeks freedom in her actions, or the “throwing of unwanted restrictions on her behavior and helps her challenge male prerogatives” as Fitzmaurice explains, and in order to do this she had to use disguises and rely on her own wit to create situations in which she had power without being subject to the opinions of her brother, or anyone else who would disagree with her actions, for that matter. Hellena even states at the beginning of the play that she loves “mischief, strangely, as most of our sex do, who are come to love nothing else.”
This is an important comment to understand at the preface of the play, as we then see Hellena and a few other women having to rely on this mischief or deceit throughout in order to hide their intentions from the men of the play. Hellena’s declaration that women love mischief is further supported by Behn in one of her other texts, The History of the Nun, where she suggests that women are taught “the trick of change” from men so that they cannot be easily passed by their less just and constant male counterparts. Behn implies that this need for mischief in women is a product of their relation with men–if women are expected to be submissive and coy at all times, then they will be easily manipulated by their male counterparts. The only way they can get around this without being ridiculed and dismissed by others is if they resort to trickery.
ED. To further dive into the deceit and trickery seen within The Rover and Behn’s other works, we talked with Dr. Claire Bowditch, a professor at Loughborough University whose research revolves primarily around Aphra Behn. Here is that interview.
So much of The Rover has to do with mistaken identity. Why do you think Behn is drawn to telling stories and making social critiques through the veil of deceit?
CLAIRE BOWDITCH (CB). I’m not sure that deceit is necessarily at the heart of what she’s doing around masking sometimes. That’s not to say, you know, it’s always the case that she’s not trying to have characters deceiving each other, but I also think that there’s a kind of freedom in masking as well as the flip side of the coin that is, as you’ll know in The Rover for instance, the possibility of mistaken identity comes with sword fighting and dueling and, you know, other kinds of threats against the person.
The nature of some of what she’s doing around masking I think is more akin to finding a freedom to move around in the world without necessarily being encumbered by all the social expectations that would go on women of rank at that point, as well as the, really just entertainment as well. It’s a big feature of restoration drama more generally as it is, of course, with Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, things like that, so it has a really long theatrical tradition. I think she’s usually using it in at least three ways just to be tricky.
ED. What do you think about the way Behn manipulates contemporary gender roles in The Rover? We’re particularly interested in the incident with Lucetta and Blunt. What do you think Lucetta’s deceitful nature and Blunt’s naivety tell us about gender roles at the time and how Behn manipulates them?
CB. What you’re dealing with is a culture in which the women are much more naturally sexual than men. So women are colder and wetter than their hot and dry counterparts. It’s a bizarre paradox really because you’re being told on the one hand that you are inherently lusty and your desires need to be reigned in. And of course, the good woman is the woman who reigned in, or has her desires reigned in. But they are both stereotypes of the period but in direct conflict with each other in various ways. And so I think much of what Behn and her male contemporaries do is really interesting around exploring that tension, the bit in the middle that is about, on the one hand, being told “this is what women are like and of course given half a chance they’d behave in appalling ways” and Behn does have some of her women like Angellica Bianca, for instance, behave in quite shocking ways.
Again, yes, you have the punishments, if you like, of women like Florinda of when they’re being transgressive, which is in some ways related to that inherent complexity around women’s behavior and women, you know, doing what they want unless their brothers are there to control them, then those women come up against other kinds of dangers. So I think, in general, this is probably gonna sound quite bleak, but I think in general some of what Behn does is to show that there is no good option in her women. You can do as you’re told, like lovely Florinda, and you’re still at risk. Or you can really move out of those social categories, legal and social categories of maid, wife, and widow, and you can behave, you know, you can be Angellica Bianca, and you’re really still no further forward.
ED. How does Behn promote female autonomy in The Rover, despite her female characters often being mistreated?
CB. How does she promote female autonomy? Does she promote female autonomy?
ED. I think in some ways. I was thinking with Hellena, she’s kind of an example in that play of a woman who is able to go past those expectations and get what she wants.
CB. I think that’s sort of true of Hellena’s story if you isolate Hellena from the plot, if you just follow Hellena through, then yes, she is someone who decided she is not going to live her life as a nun and therefore needs to kind of escape that situation. Decided she’s going to go have fun at the carnival and, you know, look for some kind of, I can’t quite now remember the phrase she uses but it’s along the lines of “a man who’s compatible with her in various ways,” so, so she does that throughout, but the thing that gets her what she claims to want in the earlier parts of the play is not really her behavior.
You’ll remember that towards the end of the play that Willmore overhears a conversation about Hellena in which he learns that she is worth 200,000 crowns and then he says, “Oh my gypsy, how I long to be with her.” It is her wealth that is the tipping point, if you like, in her achieving the thing she said she wants throughout. But she doesn’t know that, she doesn’t know that Willmore knows, but he does know and that’s really what projects him into falling into line with her desires. So if I had to answer that question really crudely, I would suggest that it was actually men’s wealth that gets the women what they want because, of course, she’s an heiress, she hasn’t actually earned this money herself so it’s been left to her by her uncle and that’s what the other man in the play is interested in.
And so I think The Rover is an especially productive example in Behn’s body of work that in exploring homosociality, which is how men are relating to other men, and in many ways in The Rover, especially in relation to the sisters’ story, the sisters are not at the center of their own story. It’s the men that are making agreements, whether they be gentlemanly agreements between friends or whether they be, you know, more formal arrangements in terms of marriage and contracts and dowries and so on. And much of what happens in relation to the women is often as a result of the kind of quick thinking of other women. If you think about the end of the play, Florinda is about to be raped by her brother if it was not for the quick thinking of the cousin. So I think women’s wits are important but I’m not sure that they’re at the center of the story, often they are trying to outmaneuver the, kind of, much bigger formal structures going on around the women.
EJ. Thank you Dr. Claire Bowditch for giving us more insight to The Rover and the ways in which Behn portrays women in it. Now let’s return to The History of the Nun in which the main protagonist uses covert skills such as hiding or attempting to cover up the truth in order to maintain her position in society.
Behn writes towards the beginning of the novella, “Nunneries and marriages were not to be entered into ‘till the maid so destined were of a mature age to make her own choice.” Literary scholar Aleksondra Hultquist explains that this quote’s inclusion to the story accentuates the concept that Isabella willfully stepped into the role of a nun, and that the consequences of her breaking her vow would be all the more severe should she do so. When love and desire begin to take shape in her life these feelings become the impetus for her vow breaking, and it is here that she begins using the covert skills of hiding and covering up the truth.
Behn writes of her attempts to stifle and hide her feelings writing, “Isabella was not so gay as she used to be . . . she was observed not to sleep or eat as she used to do, nor exercise . . . ‘twas generally believed she was too devout, for now she redoubled her austerity.” The lady abbess saw correctly that something was in fact wrong with Isabella, but her rise in her devotion was connected to her attempting to stifle her feelings, she used this as a shield and allowed others to assume so.
This is the first time that we see Isabella as anything less than the pious nun she is introduced as. Her change in character here is described by Aleksondra Hultquist as she states, “Isabella is soon restricted into a deceitful, ravenous desirer . . . Conflicting desires emerge as Isabella simultaneously tries to remain true to her religious vows and true to overpowering love.” Isabella is trying to remain the “perfect woman,” by stifling her affections for Henault she is attempting to hold onto heavenly approval but at the same time seeks sexual and romantic gratification outside of the church.
ED. While here the use of covert skill is not hurting anyone but herself as she begins punishing herself to cast them away, over time a shift occurs, and eventually these skills are employed to cover up horrific acts. For example Behn writes, “She finds, by his return she is not only exposed to all the shame imaginable, to all the upbraiding on his part when he shall know she is married to another, but all the fury and rage of Villenoys, and the scorn of the town who will look on her as an adulteress.”
The approval from the patriarchal society Isabella sought so hard to seek, that which caused her immense pain and grief, is yet again challenged when Henault returns from what she believed was death. Hultquist describes this dilemma, writing, “Isabella finds that she must choose between her reputation (if Henault is acknowledged, she is adulterous in the eyes of society), her security (just out of prison, Henault has no way to support her), and her love for Villenoys.” Facing the same agony and torment she experienced when back in the convent regarding her feelings for Henault, she makes the decision to kill her first husband. She makes her decision “believing the murder the least evil, since she could never live without him, she fixed her heart on that.”
Behn describes Isabella’s use of this covert skill stating that “they had talked over all they had a mind to say, all that was very endearing on his side, and as much concern as she could force on hers; she conducted him to his chambers.” She uses the covert skill of hiding here, as she hid her true intentions from Henault, lying to him about her feelings so that she could get him in a position to end his life. Following her dreadful actions toward Henault yet again she realizes that she can not reconcile her feelings for both men. She is unable to come to terms with her desire for both of her husbands and this inability to reconcile manifests itself within the murder of both men.
The same use of covert skill is instituted when Villenoys returns, as Isabella lies and covers up what actually happened to Henault. Her deception is described in a conversation she has with Villenoys, as Behn writes, “‘At that word’, said she, “he fetched a deep sigh or two and presently after with a very little struggling, died, and yonder he lies still in the bed. After this she wept so abundantly that all Villenoys could do could hardly calm her spirits.” She lies directly to her husband, and by displaying her grief and making herself seem not at fault is able to lure him into helping her.
EJ. The deaths of both men can be tied to the attempt of Isabella at being able to reconcile her desires. While the first time this attempt at reconciliation leads to her leaving the church, the implications later result in a violent outcome. Hultquist describes her inability to do so as a representation of women who have psychological breaks or violent episodes because of “contradictions built into masculinist prescriptions for women.” Isabella displays a masterful use of these covert skills even when in times of immense pressure or utter despair. They allow for Behn to clearly showcase the consequences of conflicting desires, especially when those desires are being determined by a decidedly patriarchal society.
ED. Now we want to look at a play whose characters take part in the same sort of deception that we see performed by Isabella in History of the Nun, albeit in a more comical style. The Emperor of the Moon was Behn’s last play as well as one of her most long running, according to Lizbeth Goodman and W. R. Owens in their book Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon. It is also one of the finest examples of Behn’s use of covert skills in her plays, exemplified by the title page including the explanatory subtitle of “A Farce” following the name of the play.
The story follows Doctor Baliardo, a wealthy scientist obsessed with a superior race of people he believes live on the moon, as well as his daughter and niece, who he religiously guards from the reaches of man as he searches for suitable partners for them. The doctor ensures that the girls, “never [go] abroad…farther than our Garden,” meaning that almost the entirety of the play happens within Doctor Baliardo’s home. Catherine Ingrassia argues that, “structurally, Emperor of the Moon depends on the domestic captivity of women. Doctor Baliardo keeps his daughter Elaria and her cousin Bellemante imprisoned within his household.” This complete immobility shows how much they are truly under the control of Doctor Baliardo. He manages his daughter and niece carefully through the help of his servant, Scaramouch, and the girl’s governess, Mopsophil.
Elaria, the doctor’s daughter, laments to her cousin Bellemante that, “the devil of any human thing is suffered to come near us without our governante, and keeper, Mr. Scaramouch.” Neither girl is happy about the strict watch they are kept under. Elaria begins the introduction of the play with a song in which she proclaims, “From Love our fetters never sprung, / That smiling god, all wanton, gay, and young, / Shows by his wings he cannot be / Confined to a restless slavery.” From the way that Elaria describes Love as a happy, young God and contrasts him with her “restless slavery” it is clear that despite her father’s wishes, she wants to be in love.
Bellemante shares similar sentiments, as evidenced by her description to Elaria of the young men at church. She says, “I have been at the chapel, and seen so many beaux, such a number of plumes, I could not tell which I should look on most.” In the girls’ most private moments, they reveal their true desire: to be free to love whoever their heart fancies. But the only way to the freedom they crave is through their respective father and uncle, Doctor Baliardo, as he holds the key to their continued wealth. Elaria explains that, “Our fortune depends solely on [my father’s] pleasure, which is too considerable to lose.”
Doctor Baliardo is a rich man and when he dies he will leave a hefty sum of money for the women under his charge—assuming that he approves of their spouses. Not only is the doctor keeping Elaria and Bellemante imprisoned physically within his home, but also through control over their financial wellbeing. This leaves the ladies and their lovers only one way to be together, by relying on a grand scale ruse, devised through the use of covert skills.
EJ. Catherine Ingrassia writes that due to the power men hold over women, “women must devise strategies for subversive behavior that might yield a form of liberation.” Elaria and Bellemante, and their lovers Cinthio and Charmante, engage in just this sort of strategy to win Doctor Baliardo’s favor for their marriages. The servants that Doctor Baliardo holds such faith in to keep his charges pure also aid the girls in their deceit, as Scaramouch is the one to initially tell Elaria of how Charmante “is dressing himself like one of the cabalists of the Rosicrucian order, and is coming to prepare my credulous master for the greater imposition.” This greater imposition refers to what Scaramouch calls the “The World in the Moon,” a grand, theatrical staging of the Emperor of the Moon’s descent to Earth from the heavenly orb on which the doctor is often peeping on him.
The occasion for his visit is that he and his brother, the Prince of Thunderland, have become enamored over Elaria and Bellemante. Scaramouch is correct in calling his master “credulous” as Doctor Baliardo instantly believes that Charmante is truly a messenger from the moon and bows low to him saying, “Most reverend bard, thrice welcome.” The beginning of the trap laid, Elaria and Bellemante also play their part in fooling the doctor as they mumble in their sleep about visions of the otherworldly princes in their dreams. Behn writes in the stage directions that Elaria and Bellemante, “put themselves in postures of sleeping, leaning on the table” and when the doctor enters Bellemante is described as “speaking as in her sleep” and says, “Ah, prince . . . How little faith I give to all your courtship, who leaves our orb so soon . . . But since you are of celestial race, and can easily penetrate into the utmost limits of the thought, why should I fear to tell you of your conquest?—And this implore your aid.”
Of course, this is exactly what Doctor Baliardo wants to hear and he is overjoyed to learn that Elaria and Bellemante are being visited by the moon people via their dreams. He is completely ready to believe that they are to be wed to the Emperor of the Moon and his brother, a fact which the young lovers take as an opportunity to move into the conclusion of their scheme.
The final piece of their farce is the elaborate setting up of an abandoned building on the doctor’s property to look like the path of descent of the Emperor the Moon. Behn describes it in the stage directions as, “The scene in the front draws off, and shows the hill of Parnassus; a noble large walk of trees leading to it, with eight ot ten negroes upon pedestals, ranged on each side of the walks. Next Kepler and Galileus descend on each side, opposite to each other, with perspectives in their hands, as viewing the machine of the zodiac.”
The purpose of this detailed and luxurious setting is to fully shock Doctor Balairdo with awe to further cement the lover’s chances of gaining his blessing. By first setting up the ruse through elaborate costuming and feigned dialogue, and then astonishing the doctor with this extravagant charade of celestial power, the young lovers are effectively able to fool Doctor Baliardo that Cinthio and Charmante are actually who they say they are and thus are worthy of the ladies’ hands in marriage. By their grand farce and the employment of a range of covert skills, the ladies are able to overcome their father’s physical and financial grip on them and obtain their dream of being married to their lovers.
ED. Thanks for listening as we took a deep dive into the covert skill used in Aphra Behn’s works. Behn has her characters employ the covert skills that we’ve discussed, including masking, trickery, and dissembling to make critiques of the social restrictions placed on women during the Restoration period.
EJ. She shows that it was only through deception that women could gain agency in their lives because of the strict control they were kept under. We hope that we’ve shown that Aphra Behn’s contributions to the literary world are just as compelling as what we know and hear so often about her background.