Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640-1689) is an English playwright, novelist, and poet from England's Restoration Era. After working as a spy for King Charles II, Behn turned towards writing, finding success in her comedic, witty plays that explore themes such as sexuality, female pleasure, politics, and gender roles. Her most famous works include Oroonoko (1688), The Rover (1677), and the poem "The Disappointment" (1684). Aphra Behn is considered one of the first English female authors to earn a living entirely from her writing. 

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Table of contents

    Aphra Behn, Quill and inkwell, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Aphra Behn was a playwright, novelist, and poet.

    Aphra Behn: Biography

    Aphra Behn's Biography
    Birth/ BaptisedDecember 14th 1640
    Death:April 16th 1689
    Spouse/Partners:Johan Behn (1664) (end of marriage unknown)
    Famous Works:
    • Oroonoko
    • The Rover
    • Poems Upon Several Occasions
    • Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister
    Literary Period:Restoration, Restoration Comedy

    Aphra Behn was born in 1640 in England. Not much is known about Behn's early life, and various sources tell many versions of her birth. Not much is known about Behn's educational upbringing, either. It was not common for women in the 17th century to have a formal education; if they were provided an education, it was by their parents. Behn most likely gained her literary education by reading and copying literary works she could get a hold of. Sources claim she was influenced by the writer Francis Kirkman.

    During her youth, Behn apparently traveled to Suriname with a man, potentially named Bartholomew Johnson. On the journey, he died, and Behn says she met an African Slave King who inspired her famous piece, Oroonoko (1688). However, as with most of her biography, it is unknown whether this is a factual story.

    When she returned from Suriname, she potentially married a German or Dutchman named Johan Behn. After 1664, they were no longer married. In 1666, Behn found herself in the royal court and was recruited as a spy for King Charles II in Antwerp.

    Aphra Behn, An old magnifying glass, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Behn worked as a spy for King Charles II.

    Behn was a spy, with the code name of Astrea, during the Second Anglo-Dutch War of 1665. The Second Anglo-Dutch War was fought between England to the Dutch Republic. The conflict was over who controlled the sea and trade routes. The Dutch Republic dominated world trade by sea and had a booming economy. England wished to take place in this domination. The Dutch ultimately won.

    When Behn arrived in Bruges, her first mission was to become intimate with William Scot and turn him into a double agent. He was a spy on behalf of the Dutch. Behn soon realized life as a spy was not profitable and was never paid for her duties.

    Now in debt, Behn was forced to find new work. She found a position with the King's Company and the Duke's Company, two royal theaters. She worked as a scribe and began to write poetry. Unlike the previous era where women were not allowed to perform in the theater or publish work, during the Restoration period, women were finally allowed.

    Behn's first play was titled The Forc'd Marriage (1670), followed by The Amorous Prince (1671). Both were very successful and spoke about the problems with arranged marriages. In 1673, Behn's play the Dutch Lover received backlash because it was written by a woman. Behn responded by saying that it is not the intellectual fault of women they are excluded from formal education, but rather that they are unjustly excluded.

    Behn left the theater for approximately three years before returning to write comedies. Between 1676 and 1678, she published four plays: Abdelazer, The Town-Fopp, The Rover, and Sir Patient Fancy. Despite Behn's success, Behn was frequently attacked for being a woman playwright.

    Aphra Behn, Inside of a Theatre, StudySmarter

    Fig. 3 - Aphra Behn wrote very successful plays.

    Behn was incredibly successful, and her plays were often watched by King Charles II. She was among a circle of famous playwrights, including John Dryden, John Hoyle, Elizabeth Barry, and Edward Ravenscroft. By 1678, England was in political turmoil as King Charles II had no heir. The political party known as the Whigs did not want the Roman Catholic brother of Charles, James, to be placed on the throne. However, the political party, known as the Tories, supported James. Behn was a Tory and wrote five plays attacking the Whigs.

    Due to Behn's attack on King Charles II's illegitimate son, James Scott, in her anonymously published play, Romulus and Hersilia (1682), a warrant was issued for her arrest. She was not arrested and the Roman Catholic heir, James II, ascended the throne. In 1684, Behn published a book of poems titled Poems on Several Occasions (1684) which included her incredibly famous poem "The Disappointment."

    "The Disappointment" was originally published in Poems on Several Occasions (1680) by the Earl of Rochester. The Earl of Rochester was given credit for the poem until Behn republished the poem in her Poems on Several Occasions (1684).

    Behn's health began to deteriorate around 1685, but she continued writing. She published an astonishing number of plays and prose, including The Luckey Chance (1686), The Emperor of the Moon (1687), Oroonoko (1688), and The History of the Nun (1689). Behn died on the 16th of April, 1689.

    Aphra Behn and the Restoration Era Literature

    In 1660, the Monarchy of England was restored after a period known as the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was a post-civil war period in England when there was no king. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, England was without a King for the first time since the 9th century. Oliver Cromwell, a military leader and politician, took control as Head of the State of the Common Wealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

    Aphra Behn, Two Crowns, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The Restoration Era saw the restoration of the British Monarchy.

    In 1660, Charles II ascended the throne of England and restored the Monarchy. During this period, there was a revival of drama and literature which led to Restoration Era Literature, a period of literature Behn belonged to. Restoration Era Literature lasted from about 1660 to approximately the 1690s. Many plays were written during this period and had a sense of sexual and intellectual liberty not seen before the Restoration Era and not seen after the Restoration Era.

    Women like Aphra Behn were also given more public presence in the theater, unlike in previous eras. Aphra Behn was able to openly publish plays and poems that touched on gender, sexuality, female pleasure and sexuality, and love. Although met with much criticism, Aphra Behn wrote unprecedented and freely on sex, much like her male counterparts.

    The Famous Works of Aphra Behn

    Aphra Behn is known for her many plays, prose, and poems that spoke openly about sexuality, politics, and gender. Her most famous pieces include The Rover, Oroonoko, and "The Disappointment."

    The Rover or The Banish'd Cavaliers (1677)

    Aphra Behn's play, The Rover, follows the adventures of a group of English noblemen and their romances with women in Naples during Carnival. It is based on a revision of Thomaso, or The Wanderer (1664) by Thomas Killigrew. It has many plot lines divided into six acts. The play is considered a Restoration Comedy.

    Restoration Comedy is a type of Comedy that appeared between 1660 and 1710. It is marked by witty and overtly sexual dialogue, innuendos, and crude and absurd behavior that create humorous and flamboyant plot lines.

    The Rover explores themes such as the role of gender, the difference between lust and love, and the use of disguise for deceit. The Rover was incredibly successful and had an incredibly long run. King Charles II considered it one of his favorite plays.

    Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (1688)

    Aphra Behn's Oroonoko is considered one of her most famous examples of prose. The novel is set in Suriname, a colony of the Netherlands, and follows the story of Prince Oroonoko. Prince Oroonoko falls in love with a beautiful woman named, Imoinda, and they promise each other in marriage. The king also falls in love with her and forces her to become one of his wives. The plot follows Oroonoko's attempt to get Imoinda back to him. Oroonoko is told from both the first-person perspective and the third-person perspective. In the introduction, Behn claims that the story is based on actual events, but the credibility of this statement is still under debate.

    While there is a sense of mourning for the protagonist at the end of the novel, it is unlikely Aphra Behn opposed slavery. Aphra Behn may have been married to an enslaver named Johan Behn. One political motivation for the novel may be Behn's opposition to Dutch rule in Suriname. In 1667, King Charles II gave up Suriname to the Dutch with the Treaty of Breda.

    Themes contained within Oroonoko include the nature of Kingship, slavery, sexuality, and gender roles. Oroonoko did not make significant sales but was adapted into a Tragic play by Thomas Southerne in 1695.

    "The Disappointment"

    "The Disappointment" is a humorous poem. It surrounds Lysander, a shepherd, who has an uncontrollable desire for Cloris. He tries to seduce and trap her, and Cloris allows him to force himself upon her. Cloris is worried as she is still a virgin and does not want to ruin her reputation according to society. As Lysander launches himself upon her, he struggles with impotence, and Cloris runs away. Lysander curses Cloris for overly exciting him.

    The poem belongs to the Pastoral genre of poetry.

    Pastoral Poems are poems to turn away from modern life in favor of idyllic, rural settings. They usually focus on the lives, grievances, and mishaps of shepherds.

    The Writing Style of Aphra Behn

    Aphra Behn was an audacious writer for her time. She wrote on themes and topics that were typically only written about by men. Her poetry, prose, and plays were full of literary techniques that show her skill and craft.

    • Behn often used dramatic expression dialogue in her plays and lyrical dialogue in her poetry.
    • Behn commonly used allegories to refer to contemporary political and social events.
    • Behn's literary works were typically written with traditional forms and conventions, but the structure of the pieces gave the work a sense of directness.

    Behn, writing during the Restoration Era, openly wrote on themes related to sexuality, female pleasure, sexual desires, political commentary, and love.

    Quotes by Aphra Behn

    Let's look at some examples of quotes from Aphra Behn's work to explore her writing style and thematic choices.

    Mad to possess, himself he threwOn the defenceless lovely Maid.But oh ! what envious Gods conspireTo snatch his Pow'r, yet leave him the Desire!" ("The Disappointment, Stanza 8).

    At this point in the poem, Lysander throws himself upon Cloris, overwhelmed with passion. However, just as he is about to perform the act, he becomes impotent. Notice how she characterizes Cloris as a "defenceless lovely Maid." This makes the reader sympathize with Cloris's position. She is unsure whether to give in to her sexual desires or to maintain her virginity to save her reputation. It appears that Lysander is in the position of power, but his power is snatched from him, providing Cloris with an indirect form of agency.

    He sent a messenger to the camp, with orders to treat with him about the matter, to gain his pardon, and to endeavor to mitigate his grief; but that by no means he should tell him she was sold, but secretly put to death: for he knew he should never obtain his pardon for the other," (Oroonoko, Chapter 1).

    Rather than tell Oroonoko that he sold Imoida to slavery, the King lies to Oroonoko that Imoida has been executed. There is a sense of guilt felt by the King for selling her into a life of slavery. Oroonoko only expresses disdain for slavery when the enslaved people are not war prizes. Therefore, he would be quite angered by the selling of Imoida into slavery. Aphra Behn was a white woman who never spoke out against slavery. She saw slavery as a natural part of humanity. Had Oroonoko been a real person rather than a character in Behn's novel, it is unlikely he would share her beliefs.

    Pray tell me, sir, are not you guilty of the same mercenary crime? When a lady is proposed to you for a wife, you never ask how fair, discreet, or virtuous she is, but what's her fortune; which, if but small, you cry "She will not do my business," and basely leave her, though she languish for you. Say, is not this as poor?" (The Rover, Act 2, Part 2).

    Angellica is speaking with Willmore after he belittles her for selling herself to the man offering the most money. She compares a woman selling sexual acts and love with a woman being offered in marriage based on her finances. Both are economic exchanges but held to different standards despite men playing an active role in both. Therefore, Behn, through the character of Angellica, is pointing out the double standard between men and women.

    Aphra Behn - Key takeaways

    • Aphra Behn was born in 1640 and is an English playwright, novelist, and poet who began writing after her career as a spy led to no financial benefit.
    • She wrote during a period of literary revival known as the Restoration Era.
    • Aphra Behn openly wrote about themes such as sexuality, female pleasure, love versus lust, politics, and gender roles.
    • Her writing style combined both traditional forms and non-traditional themes and created highly successful literary pieces.
    • Her most famous works include Oroonoko (1688), The Rover (1677), and the poem "The Disappointment" (1684).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Aphra Behn

    What plays did Aphra Behn write? 

    Aphra Behn wrote the plays The Forc'd Marriage (1670), The Amorous Prince (1671), and The Rover (1677). 

    Who is the first female novelist in English literature? 

    Aphra Behn is considered to be one of the first English female authors to earn her living entirely from her writing. 

    What genres did Aphra Behn write? 

    Aphra Behn wrote within the Romantic Tragicomedy genre, Restoration Comedy genre, and Pastoral Poetry. 

    When was "The Disappointment" by Aphra Behn published? 

    "The Disappointment" was published under Aphra Behn's name in 1684. 

    Is Aphra Behn a feminist? 

    The concept of feminism was not a unified movement in 17th century England, but many modern Feminist scholars analyze Behn's work for her feminist notions and themes. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What Roman deity does the speaker in "On Her Loving Two Equally" ask for help?

    Why type of poem is "On Her Loving Two Equally"? 

    The line "Divided equally ’twixt two?" from the poem "On Her Loving Two Equally" is an example of what literary device? 


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