Behn, Aphra

Assigned: Behn, Aphra. From The Dutch Lover, “Epistle to the Reader” (329-34); “Preface” to The Lucky Chance (334-37). Also read the editors’ introduction (326-29).

From The Dutch Lover, “Epistle to the Reader” (1673)

1. On 330 (“Which I think is more than any one…”), what persona does Aphra Behn establish at the outset of her preface to The Dutch Lover? What advantages does this persona offer her, in consideration of the kind of defense she makes of her play?

2. On 330-31 (“I would not yet be understood…”), how does Behn address the topic of “the dignity of Playes” (330)? That is, how does she rank drama among the arts and sciences, and what evidence does she offer in support of her argument? What does she apparently think of the notion that there is “no wisdom in the world” surpassing poetry and drama (330)? What testimony does she offer regarding the general character of dramatists themselves?

3. On 331-32 (“Besides, this Theam is worn…”), how does Behn respond to serious moral critics of drama? What does she apparently think of the idea that tragedies and comedies, respectively, are duty-bound to provide moral exemplars, i.e., “patterns for a wise man to pursue” (331)? If plays don’t give us a firm grip on morality, what is their aim, and to what part of human nature do they primarily appeal? Finally, how does Aphra Behn dismiss rigid neoclassical critics who insist on “the musty rules of Unity” (333; meaning the three unities of time, place, and action) and other sacred rules?

4. On 332-34 (“Indeed that day ’twas Acted first…”), how does Behn enlist Shakespeare in her witty reply to a particularly obnoxious male critic who has discounted her efforts simply because she is a woman? What complaints does she also make about a playwright’s difficulties in maintaining control over the quality of a play in performance?

“Preface” to The Lucky Chance (1687)

1. On 334-36 (“The little Obligation I have to some…”), what complaints is Aphra Behn responding to in her preface to The Lucky Chance? What particularly annoys her about the remarks of the so-called “Sparks” or foppish male wits to the detriment of her play? What authority does she appeal to in her defense, and what critical principle animates such claims as the one in which Behn defends the attitude of an immoral character who joyfully marches on stage again after committing adultery with the line, “’tis proper for the Characters” (335)? What critical principle animates her insistence that certain plays’ potentially scandalous words “naturally fall into the places they are design’d for” (336)?

2. On 336-37 (“Ladies, for its further Justification…”), what stance towards the demands of neoclassicism does Behn take up especially in the last few paragraphs of her preface? How does she justify her efforts in the eyes of “the witty Few” and dismiss any charges of indecent quibbling in her dialogue or other such transgressions? How does her stance in this preface differ from the other one we may have read, the preface to The Dutch Lover?

3. General question: Aphra Behn (1640-89) was a talented and prolific dramatist and novelist, one whom we might fairly place among the heroes of art for her tireless and successful efforts to make a living from her literary craft—never an easy thing to do in any age. An astute critic and theorist, as our selections from her “Epistle to the Reader” for The Dutch Lover and her “Preface” to The Lucky Chance (334-37) indicate, Behn was well regarded in her time, and today her work enjoys a good deal of critical attention. Yet, any number of other excellent female writers and artists have not been similarly honored. (Virginia Woolf’s fictive portrait of “Shakespeare’s sister” as a fatally frustrated artist in A Room of One’s Own rings true; see Leitch 854-65.) How do you assess the state of critical and popular attention in our own day to the work of women authors past and present? How much progress has been made? How close—or how far away—are we from parity of treatment, and how likely is it that we will get there in the near future? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake