Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

While Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure (1668) differs from Aphra Behn’s Restoration comedy The Rover (1677) in that it was devised as a private closet-drama, existing onstage only in imagination, both playwrights are nonetheless theatrical in their use of setting and space. Cavendish’s Lady Happy assembles a community of noblewomen within a secluded English estate, a cloister of pastoral celebration, play-acting, and material comfort. In contrast, the romantic and violent intrigue of Behn’s comedy is set against the backdrop of a carnival in Naples, a realm of disguise, deception, and indulgence. This essay will explore how the respective female playwrights compare in their use of setting and space, considering how their portrayals of gendered tensions operate with attention to the political context of King Charles II’s return to the English throne from exile during the Stuart Restoration. While Cavendish reinvents the space of the convent in fashioning it as a joyful all-female retreat from patriarchal authority and marriage, Behn’s carnival represents a retirement from social regulation in its recognition of female desire. While both settings use performative masquerades to blur boundaries of gender, infiltration by deceptive masculine forces offers satirical criticism of parliamentarian action during the prior Cromwellian Interregnum period. Ultimately, while Behn’s play more significantly allows for fraternization across social and economic status, both works uphold royalist loyalties to the structure of the hierarchical class.

Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure presents a utopia in its all-female cloister, a pastoral yet materially marked space of retreat and liberty. A literal no-place, the location will never be fully realized, a realization that aligns it with the imaginative, un-performed genre of the closet drama. While the convent provides an opportunity for women to flee from men and marriage, it rejects solitary and restricted connotations of religious monasticism, proving to be a realm of enjoyment. As Lady Happy explains to Madam Mediator: “My cloister shall not be a cloister of restraint but a place for freedom, not to vex the senses but to please them” (Cavendish 1.2.115-6). Her line of dialogue proceeds a stanza of verse in rhyming couplets that illustrates the estate as a lyrical amalgamation of sensory qualities; “pictures rare,” “perfumèd air,” and “sweet melodious sounds” characterize the retreat as both idyllic and culturally stimulating (Cavendish 1.2.129-31). She distances her convent from a stifling religious order associated with the Puritan affiliation with parliamentarian rule, and instead offers unmarried women a feminine space not only defined by noble activity and community but radically lifted into freedom from patriarchal norms. As Julie Crawford considers the political dimension: the play is not only “a royalist retreat, a vision of faith in royalist culture and a fantasy of its restoration” but an “indictment of the English Civil War and its Interregnum” (188). Margaret Cavendish’s own wish for the restoration of her family’s Welbeck Abbey haunts the convent, with her choice of setting enabling a political metaphor that aligns feminine coterie with the withdrawal of propertied royalists during the Interregnum. Through the male characters’ consistent efforts to infiltrate the feminine space, the play condemns the invasive treatment of the parliamentarians through satire (Crawford 188). 

Like Cavendish, Aphra Behn constructs an inverted setting that suspends societal standards of female frigidity and reserve. However, while the Convent of Pleasure remodels the nunnery as an arena of female amusement, The Rover portrays the carnival in Naples in direct contrast to it. Behn adapts her source text, Thomas Killigrew’s Thomaso, shifting the focus towards the female plight by opening the drama on Hellena, a character whose romantic desire poses a challenge to her brother’s insistence that she soon enter the convent. In response to Pedro’s order that she become a nun, Hellena looks to the carnival in her wordplay as a setting that will enable transgression: “You may chance to be mistaken in my way of devotion: — a Nun! yes I am like to make a fine Nun! I have an excellent humour for a Grate: no, I’le have a Saint of my own to pray to shortly, if I like any that dares venture on me” (Behn 1.1.132-5). In ironically employing religious diction such as “devotion,” “pray,” and “Saint,” Behn satirizes devout religiosity and juxtaposes the carnival, as a realm of romantic possibility, and the convent, thus promoting sexual liberation over celibacy. Moreover, while Behn provides less of a material description of the carnival than Cavendish does for her all-female cloister, the two compare in their liberating atmospheres of enjoyment. Notably, Hellena’s excitement of coming across a man “that dares venture on [her]” offers insight into the political operations of the text. Like Crawford’s interpretation of The Convent of Pleasure, Behn’s royalist play idealizes a sphere of erotic freedom; however, Derek Hughes argues that Behn does not blindly embrace the noble and valiant tropes of “an earlier Cavalier ethos,” but challenges sexual hypocrisy, recognizing “that the cult of rank, male heroism, and male loyalties was one which […] produced injustice towards women” (164). With the active preposition “on” alluding to male sexual dominance, Behn both foreshadows the play’s causal portrayals of rape and violence, exposing contradictions within demonstrations of party loyalty during royalist Interregnum exile.

Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure is a doubly theatrical space; masquerades and scenes of performance occur within the play’s estate to both emphasize reclaimed royalist pastoral tradition and further the convent’s liberating rejection of conventional gender roles. In Act III, a “play is ready to be acted” (Cavendish 3.1.24), depicting the troubles that women face at the hands of men, with an epilogue summarizing: “Marriage is a curse we find, / Especially to womenkind” (Cavendish 3.10.24-5). Such a dramatization presents the female coterie as not only a safe space of retreat, but one that enables blatant criticism of external society and its gendered customs. As the play progresses, the pastoral and underwater mythological tableaux acted out within the convent further illustrate inversion of gender through costumed cross-dressing while drawing heavily on royalist symbolism. Cavendish interlinks pleasure with nature; pastoral imagery such as shepherds, maypoles, and dancing further emphasize the convent as a celebratory sphere, with Crawford explaining that such festivities embrace Stuart court culture; they fly “in the face of parliamentarian suppression and attest to the enduring spirit of Old England” (186). However, while staged masquerading proves to be a regulated and acceptable practice, the Prince’s deceptive cross-dressing is rather a threatening infiltration of the convent’s utopia. His penetration into the convent remains a point of tension, even with the accepted coupling at the end of the play. Rejecting the convent’s values of female independence from men, the Prince’s dialogue embraces marriage as a non-consensual institution: “Ask their leave if I may marry this lady. Otherwise, tell them I will have her by force of arms” (Cavendish 5.2.22-23). In threatening to wed Lady Happy not only against her will but through violence, Cavendish portrays marriage as inevitable yet continues to insinuate its undesirability.

Just as masquerading and cross-dressing allow the women of Lady Happy’s convent to play on royalist imagery through freeing gender-swapped “theatrical pursuits” (Crawford 205), Behn sees disguise as granting women a level of romantic self-determination. While Hellena’s carnival costume of a gypsy affords her the opportunity to meet and court Willmore, her later disguise in men’s apparel in Act IV, scene ii proves to be ineffective. As she realizes: “Ay, ay, he does know me. — Nay, dear Captain, I’m undone if you discover me” (Behn 4.2.412-13). As explored as well in Cavendish’s play, the act of unmasking seems to reimpose agency on male characters, reinstating gendered boundaries as both settings collapse. Moreover, both the spheres of The Rover and The Convent of Pleasure engage in similar political symbolism; they are antic spaces that showcase the oppressive danger of masked male powers, aligned with themes of oppression by parliamentarians. As Cavendish’s Prince ultimately achieves Lady Happy’s hand in marriage and assumes authority over the convent through his feminine disguise as a Princess, the cavaliers take advantage of the carnival as an environment of mistaken identity. As Belvile speaks of the men’s masquerading habits: “Because whatever Extravagances we commit in these Faces, our own may not be oblig’d to answer ’em” (Behn 2.1.3-4). The emphasis placed on the word “Faces” draws attention to how the men embrace the duality of appearance in the world of the carnival, evading responsibility for acts of brutality and rape. In her twisted comedy, Behn celebrates royalist freedom with the masquerade trope yet is critical of her own party in illustrating the complexities of Restoration masculinity.

While The Convent of Pleasure’s setting operates as a freeing domain in terms of the boundaries of gender, such liberation does not extend to the realm of class; there is a distinct social rank required for admission. As Lady Happy makes clear in outlining the assemblage of the convent: “I will take so many noble persons of my own sex as my estate will plentifully maintain – such whose births are greater than their fortunes” (Cavendish 1.2.111-12). In selecting women based on hereditary order, the convent prizes noble blood, a choice linked to an innate royalist glorification of hierarchy. More notably, however, Lady Happy seeks out the more ‘disadvantaged’ or least wealthy of the noblewomen, looking to “plentifully maintain” them, or equate their familial status with the corresponding benefits of wealth and material security. As Crawford argues, such “dedication of the convent to ‘women of good birth’ is a restoration of the nobility to its rightful place in status and material wealth” (199). In offering a sphere of retirement that elevates the noblewoman financially and materially, Cavendish’s convent seeks to counteract the parliamentarian economic authority of Cromwell’s Interregnum and marks royalist reinstatement during Charles II’s Stuart Restoration.

While Crawford notes that “The Convent of Pleasure comes to Lady Happy through unimpeded inheritance, and she organizes her all-female community along strict class lines” (199), The Rover’s carnival setting momentarily suspends boundaries of social class alongside gender. In portraying the mingling of noblewomen, courtesans, and prostitutes, the carnival’s masquerade permits women of a range of social, economic, and sexual statuses to interact with the band of male cavaliers. However, the carnival’s conclusive unmasking upholds royalist standards of social class once again, akin to the Convent of Pleasure’s clear demarcation of class boundaries. As costumes and carnival masks come off, masculine speculation takes hold. For instance, as Florinda offers Blunt a material object, a ring, to prove that she is of noble birth, he discloses: “I begin to suspect something, and ’twould anger us vilely to be trussed up for a rape upon a maid of quality, when we only believe we ruffle a harlot” (Behn 4.1.682-4). The duality between the titles “maid of quality” and “harlot” suggest that cavalier material wealth and status define whether a woman is deserving of basic respect. Behn uses this language of contrast similarly in the juxtaposed and alliterated “rape” and “ruffle,” displaying how the men perceive their actions as either abusive or frivolous depending on their victim’s station. Moreover, it is only after Hellena is revealed not to be a gypsy but a noblewoman that Willmore wants to marry her, further displaying social class as a concern in male selection. In both The Convent of Pleasure and The Rover, social status beyond the enclosed cloister and the carnival matters, a notion that emphasizes royalist preoccupation with recoupling economic and lineal hierarchy during the Restoration.

As explored, both the settings of Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Aphra Ben’s The Rover are critical to their playwrights’ theatrical subversion of gender roles and political expression. While on the surface-level two contrasting spheres, the convent and the carnival are both spaces of retreat and enjoyment, set apart from the social guidelines of gender. The two domains embrace royalist tropes through performance; Cavendish defines her convent through material comfortability and enactment of classical pastoral and mythological scenes, while Behn’s roaming cavaliers and dancing offer a celebration of royalist libertinism. However, both writers expose the elusive nature of their settings while simultaneously critiquing patriarchal violence and the imposition of parliamentary rule during the Interregnum. Chalmer’s idea that The Rover “questions the notion that libertine sexual conduct provides an equally satisfactory means of expressing Tory loyalties for men and women alike” (152) is demonstrated through the violent sexual advances and deception of characters such as Willmore, as well as a forceful turn to the inevitability of marriage through Cavendish’s Prince. As interlinked with gender, both settings also engage with strictures of social class to advocate for a royalist agenda. While The Rover’s resolution of marriage based on hierarchy and wealth undermines the transgressive inter-class interaction of the carnival, the Convent of Pleasure is not only exclusive to women of noble birth, but seeks to elevate their economic status, an effort central to the Stuart Reformation.

Works Cited

  • Behn, Aphra. “The Rover,” The Plays: 1671–1677. Ed. Janet Todd. Oxford Scholarly Editions
    Online, 19 Oct. 2017. 
  • Cavendish, Margaret. “The Convent of Pleasure,” Three seventeenth-century plays on women
    and performance. Ed. Hero Chalmers (MUP, 2006).
  • Chalmers, Hero. “‘Secret Instructions’: Aphra Behn’s Negotiations of the Political Marketplace”
    in Royalist Women Writers, 1650-1689. Oxford University Press, 2004, pp.149-195.
  • Crawford, Julie. “Convents and Pleasures: Margaret Cavendish and the Drama of Property,”
    Renaissance Drama 32, 2003, pp. 177-223.
  • Hughes, Derek. The Theatre of Aphra Behn, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001, pp. 83–4.

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