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Aphra Behn’s “The Widow Ranter”

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Upon reading Aphra Behn’s, “The Widow Ranter”, it is impossible not to notice the similarities and parallels between the events and characters of the play and those of the English Civil War. These similarities may at first appear to be mere coincidences, it is true that may civil wars are innately comparable to each other; however it is not the case of The Widow Ranter. In The Widow Ranter, Behn artfully constructs and construes a story which carries a message.

In order to clarify and justify Behn’s intentions, it is important to first review and relate the events and characters of The Widow Ranter in comparison to those of the English Civil War. The primary characters of interest are Bacon, the Jamestown Counsel, and the Indians/ Indian King and Queen. Clearly Bacon, who is called both a “rebel” and a “general” in the play is meant to represent Oliver Cromwell; the Indian King, who is called the “Monarch” represents King Charles I, and the Counsel of Jamestown represents the English Civil War Parliament. This theory of character representations is supported by the parallel plots of [a portion of] The Widow Ranter and [a portion of] the English Civil War.

In The Widow Ranter, the Counsel and Bacon are initially on the same side, opposing the Indians; in fact he was a member of the counsel before he broke the law and disobeyed the Counsel by attacking the Indians. Then Bacon’s Army forces the Counsel to release Bacon and grant him a commission to continue his war on the Indians (and subsequent goal of killing the Indian King). The resulting situation is an increasingly hostile relationship between the Counsel and Bacon, who is again at war with the Indians. Characters of all three parties overtly lack complete loyalty to their causes and/or leaders, and the scene is a chaotic battle in the woods with everyone fighting everyone.

In the parallel account of the English Civil War, Cromwell and the Long Parliament are initially on the same side as well, in opposition to King Charles I and the Royalists. Then, in 1649, [Cromwell’s] New Model Army turns against the Parliament, forcing them to approve the execution of [former] King Charles I, whom they have been holding in prison. The remaining ‘Rump’ Parliament and Cromwell’s Army are now also in a strained relationship as The New Model Army returns to combating Royalist uprisings.

As you can clearly see, both accounts portray triangular relationships between the main characters/parties partaking in nearly synonymous plots. Yet this is merely the start of the analogous elements shared by The Widow Ranter and [this portion of] the English Civil War. Upon closer examination, notable similarities between the corresponding characters of these plots can be observed as well.

To begin with, in addition to both Bacon and Cromwell being military champions of the people fighting against monarchy, they share many of the same personality traits and characteristics. Both men are “honorable” military leaders, with an attitude of respect and mercy for their enemies, as well as for neutral parties and properties. Cromwell maintained that his troops behave in a “gentlemanly” manner by treating civilians (of any loyalty) with respect and taking extra care to not damage or destroy their property. Bacon commands similar principles, insisting that his supporters, whether it be his troops or the mobbing supportive public; do not act rashly without genuine justification for their behavior. Also, Cromwell and Bacon both believe in the preservation of life, whether it be theirs or the enemy’s.

Bacon expresses this attitude by taking the noble women of Jamestown hostage (but treating them with the utmost of dignity) in order to force the surrender of the Counsels forces without great “loss of blood.” Cromwell’s army accommodated this outlook by purposely not shooting [to harm or kill] at the Royalist soldiers (evident when reviewing casualty counts), as well as by not executing the surrendering forces. Perhaps most strikingly unanimous however, is Bacon and Cromwell’s policy of allowing surrendering enemy troops/subjects to either “join forces” with their army or simply “go home”.

The next parallel of characters which Behn suggests is between the Counsel [of Jamestown] and the Long Parliament of the English Civil War, both of which are subject to mutiny and coercion [by Bacon or Cromwell’s Army, respectively]. Both of these legal assemblies are in the highest government position of power as a result of/ due to the absence of a higher singular authority, whether it be the Governor or the King. They consist of an array of members who vary in quality of character as well as allegiance, to each other as well as the state, and consequently suffer from a lack of unity.

In Parliament this dissonance is evident by their inability to agree to take decisive action against King Charles I; while some members demand his execution, others maintain that he can still be negotiated with, despite failure thus far to reach an agreement. Similarly, The Jamestown Counsel continually debate over whether to support, arrest, or kill Bacon for his actions. The Counsel, like the Long Parliament, expresses a preference to negotiate [peace] with the Indians/ Indian King, but is forced to allow Bacon to pursue his actions against the Indians, and subsequent murder of the Indian King. Additionally, the Counsel and Parliament are also similar in that they both are apprehensive of the power Bacon/ Cromwell possess as popular leaders of troops comprised primarily of common (non-nobility) people, and thus feel inclined to disband the army(s).

The final significant character comparison of The Widow Ranter and [this portion of] the English Civil War is between the Indian King and King Charles I. This parallel is interesting because it seems so unlikely, yet Behn makes certain that it is not overlooked or dismissed by explicitly calling the Indian King the “Monarch”. Aside from merely holding the same respective title, King Charles I and the Indian King are similar in other ways as well. To begin with, both insist on attacking a superior enemy army, despite the advice and support of their advisors. King Charles I (prior to the Civil War) had disregarded the wishes of Parliament and the interests of his subjects by repeatedly engaged in military assaults on neighboring countries (France and Spain especially). Similarly, the Indian dismisses the Indian Queen’s pleading advice and predictions of inevitable defeat.

Also, let us not forget that just as King Charles I was renowned for his tendency to blatantly and repeatedly break peace agreements, the Indian King of The Widow Ranter also breaks an agreement of temporary peace with the colonists and Bacon’s army. Another parallel which is notable is the practice and importance of religion by the Indian King as compared to that of King Charles. The Indian King engages in a religious ceremony involving bowing to “the Idol,” then “Priests and Priestesses” leading himself and the Indian Queen to an “alter,” as well as a prayer to “the God” inquiring about the events of their “war against the English General.” The significant elements of the Indians’ religious ceremony are blatantly a comparison to the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, of which King Charles I was a relentless advocator. Next, the response that “The English General shall be, a captive to his enemy; and you from all your toyles freed, when by your hand the foe shall bleed….” pleases the Indian King who declares that the Gods are taking care of them, and announces that he will “perform the Office of a Priest” when he returns from conquering Bacon. Through this statement the Indian King asserts his belief in the Devine Right of Kings, also a belief firmly expressed by King Charles I.

As you can see, both the plots and characters of The Widow Ranter and [this portion of] the English Civil War are nearly identical to each other. Yet the events and characters of The Widow Ranter are not consistent with the historical account of Bacon’s Rebellion. To begin with, the character of Bacon is grossly misportrayed. The real Nathaniel Bacon was not a noble, honorable general who had a friendly relationship with the Indians and a respect for the Counsel; in fact, the Counsel was not even the ruling authority at the time, that position belong to the Governor, who was present and actively attempting to arrest and repress Bacon and his rebel “army”. Nathaniel Bacon in reality, was a radical dissenter who recruited an “army” of volunteers and savagely attacked and raided random Indian tribes, then out of lust for power and revenge, led a violent revolt against the Governor. Additionally, Bacon and his troops were not only merciless toward the Indians, but toward the colonists as well, plundering and seizing the property of nobles and destroying all signs of the aristocratic gentry in their upraising.

As you can see, the story of The Widow Ranter is clearly not an accurate historical account of the events of Bacon’s Rebellion, mainly due to Behn’s misleading portrayal of Nathaniel Bacon. Because the alterations [from history] to The Widow Ranter have to do mainly with Bacon, it stands to reason that Behn is attempting to convey a statement about Oliver Cromwell, implying that our conceptions about his character and role in the English Civil War are faulty. Behn suggests that Cromwell was not the moral, heroic General history paints him as, but instead a dangerous rebel, driven by lustful vengeance and a Machiavellian pursuit of power. A second interpretation of Behn’s alterations [to the historic account of Bacon’s Rebellion] in The Widow Ranter is that she was not trying to convey a message about Oliver Cromwell at all, but instead one about Nathaniel Bacon. If this interpretation is adopted, it stands to reason that Behn was trying to elevate Bacon to the status of the honorable “people’s hero,” as Cromwell was viewed by many.

Both of these theories are affected by Bacons actions after killing the Indian King and then also accidentally the Indian Queen (whom he loves). At this point, Bacon commits suicide, making the dying declaration, “while you are victors make peace with the English Counsel and never let ambition, love, or interest make you forget, as I have done, your duty and allegiance….” This alternate suicide ending with Bacon recanting his actions may have been written as intentionally divergent to imply either something about Cromwell or something about Bacon, depending on which theory you subscribe to. If The Widow Ranter was meant to diminish Cromwell, it implies that he never made peace with the parliament, and that ambition, love, or interest made him forget his duty and allegiance. Or, if The Widow Ranter was meant to celebrate Nathaniel Bacon the passage implies that while he was a great leader with noble intentions and the interests of the people at heart, but that his ambition, love, and/or interest made him forget his duty and allegiance, and that he made a mistake by not making peace with the parliament.

In conclusion, after compulsively analyzing the play The Widow Ranter and faithfully examining the events and characters of the English Civil War, it is clear that Aphra Behn is drawing parallels between the two. What remains frustratingly unclear is exactly what she is attempting to imply to the reader/ audience. There are many theories, all with their collection of sound evidence, but none seem to fit the play quite perfectly; indeed, this literary work seems most effectively to convey a message not about a person or event, but about the nature of personal interpretation. Every individual sees precisely what they are looking for, sometimes blind to the reality that there is nothing there at all.

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