English literature research uncovers issues that are relevant to today’s society

January 24, 2014

Willow White became acquainted with Aphra Behn in her Restoration and 18th Century Literature class. When it came time for the English honours student to decide upon a topic for her undergraduate thesis topic, Willow kept returning to the author and playwright.

“I was always thinking about her plays and her as a person, and I decided to do my project on her,” says Willow (pictured above).

In spring 2013, Willow began her research on Restoration-period theatre and Aphra Behn, the first professional female playwright in England.

The Restoration period refers to the restoration of the monarchy to the English throne in 1660 after an 11-year period in which the parliament ruled. During that period known as the “Interregnum,” many forms of art were discouraged by the government. When Charles II regained the throne, his love of theatre and the arts—as well as his reputation for being sexually promiscuous—spread throughout England.

A key aspect of this time, and an important point in Willow’s research, is that for the first time ever in England, women were permitted to act and write professionally for the stage. Aphra Behn was a key figure in this period, as England’s first professional female writer.

“I was specifically interested in understanding how Behn would deal with male characters when she needed to write them in a libertine style that was popular in the day and that was popular with Charles II, who wanted to see that kind of character on stage – but how would she deal with the inequality and the mistreatment of women that goes along with libertinism almost inherently?”

Willow explains that during this time period, to be a libertine man meant to pursue one’s desires at all costs, but women could not behave in the same manner without fear of being harshly judged and condemned by society.

“What I found in my research of her plays was a subtle critique of libertinism through Behn’s treatment of the male characters, not just the female characters,” says Willow. She explains that this is an important distinction because many contemporary feminist critics have focused on Behn’s treatment of her smart, confident and witty female characters, rather than her male characters.

“She writes great female characters, and people have talked about how she’s using them to subvert this inequality, but I wanted to look at the male characters, and see what she was doing differently with them.”

Willow explains that Behn wrote male characters that were just as resourceful, just as witty and just as rakish as other male playwrights’ characters, while at the same time she was fighting for equality in the theatre community.

Willow will be presenting her research at the Student Research Showcase, and later at the English Undergraduate Conference.

“Lots of people maybe won’t consider research in English literature to be as important as, say, cutting-edge research in science, but for me, the historical issues I’m dealing with – gender and equality – are issues that still exist for women and female writers today,” says Willow. “It does have relevance.”

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