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Aphra Behn, The Widow Ranter

Nancy Copeland on Aphra Behn:


The Widow Ranter was the last play written by Aphra Behn, England’s first professional female playwright. This play was probably written in 1688, but was first performed a few months after Behn’s death in 1689. It is the first surviving play to be set in a North American colony; it takes place in and around Jamestown, Virginia in 1676. As a young woman, Behn may have spent some time in another British colony, Surinam, and she may have drawn on that experience in this play.


The Widow Ranter combines a serious plot with a comic one. The serious plot is loosely based on an historical event: the rebellion of a colonist, Nathaniel Bacon, against Virginia’s colonial government. Bacon himself is the protagonist in this plot: he is portrayed as a noble if flawed character, a hero tragically in love with Semernia, the romantic “queen” of the local Indian tribe; their doomed relationship in some respects recalls the Pocahontas story. The comic plot gives a satirical picture of the colony. The colonists include the bumbling lower-class members of the ruling council; fortune-hunting gentlemen newly arrived from England ; and the Widow Ranter. Ranter came to Virginia as a servant, but became wealthy by marrying her late master.  She swears, smokes, and drinks like a man, and pursues and wins a second husband while disguised as a boy. She is a memorable character who embodies the colony’s social chaos but also its vitality. Aphra Behn’s play is a critique of both colonial Virginia and the English political situation at the time it was written, but despite its satire, this play provides an unusual early portrait of a distinctive colonial culture.




Nancy Copeland is Associate Professor of Drama in the University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies and the Department of English and Drama, University of Toronto Mississauga, where she is also Director of Theatre, Drama, and Performance Studies and Associate Chair. Her publications include an edition of Susanna Centlivre’s A Bold Stroke for a  Wife (Broadview,1995); Staging Gender in Behn and Centlivre: Women’s Comedy and the Theatre(Ashgate, 2004); and “Aphra Behn in the Contemporary Theatre” in Teaching British Women Playwrights of the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, ed. Bonnie Nelson and Catherine Burrows. (MLA, 2010).             



Case 12 -- Susanna Centlivre >>>

Aphra Behn. Widow Ranter. London, 1690

William Vincent. The Indian Queen. Mezzotint, not before 1689


Nancy Copeland on Aphra Behn

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