The Forc’d Marriage, Or The Jealous Bridegroom. A Tragi-Comedy by Aphra Behn.
This, Behn’s first play, is believed to have premiered on Tuesday, September 20, 1671, though it was not entered in the Term Catalogues until February 1671. While it is an original work, scholars have found echoes of earlier works in it, including Shakepeare’s Othello (1604), Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Maid’s Tragedy (1619), and Sir William Berkeley’s The Lost Lady A Tragy Comedy (1638).
Like most plays of the Restoration period, The Forc’d Marriage contains a tedious plot with countless pairs of mismatched lovers: for example, Prince Phillander loves Erminia, but she ends up married, though only temporarily, to Alcippus; Phillander’s sister, Galatea, loves Alcippus and is, therefore, deeply angered by his marriage to Erminia; Alcander loves Aminta, but she resists his advances for almost the entire play because he is too much of a ladies’ man.
From the preface through to the epilogue, the play posits the trope of love as war, in which men and women vie for power of political proportions over one another’s hearts. In this way, the play also fits squarely within the broader landscape of Restoration discourses in which the political was iterated in sexual terms and vice versa.
Behn identified The Forc’d Marriage as “A Tragi-Comedy,” but I found, at least in reading, that the play’s tragic components overpower the comic ones. I suspect I would feel differently if I saw it staged. As is common with this hybrid genre, comic relief is withheld until later in the play, aside from the brief lovers’ banter of Aminta and Alcander and the few scenes with minor characters, Falatius and La Bree. The play contains several ‘tragedies’: the central ones being paternal tyranny and unrequited love, which plague the lives of Phillander, his betrothed Erminia, and his sister Galatea. These unfortunate circumstances lead up to an even greater tragedy, the (attempted) murder of Erminia by her husband Alcippus, who, in Othellian fashion, becomes so overwhelmed with sexual jealousy (he knows of the love between Erminia and Phillander) that “He strangles her with a Garter, which he snatches from his Leg, or smothers her with a Pillow.” Like Othello, he also believes himself to be acting “honourably,” sparing the rest of mankind from what he perceives as Erminia’s sexual infidelity.
True comic action finally occurs in act 4 scene 8 when Erminia, whom all including the audience believe dead, appears veiled as a ghost. (This scenario, in which a female character resurrects herself, is not an uncommon plot device in drama; it happens in Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, for example) and it occurs in other plays of the Restoration period.) Erminia’s near death experience affords her the opportunity to turn actress and playwright and carry out a plot to teach Alcippus a lesson and secure herself a life with her true love Phillander. She appears in apparition-form to the other characters in the play and discreetly reveals that she is, in fact, alive, and enlists them as actors in her ‘play’.
This was my first time reading The Forc’d Marriage, and I must admit I was not expecting Erminia to survive Phillander’s choking/suffocating, but then again if she hadn’t, the play would not be a tragi-comedy. In fact, I found myself particularly frustrated when reading, almost hoping for Behn’s play to be more feminist than it could feasibly have been in 1671. Her now iconic status as ‘the first woman writer to live by her pen,’ as Virginia Woolf boasts in A Room of One’s Own, does indeed speak to the historic and progressive nature of Behn’s achievements, but her plays themselves do not depict what readers today would consider overtly feminist characters, only women whose recourse to dramatic arts (dissembling, acting, directing, plotting) affords them a certain access to ‘power’. And, in fact, this recurring metadramatic element as it relates to female characters is of particular interest to me, not only in Behn’s plays but also those of her contemporaries, such as Thomas Otway: when female characters in plays use drama to wield power, achieve desired results, etc, are we to see this as (proto)feminist or anti-feminist? Both?