Performing Identity: Aphra Behn

Prof. Elaine Hobby


From the beginning of her career in 1670, Aphra Behn demonstrated a marked interest in developing fully imagined stage persons, who become ever more complex in the years that followed. Then, in her last new play to be performed in her lifetime, The Emperor of the Moon (1687), there is an apparent volte-face, as she returned to the Naples of her previous greatest hit, The Rover (1677), but with characters built from commedia dell’arte conventions. This paper will explore the creation of the tragic heroines of Behn’s comedies, such as The Rover’s Angellica Bianca, The City-Heiress’s Lady Galliard, and Julia, Lady Fulbank in The Luckey Chance, and then pivot to examine the state-political and theatrical circumstances that prompted her to produce the Young Lovers and Doctor of The Emperor of the Moon, as well as the central characters of The Widdow Ranter and of Behn’s last play to be premiered, seven years after her death, The Younger Brother. I shall aim both to give a taste of the great variety of identities performed in Behn’s plays, and to indicate the sorts of historical and cultural questions that might best contribute to new accounts of Restoration theatre.

You can download the lecture handout here.

Elaine Hobby is Principal Investigator of the UK-government-funded Editing Aphra Behn in the Digital Age, which is producing The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Aphra Behn. She is Professor of Seventeenth-Century Studies at Loughborough University, where she has worked very happily since 1988. For much of her career she has focused on ‘non-literary’ early-modern writings, mostly by women, such as religio-political pamphlets and midwifery manuals. Since 2015, though, Aphra Behn has had her full attention, a state of affairs that looks likely to continue for some years beyond the expected completion of The Cambridge Edition in 2025.

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