Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Widdow Ranter, although the titular character of this play, does not receive that much stage time. She has about as many lines as the Indian Queen, and maybe a little bit more time on stage (since she doesn’t die). The stage time she has, though, sets her up as an incredibly strange feminine trope, whereas the Indian Queen, despite her racialization, is a much more recognizable romantic female type.
The Indian Queen is praised for her beauty, her wisdom, her expressiveness. Rather than chasing the man she begins to love, she flees his advances with becoming modesty. We see her once engaging in idol worship, a clear marker of Otherness; yet on the whole, her character seems much more akin to a typical European tragic heroine, a sort of noble savage.
The true savage is the The Widdow, who lacks any semblance of normative femininity. She smokes, drinks, curses, and pursues the man she loves. She dresses like a man and fights in a battle. We hear nothing about her beauty, charm, or other feminine qualities, normal subjects of encomia. And what is her relation to Moll Cutpurse, another female character whose behavior and dress contradict normative femininity? Moll seems less strange and wonderful because we understand her choices; she has explained the why of her lifestyle. Her lifestyle, also, is consistent; she chooses to go against the flow of what the culture expects of her in almost every respect. But the Widdow Ranter is just an enigma. We don’t understand her choices to buck culture, since she has obviously not done so in every instance. She is a Widdow, so she married once, as was expected of her. She is a woman, so she will marry again. Are all these oddities merely indications that we are dealing with a strange person, or are they markers of her cultural difference from the English? Is her American-ness the most important Otherness in the play, more striking and marvelous than the Indians? Is Aphra Behn trying to make a new type, the coarse, mannish American woman?

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