(1673) Aphra Behn's "The Willing Mistress" was a song performed in her drama The Dutch Lover, staged in
1673. It is sung by a maidservant, who tells her mistress of a sexual experience with a man named Amyn-tas. Amyntas was a favorite name adopted by Behn for the sexual predators in her poetry. Some critics believe it was a nickname for the man with whom Behn became obsessed, John Hoyle. Because Hoyle apparently did not reciprocate her attentions, he could assume the persona in her works of the man rejecting a woman desperate for love. Known for her erotic drama and poetry, Behn scandalized a society that easily accepted themes of sexual excess from Restoration period male writers. She seemed to encourage her audience to identify her with the female subjects of her writings, until the private person became indistinguishable from the public character. No doubt this helped sales of her works, all-important to this widow who had to support herself just as any man did. A former spy for Charles II who had experienced firsthand the conflation of power and sex, Behn understandably wrote as her male contemporaries did. In this play the fact that Behn's husband, who probably died in London's plague of 1665, had been of Dutch ancestry encouraged the audience to identify its heroine with Behn herself.
In the brief song, composed of three eight-line stanzas with an ababcdcd rhyme scheme, a maid sings to her mistress of her sexual encounter. The title reflects negatively on the mistress, rather than the maidservant, suggesting her guilt by association. Because of her higher social status, the mistress should have silenced her maid, rather than providing an attentive audience. Behn enjoyed a jibe at the upper classes, which enjoyed portraying themselves as positive role models for those of lesser worth.
Behn suggests mythology by developing a secluded "grove" with shade trees as setting, where various classical rapes took place. The trees act as a screen even from the sun, which could not penetrate the darkness to betray the lovers. The dark forest traditionally symbolizes danger, as light symbolizes wisdom; thus the female speaker willingly courts danger although she knows better. She makes clear that she lacks fear as she sits with her lover on "the moss," where they begin "to play / A thousand amorous tricks," or games, "to pass / The heat of all the day." However, their games generate their own heat, as he gives her "many kisses," which she returns, the exchange making her "willing to receive / That which I dare not name." The speaker switches to third person to express her own desire, as she continues,
His charming eyes no aid required To tell their softening tale; on her that was already fired, 'Twas easy to prevail.
In the second line the term softening refers to Amyntas's effect on the maidservant in reducing any protest she might make. The exchange is completely silent, for Amyntas continues his kisses as he "clasp[s]" the maid, "Whilst those his thoughts expressed." Behn may suggest that the female could misinterpret male intentions, believing his kisses to express an intellectual process, when they probably result from simple animal instinct. He is a tender lover, however, from whom the maid fears no danger as she clearly describes him as "gently" laying her on the ground. Behn coyly concludes her song, "Ah who can guess the rest?" well knowing that not only the maid's mistress, but also by extension her audience can easily imagine the direction the action takes.
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