Indography pp 235-248 | Cite as

“A Well-Born Race”

Aphra Behn’s The Widow Ranter; or, The History of Bacon in Virginia and the Place of Proximity
  • Sara Eaton
Part of the Signs of Race book series (SOR)


Aphra Behn’s The Widow Ranter; or, The History of Bacon in Virginia, a tragicomedy first performed in 1689 shortly before her death, was written around the same time as Oroonoko. Both reflect her colonial experiences as a much younger woman when she briefly lived in Surinam. While other English dramatists had earlier depicted encounters with “Indians,” hers is the first extant play to use a colony in America, James-town, Virginia, for its setting, and to focus the play’s action on colonial and the natives’ lives there.1 In spite of this potential claim to fame, at the time of its production the play was not particularly well received. And, despite a fairly recent revival of critical interest in Behn’s works, sustained scholarly attention to The Widow Ranter is sparse, especially in comparison to Oroonoko, which offers a similar critique of colonialist endeavors in its representations of “barbaric” settlers and “noble” slaves and natives.2 In this regard, The Widow Ranter is especially interesting as a late-seventeenth-century instance of Indography; the play avoids any simple binar y construction of “us” encountering “them.” Instead it depicts what Homi Bhabha has famously termed a “space of double inscription,” occasioned by what Alan Lawson characterizes as the “anxious proximities” evidenced in settler literature.3 In brief, all of the play’s characters lay claim to and occupy analogous psychological, legal, and physical places at the same time, creating a dramatic world whose action depicts “us” becoming, in a special sense, “them.”


Civil Disobedience Early Modern Period American Indian Woman Colonial Authority Comic Plot 
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  1. 4.
    Homi K. Bhabha, “Signs of Wonder,” in Race, Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 163–184;Google Scholar
  2. repr. in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Malden: Blackwell, 2004), 1167–1183, especially 1176. All page references to Bhabha’s article are to the latter.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Alan Lawson, “The Anxious Proximities of Settler (Post) colonial Relations,” in Postcolonizing the Commonwealth: Studies in Literature and Culture, ed. Rowland Smith (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2000), 19–37; repr. in Literary Theory: An Anthology, ed. Rivkin and Ryan, 1210–1023, especially 1213. All page references to Lawson’s article are to the latter.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    All references to Behn’s play are from The Widow Ranter: or The History of Bacon in Virginia, ed. Aaron R. Waldon (New York: Garland Publishing, 1993). Jacqueline Pearson argues this was Behn’s practice throughout her works: “by destabilizing binary oppositions she effectively deconstructs her own text, replacing its stereotypes with a rich sense of race, class and gender differences as reciprocal metaphors” (“Slave Princes and Lady Monsters: Gender and Ethnic Difference in the Work of Aphra Behn,” in Aphra Behn Studies, ed. Janet Todd [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996], 229). She does not include The Widow Ranter in her discussion of “reciprocal metaphors,” which I will argue are a response to colonialist endeavors.Google Scholar
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    Kathryn Schwarz, Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 57.Google Scholar
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    Shankar Raman, “Back to the Future: Forging History in Luis de Camoes’s Os Lusiadas,” in Travel Knowledge: European “Discoveries” in the Early Modern Period, ed. Ivo Kamps and Jyotsna G. Singh (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 153.Google Scholar

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© Jonathan Gil Harris 2012

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  • Sara Eaton

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