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Female Wits and Theatre history

During the English Restoration theatre and society was male-dominated, women were allowed on stage after the restoration, but they were used for the breeches roles and the rape scenes. However, things were different for a group of women. Three major female play writes also known as the female wits. This term originally was used as a negative term, and later was used in a positive manner. It was to help show the importance of their role and contribution to the late seventeenth-century theatre.

Along with these three women was another influential woman, that help start it all. This is a woman that the three female wits found a lot of their inspiration from. Aphra Behn has been a big influence and inspiration for women in theatre, especially in the English restoration period. Some women included in this are Marry Pix, Delarivier Manley, and Catherine Trotter also known as the female wits who have all put their impact on theatre.

Aphra Behn was born in 1640 and passed away in 1689.

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Behn was a playwright, poet, and novelist. She was a woman who stood out in a crowd of men. Women around this time and later time would choose to be hidden behind men instead of standing on their own. Aphra was different she didn’t think she had anything to hide, nor did she think it would do her justice to her. One of the biggest things that Aphra is known for is that she was the first woman to earn a living as a writer.

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At the time of the English restoration, very few women could support themselves simply through their writing. In her writing, she often deals with underrepresented groups such as women and slaves, characters with real problems. In her novel, The Fair Jilt, considered to be the first English novel written by a woman, and two years after it was published, she had also made her first profit off a stage play The force of marriage. Behn lived a very interesting life, very little is known about her and her family but what is generally is known is somewhat controversial. Her father was said that he was a general in Seinen (1663) and she joined him there which might help explain the inspiration to write the short novel Oroonoko (1688).

As a white privileged English woman observing the slave’s plantations from the outside. She describes how they were treated by their captives, the deals they made to sell them and how the slaves started a revolt in order to escape which failed miserably. Many modern-day scholars criticize her for not making a clear statement against slavery. Even in her black characters she never really has them say anything against slavery. They just deal with their own unfortunate circumstances but there is no political content. After her voyage in Serinen, she then disappears, and at some point, in the next decade she married a man with the last name Behn, supposedly he was a Dutch merchant. In another though there is some evidence to show that she was a spy for King Charles II.

When becoming a spy for Charles he wasn’t interested in paying her very much is anything at all, so she would pawn her jewelry off to maintain her position in Europe while on her mission. After this experience she wanted to be self-standing, she didn’t want to rely on anyone else for money. This is when she took on professional writing. For a few years, she would write plays for the king’s company and the dikes company before disappearing off the record again for a few years. When she returned, she started writing comedic plays those are the plays she is most remembered for. One of her most popular plays is The Rover.

In the rover she introduces women in men’s world. A young woman is planning to elope with her fiance because her family doesn’t approve of him. Only to be faced with his sketchy friends forcing themselves on her time after time. Even her own brother tries to rape her, but she is wearing a mask, so he didn’t know it was her. Later on, they all regret it and apologize to her fiance. In the Rover we also find a nun that has fantasies and desires for a romantic relationship, and a prostitute with dreams of settling down with the man she loves. Behn was really able to give these characters life. Aphra is truly an interesting person not only is she considered the first professional female English writer but her mysterious childhood paints a portrait of a woman who knew how to inspire curiosity and a woman who was shrewd enough to survive on her own during a period when woman was expected to rely on men for support. Because of the success that Aphra had it made a big impact and influence many other women and their writings including Mary Pix.

Mary Pix was born 1666 and the date of her death is unsure, possibly 1709. Out of the four women Pix is the one least known. Mary Married George pix at the age of eighteen in 1684. They had one child who dies in 1690. At the age of thirty is when Pix began her writing career. This was “an unusual step for being a wife of a London merchant” (Nancy Cotton). It is thought that pix turned to theatre as a livelihood after George Pix passed away. Manu people also believe that Mary wrote purely just to satisfy herself. In 1696 she produced her only novel The Inhuman Cardinal and two plays Ibrahim, thirteenth Emperor of the Turks which was inspired by Aphra Behn, and The Spanish Wives. However, it is thought that her tragedies were not as good, and that she should have confined herself to comedy. Although she had her hard times, she is the only one of the three to sustain an active career in theater.

Delarivier Manley was born 1672 and passed away in 1724, she was an English author and playwright. She was often attacked for living openly with lovers and invading the male writers genre of satire. Manley differed from the other two, she had a scandalous reputation but was born a gentle woman. Then like Trotter turned to writing as a livelihood. The only formal education she had was the study of French at the home of the Huguenot minister where she was sent to recover from young love.

Her father was Sir Roger Manley cavalier, soldier, and writer. After her father’s death Manley became a ward of her cousin John Manley who claimed to be recovering from the death of his wife and eventually persuaded Manley to him. After getting married the two of them had a son. However, what was then discovered was that Johns wife was still living, and after several years John then left Delarivier and went back to his wife. This leaving Delarivier with a scandal to her name and an illegitimate child. Later on, Manley used this experience, describing all that she had gone through in her novels. In 1696 she published a collection of letters, and then produced a comedy The Lost Lover which ended up failing because it was poorly structured. Although she as well had her hard times throughout her career, she was still a well accomplished author.

Catherine Trotter was born 1679 and passed away in 1749, she was an English play write, essayist, poet, and philosopher. she unfortunately lived a sad life. Her father passed away when she was only four years old, leaving her family in poverty but this didn’t stop her. She was a very intelligent individual, at the age of fourteen she had her first verses published. At age sixteen she wrote her first play. According to and early source that new her she would tech herself French, Latin, Greek, and logic. Because Trotter was so smart, she had written several plays throughout her teen years that were very successful. Later on, she then marries at the age of 29 to a religious man named Cockburn in 1708. She then talks some time off from writing to focus on raising a large family.

After her children were all grown, she went right back to philosophy and writing. At the age of sixteen she wrote her first play Agnes de Castro, which was a play based off of Aphra Behn’s novel. Then she continued to write five more plays becoming a popular playwright all under the age of twenty. In her works they generally concern intense relationships, her personal friendships and romances were known for a similar intensity. In her later years she continued her philosophical writing. She was mainly known for her works that are in defense in John Locke and Samuel Clarke. In addition to her defense of Lock she makes important contributions and also wrote several works of theology.

She was very interested in moral and religious issues. She was once asked about publishing a collection of her written works and correspondence, which was later on published in 1751 a couple years after she had past. At this time this was very impressive since she is a women philosopher and writer. She was such a successful writer that there were people that wanted to collect all of her writings together to publish them in one collective volume, so that many other people would have the ability to acquire them. This proving how talented she was.

All of these women made a difference and were good at what they did this is why they are important to history. At this time, it was far from respectable to be a playwright as a woman, but these women found a way to make a difference in many ways. However, Delarivier out of the three was the most harshly treated, because of the scandalous acts. Whereas Mary was treated the gentlest because she was humble about her ability. The success of the female wits came with hatred, and the success of them aroused a play call The Female Wits in which attacked them all. But this doesn’t change the real facts about who they were. They also all seem to have been friend and use one another as inspiration including Aphra. All three had their first plays premiered by the patent company Drury lane as well. They all had many things in common, lived adventurous lives and made an impact. An impact not only on theatre but the society.

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Female Wits and Theatre history. (2019, Dec 11). Retrieved from

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