A pair of Spanish sisters, Florinda and Hellena, bicker in their chamber. They are living in Naples, where it is Carnival time, under the care of their brother Don Pedro, as their noble father is currently away in Rome. Florinda is appalled at Hellena’s impertinence, reminding her that she is destined for a nunnery. Hellena, meanwhile, teases her sister about being in love, and asks to know what man is the object of her affections.
As soon as the play opens, it establishes that Florinda is a traditional, modest noblewoman, whereas Hellena is bold and adventurous. Their talk also reveals how sheltered they are; as highborn women, they are rarely allowed outside, and their futures have already been decided for them by their father.
Florinda says that she will not tell Hellena until Hellena is in love herself. Hellena retorts that she has not been in love, but she knows of all the silly behavior that love causes. She continues teasing her sister, saying that Florinda displayed all these symptoms of love when her brother brought home an English cavalier colonel named Belvile, who has been exiled from his homeland due to his allegiance to the British monarchy (which was briefly overthrown during the (17th century).
A major question within The Rover has to do with the definition of love (especially in contrast to lust). Here Hellena begins a discussion about the physical symptoms of love, which Florinda shows when they speak of Belvile. This passage also introduces an important Restoration comedy trope: the virtuous couple (here Belvile and Florinda) torn apart by circumstances.
Hellena goes on, asking if Florinda loves one of two Spanish noblemen: Don Antonio the viceroy’s son or the rich but elderly Don Vincentio, whom their father wishes for Florinda to marry. Florinda blushes “with indignation,” saying that she will never marry Vincentio because he does not deserve her.
As a noblewoman, Florinda is supposed to marry a wealthy, highborn man. Although Don Vincentio is far older than Florinda, this makes no difference to her father, because of her suitor’s wealth.
Hellena applauds Florinda for her defiance, saying that she loves “mischief,” as most women do. She asks Florinda once again if her sister loves the Englishman, praising his personality and looks, and adding how happy she will be if her sister is in love.
The more courageous of the two, Hellena often encourages Florinda to defy societal expectations and to follow her heart. She knows that Florinda loves Belvile, and wishes to use trickery to make the match.
Florinda once again chides Hellena for being so interested in love when she is destined to be a nun. Hellena replies that she has no intention of taking the veil. She adds that she wishes for her sister to be in love with Belvile because she hopes that he has “some mad Companion” with whom she might fall in love. In fact, she vows to participate in the “Carnival” of love even if she has to make the first move.
Although the men in Hellena’s family have dictated that she become a nun, she has no intention of doing so. She believes that love is something that she can seek out (rather than an external force out of her control), and wants to use the free-for-all atmosphere of Carnival—in which normal rules and roles are loosened or even upended—in order to find it.
Florinda tells Hellena that she cannot be so bold, but Hellena says that she has beauty, youth, and “Sense enough” to use them to find a lover.
Once again, the play emphasizes that Hellena is an untraditional heroine with unusual confidence.
Hellena asks once again how Florinda knows Belvile. She replies that during a recent war in Spain, in the city of Pampelona, the English soldier saved both her and Don Pedro from the violence. She says that she now feels obligated to him, but that some other mysterious force has caused her to fall in love with him as well.
During the play, Florinda will experience a great deal of violence from men; her story makes it clear that this has been a part of her past as well. Given her negative experiences with men, it is no wonder she has fallen in love with the gentlemanly Belvile.
Don Pedro enters holding a mask for Carnival, along with his servant Stephano. He brings along with him Callis, the sisters’ governess. He reminds his sister that their father wishes for her to marry Don Vincentio for his fortune. Florinda in turn begs Pedro to change her father’s mind, adding that she hates Vincentio.
Don Pedro, the girls’ brother, is something of a hypocrite; he wishes for them to be honorable and chaste, yet attends the debauchery of Carnival, and lusts after Angelica, a prostitute. Yet one could also argue that basically all of the men are hypocrites in similar ways, though to somewhat different extremes.
Don Pedro mentions Belvile, and notices Florinda’s blush when she hears the name. When he questions her, Florinda replies that she is grateful for Belvile’s protection, adding that he saved her from rape at the hands of “common soldiers” during the wars in Spain.
Pedro, too, notices Florinda’s physical symptoms of love, while Florinda makes even more explicit the sexual violence that she experienced during the Spanish civil wars
Although acknowledging Belvile’s bravery, Don Pedro reminds Florinda of Don Vincentio’s fortune, but his sister fires back, reminding Pedro of Vincentio’s age. Pedro acknowledges that Belvile is young and handsome, but tells his sister that the cavalier has only the “Jewels” of “his Eyes and Heart” to give her.
For Don Pedro and his father, Belvile’s poverty outweighs his virtue (Florinda’s love for him, meanwhile, is completely inconsequential). His heart may have metaphorical value, but in the world of the play, only money can buy love.
Hellena jumps in, saying that the “Jewels” Belvile has to offer are just as valuable as Vincentio’s wealth. Don Pedro mocks her, asking if she learned this in the nunnery. Hellena continues, saying that Vincentio may give her sister wealth, but is too old to give her children. Pedro continues to dismiss Hellena, saying that she is fit only for a life of chastity.
Hellena begins to verbally combat her brother, using her wit (and a hint of vulgarity) to illuminate how misguided he is. Despite her intelligence, however, Don Pedro has the upper hand; he has control over his destiny and over hers: Hellena is fated to become a nun.
Hellena expresses disbelief that Don Pedro will force her into a nunnery and force Florinda into the confinement of a loveless marriage. Pedro tells her that she is mad to think that a luxurious life with Vincentio is confinement.
Don Pedro is conventional and close-minded. He believes that his sisters should obey him without question, and that wealth is the same thing as happiness.
Hellena twists Don Pedro’s words, speculating about the luxurious life to which he refers. She speculates about Don Vincentio’s habits in his “Moth-eaten” bedroom, asserting that he will force Florinda to undress him every night before belching and falling asleep. As Pedro repeatedly asks her to stop, she goes on, imagining what it must be like to kiss Vincentio through his beard. She also mocks Don Vincentio’s dark complexion, calling him an “Indian.”
Once again, Hellena displays that she is wittier and more imaginative than her brother. She is also defiant, refusing to give in to his demands for silence. Despite her intelligence, however, she also displays a hint of racism, mocking Don Vincentio for the dark color of his skin—such casual prejudice was common in the drama of this time period.
For all Hellena’s jibes, Don Pedro asserts that Florinda will marry Don Vincentio no matter what. When Hellena says that it would be better for them both to become nuns, Pedro replies that Belvile has no fortune, and is living in exile from his homeland. Hellena says that even marrying Don Antonio would be better than a life with Vincentio.
The argument reaches a stalemate; Hellena is smarter and more articulate, but Don Pedro has the force of society on his side. He insists that Belvile is not an option, at which point Hellena contests that surely a young rich man (Antonio) is better than an old rich one.
Enraged, Don Pedro tells Callis to lock Hellena up, keeping her from the Carnival until it comes time for her to become a nun. Hellena retorts that she would rather become a nun than enter into a forced marriage. Secretly, however, she vows to find a lover instead.
Hellena is not only intelligent, but also scheming. Although Don Pedro may attempt to lock her up, she is completely determined to seek out love no matter what.
Don Pedro, meanwhile, orders Callis to watch Hellena closely, while confiding in Florinda that he has been speaking of his father’s will rather than his own—he has merely been testing her to see whether she wishes to marry Don Vincentio. Since their father is away, Pedro wishes to go against his orders, and to marry Florinda to his friend Don Antonio, who is “brave and young.” He asserts that Florinda and Antonio will marry the very next day.
It turns out that Don Pedro is duplicitous as well: he has been scheming all along to marry Florinda to his young, rich friend Antonio (thus going against his own father’s will—a grave sin during this time). This maneuver is another example of the freewheeling world of Carnival, during which such events can take place.
When Florinda expresses surprise, Don Pedro replies that he is doing this for her sake. She replies that she will try to act “as shall become your Sister,” and Don Pedro exits with Stephano to attend the Carnival.
Don Pedro is more interested in attending Carnival than in his sister’s welfare, while Florinda, is too meek to resist his orders as Hellena does.
In anguish, Florinda laments that she will not be able to escape Don Antonio, who is both young and rich. Hellena, meanwhile, begs Callis not to lock her away. When Callis says that she must obey her commands, even though she hates them, Hellena continues pleading, saying that she will become a nun if only she can first experience Carnival.
Both Florinda and Hellena find themselves restricted because of their gender. They view Carnival as an escape because of the suspension of rules that it brings, and they hope to find freedom outside of the bounds of society.
When Callis asks what she intends to do at the Carnival, Hellena replies that she will act “mad” but remain “innocent.” She asks Florinda to accompany her, attempting to cheer her sister by telling her of all the adventures they will have.
Although Hellena is bold and intelligent, she is also sheltered and chaste. She and Florinda may find freedom at Carnival, but they will encounter danger as well. And as women, that danger will primarily be one of sexual violence.
Florinda and Hellena decide to attend Carnival, accompanied by their cousin Valeria; they persuade Callis to go with them. Stephano enters, telling them that their masks are ready. Florinda decides to write a note that she can give to Belvile if she sees him, letting him know that she returns his love.
The girls’ decision to disguise themselves signals a shift from the constrained world of their house to the free-for-all of Carnival. Florinda’s note to Belvile, meanwhile, is just the beginning of the complicated hijinks that are to come.