A sad Belvile enters a long street along with two English gentlemen, Blunt and Frederick. Frederick teases Belvile for his melancholy, saying that it is uncalled for, especially during Carnival time, unless he is in love. Belvile says that he made no new conquests in Naples or Paris (the last city they visited).
Immediately, the male attitude towards love is depicted as very different than the female one: women seek love out, while men fear and mock it. The men seek to satisfy their lust without creating emotional attachments.
Blunt and Frederick speculate that Belvile must want either money or a woman. When Belvile continues to deny this, they question whether Belvile has reencountered Florinda—the woman he fell in love with in Pampelona (although they briefly forget her name). They rebuke Belvile for wanting a woman who is too virtuous to satisfy him.
In the minds of Frederick and Blunt, caring for a noblewoman is foolish because she will expect marriage (and lock you into the responsibilities of marriage) before engaging in sexual relations. This passage also brings up the fact of Belvile’s poverty, the main obstacle that keeps him from Florinda.
Belvile tells his friends that they are wrong—he knows that Florinda loves him, but he has been barred from her house by Don Pedro in order to make way for the wealthy Don Antonio. He goes on to say that Florinda has signaled her love through letters, and by looking at him from her window.
The exchange of love letters and longing looks is a common way for couples to communicate in this type of comedy, especially when they are separated by fortune (as is the case for Belvile and Florinda).
Blunt and Frederick continue to mock, telling Belvile that while he may be in love, they would never allow a woman—who are “welcome” in the night but “troublesome” in the morning—to have such power over them. Belvile accuses them of preferring whores to women. Blunt does not disagree, implying that he at least has money to pay whores (as opposed to Belvile, whose cavaliering has made him poor).
Blunt and Frederick’s mockery is ironic because, by the end of the play, both will have fallen in love (with very different degrees of success). Blunt shows himself as particularly vulgar and low class, bragging that his wealth can buy him all the women that he needs, and in this way asserting that all a woman is worth is the sex she offers.
Willmore, a reckless and promiscuous cavalier (hence the nickname “the Rover”), enters unexpectedly. Belvile and Frederick embrace him with delight, asking what business he has in Naples, and introducing him to Blunt. Wilmore replies that he is traveling on business, but has come ashore to enjoy himself at the Carnival.
Even the lusty Frederick and Blunt cannot hold a candle to Willmore, a mischievous and immoral cavalier whose only goal in life is to seduce as many women as possible. Restoration audiences would have recognized him as a character typed called a “rake.”
Willmore expresses joy at finding himself in Naples, adding that his business for the time being is “Love and Mirth.” As the men look on, a group of masked, reveling men enters the street, along with a group of women dressed as courtesans, though it is unclear whether they are actual prostitutes, or simply in disguise.
Carnival is the perfect environment for Willmore, as citizens throw morality to the winds in favor of debauchery and disguise. The confusion about whether the women are prostitutes foreshadows the events later in the play when the men believe that Florinda is a courtesan (a kind of high-class prostitute).
The Englishmen, especially Wilmore, engage the prostitutes in conversation, noting that they each have notes pinned to their breasts and flowers in their baskets. They all engage in witty and vulgar banter about flowers, promiscuity, and venereal disease.
During this passage Willmore begins to show off his wit, mixing lewd jokes with quips; Restoration audiences would have expected and enjoyed this type of dialogue, and Willmore as a character is both morally deplorable and exceedingly charming.
When a prostitute that Willmore admired leaves, he grows angry, complaining that he had just been about to fall in love with her. The others tease him, implying that his long voyage at sea has made him full of lust; Willmore does not disagree, expressing his longing for a woman.
Willmore uses the word “love” to mean “lust” because doing so allows him to fool many partners into sleeping with him. Throughout the play he will constantly seek out new women to seduce.
Two men enter in masks, covered in horns. They too wear signs on their backs, and the Englishmen engage in another series of puns. As the revelers dance, the group marvels at the madness of Carnival time.
Throughout the play, all of the Englishmen will take advantage of the mad and antic atmosphere of Carnival in their own ways.
Florinda, Hellena, and Valeria enter, disguised as gypsies. Callis, who has let them come to Carnival after all, accompanies them with Stephano, along with a group of revelers: Lucetta, Phillippo, and Sancho. All are masked.
The masks conceal the female character’s identities, but also their nobility. This makes them more able to move freely through the streets, but less safe from molestation and even assault.
Hellena immediately notices Belvile and points him out to Florinda. She notices Willmore too, calling him handsome, and decides to tell him his fortune.
The meeting of Willmore and the disguised Hellena is a major event; they will spend the rest of the play struggling with their feelings for each other. Here Hellena decides to tell Willmore his fortune, his fate, but in a way they each are each other’s fate.
Believing Hellena to be a gypsy, Willmore begins to banter and flirt with her, calling her a “young Devil.” Correctly identifying him as a poor Englishman, Hellena matches Willmore’s formidable wit with her own. The cavalier offers her his heart, but Hellena tells him that she knows he is “inconstant.” His heart, she says, is worth little more than his purse. Willmore acknowledges his promiscuity, but says that since he has been at sea for so long, he has love to spare for her.
Although other moments in the play are witty and amusing, no dialogue matches the quips and innuendos that Willmore and Hellena share. Although she is a noblewoman, she is able to match his vulgarity with sexual jokes of her own, even as she refuses to sleep with him. It is this mixture of wit and chastity that both intrigues and frustrates him, as does her unknown identity.
Hellena retorts that she means to die a virgin, and Willmore tells her that she will damn herself by doing so, and that he will help to change her mind. Hellena, however, says that he will have to go to horrible difficulties for her sake, even if his “loving eyes” should capture her “tender heart.” Willmore, in turn, swears that he would use his sword for her to conquer anything but a “long siege,” meaning that he hopes it will not take long to seduce her and take her virginity.
Although both Hellena and Willmore use sexual language to speak to each other, and take on the traditional roles of male seducer and seduced female, both have already begun to feel genuine emotion for each other, in addition to their great attraction. They are each other’s intellectual matches, as signaled by their back-and-forth banter. This won’t be the only time in the play that “swords” are used as sexual metaphors.
After Hellena informs him that he will need to storm a nunnery to win her, Willmore tells her that she will be considered more virtuous if she tastes the pleasures of the world before leaving it and becoming a nun. Hellena responds by telling Willmore that she wishes him to divert her from nunhood entirely. She tells him that, since she has never loved before, she will love more strongly than ordinary women.
Even the fact that Hellena is becoming a nun does not deter Willmore, and he actually turns this fact into a seduction technique by arguing that only those who have experienced sex before giving it up can be considered truly honorable. Hellena, meanwhile, introduces the word “love,” although it is unclear whether she means that deep emotion, or only lust.
Asking Hellena to give him “Credit for a Heart,” Willmore asserts that he wishes to come first to her “Banquet of Love,” and asks her to take him back to her house immediately. He tells her that if he does not have her, he will die.
The pair begins to use the language of money to talk about love, and Willmore uses hyperbole (extreme exaggeration) in order to seduce Hellena. This type of seduction is another expected cliché of Restoration comedies. And the point of such comedies was not to avoid such clichés, but rather to fulfill and revel in them with as much gusto as possible. Behn seems to push that fulfillment to such extremes that she can sometimes even seem to cause the clichés to explode from the inside—in other words her characters fulfill the cliché so powerfully that it reveals the complication and even awfulness of the cliché in the first place.
Hellena responds disdainfully, asking if he wishes her to be guilty either of premarital sex or of murder. She goes on to ask him whether there is a difference between love and lust. Willmore, in turn, tells her that the two go together.
Hellena turns the cliché on its head, accusing Willmore of exaggerating. She then brings up the play’s central question: the difference between love and lust. Willmore’s answer—that the two are the same—reveals a great deal about his worldview.
As Hellena and Willmore banter, Lucetta and Sancho plot—she is a prostitute and he is her pimp. They decide to target Blunt, and Lucetta begins to flirt with him; he flirts back.
This passage begins the comic (but disturbing) subplot in which Blunt is swindled by Lucetta and then swears revenge on all women.
In yet another part of the street, Florinda reads Belvile’s palm, but laments that she still has not had an opportunity to reveal herself to her lover because Callis is watching her too closely. Belvile grows tired of the sport, and begins to walk away from her; but as he does, she asks him whether he has been true or false to his lover Florinda.
Although Belvile is talking to his beloved Florinda, he is unable to recognize her. This confusion of Florinda’s identity will continue as the play goes on, and Belvile will speak to her many times, only to realize later who she actually is. This running joke also pokes fun at the idea that love conquers all, that loving someone allows a person to penetrate all obstacles to understanding them. Belvile loves Florinda, but can’t recognize her at all.
Although Belvile had been walking away, he responds with excitement and puzzlement when he hears Florinda’s name. Florinda, still pretending to be a gypsy, tells him to come to her brother’s garden gate to receive her love. As Belvile attempts to question her, Don Pedro appears with other revelers; Florinda pulls away, but succeeds in giving Belvile a letter.
Just as the lovers are about to reunite for a moment, circumstance interferes, in the form of Don Pedro. Florinda, however, does manage to tell Belvile where and when to meet her—a significant feat for the modest noblewoman.
Belvile’s friends urge caution, worried that the letter may be a trap, but the cavalier opens it anyway. Meanwhile, Willmore and Hellena have made plans to meet each other later in the evening; Hellena makes Willmore promise that he will not give his heart to any other woman until he sees her again. All the women exit, except for Lucetta, who stays behind to seduce Blunt.
Each arc represents a different kind of love/lust relationship: Belvile and Florinda’s relationship is pure and innocent, Blunt and Lucetta’s is completely sexual and deceitful, while Willmore and Hellena’s appears to be somewhere between the two (and to thrive on the tension between the two).
Recognizing Florinda’s handwriting, Belvile rejoices, and begs his friends to help him rescue his love from Don Pedro. Willmore, although he has essentially no idea what is going on, says that he is always willing to make “Mischief where a Woman’s concerned.” He begins to joke vulgarly about Florinda, and Belvile responds angrily. Frederick stops the quarrel, and the men resolve to aid Belvile.
Willmore and Belvile’s relationship will become increasingly strained throughout the play because of Willmore’s attitude towards women and his habit of getting himself (and his friends) into scrapes. This moment also introduces Frederick’s role as the peacemaker.
Blunt, meanwhile, exits with Lucetta, and the other men snicker at his actions, speculating that Lucetta may trick him out of his purse, especially if she pretends to be in love with him (for Blunt is very trusting). When Willmore asks what kind of man Blunt is, Belvile and Frederick mock his stupidity and lack of culture, but explain that they are using Blunt for his money.
Restoration comedies like this play often included a stupid male character being fooled and manipulated by a clever, seductive woman. Blunt clearly fills this role. Even his friends do not truly like him, taking advantage of him for his wealth even as they mock his idiocy.
Willmore expresses jealousy that Blunt has found such a willing woman, and Frederick responds by asking him about the gypsy (Hellena) with whom they saw him speak. Willmore replies that he suspects her of being chaste and noble, because of her fine wit, essentially dismissing her because it would take too long to conquer her virtue. He asks his friends if they know any other women who would be more susceptible to his advances.
Even through Hellena’s disguise, Willmore was able to discern that she was a noblewoman. This fact does not please him, however, because it means that she is less likely to sleep with him. Note how quickly his thoughts turn from Hellena as soon as she is gone—this is a frequent pattern for the immoral Willmore, who wants sex and adventure above all.
Frederick tells Willmore about the beautiful Angelica, the former mistress of a now-deceased Spanish general and the object of adoration of all men in Naples, many of whom perform outside her window every day in order to win her attention. They go on to explain that she is a very expensive prostitute, and at the mention of her high price, Willmore expresses disinterest—although he still wishes to see her. The three men exit to go find food, but not before Belvile reminds them once again that they must help in gain Florinda that night.
Angelica represents a very different kind of woman from Florinda and Hellena: she is powerful, independent, and wealthy, and she is all those things because she is overtly sexual, able to exert power over men using her beauty a tool of commerce. At the same time, however, she will never be respected as the noblewomen are because of her status as a prostitute. Willmore’s poverty, meanwhile, is at war with his interest in Angelica’s beauty.