The Widow Ranter was the last play written by Aphra Behn, England’s first professional female playwright. This play was probably written in 1688, but was first performed a few months after Behn’s death in 1689. It is the first surviving play to be set in a North American colony; it takes place in and around Jamestown, Virginia in 1676. As a young woman, Behn may have spent some time in another British colony, Surinam, and she may have drawn on that experience in this play.
The Widow Ranter combines a serious plot with a comic one. The serious plot is loosely based on an historical event: the rebellion of a colonist, Nathaniel Bacon, against Virginia’s colonial government. Bacon himself is the protagonist in this plot: he is portrayed as a noble if flawed character, a hero tragically in love with Semernia, the romantic “queen” of the local Indian tribe; their doomed relationship in some respects recalls the Pocahontas story. The comic plot gives a satirical picture of the colony. The colonists include the bumbling lower-class members of the ruling council; fortune-hunting gentlemen newly arrived from England ; and the Widow Ranter. Ranter came to Virginia as a servant, but became wealthy by marrying her late master. She swears, smokes, and drinks like a man, and pursues and wins a second husband while disguised as a boy. She is a memorable character who embodies the colony’s social chaos but also its vitality. Aphra Behn’s play is a critique of both colonial Virginia and the English political situation at the time it was written, but despite its satire, this play provides an unusual early portrait of a distinctive colonial culture.