linguistics, literature

The Common Soldier: An Archetype in 17th- and 18th-Century Theatre

In a world of emerging paper currency and capitalism, it comes as little surprise that contemporary entertainment so often focused on economic problems. A surprisingly common theme in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works was the economics of the human body. Often, this issue was addressed in literature and performances through female prostitution, but some texts present another form of selling one’s body—that of the soldier, with military service framed as an economic transaction.

Military careers were not always viewed favorably in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While perhaps not so vilified as prostitution, the soldiers depicted in plays of the era act as caricatures or satirical figures rather than sympathetic characters. The interconnectivity between economics and the physical body is highlighted through word choice—in the use of the word “soldier.”

The etymological evolution of the word “soldier,” especially when contrasted with related words like “warrior” or “fighter,” is integral to this discussion. According to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, which provides us with eighteenth century definitions, “soldier” stems from the French soldat and the low Latin solidus. “Soldier” is defined as “a fighting man, a warrior. Originally one who served for pay.”

But we have to go back further than that. The low Latin solidus referred not to the soldier himself, but rather specifically to his pay. The very concept of the soldier is inherently intertwined with ideas of money. Johnson included the caveat that the term “soldier” is generally used for the common man, distinct from his commanders. This implies an interconnectivity between status and sacrificing one’s morals for money. While the higher-ranking military members might have the privilege of upholding whatever principles they choose, those of lower standing are forced to follow the commands of their superiors in order to make ends meet.

The characters in Aphra Behn’s The Rover are referred to as soldiers only a handful of times. The first of these is of particular note, occurring early in the play, when Florinda says:

I’ll not deny I value Belvile: when I was expos’d to such Dangers as the licens’d lust of common Soldiers threatned, when Rage and Conquest flew thro the City—then Belvile, this Criminal for my sake, threw himself into all Dangers to save my Honour, and will you not allow him my Esteem?

Paired with words like “common” and “lust,” this passage paints soldiers as a lowly and perhaps a little barbaric. The word is juxtaposed with Florinsa’s description of Belvile, who—despite the fact that he rescued her—she defines as a “criminal for [her] sake.” This word choice places the soldiers as lowlier than criminal. Although their actions would have been considered acceptable in their circumstance, and Belvile’s considered the act of a traitor in hindering them, it is the soldiers who are truly at fault. We see that the morality of the soldiers is reined in by the superior; it is understood that they are not only obliged to his guidance in having sold themselves, but in need of it. Independent of Belvile, they demonstrate little in the way of moral values. 

George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer brings up soldiers in the very opening lines of the play. The character Kite, who is himself a military man himself, says:

For you must know, gentlemen, that I am a man of honour: besides, I don’t beat up for common soldiers; no, I list only grenadiers; grenadiers, gentlemen.

To be a soldier is depicted as something less favorable than other titles, and it comes as little wonder that the archetype of the rake—present in Captain Plume in The Recruiting Officer as it is also present in Willmore in The Rover—is once more referred to as soldier repeatedly throughout the text, despite the actual rank he holds.

While this perception of soldiers might seem strange to present-day audiences, it is not without explanation. Mary Wollstonecraft attempted to draw a comparison between the position of soldiers and women in society in her essay A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She argued that both soldiers and women are educated only superficially, retaining bits and pieces of knowledge that they overhear in conversation and understand through interaction, but rarely understanding anything at a deeper level than can be understood through casual observation.

The most relevant part of this argument is the concept Wollstonecraft introduces of manners before morals—that is, that soldiers learn how to present themselves without understanding any substance or standard behind it. This serves as explanation for the rakish depiction of soldiers in eighteenth century literature. While characters like Willmore and Captain Plume know enough to present themselves well in certain social situations, they are in reality lacking in moral understanding and therefore tend to behave in a lowly fashion.

It makes sense, then, that a society placing so much value on virtue and morality would frown upon soldiers. At best they were perceived as naive, and at worst, ignorant. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century soldier was thought, at least in literature, to be driven by money and personal profit over anything resembling virtue or honor. The characters in these plays are a stereotype, juxtaposing the ignorance in characters like Willmore against the more gallant and heroic archetype of Belvile, in order to offer a commentary on the “soldier” versus the honorable military man of good standing.

Of course, neither can be interpreted as an entirely accurate depiction of real soldiers and officers of the day. Both archetypes play into a preconceived notion of how “soldier” should be defined. While this might offer some insight into the prejudices of these centuries, it must be observed with some skepticism. Theatre is known for its caricatures and satirical nature; to determine whether the biases of the era’s plays were pervasive in contemporary society would require additional research. Nevertheless, it is clear that the “soldier” did act as one of these archetypal figures within the theatre, however representative of the attitudes of society this might have been.

2 thoughts on “The Common Soldier: An Archetype in 17th- and 18th-Century Theatre”

  1. Kristyn, another interesting post. I have recently read an article about Russian and Ukranian Cossack prisoners of war during the second world war volunteering to fight for the Germans in a specially created regiment. While some probably did so for nationalistic reasons I am sure that most were merely fighting to survive, the alternative probably being to die off in a POW camp or as slave workers. Unfortunately for them they picked the losing side and virtually all died. The same view can be taken of child soldiers in Africa, plus even in richer countries, lower rank military people are often recruited from the poorer regions where work is harder to come by. So the idea of the soldier as a mercenary, with morals suspended is not dead.

    Liked by 1 person

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