Comus (John Milton)

Comus (A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634) is a masque in honour of chastity, written by John Milton and first presented on Michaelmas, 1634, before John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater at Ludlow Castle in celebration of the Earl's new post as President of Wales. Known colloquially as Comus, the mask's actual full title is A Mask presented at Ludlow Castle 1634: on Michelmas night, before the right honorable John, Earl of Bridgewater, Viscount Brackley, Lord President of Wales, and one of His Majesty's most honorable privy council. Comus was printed anonymously in 1637, in a quarto issued by bookseller Humphrey Robinson; Milton included the work in his Poems of 1645 and 1673.


The plot concerns two brothers and their sister (called the Lady) lost in the wood. The Lady becomes fatigued, and the brothers wander off in search of sustenance. The Lady is captured by the debauched Comus, a character inspired by the god of mockery, brought to his pleasure palace, and magically affixed to a chair with "gums of glutinous heat." Comus urges the Lady to "be not coy" and drink from his magical cup (representing sexual pleasure and intemperance), but she repeatedly refuses, arguing for the virtuousness of temperance and chastity. Meanwhile her brothers, searching for her, come across the Attendant Spirit, an angelic figure sent to aid them, who takes the form of a shepherd and tells them how to defeat Comus. The three manage to rescue her and chase off Comus, but the Lady remains magically bound to her chair. With a song, the Spirit conjures the water nymph Sabrina (pronounced suh-BRIH-na), who frees the Lady on account of her steadfast virtue.

The music, in a baroque style, was composed by Henry Lawes, who also played the part of The Attendant Spirit. Generally, masques were not dramas; they could be viewed as pre-figuring the recitative of opera.

Comus and the Masque Genre

Masques were a favourite court celebration dating from at least the reign of Elizabeth I, but became very popular under the Stuarts. The main parts were often played by courtiers, nobles and sometimes even the royals. In fact, Caroline masques (of which Comus is an example) frequently featured the King and Queen (Henrietta Maria), as they were far more interested in becoming involved than James and his queen had been.

However, this masque was not performed at the court, but at the home of Lord Bridgewater: Ludlow Castle. It was commissioned to celebrate the appointment of Lord Bridgewater to the post of Lord President of Wales. References to this are clearly evident in the text, such as the Attendant Spirit's reference to the children's father's "new-entrusted sceptre" in his opening speech.

Bridgewater's own children were the principal actors in this masque. The Puritan Milton's use of the genre, however, may be seen as an attempt for him to "reclaim" masque, which were associated with the perceived debauchery of the royal court, for godly or virtuous purposes. Rather than praising an aristocrat, the famous concluding lines of the masque, recited by the Attendant Spirit, urge

Mortals that would follow me,
Love virtue, she alone is free,
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the Sphery chime;
Or of Virtue feeble were,
Heav'n itself would stoop to her (ll. 1018-1023).

Comus was influenced by a prior masque, Aurelian Townshend's Tempe Restored, which had been staged at Whitehall Palace in London in February 1632. Both Henry Lawes and Alice Egerton, the Earl's daughter who played the Lady, had performed in Townshend's masque.

Milton's title for the masque was not Comus (this was imposed later by scholars), but A Mask, Presented at Ludlow Castle. Creaser notes that it had become old-fashioned by the 1630s to use an occasional title such as this (consider other masque titles of the time: Coelum Britanicum, Tempe Restored etc). This shows that Milton wanted to specifically draw attention to his work as a masque, asking the reader to hold in their minds all that this signified, as he consciously used and twisted the conventions of the genre in order to put across his particular message. For example, his audience would have been expecting, based on other masques of this time, that the antimasque would be dispelled by virtue (usually embodied by the King and Queen). Yet in Comus the Lady's virtue is not enough to save her: she is unable to dismiss Comus on her own. Even the heroic virtue of her brothers is not enough. Comus escapes rather than actually being defeated. Many have read the intervention of Sabrina as divine assistance being sent, showing that earthly virtue is relatively weak, and certainly not worthy of the exhaultation given it in contemporary masques. Lewalski comments that the character of Sabrina was apparently not played by a noble, but by one of the actors (we can assume this because no-one is listed as playing this character in the dramatis personae), so it is actually a commoner who holds the position of most power.

Castlehaven Scandal

An air of controversy surrounds this masque, as the Earl of Castlehaven, Bridgewater's brother-in-law, was the subject of a sordid sodomy and rape scandal for which he was executed. Some critics have conjectured that the masque, with its focus on chastity, was designed to "cleanse" the Egerton family. The notable articles in this strain of criticism include:

  • Brested, Barbara. "Comus and the Castlehaven Scandal" Milton Studies 3 (1971), 201-224.
  • Creaser, John. "Milton's Comus: The Irrelevance of the Castlehaven Scandal." Milton Quarterly 4 (1987): 25-34.
  • Hunter, William B. Milton's Comus: Family Piece. New York: Whitson Publishing, Troy, NY: 1983.
  • Marcus, Leah. "The Milieu of Milton's Comus: Judicial Reform at Ludlow and the Problem of Sexual Assault." Criticism 25 (1983): 293-327.
  • Weitz (Miller), Nancy. "Chastity, Rape, and Ideology in the Castlehaven Testimonies and Milton's Ludlow Mask." Milton Studies 32 (1995): 153-68.

The following book discusses the trial of the Earl of Castlehaven:

  • Cynthia B. Herrup, A House in Gross Disorder: Sex, Law and the 2nd Earl of Castlehaven. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.


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