Mills, Rebecca M. "'That Tyrant Custom': The Politics of Custom in the Poetry and Prose of Augustan Women Writers." Women's Writing 7, no. 3 (2000): 391-409.
COMUS John Milton (1637) Although its subtitle (A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle 1634: On Michaelmas Night, Before the Right Honourable, John Earl of Bridgewater, Viscount Brackeley Lord President of Wales) declares John Milton's pastoral drama Comus a masque, it was not a masque in the true sense of the word. Masques presented at court focused mainly on spectacle, with their actual message of minor importance. By contrast Milton wrote a drama with focus on good versus evil in which theme proved paramount. Good is represented in the character of the virgin Lady, while evil is presented through the erotic Comus. However, Milton believed it comparable to court entertainments and originally titled it simply Masque. Samuel Johnson, among others, evaluated Comus as lacking the dramatic unity supporting a masque. Critics believe that Dr. John Dalton first titled it Comus when he printed it in 1738 with the subtitle A Masque, Now Adapted to the Stage.
As Milton's lengthy subtitle indicates, he wrote the production for entertainment at the estate of Viscount Brackeley, designing the parts of the three travelers to be enacted by the Bridgewater children. He did so at the request of his good friend Henry Lawes, a well-known musician who wrote the accompaniment to Comus and who portrayed the Attendant Spirit during its enactment at Bridgewater. The production celebrated Bridgewater's appointment to Wales and would be published anonymously by Lawes in 1637 and by Milton himself in 1645. The only existing manuscript of the original presentation of Comus is called the Bridgewater MS, privately owned.
The plot offers Comus as its antagonist. An evil mythological character who through magic can assume various guises, he represents unbridled passion, while the Attendant Spirit represents rational logic. In Milton's emphasis on good versus evil, he pits reason against passion, also having the Lady support the idea of reason. However, he emphasizes more her virginity. In its Platonic sense, chastity equated to loyalty to reason, and Milton does emphasize the superiority of reason over passion. But as critics note, he presents chastity as equating to virginity, not loyalty to reason.
A female traveler and her two brothers find themselves lost in "this drear Wood, / The nodding horror of whose shady brows" threatened all travelers. The brothers leave their sister momentarily to search for a source of water, and in their absence, the Lady hears the sounds of music and celebration. Comus is celebrating with his companions, bidding them, "Come let us our rites begin, / 'Tis only daylight that makes Sin." Milton offers repeated imagery of light and dark, symbolizing good and evil.
The Lady investigates the sounds and discovers Comus, disguised as a shepherd, who invites her into his curiously quiet cottage. A son of Bacchus, Roman god of wine, and Circe, the sorceress who turned Ulys-seus's crew into swine, Comus ceased his debauched revelry when he observed the Lady's approach, telling his companions that he feels "some chaste footing near about this ground." Enchanted by her great beauty, he plans to "under fair pretense of friendly ends" apply "well-pac't words of glozing courtesy, / Baited with reasons not unplausible." Milton continues to emphasize the superiority of reason above passion, as Comus will attempt to adopt reason for evil means but will ultimately fail. As the Lady approaches the cottage, now a quiet scene, she wonders whether she had simply fantasized the sounds she thought she heard. She expresses her thoughts that "may startle well, but not astound / The virtuous mind," as she calls upon "thou unblemish't form of Chastity, / I see ye visibly." Her lines support the Platonic idea that virtue is such a clear mental concept that it can be seen. Critics point out the circular logic of her argument, in which she basically claims that because she is chaste, she will remain chaste. Despite its logical flaw, its focus on chastity and purity supports the drama's theme.
The brothers return, aghast to find their sister has disappeared. The elder brother affirms the strength of her chastity to keep her safe:
She that has that, is clad in complete steel, And like a quiver'd Numph with Arrows keen May trace huge Forests and unharbor'd Heaths, Infamous Hills and sandy perilous wilds, Where through the sacred rays of chastity, No savage fierce, Bandit or mountaineer Will dare to soil her virgin purity.
In a foreshadowing of Comus's temptation of the Lady, the older brother also notes that one with chastity is protected by "A thousand liveried Angels . . . / Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt." He adds that such a woman is able to converse with spirits whom others can neither see nor hear.
A benign Attendant Spirit informs the brothers of the Lady's fate and promises to help them. He has assumed the guise of a shepherd named Thyrsis and reveals that Comus is a malevolent sorcerer who will bewitch their sister as he does all travelers. Comus lures them into his cottage by promising hospitality, then gives them drink that converts their faces into those of beasts, when he waves his magic wand, as the speaker reveals early on in the work:
Soon as he Potion works, their human count'nance, Th' express resemblance of the gods, is chang'd Into some brutish form of Wolf, or Bear, or ounce, or tiger, Hog, or bearded goat, All other parts remaining as they were.
Worse, those afflicted do not realize the change has taken place, not perceiving "their foul disfigurement" and still boasting "themselves more comely than before." This passage emphasizes Milton's repeated emphasis on the fact that in order for one to gain sensuality, he must sacrifice rational nature. Furnishing the brothers an antidote made from the root of the Harmony plant, the Spirit takes them to their sister.
Comus attempts to seduce the Lady with a famous speech celebrating the common Carpe Diem theme in which he famously claims that the Lady actually blasphemes nature by preserving her virginity while Nature pours "her bounties forth, . . . covering the earth with odors, fruits, and flocks." Although she rebuffs his twisted logic, he continues, telling her, "List Lady, be not coy" in clinging to her virginity, for "Beauty is nature's coin" and "must not be hoarded." He then speaks directly to her virgin state, as Milton adopts the figurative language of simile: "If you let slip time, like a neglected rose / It withers on the stalk with languish't head." She sits in an enchanted chair that will not allow her to depart, but her resolve to resist Comus remains strong, as she replies,
I had not thought to have unlockt my lips In this unhallow'd air, but that this Juggler Would think to charm my judgment, as mine eyes,
Obtruding false rules prankt in reason's garb. I hate when vice can bolt her arguments, And virtue has no tongue to check her pride.
She speaks in no uncertain terms, telling Comus of the "serious doctrine of Virginity." Comus has reinitiated the rout and passes drink that he attempts to force on the Lady. She refuses, but magic holds her to the chair and she cannot escape.
The brothers arrive at the cottage wielding swords that chase the revelers away, and Comus escapes. The Spirit scolds the brothers about letting Comus go; they "should have snatcht his wand" as only it can reverse the spell. However, the Spirit calls on Sabrina, goddess of the river Severn, for help, and she complies, telling the Spirit, "Shepherd 'tis my office best / to help ensnared chastity." Sabrina asks the Lady to look at her as she sprinkles drops from her pure fountain,
Thrice upon thy finger's tip, Thrice upon thy rubied lip; Next this marble venom'd seat Smear'd with gums of glutinous heat I touch with chaste palms moist and cold. Now the spell hath lost his hold.
The travelers express their gratitude to Sabrina through song, and then follow the Spirit to arrive at their destination of Ludlow Castle.
As Stanley Fish notes, Comus represents an early example of one of many Miltonian figures involved in the act of containment. While Comus attempts to establish his own space in God's universe with his own agenda, he will be restrained. No deity or force can rival that of the Christian God or his authority to support good over evil.
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