John Milton’s Comus was first published in 1637 as A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle. The title Comus, derived from the name of the evil magician in the masque, became the normal designation during the eighteenth century and has replaced the original title. The work—written as dramatic entertainment for the installation of John Egerton, Earl of Bridgewater, as Lord President of Wales—was performed at Ludlow Castle on September 29, 1634. Written primarily in blank verse, with rhymed lyrics interspersed, the drama extends to 1,023 lines, exceptionally brief for a play but above average length for a masque. The work was a collaboration between Milton and his friend Henry Lawes, a tutor to the Egerton children. Lawes wrote the music for the songs, staged the production, and acted the part of Thyrsis.
Much critical attention has centered upon Comus as a masque and its resemblance to other masques of the period. A popular form of aristocratic entertainment, the masque was a relatively short drama featuring simple conflict, static characters, song and dance, and pageantry. The actors were usually amateurs, often members of a noble family, who felt free to take part in private dramatic productions but would not have ventured onto the public stage. The plot of Comus features a simple journey through a wood at whose end the three young actors are presented to their parents. The masque pits the three children of the Egerton family, who acted the parts of the Lady and her two brothers, against the evil magician Comus and his deformed rout of followers, whose dances form the antimasque.
Milton draws upon the classics, early English literature, and folk tradition to present an elemental conflict between good and evil. Overall, the tone of the poem, despite its philosophical speeches and theme of rigid morality, suggests a fairy tale. Spirits intervene at the appropriate times; evil magic is countered by good magic; and the creatures with supernatural powers exercise them within conventional limits. Thyrsis, the spirit who becomes a shepherd, cannot intervene directly to protect the Lady but must serve as instructor and guide to her brothers, who attack the magician with drawn swords. Their failure to carry out all of their instructions, to seize Comus’s wand, means that Sabrina must be summoned to release the Lady. Spells and incantations are as much a part of the masque as is Comus’s seductive, transforming chalice.
A few critics have suggested that Milton’s strong ethical theme...
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