Critical Evaluation

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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 and limited use of singing and dancing mean that the work is not really a masque but a type of ethical debate. Passages like the somewhat formal speeches of the Elder Brother, the Lady’s refutation of Comus’s arguments in support of immediate pleasures, and the concluding speech of Thyrsis represent examples of extended moralizing. Most critical opinion, however, while acknowledging that Milton presses the limits of the genre, accepts its classification as a masque. The original title suggests that Milton believed he was writing a masque; in addition, he had earlier produced another example of the genre in Arcades, for the countess of Derby, the stepmother of the earl of Bridgewater.

Exploration of Milton’s connection with the Egerton family has unearthed some hints of a scandal that had little direct effect on the family. These discoveries were sufficient, however, to fuel critical speculation that the ethical emphasis in Milton’s drama was adopted as an effort to enhance their reputation.

A more likely explanation for the moral theme arises when one places the masque within the context of Milton’s major poetry. Along with Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson...

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Agonistes (1671), it forms a fourth major poetic work on the theme of temptation. All four present an ethical conflict marked by the fundamental contrast between right and wrong, occurring within the context of a Providential view of history and human life. In Comus, the Lady must preserve her chastity by rejecting the sensual life that Comus urges upon her. She recognizes that the values espoused by Comus and his followers are incompatible with both temperance and chastity. Her ethical understanding and strong will enable her to overcome his arguments and defeat his purpose. While her character remains unblemished, however, her body is imprisoned by Comus, whose magical power forces her to sit immobile in an alabaster chair. Humanity’s dependence upon Providence is demonstrated when Sabrina, symbolizing grace, arrives to release the Lady through sprinkling drops of water over her, an allegorical representation of Christian baptism. The Lady emerges triumphant over evil, and her brothers demonstrate their courage in putting Comus and his followers to flight.

Among numerous poetic elements in the masque, Milton draws heavily on myth and on the pastoral tradition. He develops an ethic based upon willful choice through the speeches of the Lady, the Elder Brother, and the guardian spirit Thyrsis. As the Elder Brother explains, throughout life one rises to ever greater spirituality by making right choices, and each correct choice leads to a higher level of ethical being. Conversely, each wrong choice causes one to become progressively more immoral. In the end, evil is self-defeating, and good is triumphant. In Comus, as in other poems, however, Milton portrays ethical behavior as a simple choice between right and wrong, and the Lady’s decision is neither complex nor subtle.

To mirror and reinforce his ethical theme, Milton makes elaborate use of the idea of metamorphosis or transformation, borrowed from the Roman poet Ovid but imbued with Christian overtones. The followers of Comus, with their animal faces, have been partially transformed to a lower life because they failed to resist his blandishments. Other transformations are self-imposed. Thyrsis is able to transform himself into the likeness of a shepherd on a mission to help the two brothers free the Lady. For the purpose of deception, Comus transforms himself into the appearance of a country person. Providence also intervenes to transform the virtuous. Sabrina, who represents grace, has been made into a river goddess that she might escape pursuit by a cruel stepmother. It remains for the Lady and the Brothers to retain the virtue they possess, not to be led astray by evil. Their most important transformation will occur at the end of life as a confirmation of their virtue.