The core idea of Comus is the high dedication required for those embarked on the philosophical quest for a higher understanding of truth and beauty as understood by the Renaissance and Reformation Platonists. That is, arguably, the broad philosophical setting. Platonic themes resonate throughout the play beginning immediately with the descent of the attendant Spirit from the eternal realm into this lower, lesser world mirroring the Platonic descent of the preexistent soul from the eternal realm to earth. Likewise, the ascension of the Spirit at the end of the play represents the return of the preexistent soul to its source.
On a personal level, Milton may have been using "Comus" as a vehicle to express a rational and natural defense of the virtue, temperance, and even chastity he believed was necessary for any man in general, and himself in particular, to reach a higher moral and intellectual level. Biographically, Milton wished to continue his complete devotion to his studies at Horton as he already planned to become a great man and knew that reaching his goal would require his complete dedication. Milton apparently felt he needed to explain and justify this unusual degree of devotion on philosophical grounds to those friends and family members that were expecting him to give up his cloistered academic life, get married and join the vita activa.
Chastity was, consequently, not an end in itself for Milton but represented, in this case, the type of sacrifice and single-minded dedication he believed was necessary for him to achieve his goal of moving to a higher level of understanding. Virtue in Comus also makes the most sense when understood in the Platonic manner. Milton through the masque states that heaven itself will intercede when necessary to defend the virtue of a pure soul with "just hands" in order to guide such men to rise upward on earth. This is yet another Platonic doctrine present in Comus.
Yet some there be that by due steps aspire
To lay their just hands on that Golden Key
That ope's the Palace of Eternity:
To such my errand is, and but for such,
I would not soil these pure Ambrosial weeds,
With the rank vapours of this sin-worn mould.
*Ludlow Castle. Norman fortress built on the Welsh border to maintain English imperial power in the eleventh century. The castle served as the residence of the fifteenth century king Edward IV, who was the first prince of Wales. During John Milton’s youth, the castle was home to the lieutenant general (also known as president) of Wales. When the earl of Bridgewater was appointed to that office in 1634, Milton wrote “A Masque [to be] Presented at Ludlow Castle” at the time of his formal installation. Readers have given the masque the name of its most eloquent character, the handsome tempter Comus.
Wild Wood. Forest that is home to Comus. As the drama begins, a guardian spirit descends into a forest where travelers are always in peril. He has been sent by Jove. (The mythology is classical, but the theology is Christian.) He explains that Jove takes special interest in Great Britain, and in the nobleman sent “to guide” the Welsh. The spirit has come to protect the nobleman’s children as they travel to their new home. He is especially watchful because the forest is home to Comus, the son of Circe. Just as Circe turned men into swine in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; Eng. trans., 1616), Comus has gathered a “rout of monsters.”
There are three siblings, a lady and her two brothers. When they become separated, Comus moves in, disguised as a shepherd offering the lady food and shelter. But his home develops into a place of misrule, where he entices the lady to drink from his magic cup. She resists until the spirit leads her brothers to the rescue.
*Severn River. Longest river in Wales, flowing from England to the Atlantic. After the brothers chase off Comus, the spirit...
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