Comus Questions

John Milton’s Masque Comus

Of interest: An Edgerton Family History (Helen L. Hull, Meg F. Pearson, and Erin A. Sadlack)


1. Lines 1-92 of Comus make up the prologue spoken by the Spirit (played by the composer Henry Lawes, who also provided the music for the masque performed at Ludlow in honor of John Egerton, First Earl of Bridgewater’s installation in 1634 as the Lord President of Wales). What does this initial section of the poem accomplish: how does the Spirit delineate his task, what does he know about Comus and his lineage, and how does the prologue set the stage for what follows in terms of characters, themes, and action?

2. Lines 93-169 of Comus give us our first experience of the masque’s title character. How does Comus understand his proper realm and his mission, so to speak? What does he oppose, and what dangerous principle does he set forth in lines 122-27 in the course of promoting Night, the love-goddess Venus, and his own licentious rites? What is his plan with regard to the virginal Lady whose presence he has just noted in his domain?

3. From lines 170-229 of Comus, we hear from the Lady (played by the Earl of Bridgewater’s 15-year-old daughter Alice Egerton, who had supposedly once lost her way in Haywood Forest; in 1652 she married Richard Vaughan, 2nd Earl of Carbery). At this point, how does she view her predicament? What has happened, and what principle, what reasoning, makes her think that she will remain safe in spite of the sounds of “Riot and ill-manag’d Merriment” (172) that she has just now heard in the woods?

4. From lines 230-43 of Comus, the Lady sings a brief song in praise of Echo, the disappointed lover of Narcissus. What is the purpose of this song at such a point in the masque’s action? From lines 244-70, what effect does the song (as well as the Lady’s previous words) apparently have on Comus, who has been listening? What is ironic about his response, and how do his utterances illustrate both his exuberance and his wrong-headedness when it comes to virtue and vice?

5. From lines 271-330 of Comus, the Lady and Comus (in disguise as a swain) make each other’s acquaintance directly. How does she at first react to his praise of her singing? How does he win her over to his offer of “a low / But loyal cottage” (319-20) and safety until the brothers from whom she is separated can be found?

6. From lines 331-489 of Comus, the Lady’s two brothers, who by the masque’s outset had accidentally become separated from her in the woods, discuss their plan of action. But they spend much of their time trying to configure the relative degree of peril their sister might be in. Why is the Elder Brother confident that the Lady is likely to come through her difficulty safely? What is his argument? What fears does the Second Brother voice by way of hedging against such confidence?

7. From lines 490-658 of Comus, the Spirit arrives and, disguised as the familiar servant Thyrsis, informs the two brothers about the presence of the licentious Comus in the woods and his own anguished recognition that the Lady is in danger. How does this news affect the brothers in light of the arguments they have been trading back and forth about her prospects for safety?

8. Again with regard to lines 490-658 of Comus, in which the Spirit informs the Lady’s brothers about Comus, what hope does the Spirit as “Thyrsis” offer them? How do you interpret the power of the plant Haemony (usually pronounced “hay-money”) to make the situation right? Moreover, Milton affines this plant with Moly by way of allusion to Homer’s Odyssey. What does that reference add to your understanding of Haemony’s properties and, more broadly, of the nature of the struggle that the Lady, her two brothers, and the Spirit are engaged in against Comus and his crew?

9. From lines 659-813 of Comus, Comus makes his best attempt to corrupt the Lady and win her over to his side. Attend to his rhetoric: what sequence of arguments does he offer, what rationale drives them, and what is his final strategy when the arguments don’t succeed?

10. Again with reference to lines 659-813 of Comus, in which Comus tries first to convince the Lady to accept his terms and then abruptly shifts to force, this time pay attention to the Lady’s responses to the arguments that Comus details. How does she undercut his reasoning? What is the basis of her success in standing up to this corrupt, almost demonic presence?

11. The two brothers rush in and snatch Comus’ glass just as he was about to force the Lady to drink, and the wicked train are driven away. But since the brothers fail to get hold of their adversary’s magic wand, other means must be found to undo the spell he has cast binding the Lady to her loathsome chair. How, from lines 814-58 of Comus, does the Spirit propose to reach a potential rescuer? Where did he learn of this strategy?

12. From lines 859-89 of Comus, Sabrina is duly besought in a brief song and recitation by the Spirit, and, from 890-957, she sings her entrance, speaks briefly with the Spirit and anoints the Lady with pure water, releasing her from Comus’ chair. Who is Sabrina? What is her mythological lineage and story? What principle does she seem to represent; i.e. where does her power to rescue the Lady come from?

13. From lines 958-1023 of Comus, the masque comes to its happy conclusion, with a change of scene to Ludlow proper and a direct application to the whole affair’s guests of honor, John Egerton, First Earl of Bridgewater and his wife. What explanation does the Spirit offer by way of setting forth the true meaning of the now-accomplished masque, replete with the Lady’s successful resistance to Comus and her brothers’ steady determination to come to her aid?

14. In “The Milieu of Milton’s Comus: Judicial Reform at Ludlow and the Problem of Sexual Assault” (Criticism 25 {1983}: 293-327), Leah Marcus points out that Milton’s 1634 masque Comus was staged only three years or so after the widely known “Earl of Castlehaven” scandal, in which the Earl of Bridgewater’s brother-in-law was executed for rape and sodomy, and, more particularly, not long after the troubling 1633 petition of one Margery Evans, a poor adolescent who was treated unjustly by the court system when she leveled a charge of sexual assault against a well-connected Herefordshire man named Philbert Burghill. The Earl of Bridgewater himself was tasked by King Charles I with looking into the matter, which he did with admirable thoroughness. Milton may or may not have known about the Evans case, but what do you think of the possibility Marcus broaches, namely that Milton’s masque might be partly a representation of the rightness of the powerful in showing humility when confronting the charges of the common person against their “betters”?

Edition: Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Hackett: 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0872206786.

Copyright © 2013 Alfred J. Drake. All rights reserved.