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Comus: A Deceptive Charmer

Between 26 October and 19 November 2016 the masque Comus: A Masque in Honour of the Virtue of Chastity was performed in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, a beautiful candle-lit theatre right next to Shakespeare’s Globe in London. As Comus’ deception of is at the heart of the masque’s plot, it fits in the theme of this issue of The Angler.

Synopsis of Comus: A Masque in Honour of the Virtue of Chastity
The story of Comus, in short, is as follows:

Deep in the woods, a Lady is lost, exhausted and separated from her brothers. After encountering a mysterious stranger – Comus, the God of Revelry – who promises refuge, she finds herself trapped in a magical palace, unable to move from a cursed chair. Tempted by pleasure, torn between wantonness and virtue, the Lady enters a warped world of wonder and horror, where gender, sexuality and morality prove fluid and unpredictable.1

A crash course in the history of the masque tradition
Before analysing the masque, let us first take a look at the history of the masque. According to Cheryl Rogers Resetarits, “[t]he masque grew slowly from an amalgam of various medieval traditions: mummer’s pageants, folk games, morris dancers, the liturgical cycles and mysteries, ‘triumphs,’ ballets, etc.”2 The masque tradition subsequently

[gradually developed during the Renaissance into an entertainment centering around a procession of masked or disguised figures involved in an elaborate, moving spectacle. While it began as an outdoor entertainment, the masque eventually moved into the great halls and from there focus was centered on the imaginative action and loose plot while continuing the interspersion of soliloquy, song, dance, and state-of-the-art spectacle that by then defined the genre. In Italy, where the masque first appeared, the visual spectacle was the primary focus but innovations and reconsiderations of the primacy of movement were introduced in the French Circe, un ballet de cour presented in 1581. The French Circe greatly influenced the English masque and most scholars feel it was in England that the masque reached its greatest period of dramatic and thematic unity under the genius of Ben Jonson’s word play and Inigo Jones’s visually stunning staged spectacles (roughly 1605–1630). It was during this period that the masque became associated with the royal court as both an elaborate entertainment for and by the ruling class (even kings and queens were known to play their part) and as an elaborate flattery directed toward the same (for more on the development of the masque, see Welsford 1927; Lindley 1984; Bevington/Holbrook 1998).3

At the time John Milton writes the masque Comus, however, “the excesses of production value had made the masque less fashionable and the changing political climate of the pre-Reformation era made its classical, pagan overtones less palatable”.4

Comus, the fairy-tale: Once upon a time...
Milton is renowned for his “habit of taking tradition-bound genres and remaking them in his image – brilliant, innovative, morally rich and relevant – and he did this in Comus partly through the use of fairy-tale elements”, intending “to create something of a fairy play”.5 Cheryl Rogers Resetarits notes several fairy-tale elements in Comus:

The masque was written to accommodate at least three young actors (the Lady and her two brothers) and of course that factor does lend an atmosphere of youthfulness to the masque, but even more than the age of the players, the whole spirit of the work is essentially youthful, with the ending a sweet, simple celebration and echoing of youth’s heroic and virtuous introduction into the larger, tainted world. This is contrary to the complicated, sophisticated, even spectacular, endings of most masques of a generation before Milton.
Milton continues his fairy-tale dynamics in his choice of plot: the Lady is lost. The feeling of being lost, alone, or abandoned is at the core of our humanness. [...]Throughout this study the reference to the child’s mind and the appeal that the fairy tale makes to it should not trap the reader into applying this sort of appeal in Comus only to children, but to that part of each individual psyche that remains forever childlike.
Most important for the trial of the Lady and her virtuous victory over Comus, the establishing of the Lady’s bewildered and wearied state helps to intensify the degree of her strength in refusing the soothing, refreshing cordial Comus offers her at his Palace. The explanation of her situation also functions within the fairy-tale realm by giving some sense to a seemingly nonsensical experience.
One final category of fairy-tale elements at work in Comus would be that of secondary figures and props. Secondary figures often mirror aspects of the protagonist(s). They are one-dimensional with a tendency to appear in isolation. Like the main figures, they can be rescuers, disenchanters, or persons in need of deliverance. Working within the construct of appearance/reality, the secondary figures help illustrate the reality (world, community, interaction) behind the appearances (isolation). Milton’s masque has three secondary figures to match, in his own Miltonic exactness, the three main figures: the secondary figures of the Attendant Spirit, Comus, and Sabrina, corresponding to the primary figures of the Elder Brother, the Younger Brother, and the Lady. The secondary figures provide the plot developments to which the main figures must respond. Comus offers (false) help and rest at his ‘cottage’; the Attendant Spirit offers (true) help and a sighting of Comus and the Lady; Sabrina offers disenchantment, and she alone is able to right events.5

Last but not least, the masque has a happy ending, like all fairy-tales do:

The happy ending of the fairy tale is crucial to its whole meaning [...], with, of course, a nice little moral all wrapped up and pithy: “Love virtue, she alone is free” (1019). The fairy-tale ending assures developing, or challenged, psyches that if faced, problematic situations can be successfully overcome. [...] This sort of ending, then, is perhaps the strongest fairy-tale element of ‘Comus’. [...] The lasting effect of ‘Comus’, and of fairy tales in general, is their very promise of order, justice, and happiness.6

Back story of Comus
It is generally assumed that Comus was commissioned to be performed at the occasion of “the Earl of Bridgewater’s installation as President of the Council and Lord Lieutenant of Wales”.7 Stephen Orgel argues, however, that

a look at both the relevant dates and the text itself make it obvious that this cannot be the case, at least in any simple way: the masque was performed on Michaelmas Night, 29 September 1634; Bridgewater had succeeded to his Welsh offices more than three years earlier, in June and July 1631, though he did not take up residence at Ludlow Castle until May 1634. The Attendant Spirit does seem to link the action of the masque to the earl’s installation when he describes the Lady and her brothers as "coming to attend their father’s state / And new entrusted sceptre"; nevertheless, the masque was not presented until a further four months had passed—the scepter was hardly new. The selection of Michaelmas for the date of the performance was doubtless significant: the provincial courts began their sessions at Michaelmas, and the holy day would therefore have marked the beginning of the viceregal administration in situ. But the masque does not have the look of a public celebration: on the contrary, performed by the family children, organized and composed by their music teacher, who also played in it, it is very much a family affair. Definitively so, in fact: had it been a public celebration, the aristocratic young masquers would not have taken speaking parts; masquers can dance in public because dancing is the prerogative of every lady and gentleman, but acting is a profession, hence the continuing outcry throughout the Caroline period against Queen Henrietta Maria’s court theatricals.8

Orgel also debunks another popular concept:

I find attempts [...] to link the masque’s concern with chastity to the Castlehaven scandal less persuasive, not least because, thanks to the work of Cynthia Herrup, the notorious case looks rather different now from the way it looked [...] when the suggestion was first made.9 The Earl of Castlehaven (who was convicted of a complicated set of charges including orchestrating the rape of his own wife and committing sodomy with his servants) was Bridgewater’s brother-in-law, married to Bridgewater’s wife’s sister; and the case was both genuinely sensational and a legal landmark: he was the first nobleman in more than a century to be executed on a charge other than treason. But as Herrup shows, the capital crime had more to do with subverting the concept of patriarchal authority than with kinky sex, and it is not clear to me that either Milton or his Egerton patrons were concerned in the masque with cleansing the family name. If Castlehaven had been the subtext, the masque would surely have been about what a good husband and father Bridgewaterwas, not about how highminded the children were. Castlehaven was executed in 1631, a few months before Bridgewater’s accession to his high office; and though the case was certainly a skeleton in the family closet, the closet was long closed. Here again, both the age of the children for whom the masque was written and Milton’s own perennial concerns about personal integrity and the dangers represented by temptation seem more direct sources for the focus on militant and inviolable innocence.10

The characters in Comus
Instead, Orgel explores a different angle: the children that are lost in the woods. Orgel considers this theme a “peculiarly Miltonic element. What keeps you from getting home? And where is home? And what happens when you do get there?”11 Orgel continues,

To begin with, to say that the children are going home is to occlude an important issue: Ludlow is home only in the sense that it is where their parents are to be found. Ludlow Castle was a crown property, the seat of whoever was Lord President of Wales, and as far as the natives are concerned, the inhabitants of the place are definitively outsiders (some would even say invaders): they are not at all at home. More to the point, then, is where the children are coming from. In one sense, they are coming from nowhere (or anywhere, or everywhere): they find themselves, like Dante, like everyone, in the middle of a journey in a dark wood where the right way is lost. But in another sense, they are coming from home, or moving from one home to another, from the court at Whitehall to the court at Ludlow, and from ‘Tempe Restored’ and ‘Coelum Britannicum’—the royal masques in which they danced at Whitehall—to this masque with no name for the viceregal court. [...] On such a journey, what keeps you from arriving at your destination? Questions that might seem prior to this—what are these children doing alone in the woods in the first place; questions that raise precisely the issue of parental care and adult responsibility—are clearly not to the point: in these woods, we are all children alone. You lose your way in the woods in part simply through the exigencies of travel [...]. When life is construed as woods, that’s just life. But you also lose your way through deliberate misdirection, the misrepresentations of the villain Comus, who presents himself as a harmless shepherd offering help and hospitality but is nothing of the sort.12

Looking at the masque from this angle also makes one see the role of the Attendant Spirit in another light:

[T]he Attendant Spirit, unquestionably good, divinely sent, who, however, also presents himself as a shepherd and isn’t (why the disguise?) and is supposed to be your guardian angel but actually is remarkably inattentive to your needs. He is not around when you get lost, has difficulty finding you himself, warns the boys about Comus but not their sister (who is the one who needs the warning and could profit by it); and though he is in charge of the rescue operation is unaccountably not there when it happens, so the boys muff it by driving Comus and his minions off but not seizing his wand. The Lady still is not free, and the Attendant Spirit blames the boys—he told them to seize the wand—and they are too well mannered to ask him where he was when the action started. In this context, all the insistence on the absolute self-sufficiency of virtue sounds relentlessly upbeat, but what it really means is that you are completely on your own. There is no father, no guiding star; even your Attendant Spirit has lost you. What keeps you from getting home, then, is partly inexperience and partly misdirection, but mostly a degree of complexity in the journey that no amount of experience would prepare you to resolve: the difficulty, in this case the impossibility, of knowing good from evil. Both Comus and the Attendant Spirit look like innocent shepherds, both tell lies that sound like truth. How can you know the good lies from the bad ones?13

However, as Orgel rightly points out,

Comus is, nevertheless, obviously the villain—though part of the point is surely that the fact is not obvious, until it’s too late, or until someone who already knows explains it to you. It is made obvious only to the audience, and this is really significant, because for the audience Comus is the most attractive figure in the masque. [...] So another way of looking at Comus is to say that he enables people to be what and where they want to be—and that is construed as a bad thing..14

In this reading of Comus the fairy-tale elements once again come to the surface:

Even in the small details, negative images are balanced by positive ones: baleful drugs with potent herbs, the prisoned soul with Elysium, fell Charybdis with soft applause, sweetness with madness; and indeed, the virtuous Lady’s song is being compared to the dangerous and destructive song of the sirens.15

Duplication and Renaissance love poetry in Comus
In addition to the aforementioned balancing of positive and negative images, Orgel points at various duplications in Comus:

So let us consider the Lady now. I focus here on the way she is finally released from her bondage by the production of another version of herself, the nymph of the River Severn, Sabrina, another embattled virgin. This resolution through duplication interests me because the work, in fact, is full of duplication—even of duplicity. The Attendant Spirit and Comus are the image of each other; Comus’s court is a parodic image of the court at Ludlow, which in turn is a miniature version of the court at Whitehall, with the earl representing, refiguring, mirroring the king. Mirror images, repetitions, and reversals are essential elements in the action. The Lady, when she first finds herself alone in the wood, invokes the nymph Echo, an auditory mirror image.16

Another literary theme that pops up in Comus is that of English Renaissance love poetry. According to Orgel,

[T]he most powerful and characteristic English Renaissance love poetry is just the sort of love poetry exemplified in Comus’s speeches, the poetry of seduction. In John Donne, Carew, or Andrew Marvell we can see how much the age had invested precisely in figures like Comus winning. That is, there is a way in which Milton’s battle of wills, with the virtuous Lady routing the charming seducer, is the really subversive conception. The age has a great deal invested both in the power of rhetoric and in men getting what they want.
The woman was the enabling figure in the advancement and consolidation of male authority—this is why fathers were given the legal power to arrange their children’s marriages; it is also why women were provided with dowries: quite simply, no one would marry them otherwise. Children were legally their fathers’ possessions, women were legally their husbands’ possessions—it is to the point that the Lady is liberated from Comus only to be delivered into the keeping of her father: there is no imaginable alternative. The Lady is eloquent in her captivity about the freedom of her mind, but her mind is not free: far from it. In particular, she is not free to choose Comus, not because there is anything wrong with Comus but because the choice of her husband belongs to her father, not to her—she is free only to concur in his choice, and the situation would be no different if her suitor were the Attendant Spirit. What is wicked about Comus’s transformed minions is precisely that they have assumed that their minds were their own, exercised the freedom of their wills, ignored their fathers, decided not to go home. [...] Arguably, however, the real problem is that Comus is going about the seduction the wrong way. He wants to be attractive to the Lady, but he really needs to be attractive to her father. In fact, the earl might well consider this a good alliance: Comus rules the woods, the earl rules everything else. If Comus marries the Lady, the family rules everything. In this version of the plot, the Lady’s virtue is taken care of by the fact that what is in question is a marriage, not a seduction; and in any case, it is the father who is being seduced, not the Lady. Her wishes are not exactly irrelevant, but they are expected to coincide with her father’s.17

The aftermath: Lady Alice Egerton
Interestingly, Orgel also managed to track down Alice’s life after Comus:

[W]hat happens when she gets home? [...] She was fifteen in 1634, when the masque was performed. She did not marry until 1650, at the age of thirty-one—a distinctly advanced age for marriage in aristocratic families. The groom was a prosperous Welsh landowner, Richard Vaughan, Earl of Carbery; the title is less grand than it sounds, since it was in the Irish peerage—as an English peer, he was a mere baron. He was twice widowed, fifty-two years old— twenty one years older than she, literally old enough to be her father—with several grown children. Lady Alice was well beyond the age of consent at this point and had not lived at Ludlow for more than ten years, but the match doubtless pleased her family well enough: Carbery was a royalist peer and a man of substance, though not of unambiguous character: some of his wealth was said to have been acquired through extortion and embezzlement. Moreover, as commander of a section of the royal army in Wales in 1644, he had been decisively defeated and accused of cowardice, or even of deliberately losing the battle. It was only through his connections and the assiduous courting of influential people that he managed to escape the heavy . ne that was levied on him. Despite his royalist politics, he managed to live comfortably under the Commonwealth—his second wife, who died in the same year he married Lady Alice, so impressed Oliver Cromwell with her piety that he rescinded his order to have Carbery arrested. Doubtless the idea of Lady Alice as the third Countess of Carbery satisfied the Egertons; she was, after all, one of fifteen children, eleven of whom were daughters; how choosy could one be? By 1650,moreover, her father’s approval was no longer an issue: the marriage took place a year after his death—did she wait until he died to marry? In one respect, at least, her husband replicated her father: at the Restoration Carbery succeeded to Bridgewater’s former posts, the Lord Presidency of the Council and Lord Lieutenancy of Wales, offices he held until 1672, when he was removed, charged with malfeasance and exceptional cruelty to his servants and tenants. As one ambivalent eulogist put it at his death, he was ideally suited to high office, save for cowardice and a want of integrity.
Lady Alice, it will be observed, scarcely figures at all in this narrative. In a fulsomely adulatory poem addressed to her shortly after her marriage, variously entitled ‘To Alice Countess of Carbery, on her Enriching Wales with her Presence and To Alice Countess of Carbery, on her first coming into Wales’, the extraordinary Welsh poet Katherine Philips (‘‘the matchless Orinda’’) extravagantly praises her for the most vague and abstract virtues: for bringing light to the obscurity and chaos of Wales, for civilizing the wilderness, mostly for condescending to be there at all—what, indeed, Philips seems to ask, is she doing there? It is the same question Comus asks on hearing the Lady’s echoless echo song. The ode, hyperbolic and inscrutable, is a curious gloss on ‘Comus’, and suggests how little had changed in the way Alice Egerton was regarded, or presented herself, in the intervening twenty years. Whether the marriage was a happy one is not recorded; it may or may not be relevant that the couple had no children. Alice Egerton’s story, like most women’s stories throughout history, ends with marriage

From this it can be concluded that, unlike in fairy-tales, it is questionable whether Lady Alice Egerton lived happily ever after.

By Birgitte Breemerkamp


1. Wonder Noir Brochure 2016

2. Rogers Resetarits, Cheryl “The Fairy-tale Elements of Milton’s Comus”. Fabula 47 (2006): 79-89

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Orgel, Stephen. “The Case for Comus”. Representations 81-1 (2003):. 31-45

8. Ibid.

9. Cynthia B. Herrup, A House in Gross Disorder (New York, 1999), quoted in Orgel, Stephen. “The Case for Comus”. Representations 81-1 (2003):. 31-45

10. Orgel, Stephen. “The Case for Comus”. Representations 81-1 (2003):. 31-45.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.