Comus Summary

John Milton

Comus

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Comus Summary

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Comus: A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, is a work by the English poet John Milton It was initially presented as a celebration of John Egerton, The First Earl of Bridgewater, being given the position as Lord President of Wales. It was first printed anonymously in 1637 and later included by Milton in collections of his poems in 1645 and 1673. Masques are a form of celebration that were popular from the time of Elizabeth I and increased in popularity under the Stuarts. Performers in the masques were frequently members of the court and royals.

Comus is about a pair of brothers who, along with their sister who is referred to as “the Lady”, are lost in the woods. The Lady grows tired and her brothers go searching for food. While she is alone in the woods, she meets Comus, who is an immoral character inspired by the Greek god of revelry. Comus has disguised himself as a villager. He tells the Lady that he will take her to her brothers. She is taken in by his personality, which is quite friendly. She follows his lead and finds herself taken prisoner and brought to his pleasure palace. There, she is met with sorcery. She is placed on an enchanted chair and bound. Comus attacks her while holding a wand and a cup with a drink to overpower her.

Comus encourages the Lady to drink from the enchanted cup he holds. The cup is meant to symbolize sexual pleasures and overindulgence. She repeatedly refuses to drink from the cup. The Lady invokes the virtues of chastity and temperance as reasons to avoid the temptations that Comus offers. At the palace, the Lady is surrounded by foods and other things designed to stir up her desires. Even though she is being held against her will, the Lady does not fail to employ rect ratio, or right reason, as she continues to debate with Comus. She thus remains free of mind, even if she is not free of body. Comus contends that what he argues for, seductive desires, are natural and therefore, in his mind, legal. The Lady, meanwhile, retorts that applying rational self-control is the only way to achieve enlightenment and to be virtuous in life. The Lady refuses to give in to the any of the base impulses that might tempt a person, believing that to do so is to give one’s higher nature over to self-indulgence.

While the debate about virtue and vice is going on between the Lady and Comus, the Lady’s brothers continue to search for her. As they progress, the meet with the Attendant Spirit. The Attendant Spirit is an angel that was sent to assist them. The angel takes on the form of a shepherd and explains to the brothers how to beat Comus. The brothers and the Spirit are able to vanquish Comus. Meanwhile, the Lady is still secured to the chair. The Spirit is able to use a song to summon Sabrina, the water nymph. Sabrina is able to free the Lady because the Lady has never wavered from her commitment to virtue. The siblings return to their parents and a joyous celebration follows, as virtue has triumphed.

Gender and sexuality are themes that are much discussed in critical analysis of Comus. The placement of a young woman in the woods by herself leaves her, and her chastity, vulnerable. The objectification of women and the representation of women as victims of assault are referenced. The stereotypical masculine and feminine roles underlie the ongoing discourse between Comus and the Lady. She is his physical captive, unable to overpower him by force. She does, however, display incredible mental abilities which prevent her from falling victim to the temptations around her. The Lady is the only human female figure in the story. The fact that she found herself alone in the woods while looking for some revellers she heard in the distance, challenges the typical view of women who value chastity as remaining isolated. The Lady, throughout her captivity, engages in a lively debate with Comus. Once she is rescued, she does not speak again for the rest of the story. This has been interpreted as Milton’s returning things to the expected norms of society.

While the opposition between virtue and vice provides the main conflict in Comus, the opposition of good versus evil goes hand in hand with it. Evil may be perceived of as being more powerful than all else, however, good will win in the end when people exercise their freewill and, like the Lady, remain true to their virtuous natures.