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The Masque in Milton's Arcades and Comus.

John Rottenburg

On Michaelmas Day, 1634, John Milton's Masque, Comus, was presented for the first time before the Earl of Bridgewater at Ludlow Castle. Milton's choice to present his masque at Ludlow was no coincidence if one considers the pastoral element of the poetic drama and the beautiful nature setting surrounding Ludlow. The presentation of the masque at Ludlow would enhance the pastoral association that Milton worked so hard to construct in his masque. In another pastoral work, «Arcades», Milton again attempts to join the form of the masque with that of the pastoral. His exploration into creating these two works, Comus and «Arcades», reveals his desire not to hold to conventions of both the masque and the pastoral tradition. In addition, after examining the conventions of the masque and that of the pastoral, in the light of these two works, we can also understand how Milton developed them to his own poetic and idealistic ends.

John MiltonWhen confronted with the idea of the masque for a first time, a reader probably would be confused about what it actually is, perhaps because the term is similar to that of the universal idea of the term, mask. It is true that characters in a masque wore a mask, and that the title of the masque probably came from the universal idea of mask, but there are other reasons for a masque's title. Perhaps the «mask» taken in a metaphorical sense would be a better explanation of the masque. The masque, as metaphor, was an elaborate form of court entertainment, which combined poetic drama, music, song, dance, splendid costuming, and stage spectacle, and the plot often slight and mainly mythological or allegorical-served to hold together these diverse elements.[1]

Milton's plot in his masque, Comus, is «slight,» and even perhaps Aristotelian in structure; it has a beginning, middle and an end. However slight the plot is, there is much criticism to whether it is principally a drama or a masque. One such critic is Samuel Johnson. In his Lives Of The Poets, he believed Milton's plot in Comus was too «slight.» He said, «As a drama it is deficient. The action is not probable.»[2] His argument was mostly concerned with the «beginning» of the plot. Johnson could not accept «the conduct of the two brothers, who, when their sister sinks with fatigue in a pathless wilderness, wander both away together in search of berries too far to find their way back, and leave a helpless Lady to all the sadness and danger of solitude. This, however, is a defect overbalanced by its convenience.» Is Milton's «beginning» in Comus fragmented? Or is Johnson imposing dramatic criticism on a supposedly non-dramatic work? There is evidence to support both assumptions. If we do impose dramatic criticism on Milton's masque, and more specifically, Renaissance dramatic criticism, then there is some evidence that would support Johnson's opinion.

First, the subject to his criticism is information antecedent to the «action» of the drama, that apparently makes the action in the drama seem illogical to him. Technically, the problem between Johnson and Milton's «beginning» arises from a misunderstanding of what Aristotle called Complication or «desis.» For example, Hutton defines the Aristotelian notion of complication or «desis» as «the events outside the play itself and often also some of the events within the play.»[3] He also recognizes it as constituting the antecedent and consequent components in dramatic structure. For his part, Lucas associates the antecedent and consequent elements of dramatic structure with events. He says that these «desis» are «events which happen between the beginning of the story and the beginning of the action of the play...These are the antecedents, which are described as outside the play...if we press the would appear that the beginning of a play should coincide with the beginning of the complication.»[4] Hutton and Lucas describe how the complication of a drama is related to antecedent events outside the play and to consequent events inside it. The complication happens when the antecedent event [or events] are linked to the consequent event within the play's action. By examining this process of binding or joining together – of what occurs before the play opens and what happens while it progresses – we can see more clearly how the cause and effect component of a dramatic structure would make the action appear «probable» and not deficient.

The Aristotelian idea of «tying the knot» well is what makes a drama believable and it appears that the «beginning» of Comus is not «tied» well. Perhaps this is so because Johnson was not expecting to be told about an antecedent situation, that would make the drama less «probable,» but rather shown it in order to make it more credible. Johnson's complaint would be equivalent to that of Shakespeare not showing the hatred between two families in the beginning scene of Romeo and Juliet, but instead telling the audience about it. In the prologue of Comus, The Attendant Spirit does tell the audience about antecedent material, which we never see. The material is: «the conduct of the two brothers, who, when their sister sinks with fatigue in a pathless wilderness, wander both away together in search of berries too far to find their way back, and leave a helpless Lady to all the sadness and danger of solitude.» In addition to this «defect» there could be another. The Attendant Spirit tells us also about the corrupt nature of Comus, which is his ability to change forms to deceive naïve strangers wondering in the forest. Later on, however, we do see him performing his deceptive deeds, and one wonders whether Milton needed to add this part to his prologue at all?

Once the antecedent material is established or perhaps a better word would be, accepted, Milton provides us with a good «consequent» to the masque's Complication, thus salvaging his ‘Beginning.' We see the temptation of The Lady by Comus, and that he does excel «his mother at her mighty art» of deception. He takes on the form of a ‘Gentle Villager' who offers to help her find her brothers. The Lady does not discern his real intention, and is consequently tempted by «His orient liquor in a crystal glass.» She is naive. The tension rises. The question «Will she accept his offer» and therefore be seduced arises, making the masque more dramatic. Finally she does say, «Shepherd I take thy word...Shepherd lead on.» By this point in the masque, an Aristotelian complication is firmly established by Milton. However, Milton does demand much of his audience especially in the prologue.

Milton's choice to incorporate the two other components of the Aristotelian notion of structure, namely that of the «middle» and the «end», into his masque reveals also his interest in an Aristotelian plot within the masque. He provides his audience with a good middle or crisis. The girl is brought to Comus' palace and Milton's choice to do so heightens the tension, since Comus has the Lady to her disadvantage and we now see the Lady as a victim not only of Comus' deception but also of her own naiveté. Furthermore, the ending is resolved fully when Milton invokes the Greek device of deus ex machina. It is evoked when The Attendant Spirit rescues the Lady from Comus. Perhaps Milton's attempt to incorporate an Aristotelian plot within his masque gave Johnson enough evidence to argue against Comus as being a unified drama, especially when the masque elements of Comus are considered, namely that of the music, song, and dance.

Milton's masque is different from a conventional masque because Milton creates his masque with a different type of music, Baroque music. Instead of the Renaissance styles of music used by the earlier masquers, namely that of Ben Johnson, Milton chose to work with Henry Lawes, who preferred the new Baroque. Bukofzer, in his Music in the Baroque Era, makes this distinction between the two different styles, he says:

The evolution towards a new type of music also reveals how innovative Milton was, in attempting to create Comus with Baroque music. He did not go with convention, but followed his creative impulses and perhaps risked his reputation by doing so. Furthermore, by asking Lawes to compose his music, Milton was perhaps asserting an English nationalistic spirit. Because, Bukofzer refutes that Lawes's compositions...indicates the wide gap between Italian and English conceptions of musical declamations.[6] It is interesting to add here too that Henry Lawes composed the music for the first English opera, The Siege of Rhodes (1656). So Milton played an important part in English history when the foundations for opera were being established in England and perhaps in Europe too.[7]

Henry Lawes' impulse for Baroque music also transformed the dance of Milton's time. The dance style was partly liberated from its traditional decorum. The dance music in the second generation masque «consisted, like that of the ballet de cour, of simple...melodies in bipartite form that stood outside of the stereotyped rhythmic patterns of ballroom dances [Italics mine].»[8] The typical masque hinged round three specially designed ballets or stage dances of the masquers: «entry,» «main dance,» and «going off.» The «going off,» traditionally was followed by the revels, in which the masquers took out the noble ladies of the audience for a series of ballroom dances. [9] There seems to be no evidence in the text to suggest that Milton's Comus ended with a revel or whether the noble ladies of the audience took part in a ballroom dance at all. Unfortunately, there is not enough evidence left to our generation to help us understand whether Milton followed this convention or not, but what we do know is that Lawes probably utilized the ballet de cour instead of the more rigid form followed by those of the first generation of masquers.

When considering Milton's «Arcades» the idea of a dance revel, or the lack of it, has caused critics to believe «Arcades' in not a masque at all. One such critic, Brown, develops this argument. He says, «Milton's piece lacks the one feature most essential to proper masque: it does not seem to me that the action leads into a dance or revels within the compass of Milton's text.»[10] However, in the text, there is some evidence to suggest that Brown's point of view may not be absolute. In the third and last song of «Arcades» the following is stated, «Nymphs and shepherds dance no more / By sandy Ladon's lilied banks.» The Genius of the Wood gives this command to halt a (previous?) dance, which might have occurred in Song II. That song states, «Follow me as I sing...Follow me, I will bring you where she sits.» If this is not a call to dance, then Brown could be right about Milton's «Arcades» not being a masque in the traditional sense. Furthermore, Milton in the stage notes of «Arcades» has said it is a part of an entertainment presented to the Countess Dowager of Derby at Harefied.

Milton's desire to transform the masque was not only limited to the dance, plot, structure, and music, but he also altered elements of the pastoral within the masque. There are at least four elements of the pastoral tradition he modified for his own poetic and idealistic ends. First, in the conventional pastoral, the hero is usually portrayed as a shepherd and a prefiguration of the poet. Also, the setting of a pastoral idealizes nature as a place of solitude and peace and therefore good for reflection. In addition to these two commentators, Abrams mentions that the pastoral is also «a deliberately conventional poem expressing an urban poet's nostalgic image of the peace and simplicity of the life» contrast to the complex urban life, and «often describing the pastoral life as possessing features of the mythical golden age.»[11]

In Milton's Comus there is no quest to return to a «mythical golden age.» The Lady's quest or longing is to be united with her brothers and perhaps more specifically, her Christian brothers. The poet's modification is evident in a dialogue between the Lady and Comus he says:

First, Comus recognizes that the Lady is not a product of the pagan woods when he says, «Hail foreign wonder/Whom certain these rough shades did never breed.» In addition to the Lady being an urban creature, she is not visiting the «rural shrine» to worship a goddess or commune with nature by touching «the prosperous growth of this tall wood.» Nor does she want to be worshipped when she says, «ill is lost that praise/That is addressed to unattending ears.» It is true that Comus is showering her with flattery too, but as well he tries to convince the Lady of the assumption that nature and Pan are supernatural beings, to which the girl gives no ear to. By doing so, Milton reinforces the Christian doctrine that humans should not commune or worship other demigods in these «rural shrines,» i.e. Pan, Sylvan, or for that matter nature itself, but should seek solace in the company of Christian fraternity, which is the Lady's quest. In choosing this allegorical «path» Milton reveals his refusal to idealize either humans or nature or even a quest to return to the classical ideas of them.

The dichotomy between the pagan past and the Christian ideal future «golden age» is also reinforced by Milton's examination of the role of the shepherd in pastoral. In Comus, we have two shepherds: one who disguises himself as a shepherd, Comus, and the other, The Attendant Spirit. In creating these two characters in this manner, Milton returns to his dichotomy between the pagan and Christian idea of the shepherd in order to confront his audience to question which is the better. Comus represents the pagan element or vice and The Attendant Spirit, the ideal Christian response, or virtue, which Milton prefers. By creating two different types of shepherds, who both profess to be the true one, is Milton imitating an idea that is also raised in the Bible between Christ and Satan? For example, in the Bible, Rev. 22:16 states, «I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.» And in Isaiah 14:12, the prophet says, «How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning star»[12]

If so, it appears that Milton is attempting to educate his audience who can not discern between the good shepherd and the bad one. For example, when the Lady refuses Comus' flattery and his ideas of the supernatural element of the forest, she says, «Nay gentle shepherd ill is lost that praise.» Even though she is virtuous enough to refuse Comus' seduction, she does however accept him as a «gentle» shepherd. His disguise has worked, and now he sets out to seduce her in the guise of honesty. Comus, then attempts to lead her astray, away from her Christian brothers to his palace. He says:

The Lady accepts his offer in kindness. There is little doubt here that Milton is playing with the small case «w» of ‘word,' since Jesus is the «Word made flesh.» In contrast, Comus is not an example of the Christian shepherd. First, because Comus lies to achieve his purpose, «Two such I saw,» which is not true». Second, even when he recognizes the virtue in the Lady, he uses it to his advantage against her, «It were a journey like the path to heaven, To help you find them.» This scene brings to mind the scene in Genesis when Satan tempts Eve to disobey God. Furthermore, Milton, in doing so, might be developing the notion of similarity between Satan and Jesus further, if Luke chapter four is taken into consideration too. In Luke chapter four, Satan tries to use a Biblical virtue against Jesus for Satan's desire for power.[13]

In «Arcades» Milton also examines the dichotomy between the pagan and Christian role of the shepherd in pastoral. Milton presents his audience with a true and false image of the shepherd, and perhaps for the same reasons as he does in Comus, namely political and religious. The Genius of the Wood tells us, «For know by lot from Jove I am the power/ Of this fair wood, and live in oaken bower.» In addition, Brown adds that «The Genius of the Wood, a musician who seems to be either part of the establishment or familiar with it, acts the part of guide through the park, and he adds to the celebration by describing his protective and healing activities.»[14] Unlike the pagan shepherds, The Genius of the Wood heals nature. Miltons states in «Arcades»:

The Genius of the Wood not only heals a fallen nature, but even tries to reconcile the pagan deities perhaps to Milton's type of Christianity:

Furthermore, Brown attributes to this passage a political dimension when he says, «Charles, like James before him, would be Pan, and the upstaged mistress would be the queen.»[15]

Pastoral sceneMilton develops the pastoral to his own political liking in Comus, too, when he draws from another type of tradition, namely the «pastourelle» tradition. The pastourelle «is a lyric of courtly origin; in it a poet describes how...he met a shepherd girl (not an Arcadian nymph, but a real peasant) and made love to her...often bringing the whole of the girl's family into action against him.»[16] Usually the poet in the pastourelle tradition represents a courtly poet. In addition, «it began as a rustic revenge on the rich, developed into a courtly vante [sic] at the expense of the ignoble, and survived as a poetic theme interesting in itself to the primitive and cultivated alike.»[17] By Milton creating Comus as a disguised shepherd who tries to seduce the Lady at his «stately palace» in the country, Milton perhaps at the same time was constructing a commentary about the court of his time.

Another pastoral convention is the poet's nostalgic image of peace and simplicity of life contrasted to that of the complex urban life. Milton does not offer his audience this convention either. First, because the dilemma in Comus is raised in the country, where the Lady gets «lost,» and furthermore, the tension of seduction is heightened when the Lady is taken back to the stately palace in the country where she held against her will. The poet's change of this convention is noticeable even further when Comus offers his assistance to bring the Lady to a «loyal cottage.» The Lady says:

This passage provides good dramatic irony, since the audience knows that the Lady has no idea that she is being deceived by Comus. Furthermore, this passage could be doubly ironic since Comus does take the Lady back to «tap»stry halls.» In addition, all the virtuous characters in this masque come from outside Comus' domain, but in contrast, the seductive, base, characters, namely Comus, Pan and Sylvan, reside in the wilderness. Furthermore, when Comus deceives the Lady, he does not take her further into the forest, but back to a palace, which is probably closer to a representation of the court than the country. If this is so, then Milton's choice to do so strengthens his commentary against the noble court while at the same time changing the convention of pastoral since Comus is a king, living in a palace and not a shepherd living in a lowly «cottage.»

The notion of the forest as a setting for evil in Comus is a change from the traditional view of pastoral. Nature, or the simple meditative life, is not idealized in Comus, but put in its proper place, if we consider Milton's Christian influence. Kermode discusses the Puritan reaction to the conventions of the pastoral, when he says, «Essentially an urban growth, it [Puritanism] was suspicious of country matters, and its hatred for the maypole and its associated sports, which Puritans rightly conjectured to be descended from pagan religious rites (Italics mine).»[18]

Second, Kermode recognizes that there were those who tried to understand nature in its proper context. He says, «On the other hand there is the deeper examination of Nature and its true relationship to Art and Grace which Spenser in The Faire Queen, Shakespeare in his last comedies, and Milton in Comus undertook.[19] Kermode argues that Comus does rule over the realm of Nature, and attempts to deprave the lady, who is clad in the magical armour of nobility and chastity, by using the very arguments of the ‘naturalist.'[20] Milton, in doing so, does not offer his audience a simple view of nature, or this convention of the Golden age, but a more complex one that is in constant conflict with man, and will not be reconciled to man until a future «golden age» is established by Christ's return.

Milton's view of nature agrees logically with Protestant Christianity, if we consider the Biblical frame of this dilemma. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve have caused the fall of Mankind, God reaffirms the consequences of their choice. God says:

Biblically, it is Man who has caused Nature to be ‘cursed' and as a result, the two are enemies, and since Satan is also an enemy of Man, Nature, along with Satan, makes this revenge more destructive. In the Apostle's epistle to the Romans, Paul reiterates the consequence of Adam and Eve's free will of disobedience, he says:

Here in this passage, we read the same dilemma between Nature and Man that appears in Comus. So Milton does not idealize nature nor does he promote the worship of it. And it isn't until the time of redemption, or the future «Golden age», through Christ, that Nature and Man will be reconciled. In the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelations states that the harmony lost between Nature and Man (And God too) will be restored, but only after Christ's return. It reads as follows:

Milton's idea of Nature and its eventual redemption is also revealed in Comus. The ending to Comus is characterized by the power of the supernatural over the natural. When the Attendant Spirit calls on Sabrina, she «descends, and the Lady rises out of her seat,» where the natural Comus has chained her. The Supernatural takes precedent over the natural in Comus, as a redeeming force, and this redeeming force can not be found in a past golden age, but only when the golden age of Christ's return is established.


[1] M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 109.
[2] Samuel Johnson, Lives Of The Poets, 126-7.
[3] James Hutton, Aristotle's Poetic, 63.
[4] D.W. Lucas, Aristotle's Poetic, 182.
[5] Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era, 183.
[6] Ibid. p. 184.
[7] Ibid. pp.187-8.
[8] Ibid. p. 182.
[9] Ibid., p.181.
[10] Cedric Brown, «Milton's Arcades: Context, Form, and Function,» 261.
[11] M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 141.
[12] New Internation Version. The King James does not add ‘star' after morning.
[13] Luke 4:10-11. Here, Satan refers to Psalm 91:11,12, but he uses it for a different context.
[14] Cedric Brown, «Milton's Arcades: Context, Form, and Function,» 246.
[15] Ibid., p.258.
[16] Frank Kermode, English Pastoral Poetry, 32-33.
[17] Ibid., pp.33-34.
[18] Ibid., p.37.
[19] Ibid., p.40.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Romans 8:18-22.
[22] Revelations 21:4, 22:3.


Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers,6th edition,1993.
Brown, Cedric «Milton's Arcades: Context, Form, and Function,» Renaissance Drama, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1977.
Bukofzer, Manfred Music in the Baroque Era, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1947.
Demary, John Milton and The Masque Tradition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1968.
Hutton, James Aristotle's Poetics, Translated by James Hutton, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1982.
Johnson, Samuel The Lives Of The Poets: Cowley to Prior, New York: Dolphin Books, Doubleday & Company.