This Day In Writing History
On September 28th, 1634, Comus, the classic masque by the legendary English poet, playwright, and polemicist John Milton, was first performed for the Earl of Bridgewater.
The Earl had recently been named Lord President of Wales. The masque was staged at Bridgewater's home, Ludlow Castle in Shropshire. Its original title was A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634.
A masque was a musical play - the precursor of modern musical theater. However, the musical numbers in masques were more akin to opera arias than to today's showtunes. Masques were a favorite pastime of English royalty dating back to at least the 14th century.
John Milton, best known for his classic epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), was only twenty-five years old when he wrote Comus. The music was composed by Henry Lawes, who co-starred as The Attendant Spirit.
Comus was Milton's ode to the virtues of chastity and temperance, a fantasy that told the story of the ancient Greek god Comus' attempt to seduce a virtuous young woman called The Lady.
The masque opens with The Lady and her two brothers losing their way while traveling through the woods. Hungry and tired, The Lady stops to rest while her brothers go off in search of food.
While she waits alone, The Lady is approached by an amiable villager. The man is actually Comus, the ancient Greek god of revelry and desire. He is the son of and cup bearer for Bacchus, the god of wine and ecstasy.
He lures The Lady away, then captures her and brings her to his pleasure palace, where she is seated in a magic chair and rendered unable to move. He attempts to seduce The Lady with his necromancer's wand and magic cup.
Comus bids her to "be not coy" and drink from his magic cup, which will intoxicate and sexually arouse her. She refuses and lectures him about the virtues of temperance and chastity.
Knowing how hungry she is, Comus presents The Lady with a banquet of food. He argues that the desire for food when one is hungry is just as natural as one's desires for drink and sex.
Therefore, Comus argues, these and all desires are licit. The Lady disagrees and debates with him the difference between one's higher nature and baser impulses.
Meanwhile, her brothers, who are searching for her, encounter The Attendant Spirit - an angel in the form of a shepherd who has been sent to help The Lady. He tells her brothers how to defeat Comus, and all three of them set off to save her.
Back at Comus' palace, The Lady continues to defy and debate Comus. She is finally rescued by her brothers and The Attendant Spirit, who drive the lustful god away. Unfortunately, The Lady is still magically bound to her chair.
The Attendant Spirit sings a song that conjures the water nymph Sabrina, who frees The Lady as a reward for her virtue. She and her brothers are finally reunited with their parents.
Some scholars believe that Comus was Milton's response to the scandal surrounding the Earl of Castlehaven, (the Earl of Bridgewater's brother-in-law) who had been convicted and executed for rape and sodomy.
The Earl of Bridgewater greatly enjoyed Milton's ode to virtue, which is summed up by these closing lines spoken by The Attendant Spirit:
Mortals that would follow me,
Love virtue, she alone is free,
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the Sphery chime;
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heav'n itself would stoop to her.
Quote Of The Day
"A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” - John Milton
Today's video features a lecture on John Milton's classic epic poem, Paradise Lost. Enjoy!