John Milton’s Comus: The Restoration’s Robin Thicke

A piece by William Blake, based on John Milton's 'Paradise Lost'.

A piece by William Blake, based on John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.

Though Paradise Lost is Milton’s finest piece, his presentation of Eve, and by extension women, in this epic poem is less than flattering.  Still, some feminists have been able to interpret and present the text in a manner that promotes Eve as an empowering character.  In his masque Comus, though, Milton presents a far more flattering portrayal of women through his character The Lady, as well as a peripheral character named Sabrina the nymph, who appears toward the end of the work.  Including Milton’s Comus in a discussion on Milton and gender would certainly help to facilitate more progressive presentations of women in Milton’s work and could lead to ascribing Milton’s work with protofeminist ideals.

 

Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' seems to present a male figure who shares some commonalities with Milton's Comus.

Robin Thicke‘s ‘Blurred Lines’ seems to present a male figure who shares some commonalities with Milton’s Comus.

The narrative of the piece is quite simple: A woman is wandering through a forest (shades of Book I in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene) as her two brothers have gone off to find some form of sustenance.  Whilst gone, she is approach by the title character, who also happens to be a necromancer (we all know how cool necromancers are, not to be confused with a neuromancer, which is equally cool, especially for William Gibson fans).  The setting is not terribly different than the setting for Paradise Lost where Eve is separated in the garden and left to her own devices against Lucifer in the form of a serpent.  This is where the narrative part ways.

 

 

If I were casting the role of The Lady, Cate Blanchet would be my first pick.

If I were casting the role of The Lady, Cate Blanchett would be my first pick.

In Paradise Lost, Eve offers litter resistance.  In Comus, though, The Lady is not so naïve.  She questions her senses, making an observation and then saying “if my ears be true” (170), noting the fallibility of her observations.  Eve, when she is presented with false syllogisms, falls prey to them.  The Lady, on the other hand, tells Comus that he “hast banished [his] tongue with lies” (692) and notes that he is a “foul deceiver” (697).  The Lady proves far less gullible than Eve, but she is also far less vain.  Comus tries to woo The Lady with praise and appeals to her pride, much as Lucifer did with Eve, but The Lady’s response is to pronounce that she “will not taste [his] treasonous offer” (702).

 

The brothers in the play have a small role, but do have some significant dialogue.  The younger brother (simply referred to as Second Brother) is concerned that his sister is vulnerable, stating that she is “unarmed”, “[a]lone and helpless” and that she has the “weakness of [a] virgin” (582-583).  This seems to be a construction akin to that of Eve.  The older brother (referred to as Elder Brother) does not express the same concern and quells his younger brother’s distress by noting that their sister “has hidden strength” (415).  Here we see to contrasting views of femininity.  The younger brother sees The Lady as a passive victim, unable to secure her own safety, whereas the elder brother, who the audience would recognize as the true authority via the right or primogeniture, suggests that The Lady is capable of defending herself.  This passage, then, presents a patriarchal figure who believes in the strength of women.

 

The Lady employs a rhetoric that suggests seduction is not unlike the offering of a forbidden fruit.

The Lady employs a rhetoric that suggests seduction is not unlike the offering of a forbidden fruit.

There is also a culinary rhetoric present in the text. In the creation story, Eve eats the forbidden fruit. In The Lady’s dialogue, she employs a language that, though she is not being offered food, employs metaphor to describe Comus’s attempted seduction as an offering of food.  The Lady says: “I would not taste this treasonous offer” (702).  She describes Comus’s complements as “swinish gluttony” (776) and tells Comus that “that which is not good, is not delicious/ To a well-governed and wise appetite” (704-705).  The Lady is even described as “the good cateress” whose “provisions” work “only toward the good” (764-765).  It is clear that Milton is linking this seduction with Eve’s seduction through the language, only rather than an unwitting Eve, The Lady easily navigates such temptation and does not fall prey to Comus’s false logic.

 

 

John Milton

John Milton

The final sequence of the masque is also interesting.  In Paradise Lost there is not a single celestial figure that is female present.  At the end of Comus, however, when The Lady’s brothers arrive to rescue her, they find her sitting in a chair from which she cannot rise as Comus had put a spell on her.  Though there is a male ‘attendant spirit’ present, he suggests the brothers conjure up a female nymph named Sabrina.  In the end, the brothers are unable to rescue their sister and it is a woman who frees her.  Typically, such rescues would have been executed by a male figure, but Milton overturns this convention.

 

The piece can be problematic in terms of feminist ideals.  The Lady is placed in a world of binaries by Milton.  She must choose between the prude and the slut.  If she succumbs to Comus’s appeal, then she is tainted.  If she chooses to maintain chastity, she is a beacon of patriarchal values.  It doesn’t seem like much of a choice.  What she chooses, though, is not where the value in The Lady lies.  Instead, the value of the piece is that The Lady is able to outwit a man, or at the very least, manages to prevent herself from being manipulated by a man whose aims are strictly self-serving.  She acts as her own spiritual and intellectual heroine.  There is also value in the fact that the elder brother recognizes The Lady’s ability to defend herself, as well as the fact that it is a woman who ultimately provides the corporal rescue of The Lady.  The work was written early in Milton’s career, so the merits of The Lady may be, in the eyes of some, usurped by Milton’s later works where women are presented in less-than-flattering terms, but when studied in concert with works like Paradise Lost, Comus at least demonstrates a degree of diversity in female characters that is not present in Paradise Lost.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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