History of Comus
The masque was first performed on September 29, 1634, at Ludlow Castle in Wales, as part of a celebration honoring the installation of the Earl of Bridgewater as the Lord President of Wales. Although the Earl had been appointed to the position by Charles I in 1631, he had apparently been unable to actually move into Ludlow Castle, the official residence of the Lord President, until 1634. In midsummer 1634, however, he made a ceremonial visit to the castle itself and then to manors in the surrounding area. Travel journals suggest that the performance took place upon the Earl's subsequent return to the Castle, amid other entertainments centering around his appointment (Brown 33).
The dating of the performance has occasioned much commment; September 29th is Michaelmas, a holiday honoring the angel St. Michael, and scholars have debated the extent to which the themes of the mask might be directly tied to the significance of the holiday. The inability to ascertain both exactly when Milton was writing the mask and exactly when the date of September 29th had been appointed as the date of performance makes such a link somewhat conjectural. The work does, however, manifest such themes as to suggest that Milton did intend for it to engage with the significance of the holiday (Creaser 114). The holiday "was associated with the election of new magistrates and governors" and traditions associated with the holiday often equated this "earthly governance" with heavenly or angelic protection (Brown 39). Thus the idea of the supernatural forces stepping in to protect the children in the mask would seem coherent with themes of Michaelmas Day.
The audience attending the performance and the participants in the mask was likely a mixture of aristocracy and townspeople. The Earl of Bridgewater and his wife were in attendance, as well as members of his entourage of state. A group of townspeople would also have been invited (Flanagan 22). One way in which Milton and Lawes sought to honor the Earl and his family was to include major roles in the mask for the Earl's three as-yet unmarried children: Lady Alice Egerton, 15 years old, played the part of the Lady, and Lord Brackley, John Egerton, 11 years old, and their younger brother, Michael Egerton, 9 years old, played the parts of the Lady's two brothers. Henry Lawes played the part of Thyrsis, or the attendant spirit, according to his own publication of the text in 1637. There has been some debate as to whether or not the part of Sabrina was played by the eldest Egerton daughter, Lady Penelope Egerton, but as her name is not indicated at any point in time as one of the masquers, this seems unlikely (Diekhoff 5).
There is also much conjecture over the staging of the play. There is not much concrete evidence concerning where the actual production took place at the castle; general consensus seems to place the entertainment inside the Great Hall, although some scholars have contemplated the possibility that it occurred outdoors (Hunter 48). Deductions about the staging of the play are generally made from Milton's stage directions, which suggest the use of some sort of machinery for the descent of Sabrina as well as a perspective stage, with a proscenium arch and a stage curtain (Creaser 112-113), although the limitations of the Great Hall at Ludlow make a good argument for as simple a staging as possible (Diekhoff 1-2).
Subsequent performances of the play:
Barroll, Leeds. "Inventing the Stuart Masque." The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque. Eds.
David Bevington and Peter Holbrook. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. 121-143.
Bevington, David, and Peter Holbrook, eds. The Politics of the Stuart Court Masque.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.
Brown, Cedric. John Milton's Aristocratic Entertainments. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.
Creaser, John. "'The present aid of this occasion': the setting of Comus." The Court Masque.
Ed. David Lindley. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. 111-134.
Cunningham, Dolora. "The Jonsonian Masque as a Literary Form." ELH 22(1955): 108-124.
Demaray, John G. Milton and the Masque Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1968.
Diekhoff, John S., ed. A Maske at Ludlow. Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve
Flannagan, Roy. "Comus." The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Ed. Dennis Danielson.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. 21-34.
Hubbell, J. Andrew. "Comus: Milton's Re-Formation of the Masque." Spokesperson Milton.
Eds. Charles W. Durham and Kristin Pruitt McColgan. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna UP,
Hunter, W. B. Milton's Comus: Family Piece. New York: Whitston Publishing Co., 1983.
Judge, Roy. "The 'country dancers' in the Cambridge Comus of 1908." Folklore. 110 (1999):
Leishman, J. B. Milton's Minor Poems. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1971.
Lewalski, Barbara K. "Milton's Comus and the Politics of Masquing." The Politics of the
Stuart Court Masque. Eds. David Bevington and Peter Holbrook. Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1998. 296-320.
Maguire, Nancy Klein. "The Theatrical Mask/Masque of Politics: The Case of Charles I."
Journal of British Studies 28:1 (1989): 1-22.
Norbrook, David. "The Reformation of the Masque." The Court Masque. Ed. David Lindley.
Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984. 94-110.
Orgel, Stephen. The Jonsonian Masque. New York: Columbia UP, 1981.
Randall, Dale B. J. Winter Fruit. Lexington: University Press of KY, 1995.
Welsford, Enid. The Court Masque. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962.
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