For Comus, or A Maske, the first half of the twentieth century brought with it a new examination of the role of the Earl of Bridgewater's family in the work's writing, production, and circulation. The masque is quite straightforwardly dedicated and concerned with the Egerton family, as the plot involves the Lord's children and the occasion of the masque is acelebration of Egerton's recent appointment as Lord President of Wales. However, modern scholars seeking a new approach to Comus began to recognize remarkable parallels between seventeenth-century scandals and the sexual crisis in the play between the Lady and Comus. In 1942 Bernard Falk was the first to draw a connection between Lord Egerton's commissioned masque and the 1631 family scandal involving Egerton's brother-in-law, the Earl of Castlehaven. Before delving into the possible links between Milton's masque and the news of the 1630s, a cast of characters in this real drama involving the Egerton family must be presented.
Alice, Countess Dowager of Derby, had two daughters who married well, Anne and Frances. 1. Frances became wife to John Egerton, the Earl of Bridgewater, and is the mother of the the Lady and the Brothers in Comus. Anne, Frances's older sister, was widowed in 1621 and later married Mervin Touchet, Lord Audley and Earl of Castlehaven, in 1624. Anne's daughter from her previous marriage, Elizabeth, lived with Anne and Touchet and Touchet's son James, to whom Elizabeth became engaged and later married. The scandal, which was renowned throughout England after the secrets of the trial came to light in1631, involved Anne's new marriage to the Earl of Castlehaven.
In brief, Touchet's son James brought charges against his father in 1631. Touchet was charged with having Anne and her daughter Elizabeth raped by his servants and also practicing sodomy with two servant men of his household. The stories told in trial were horrifying - tales of Touchet holding down his wife while calling to his men to come ravish her, as well as the statutory rape of Elizabeth by a serving man at 13. However, because Touchet was a nobleman the trial was closed, and he was judged by 26 of his peers rather than the community2. Both Touchet and his two serving men were convicted of the charges and executed in 1631. Touchet, as a nobleman, was mercifully beheaded before while the serving men were hanged. The scandal erupted into the public sphere at the later execution of the servants. As the men were proceeding to the scaffold, they made complete public confessions to the crowd, and the titillating details of the trial soon spread like wildfire.
Tracing the effects of these events on the composition, performance, and transmission of Comus is a rich area of inquiry. As is evident from the versions presented in Reformations of a Masque, numerous and lengthy changes were made between the Bridgewater manuscript (arguably the performance text for the Egerton's family production) and the later 1637 and 1645 printed versions, included in Milton's Poems. The excised sections, made primarily in the performance text, generally include speeches by Comus and the Lady in the latter half of the masque, when Comus presents her with tantalizing reasons to succumb to physical pleasures, to drink from his cup. An example of the tone of these lines, excised from the Bridgewater and quoted from the 1637 edition: "Why should you be so cruell to your selfe, / And to those daintie limms which nature lent / For gentle usage, and soft delicacie?" (712-14). These lines, like later ones that refer to the Lady's "vermeil-tinctur'd lip" and "Love darting eyes," draw explicit attention to the nubile body of the fifteen-year old Lady Alice (786-87, 1637). Such words directed to a young girl could arguably startle recollections of Elizabeth and Anne's tragedy and possible involvement with the Castlehaven scandal only three years past. Critics beginning with Barbara Breasted argue that these edits, which removed the questionable sections from the public performance, were made in order to maintain an aura of complete blameless purity over the production. With the gloom of debauched sexual depravity hanging over the family and especially the inculpated Anne and Elizabeth, the Lady Alice must remain pure and untainted by any hint of scandal.
Indeed, the Castlehaven scandal has been argued to be working on numerous levels within the masque. The intense concentration on the Lady's chastity of mind and body, as well as chastity's protection over females in need, suggests to critics a defense against charges of blame levied on victims of sexual violence, namely Anne and Elizabeth. In his argument that Milton composed the masque in response to a "family directive which itself is somehow a response to the [Castlehaven scandal]," William Hunter notes Augustine's concept of assault in City of God regarding the Christian martyrs raped by pagans: "Augustine found comfort for them in a definition of true chastity as a mental condition which could not be altered by physical assault." (33). This, he argues, reflects the Elder Brother's assertions in the masque that "Vertue may be assail'd but never hurt" (612, 1637). Such a mentality guarantees that the virtues of the two victims of the Castlehaven scandal remain unsullied, and furthermore that their unfortunate circumstance need not ruin the entire family, as there is no blame to share.
Breasted's theory on the masque, now close to 20 years old, has endured little criticism, but there are several critics who propose alternative readings to the family history. John Creaser, author of "The Irrelevance of the Castlehaven Scandal," draws attention to the fact that no other scholar prior to Falk in 1942 made this connection between the masque's subject matter and the family's recent struggles, including seventeenth-century sources. Furthermore, the use of chastity as a main virtue is appropriate, since Milton's masque is uniquely about children - the heroine is a fifteen-year old girl and her rescuers are her younger brothers. When considering children of this age, what other virtue is there to praise, especially in a young girl? Also, Creaser proposes that "only the impure require purification," meaning that the Egertons would have been admitting some sort of guilt in order to commission a masque referencing the scandal. Creaser argues further that no one in the period perceived the Lord Egerton or his immediate family as involved with the scandal or its aftermath, including King James I (27).
How the repercussions of this trial, the "Castlehaven Scandal," affected both branches of the family remains disputable. Obviously the effects on Anne and Elizabeth are unknowable, but they did return to the Countess Dowager's home, where they remained in seclusion for some time. The Dowager wrote many letters to James I, asking pardon for her daughter and granddaughter, which suggests a certain degree of concern over their implicit guilt in the scandal. What the Egerton family suffered from the scandal is even hazier. While one might suppose that the close family connection with the scandal would create problems for the Egertons, just the opposite seems true. The Earl of Bridgewater was named Lord President of Wales in the early 1630s, suggesting that the King supported him and his family. On a more mundane level, all but one of Egerton's daughters married well, further implying that this side of the family suffered no unusual taint from the scandal. Yet the fact remains that Milton's masque is overtly concerned with issues of sexuality and violence. Might there be other reasons for this concentration?
Later scholars, including Leah Marcus, have compiled legal records of other cases of sexual assault that could be read as further informing Milton's composition. Instead of honing in on the Castlehaven scandal, Marcus examines a legal case presented to Egerton, whose duty as Lord President in the Marches of Wales included local judicial inquiries. Marcus's case, detailed in the article, "The Milieu of Milton's Comus: Judicial Reform at Ludlow and the Problem of Sexual Assault," deals with one Margery Evans, a fourteen-year-old maid who was assaulted and robbed in the Welsh border country. Evans went to remarkable lengths, with the assistance of her aunt, to petition for justice and protection against her attackers. While the majority of justices, judges, and local officials brushed the case aside, Egerton took great pains to determine the facts of the case and to help the young girl when he was called in to examine the inquiry. Marcus argues that Milton uses this case as a political background for his masque, further suggesting that Comus may be read as an analysis of the administration of justice in matters of sexual jeopardy (294-5). Marcus follows in the path of Falk and Breasted in seeking out the connections between the masque and the world in which it was written, finding compelling comparisons between the public masque and the complexities of justice, family, and reputation in the early half of the seventeenth century.
1. Milton's earlier work, Arcades, was performed around 1632 in honor of the Dowager of Derby. This connection is mentioned by many scholars arguing for more historical or biographical readings of Comus, as it suggests both Milton and Lawes had close knowledge of the family's history.
2. William B. Hunter notes that Touchet's brother-in-law Lord Egerton is not listed as one of the judges, and suggests that the King excused him because of his close relationship with the accused. (from Milton's Comus: Family Piece, p 25)
Brested, Barbara. "Comus and the Castlehaven Scandal" Milton Studies 3 (1971), 201-224.
Creaser, John. "Milton's Comus: The Irrelevance of the Castlehaven Scandal." MQ 4 (1987):
Hunter, William B. Milton's Comus: Family Piece. New York: Whitson Publishing, Troy,
Marcus, Leah. "The Milieu of Milton's Comus: Judicial Reform at Ludlow and the Problem of
Sexual Assault." Criticism 25 (1983): 293-327.
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