II. Setting the Stage
III. First Dialogue
IV. The Brothers' Debate
V. The Debate in Comus's Lair
"Enjoy your deere Wit, and gay Rhetorick
That hath so well beene taught her dazling fence,
Thou art not fit to heare thy selfe convinc't;
Yet should I trie, the uncontrouled worth
Of this pure cause would kindle my rap't spirits
To such a flame of sacred vehemence,
That dumb things would be mov'd to sympathize,
And the brute Earth would lend her nerves, and shake,
Till all thy magick structures rear'd so high
Were shatter'd into heaps ore thy false head." (824-833)
This passage, the Lady's passionate rejoinder to Comus's blandishments, is delivered at the height of the temptation scene, and represents the turning point at which the Lady gains the upper hand in the argument. Her words have sparked much debate over Milton's use of rhetoric, in addition to much work on gender and speech. In these lines, the Lady seemingly rejects the power of persuasive speech, yet in her very speaking, she achieves victory over Comus. Such seeming contradictions represent the culmination of an exploration of rhetoric throughout the masque. Therefore, in this essay, I examine some of the various places where speaking or rhetoric are foregrounded in Milton's attempt to establish the various types of appropriate speech.
II. Setting the Stage
When both Comus and the Lady each enter the stage, the language they use reveals great concern with speech. For Comus, speaking is a powerful tool, one he does not hesitate to use to deceive the unwary. He boasts to his rout that he possesses "wel plac't words of glozing courtesie/Baited with reasons not unplausible," (175-6). Playing right to that image, the Lady enters, looking for voices she heard in her "listening eare" (218). The very fantasies of her mind reveal a preoccupation with voices; there are a thousand shapes that call her, shadows that beckon, and "ayrie tongues" that speak to her (220-3). The audience can deduce immediately that speech is going to be one of the central issues between the pair.
At this point, the Lady rejects the voices for the guardians faith, hope, chastity, and conscience, and then, because she "cannot hallow"1 to her brothers, she decides to sing to try to help them find her (241). However, she chooses to sing to Echo, which is, despite the classical story, one's own voice; in essence, she asks herself for help. Numerous critics2 have commented on her song to Echo, debating whether Comus is the actual answer to the Lady's prayer, if the Lady's words indicate a kind of self-reliance, or whether she is calling upon heaven itself for aid. In the end, however, it is clearly her voice that attracts Comus so completely; he moves from wanting to transform her into one of his followers to desiring her to join him as his queen (281). Comus is a character fully aware of the power of the voice, and he has found someone with charms that rival his own.
III. First Dialogue
Immediately, Comus begins to flatter the Lady, complimenting the beauty of her person and her voice. His flowery words are declaimed in a high rhetorical style; to him, such praise would be supreme. The Lady, however, disagrees, and she corrects his misconceptions about her speech: "ill is lost that praise/That is addrest to unattending Eares" (287-8). In this fashion, she rejects his high-flown rhetoric. For her, speech was a means of locating her brothers, not to be used for "boast of skill3" (289). Here the Lady makes the first distinction we see regarding the appropriate usage of the spoken word.
However, while virtuous, she is not as vigilant against sin as the Christian soul ought to be, and Comus's persuasive voice overcomes her fears. He weaves a verbal net around her that deceives her completely, and she agrees to go with him. Her very language here continues to reflect the emphasis on the spoken word: she tells the disguised Comus "shepherd I take thy word" (337). At this point, she has fallen prey to his verbal magic.
IV. The Brothers' Debate
At this point in the masque, Milton switches the focus of the action; the Lady's brothers take center stage. Lost in the woods and worried about their sister, the two boys engage in a philosophical debate, which various critics have helpfully analyzed, seeking to elucidate its philosophical nature, or their use of neo-platonism4. Such imagery is especially important, however, because their dialogue also functions as a tool to display the brothers' education to the masque's audience. By quoting classical sources, and evoking spiritual discourses, the elder brother demonstrates the quality of his teacher, who is, not coincidentally, Henry Lawes. In addition to the philosophy, he employs classical rhetoric, one of the staple elements of a humanist education. In this fashion, Milton is able to explore yet another dimension of rhetoric.
The younger of the two brothers is much more concerned with the Lady's physical safety, whereas the elder has faith in her chastity as a form of protection. Thus, the two create an argumentative situation, and proceed to engage in a classical debate. The elder brother gives an encomium of chastity; he underlines the issue, calls on antiquity for further authority; sets up his claims, and uses a high rhetorical style of speech. The younger brother is persuaded by the magic of the elder's words; "How charming is divine Philosophie!" (496). While certainly the younger requires reassurance, the elder brother seems caught up in the magic of his own words; he doesn't use just one example, but copious ones. It almost seems a schoolboy assignment, imitating sophistic debate.
Except of course, the situation is quite real, not a mere classroom exercise; the Lady is in genuine physical danger. Instead of debating the finer points of chastity, the boys should be actively seeking their sister. At this point, in fact, the Spirit intervenes to persuade the brothers to act. Milton may thus be commenting that there are times appropriate for debate and others for decision. The elder brother might certainly have a responsibility to encourage and educate his sibling on the power of virtue, but he must gauge his timing and priorities more carefully.
V. The Debate in Comus's Lair
This scene represents the culmination of the debate on speech; now Comus's true intentions are unmasked, and the Lady sees through his rhetorical strategies, rejecting both them and him completely. Initially, Comus attempts to seduce her to a life of ease, using soothing words to persuade her to relax her guard. At first, she responds in rhetorical fashion; her words are angry, but in a grand style, "Mercie guard me!/Hence with thy brewd inchantments foule deceiver"(729-30). She even incorporates rhetorical strategies of her own, such as maxims like "none/But such as are good men can give good things" (736-7). In this fashion, she engages Comus in debate, meeting him on his level.
Comus, however, is more than equal to the challenge. He rejects her appeal to worldly wisdom, dismissing the "budge doctors of the Stoick furre" and increases the level of his own rhetoric (741). This time, he attempts a carpe diem theme, urging the Lady to make the most of her youth and beauty while she still has them. His words are particularly strong, as he seductively asks her "What need a vermeil-tinctur'd lip for that/Love-darting eyes, or tresses like the Morne" (786-7). At this point, the Lady speaks to herself, noting that Comus is gaining the upper hand in the debate, and that she would not see vice go unchecked. The Lady must speak to maintain her own position, lest she accidentally seem to acquiesce to Comus's plan (Graham 3).
The Lady, however, cannot defeat Comus using rhetoric; he is far too skilled in its power. Upon recognizing this, she delivers a passionate rejection of the power of worldly persuasion, and thus moves out of the realm of temporal rhetorical debate, where the goal is to counter the opponent, to another realm entirely. Instead of arguing with Comus, she seems to speak mainly to herself, as she bolsters her own resolve and places herself firmly within the discourse of sacred vehemence. Claiming the role of virtue's tongue to "check" Comus's vice, the Lady becomes far more powerful than Comus can ever hope to be (795).
In fact, when supported by spiritual truth, the Lady need not even debate; the mere mention of the force of sacred vehemence clearly intimidates Comus. Although he decides to try again, he is shaken, admitting to himself, "She fables not. I feele that I doe feare her words set off by some superior power" (834-5). When he starts to argue again, the brothers and Spirit rush in, cutting off further debate. At this point, however, there is no need to continue; Comus would never accede to the Lady's point of view, and by firmly committing herself to Christian discourses of virtue and temperance, the Lady has established she is in no danger of being persuaded by him.
Milton's masque reflects throughout a certain ambiguity about the power of speech. Clearly, Comus's speech does have power over mortal people; the Spirit himself notes that until the sorcerer reverses the spell, they cannot free the Lady (855). In addition, the Lady rejects the power of rhetoric, but she does so by speaking, an apparent contradiction. Yet, in the end, the masque also confirms that while powerful, mortal speech is always subject to divine grace. The work's resolution confirms that although it was the true virtue reflected in the Lady's speech that inspired divine assistance (in the form of Sabrina) to help defeat temptation, without that help, the Lady would remain in Comus's power. The audience thus leaves with an affirmation of the power of rhetoric that is simultaneously undermined by its utter powerlessness when faced with divine grace and eloquence.
1. Compare the Elder brother's line "Ile hallow" to the Lady's "I cannot hallow to my brothers" as just one example of some of the issues where speech and gender intersect (509, 241).
2. See Louise Simons and Angus Fletcher as just a few critics among many.
3. Although, ironically, the Lady is in fact doing just that, singing in a masque to display her singing ability, and the results of Lawes' tutelage.
4. See Julie Kim and Maryann McGuire for examples of further discussion.
I have used the 1637 version for line numbers.
Brown, Cedric. John Milton's Aristocratic Entertainments. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
Fletcher, Angus. The Transcendental Masque: An Essay on Milton's Comus. Ithaca: Cornell
Graham, Jean E. "Virgin Ears: Silence, Deafness, and Chastity in Milton's Mask." MS 36
Hollis, Hilda. "Without Charity: an Intertextual Study of Milton's Comus." Milton Studies 34
Kim, Julie H. "The Lady's Unladylike Struggle: Redefining Patriarchal Boundaries in Milton's
Comus." MS 35 (1997): 1-20.
Simons, Louise. "'And Heaven Gates Ore My Head': Death as Threshold in Milton's Masque."
Milton Studies 23 (1988): 53-96.
Home | Introduction | The Texts | Critical Essays
Multimedia | Bibliography | Credits