Critics have found much to say regarding gender and sexuality in Comus, which is set in a wild wood ruled by a rollicking rabble and their sorcerer king. The entrance of the archetypal young woman into this wood, alone and unprotected, sets into motion numerous concerns and anxieties about the sanctity of women, virginity, chastity, and indeed masculinity. Other gendered moments in the masque include the brothers' lengthy discussion of their sister's chastity, Comus's temptation speech about the bounty of nature, the Lady's outraged response followed by Comus's suggestion of violence, and of course, the "gumms of glutenous heat" that attach the Lady to a magical chair. Intertwined between these sectors of gender conflict are the numerous mentions of frightening powerful women like Circe, Hecate, and Cottito, as well as victims of assault, including Sabrina.
The major issues related to gender that emerge in critical readings of Comus include female chastity, gendered rhetoric, women as currency and property, the vulnerability of women through the orifices, lost or unruly women, masculine women and feminine men, and sexual violence towards women. Matters of space require that this essay merely skim the surface of these topics, but the bibliography and footnotes will hopefully lead curious scholars in the right direction. While scholars such as Gregory Bredbeck, Mark Breitenberg, and Andrew Williams explore the perceptions and restrictions placed upon men in the period and in the masque, the primary trajectory of scholarship has been feminist in its readings.
However, the masque itself provides no clear path through the woods of gender scholarship. Passages that seem straightforward are often undercut by later lines, and the perception of righteousness or evil becomes hazy. As in the later Paradise Lost, Milton provides fascinating and complicated examples of goodness and evil, but neither seems completely free of its opposite. As a result, the reader finds critics wrangling over whether to embrace the Lady as a feminist heroine and Milton as a progressive canonical figure or instead reject the submissive return of the Lady to her father and Milton's reiteration of the patriarchal status quo.
The purpose and agency of the Lady is the touchstone of any discussion of gender in Comus. While alternative readings have focused on Comus himself or perceptions of masculinity in the piece, much of the masque itself seems concerned with problematizing the role of women in society, even playing with certain conventions to force a confrontation between the anxieties surrounding women on their own and the realities of women's experiences and abilities. Critics including Jean Graham, John Leonard, and Joseph Wittreich have explored the remarkable strength of will and mind that the Lady exhibits in the masque, which cleverly opens with a spirit sent from heaven to rescue a virtuous chaste damsel in distress, setting a familiar tone for the piece. However, both the spirit's extended speeches on virtue and the brothers' later philosophical discussion of chastity and purity do not fully agree with the attitudes or behaviors of the Lady herself, the sole human female in the masque. For the Lady, although giving extensive lip service to her own modesty and naiveté, begins her appearance by wandering off from where her brothers left her in search of some revelers she had heard. In seeking out society, the Lady contradicts assumptions about the chaste and solitary woman preferring to remain alone with her thoughts. Rather, the masque presents a young woman walking by herself in the woods who then begins to sing, thereby attracting the unwanted attentions of a sorcerer, Comus. Yet this is neither the first nor the most important time the Lady opens her mouth in a most unladylike fashion.
The Lady's song is followed by several scenes of highly active and engaged verbal exchanges with Comus, the fascinating and eloquent villain of the piece. Whether parrying with Comus in a classic stichomythia in the woods or debating the nature of bounty with classical examples or defending her chastity with words, the Lady enjoys the most complicated writing as well as the most multifaceted role in the masque. It deserves mention that the Lady is drawn as a remarkably capable orator and speaker with abilities far beyond that of a typical aristocratic girl. The silence that befits a young woman in her station is abandoned along with her brothers. She meets Comus's "lickerish baits" of both verbal and physical temptation head on throughout the masque, defying the implicit threat of physical assault in his flesh-ridden words1. Confronted again and again with Comus's seductive suggestions to "spend" the coin of her beauty, a metaphor adroitly handled by Julie Kim, the Lady lifts her replies into the realm of the abstract and spiritual, away from the flesh that Comus holds captive. Indeed, she seems to convert her captor near the end, as Comus says, apparently to himself, "She fables not" (834). Yet her shining moment in the masque, her sacred vehemence in response to Comus's seduction speech, is abruptly cut short with the arrival of her rescuers. After threatening to shake the firmament with her words, the Lady is silent as soon as her brothers come forward, and does not speak again for the rest of the masque. This abrupt reduction of the Lady's character from fiery orator to girl is seen by some critics as Milton's return to societal norms after a sylvan retreat to the wilds of Wales. After permitting gender roles and human appearance to mingle with Comus's magic and the Daemon's divinity, order must be reestablished.
However distressing the silence of the Lady may be for seekers of early modern gender equality, the character of Sabrina may provide an alternative to patriarchy. Unlike her fellow supernatural women, such as Circe, Hecate, and Cottito, to mention only a few of those referred to directly in the masque, Sabrina is both powerful and friendly. While Comus, son of Circe, prays to the witchy Hecate and the sexually-charged Cottito for his rites, the heavenly spirit, the Daemon, calls to Sabrina for assistance. Sabrina's history is one of sexual violence and murder, but she emerges cleansed and purified, a renewed virgin, from the waters of the Severn River where she once drowned and now rules. Her role in the masque appears to balance that of the Lady: when the Lady has fallen silent upon the arrival of her brothers and the flight of Comus, Sabrina is called upon to release the Lady from the magical chair whose charms cannot be broken by the men. Upon being summoned by song, Sabrina "rises" to the stage, and releases the Lady by sprinkling water upon her breast and then touching her fingertips, her lips, and the chair with her "chaste palmes moist and cold" (950-58). Sabrina calls attention to the same parts of the Lady's body that Comus does previously, but her words are safe and sexless, succeeding in freeing the Lady from her earthly chains rather than threatening to make her flesh impure. As the Lady rises from the chair, Sabrina descends back into the river, to the Spirit's profuse thanks. Thus a woman saves the day after all, but she must remove herself from the scene, or remain silent, in order for the party to return to the world safely. Milton raises exciting questions in the masque, but leaves most unanswered, choosing instead to bring the family back together for a happy ending and leave the dangerous woods behind.
1. Much has been written on the subjects of rape and violence in this masque. Notable authors in this area include Catherine Belsey, Julie Kim, John Leonard, and William Kerrigan.
Belsey, Catherine. John Milton: Language, Gender, Power. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
Bredbeck, Gregory W. Sodomy and Interpretation: Marlowe to Milton. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1991.
Breitenberg, Mark. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. New York: Cambridge
Burt, Richard and John Michael Archer, eds. Enclosure Acts: Sexuality, Property, and
Culture in Early Modern England. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.
Graham, Jean E. "Virgin Ears: Silence, Deafness, and Chastity in Milton's Mask." MS 36
Hagstrum, Jean. Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.
Kendrick, Christopher. "Milton and Sexuality: A Symptomatic Reading of Comus."
Re-membering Milton. Ed. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson. New York:
Kerrigan, William. "The Politically Correct Comus: A Reply to John Leonard." MQ 4 (1993):
---. "Gender and Confusion in Milton and Everyone Else." Hellas 2 (1991):195-220.
Kim, Julie H. "The Lady's Unladylike Struggle: Redefining Patriarchal Boundaries in Milton's
Comus." MS 35 (1997): 1-20.
LeComte, Edward. Milton and Sex. New York: Columbia UP, 1978.
Leonard, John. "Saying 'No' to Freud: Milton's A Mask and Sexual Assault." MQ 25 (1991):
Turner, James G. One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of
Milton. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
Walker, Julia M., ed. Milton and the Idea of Woman. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988. (Article
by Kathleen Wall, pp 52-65).
Williams, Andrew P., ed. The Image of Manhood in Early Modern Literature. Westport,
CT: Greenwood P, 1999.
Wittreich, Joseph. Feminist Milton. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.
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