on April 23, 2011
I read this book for a course in Elizabethan & Jacobean literature. I probably never would have found it otherwise and I'm grateful I got the chance to do so. This is a court masque written by Milton (Paradise Lost) when he was 24 and relatively unknown. Milton received a lot of criticism for this masque for several reasons, the most superficial, but most vociferous criticism was that it was neither a masque nor a drama. Court masques were sketchy enactments of bits of myth or legend, interlaced with music and dance, most often performed at court or for nobility and usually to compliment the host/hostess: king, queen, lord or lady. For example, one court masque performed for Elizabeth I acted out the Greek myth, "The Judgment of Paris" where three goddesses (Athena, Aphrodite and Hera) fight over a golden apple whereby the true owner of the apple would be decreed to be the most beautiful. In the masque, of course, the recipient of the apple was the queen, as "she was more beautiful than all the goddesses."
Milton's masque was a story with a beginning, middle and end and considered to be more of what Aristotle deemed to be drama, but according to many, in particular Ben Johnson,"as a drama it is insufficient." It was considered too slight to be a real drama and the plot is rather patchy and contrived in various places. I found it to be so, when I first began reading it. However, just to defend Milton somewhat in that regard, he wrote this masque for the Bridgewater family and their children; it was not presented at court. It is a silly little piece about two brothers who leave their fatigued sister in the woods to gather some berries to help her rally. However, they get lost in their wanderings and the young maiden is left to the mercy of the woods. A magical figure comes upon her, Comus, who is the Greek god of revelry, but here Milton additionally makes him the son of Circe and Bacchus; he has his mother's art of transforming people into animals and his father's penchant for partying. The villain tries to take advantage of the pure and chaste maiden. As I said, the plot is rather simplistic in nature.
More importantly however, is the fact that while the plot may be poorly constructed or even frivolous at times, like Shakespeare, it is the beauty of the language that makes it such a powerful and engaging piece of literature. Milton has the ability to write on many levels at the same time, his use of metaphor and the lyricism of his poetry is ultimately what made me fall in love with this slight book. It is thin, but the spelling, grammar and early modern word usage proves a bit daunting. There may be plain English versions of this book, but I would suggest you take the time to read it as it was originally written; it is worth the effort. There are annotated versions that will help you with obscure and archaic references and you will still be able to read the original text; it is only about 60/65 pages.
I hope you love it as much as I did.