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1. The occasion was that of an important festivity in a great family. So royal accessions, progresses, weddings, and the like, were most
frequently celebrated by a masque. . V 2. Most of the actors in Comus were members
of a noble family. This was usual, and distinguished the masque from the stage-plays performed by professional actors.
3. The long introductory speech by the Attendant Spirit, in which the situation is explained to the audience, represents the prologue which, spoken by a "presenter," was probably the first literary element to attach itself to the original masque dance.
4. At vv. 960 and 974 the words of the Spirit indicate courtly dancing of a different type from that of the rustics that has just taken place. This was doubtiess taken part in by some members of the audience, as such mixed dances had been a feature of masques since the time of Henry VIII. at least.
5. The dance of monsters, introduced by vv. 143, 4, and the country dances referred to in vv. 951 ff. and 958, and indicated by the stage direction at v. 957, are examples of the anti-masque used by Jonson to afford contrast and amusement. The anti-masque was frequently performed by professionals of whose names no records are preserved, and as Comus himself takes part in
the first one at v. 144, we may here have a reason why the name of the performer who acted this role has not been handed down.
6. The mythological element seen, for example, in the character and genealogy of Comus and of Sabrina,had for long been one of the characteristics of the type. The water-nymphs were especially common.
7. Since masques were usually produced in honor of some great personage, it was natural that flattering speeches and complimentary allusions should be prominent in the dialogue. Examples of this are found in Comus in the following passages:
a. To the Earl of Bridgewater, vv. 30-36.
b. To the Bridgewater family, vv. 34, 966 - 975, and more especially to the Lady Alice Egerton, vv. 145-150, 244-264, 366 ff., 555-562, 739 ff., and her brothers, the Viscount Brackley and Mr. Thomas Egerton, vv. 297-303.
c. To Mr. Henry Lawes, the musician, who acted Thyrsis, vv. 494-496.
d. To the Welsh people, who were doubtless · represented in the audience, v. 33.
8. The lyrics, which were added to the original dance very early in the development of the masque, are represented here by the song to Echo, vv. 230-243, the songs to Sabrina, vv. 859-889, and
by Sabrina, vv. 890-900, as well as by the lyrical speeches of the Spirit at the end.
9. A pastoral element appears in the disguise of the Spirit and Comus as shepherds, in the speeches made by them in this character, especially in such passages as vv. 493-496, 540-548, and 822,3, where reference is made to shepherds as devotees of the Muses, and in the dance of shepherds in the second anti-masque. The presence of such features as these in this and other masques has led some critics to confuse the masque in general with the pastoral.' There is not, however, any essential connection between the two types; though the conventions of pastoral poetry occasionally found their way into the masque as they did into other literary forms.
10. The didacticism by which Milton availed himself of a festive occasion to proclaim his belief in the supreme value of purity had precedent in the practice of Jonson. The earnestness and elevation, however, of this part of the work suggest how widely Milton's ideas of the scope and purpose of poetry differed from those of his predecessors in the masque and of his contemporaries · in English poetry generally.
These points describe with some fullness the type of dramatic composition to which Comus belongs. A comparison of this analysis with Milton's
· See especially Macaulay's Essay on Milton.
poem as a whole shows how much its greatness depends on the use he made of the form, how little on. the form itself.
The figure of_Comus, God of Cheer or of the Belly, had appeared in Ben Jonson's masque of my Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue in 1619, but the resemblance to Milton's creation does not go much farther than what is implied in the name.
Much more suggestive as a source is a curious Latin work, written mostly in prose by a Dutchman, Hendrik van der Putten. Comus, sive Phagesi posia Cimmeria: Somnium, as it was called, had been published at Oxford in the year in which Comus was composed. It is “the description of a dream in which Comus, the genius of Love and Cheerfulness, appears to the author, declares himself the lord of the whole wide realm of pleasure, and briefly expounds his idea of life.” In a "wondrous structure, the palace of Comus, . . a feast is celebrated, the guests at which are masked; but those that one takes for men are Daunian and Getulian wolves, dangerous monsters by their bite, hiding their true nature under masks and hypocritical appearances. . ... Comus .... is found at a brilliant table surrounded by all the refinements of luxury. . . . During the feast Comus sings an ode on the mysteries of his worship. ... Then Tabutius, an old man, begins to moralize prolixly. ... The themes which
nus sings an Then Tabutius, The themes
wo brothe Old Wided the likeating, fre.
he handles are drunkenness, excess in eating, fre
quent banquets, ... and the like." 3 In George Peele's Old Wives' Tale (pub. 1595),
there are two brothers searching for a lost sister who has fallen into the power of an enchanter. The enchanter has learned his magic from his witch mother, and exercises it by means of a potion which induces forgetfulness. Finally the enchantment is broken and the lady liberated. It contains also an echo-song, vaguely suggestive of the first lyric in Comus. There is no reason why Milton may not have read this play, and had one or two of its features in mind when he constructed the plot of his masque, but the method of treatment and the whole atmosphere of the two works are so utterly different that it would be a mistake to regard the Old Wives' Tale as in any important sense the original of Comus.
Even less substantial are the resemblances to Fletcher's Faithful Shepherdess. This play, largely imitated from two Italian pastoral dramas, Tasso's Aminta and Guarini's Pastor Fido, is entirely different in plot from Comus, and it has no characters which correspond. The resemblances chiefly consist in the fact that the virtue of chastity is the main theme of both, and in a number of small
1 Masson, Poetical Works of John Milton, Lond. and N. Y., 1894, vol. I, pp. 174-6, abridged from Í. Schmidt's Milton's Comus, Berlin, 1860.