Throughout this essay I shall refer to Milton’s poem by its more popular name, Comus, even though Milton called it A mask Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634; its better-known, though un-Miltonic, title Comus was first used about a hundred years later. Generally I shall be using the French—the preferred—spelling “masque” to refer to the genre.


See, for example, Douglas Bush’s helpful comments on Ovid in the Middle Ages (Mythology and the Renaissance Tradition, pp.8-16), especially on the medieval tendency to allegorize Ovid (pp.11-16). Bush notes the special importance of the anonymous  Ovide moralisé [‘moralized Ovid’], the “immense reworking of  the Metamorphoses” that appeared “somewhere around the end of the thirteenth century. No tale was too sensuous and pagan to yield its quota of theological and moral lessons, not to mention other kinds” (p.14). As for the poet of the Metamorphoses, “the religious and moral and other lessons embodied in the Ovide moralisé would have made Ovid stare and gasp” (p.15).


Ulysses (Ulixes) was the Latin name for Odysseus, but for the sake of consistency I will use the Greek name throughout, even though Milton tends to use the Latin form.


Natalis Comes, a major Renaissance mythographer, interprets Circe in this way: “In  …Comes’ very well-known Mythologiae (1551,  much expanded in 1581)  Circe in the Odyssey is allegorized as libido or lust; the struggle between her and Odysseus as that between natural impulse and reason,…”  (Moseley, p.186).


All references to Milton, including translations from the Latin, are to the edition by Merritt Y. Hughes.


Dionysus and Bacchus, originally two separate divinities, eventually merged. Ancient Greek comedy and Greek tragedy were initially presented in an annual competition at a festival to celebrate Dionysus.


The OED cites several examples of “savage” (again without the L) from  Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained as  well.


See Steadman’s scholarly investigation of the various interpretations in his article “Milton’s Haemony: Etymology and Allegory.”


See the excellent, thought-provoking articles by Rosemary Karmelich Mundhenk,  “Dark Scandal and the Sun-Clad Power of Chastity: The Historical Milieu of Milton’s Comus,” pp.142-145, 148-149 , and Catherine Thomas, “Chaste Bodies and Poisonous Desires,…” especially p.442. Mundhenk’s  and Thomas’ notes list other useful sources for the interested reader. See also the shrewd comments by C.W.R.D. Moseley, “The Unpolluted Temple of the Mind,” pp.173-174. For a fascinating account of another contemporary event to which Milton may be alluding, see Leah S. Marcus, “Justice for Margery Evans: A ‘Local’ Reading of Comus,” about the alleged rape of an illiterate 14-year-old female servant near the Welsh border (1631). Sir John Egerton was involved as chief investigator, as well as chief pursuer of justice, in the case.


Recent scholarship has questioned some of the “facts” in the Castlehaven scandal, especially some of the charges against the Earl of Castlehaven. See, for example, Stephen Orgel, “The Case for Comus,” pp.33-34, 43.


References to The Faerie Queene are to the Penguin edition of Roche and O’Donnell.


Some editors (for example, Kerrigan et al., p.73, note to line 253, and Revard, p.96, note 43) point out that in William Browne’s early-17th-century Inner Temple Masque two Sirens are attendants of Circe. In line 254 Kerrigan et al., Revard, and Roy Flannagan, in their respective editions of Milton, prefer “kirtl’d” or “kirtled” [‘wrapped in flowers’] to Hughes’ reading, “kirld.” 


See, for example, Hughes, p.109, note to line 816; Flannagan, p.160, notes 522 and 523; Kerrigan et al., p.91, note to line 816; Revard, p.113, note 96. Kerrigan et al. point out that in George Sandys’ 1632 edition of Ovid he “identified the wand with ‘sinister persuasions to pleasure’ and the reversed wand with ‘discipline, and a view of their own deformity.’ ”  Flannagan has a somewhat different interpretation of the Miltonic phrase “backward mutters of dissevering power.”  The Odyssey does not include this detail about Circe’s reversal of her wand.


It is well established that the concept of the antimasque was developed, though not invented, by Ben Jonson into a major feature of the masque. See Stephen Orgel, The Jonsonian Masque,  pp. 14, 35, 72-73, 93, 148.

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