Milton and Chastity

This past week, I spent
some time reading Milton’s A Masque at Ludlow, often referred to as Milton’s
Comus. The Masque, or short play, was written for John Egerton, and largely
focuses on the virtues of chastity. Some background–Comus is about the Lady
and her two brothers who lose their way in the woods. The Lady becomes quite
tired and her brothers seek food, leaving her alone. While the Lady is alone,
she meets a being disguised as a villager who promises to reunite her with her
brothers, and she willfully follows him. But this being, Comus, captures her
and uses methods of persuasion to entice her to drink from his magical
cup–urging her to cease being coy and to embrace sexual pleasure. The Lady
consistently rebukes Comus’ advances, and argues for the virtues of temperance
and chastity. The Masque continues when her brothers return with the Attendant
Spirit, an almost angelic figure, who saves the Lady from Comus.

What are we to take away
from Comus? First, I want to make a concession: thinking about the role of
chastity in Milton’s Comus seems to be an issue of much debate amongst scholars
far more learned than I. But, Milton does seem to hit on something that’s true
to my experience. When people talk about chastity, they often see it as
limiting one’s ability to make choices (which people often conceive of as
freedom). Aside from reasons to doubt that this is a useful definition of
freedom, Milton shows us just the opposite: the Lady’s temperance and chastity
are liberating, as we’re reminded with the final lines of the piece:


Love Virtue, she alone is

She can teach ye how to

Higher than the sphery

Or, if Virtue feeble were,

Heaven itself would stoop to her.