May 28, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Last week, I discussed the character of Pericles from Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre. This week, I will continue to explore Shakespeare’s play, but focus on Marina, Pericles’s daughter, as compared to the Lady from John Milton’s “Comus.” Both of these characters demonstrate virtue in a special way. These female characters are steady, self-regulating, untroubled souls. In “Comus” the audience knows that virtue will win and feels strongly attached to the happy ending. In Shakespeare, however, endings are often complicated. Furthermore, Shakesperean characters contain both heroic traits and weak traits. Take, Falstaff, for instance, who is known to be a rascal, and yet, we love him despite his faults. Here, however, both Shakespeare’s Marina and Milton’s Lady remain unchanged and spotless in pure pursuit of virtue. In fact, they often improve and inspire other characters for the better.
In Shakespeare’s play, Pericles must leave Marina to be raised by King Cleon and Dionyza. For seventeen years, they raise and educate her. However, Gower (the narrator) tells the audience that Dionyza’s ambition for her own daughter begins to turn her against Marina. In the prologue to Act IV, Gower says,
All praises, which are paid as debts,
And not as given. This so darks
In Philoten all graceful marks,
That Cleon’s wife, with envy rare,
A present murderer does prepare
For good Marina, that her daughter
Might stand peerless by this slaughter.”
In other words, Dionyza plots Marina’s death so that she can no longer outshine her own daughter. Marina, however, escapes this death and is instead captured by pirates who sell her to a brothel. In this quick turn of events, she seems doomed to the life of a prostitute. Marina ruins this scheme, however, relying on her virtue to protect her purity. Moreover, when the local governor visits the brothel, Marina makes him see his own errors. He leaves by saying,
“For me, be you thoughten
That I came with no ill intent; for to me
The very doors and windows savour vilely.
Fare thee well. Thou art a piece of virtue, and
I doubt not but thy training hath been noble.
Hold, here’s more gold for thee.
A curse upon him, die he like a thief,
That robs thee of thy goodness! If thou dost
Hear from me, it shall be for thy good.” (IV, vi, 116-123)
So, the daughter of Pericles literally improves people by virtue of her virtue. Her rare purity remains untainted through the application of a pure will, by gods, or by whatever magic is true of virtue.
Likewise, the Lady in Milton’s “Comus” is divinely united with virtue. The poem* begins with the thought that many men think of earthly pleasures and other such silly thoughts, “Unmindful of the crown that Vertue gives” (line 33). From the first, then, Milton frames virtue as the hero. We know, therefore, that virtue will win in the end, but the poem elaborates on virtue’s strengths.
We meet the Lady at dusk in the woods, separated from her two brothers. The local spirit of the wood sees her in distress, trapped by Comus (the son of Bacchus and Circe). Stuck in an enchanted chair in Comus’s palace, Lady deftly avoids his evil advances. Though she is trapped and the local Spirit remains concerned, her older brother knows the strength of virtue. He says,
“this I hold firm,
Vertue may be assail’d, but never hurt,
Surpriz’d by unjust force, but not enthrall’d,
Yea even that which mischief meant most harm,
Shall in the happy trial prove most glory.
But evil on it self shall back recoyl,
And mix no more with goodness, when at last
Gather’d like scum, and setl’d to it self
It shall be in eternal restless change
Self-fed, and self-consum’d, if this fail,
The pillar’d firmament is rott’nness,
And earths base built on stubble.” (lines 588-599)
The Elder Brother demonstrates unwavering faith in virtue and tells the Second Brother to put more faith in hope than in fear. He proves to be correct as Lady remains steadfast in her opposition to Comus’s advances. She says, “Thou canst not touch the freedom of my minde/ With all thy charms” (line 664). Furthermore, she fights against Comus with the “Sun-clad power of Chastity” (line 782). She continues to scoff at Comus:
“Enjoy your deer Wit, and gay Rhetorick
That hath so well been taught her dazling fence,
Thou art not fit to hear thy self convinc’t;
Yet should I try, the uncontrouled worth
Of this pure cause would kindle my rap’t spirits
To such a flame of sacred vehemence,
That dumb things would be mov’d to sympathize,
And the brute Earth would lend her nerves, and shake,
Till all thy magick structures rear’d so high,
Were shatter’d into heaps o’re thy false head.” (lines 790-799)
Comus realizes that the power of this mortal might be stronger than his (the son of a god) and he begins to incorporate even more deceptions. At this point, her brothers arrive with the local Spirit. With the help of another spirit, Lady is freed and virtue reigns supreme.
Though these women are put in awful circumstances, their will is never tested. Seemingly one with virtue, they never waver. It would be interesting to compare these women with someone like “Curious Laura” from Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” who falls prey to the Goblin’s tricks, or her sister Lizzie, who seeks to rescue Laura.
*Though “Comus” has been referred to in many different forms, such as a drama, epic, play, etc., I refer to it as a “poem” for the sake of brevity and clarity.
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