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Anonymous Milton, or, A Maske Masked

From: ELH
Volume 71, Number 3, Fall 2004
pp. 609-629 | 10.1353/elh.2004.0036

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ELH 71.3 (2004) 609-629

Ann Baynes Coiro

Rutgers University

Reacting against older bibliographic theories devoted to single authorship and a stable authorial text, theater historians have recently focused on the wide range of collaboration that theater necessitates, including collaborative authorship, revisions in performance, actors' memorial texts, and publishers' reinterpretation of drama as a print commodity. There are few instances in early modern theater history where such rich detail survives about a play's progress from performance to print as survives for Milton's masque. Early modern drama's historians, however, have neglected this story because Milton is not regarded as a dramatist, and critics have transmogrified the masque into a Miltonic poem. Milton's success in constructing himself as English literature's great, solitary author whose career, even its necessary interruptions, forms an overarching plan of vatic power has also obscured the involved history of the masque. Yet Milton's theatrical involvements at Cambridge, the masque's theatrical identity, and the masque's material existence as a printed book all tell a counterintuitive story—collaborative, theatrical, and historically and culturally embedded.

In the eighteenth century, A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle was adapted for the professional stage, with the addition of lots of sexy temptation scenes and fun fairies. Retitled Comus, it was performed with brilliant success, becoming a staple of the theater for more than a hundred years. Oddly, this stagy title is the title we use to read the piece as a poem. Since, however, my concern here will be with its early history, I will use the title Milton used with close variations in the text's many manifestations during his lifetime, a title which itself insists on social connections and on performance.

A Maske existed, first, as a script for an aristocratic family's celebration, the result of Milton's collaboration with Henry Lawes, court musician to Charles I. Lawes almost certainly got Milton the commission; he wrote the music for the masque's songs, rehearsed the Egerton children in their difficult roles, staged the piece at Ludlow Castle, making significant revisions under the exigencies of performance, and, finally, performed a major role himself. Milton was asked to write a theatrical performance of a kind associated exclusively with the monarch and aristocracy and, by many, with their financial and sexual excesses. A poetic career rather than a life in the ministry or the law would have meant, in the early 1630s, being supported by patronage and writing within the constraints and obligations such a supported life entailed. By accepting the commission from the Egerton family he stood at the threshold of a life of literary service and artistic collaboration that seems to us now to be utterly inimical to our sense of Milton's career, but that then must have been the life he could see himself beginning.

The textual history of A Maske is dauntingly complex. Milton worked on the masque in the Trinity College MS, returning to edit it on numerous occasions; the result is a rich editorial puzzle of various inks and pen nibs that has prompted unresolvable but fascinating speculation about chronology and intention. But we also have a presentation manuscript to the Egerton family, known as the Bridgewater MS, that was apparently copied from the working script of the actual performance in 1634. We know, therefore, that 115 lines were cut for performance and that speeches were rearranged and reassigned. Theories about the motivations behind the cuts (and the author of them) have played important roles in, for example, the ongoing controversy about the effect of the Castlehaven scandal on the masque's conception. In 1645 A Maske is the final English piece in Milton's Poems, where he has restored it to the Trinity MS version, with the addition of the lady's speech on "the Sun-clad power of Chastity" and Comus's lines in response, which begin "She fables not." According to longstanding critical consensus, A Maske becomes a poem in the Poems, a keystone in the careful presentation of John Milton, Author.

There is one stage in this otherwise oft-told story that has received little attention—the anonymous publication of A Maske in 1637...



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