The relationship between civilisation and barbarity is an eminent theme in the works of antiquity, whose civilisations concerned themselves with eschewing the improper mores of the barbarous. Whether it was the savant Greeks, cosmopolitan Romans, or ascetic early Christians, barbarous behaviour was considered odious, and their supposed superiority to brutes was a source of pride. But these themes, whilst contrastive, aren't categorical; rather, they're amorphous ideas, shaped by an author's use of them in the text. This essay will examine the variance in the relationships between civility and barbarity in Milton's "Comus", and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (abbreviated to Titus), thus establishing how these themes are malleable ones that the author can manipulate in the text. To begin, I'll establish the versions of civility and barbarity found in these texts, then I'll examine the texts apropos to several other topics, which shall further define and contrast their relationships between civility and barbarity.
In "Comus", Milton's encomium of John Egerton, barbarity is the manifestation of moral decay rather than a state of being conferred by instinct, or low birth. As one's fall into depravity is a volitional lapse, Comus must inveigle Lady into supping his potion, as he cannot foist the eldritch philtre upon her: "Be wise and taste."1 (p.65). St. Augustine propounds similar ideas regarding the voluntary aspect of corruption in City of God, which shall be addressed in relation to both texts at a later point. In a statement concatenating "Comus" and sacrilege, Achsah Guibbory writes: "Milton presents Comus' courtly revels as a false religion"2. Milton limns Comus akin to Satan in "Comus", as neither can impel the soul, and must deceive the mind and subdue the body to garner acolytes. However, if Lady and Comus represent a re-enactment of Satan's perversion of humanity, as "...'Comus' has temptation at the centre of it"3, Lady possesses boons which were absent during Eve's temptation. Christ's passion, symbolised by the "enchanted chair" (p.61), empowers Lady, and the heavenly gift of virtue vouchsafes her soul, affording her the poise to pose rejoinders which sap the Bacchanalian sorcerer's confidence (p.65).
Heaven is lauded as the acme of civilisation, and that which we should aspire to in "Comus" - even the Attendant Spirit, whose diaphanous abode lies "...where the bowed welkin slow doth bend"(p.71), and not the empyrean sphere. This insinuates that man's path to paradise requires spiritual virtue, which "...heaven itself would stoop to..."(p.71). This patent showing of human imperfection diverges from the tone of the masque, which traditionally extolled a monarch or nobleman through pomp and revelry. Milton subverts this classical form by condemning debauchery, and proffering an earnest commendation of virtue; even requesting an abeyance in festivities to do so (p.69).
Adumbrating Shakespeare's use of Roman imagery to influence the...