Masques were a favourite court celebration dating from at least the reign of Elizabeth I, but became very popular under the Stuarts. The main parts were often played by courtiers, nobles and sometimes even the royals. In fact, Caroline masques (of which Comus is an example) frequently featured the King and Queen (Henrietta Maria), as they were far more interested in becoming involved than King James and his queen Anne had been.
This masque was not performed at the court, however, but at the home of Lord Bridgewater, Ludlow Castle. It was commissioned to celebrate the appointment of Lord Bridgewater to the post of Lord President of Wales. References to this are clearly evident in the text, such as the Attendant Spirit's reference to the children's father's "new-entrusted sceptre" in his opening speech.
Bridgewater's own children were the principal actors in this masque. The Puritan Milton's use of the genre, however, may be seen as an attempt for him to "reclaim" masque, which were associated with the perceived debauchery of the royal court, for godly or virtuous purposes. Rather than praising an aristocrat, the famous concluding lines of the masque, recited by the Attendant Spirit, urge
- Mortals that would follow me,
- Love virtue, she alone is free,
- She can teach ye how to climb
- Higher than the Sphery chime;
- Or if Virtue feeble were,
- Heav'n itself would stoop to her (ll. 1018–1023).
Comus was influenced by a prior masque, Aurelian Townshend's Tempe Restored, which had been staged at Whitehall Palace in London in February 1632. Both Henry Lawes and Alice Egerton, the Earl's daughter who played the Lady, had performed in Townshend's masque.
Milton's title for the masque was not Comus (this was imposed later by scholars), but A Mask, Presented at Ludlow Castle. Creaser notes that it had become old-fashioned by the 1630s to use an occasional title such as this (consider other masque titles of the time such as Carew's Coelum Britanicum and Tempe Restored, etc.) This shows that Milton wanted to specifically draw attention to his work as a masque, asking the reader to hold in their minds all that this signified, as he consciously used and twisted the conventions of the genre to put across his particular message. For example, his audience would have been expecting, based on other masques of this time, that the antimasque would be dispelled by virtue (usually embodied by the King and Queen). Yet in Comus the Lady's virtue is not enough to save her: she is unable to dismiss Comus on her own. Even the heroic virtue of her brothers is not enough. Comus escapes rather than actually being defeated.
Many have read the intervention of Sabrina as divine assistance being sent, showing that earthly virtue is relatively weak, and certainly not worthy of the exaltation given it in contemporary masques. Barbara Lewalski comments that the character of Sabrina was apparently not played by a noble, but by one of the actors (we can assume this because no-one is listed as playing this character in the dramatis personae), so it is actually a commoner who holds the position of most power.