Milton's Satan in Paradise Lost

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Critics abroad have argued about who the hero is of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost:” Satan, Adam or Christ, the Son? Since Milton’s overall theme stated in the opening lines of Book I is to relate ‘Man’s first disobedience’ and to ‘justify the ways of God to men’, Adam must be regarded as the main hero. John M. Steadman supports this view in an essay on “Paradise Lost:” “It is Adam’s action which constitutes the argument of the epic.” Steadman continues: The Son and Satan embody heroic archetypes and that, through the interplay of the infernal and celestial strategies, Milton represents Satan’s plot against man and Christ’s resolution to save him as heroic enterprises. Christ and Satan are therefore epic machines. (268-272) Although Satan may be an epic machine, he is best portrayed as the tragic anti-hero of “Paradise Lost” or, at the very least, a main character who possesses the stature and attributes which enable him to achieve tragic status. In the Greek tradition, the essential components of tragedy are admiration, fear and pity for the ‘hero’, who has to display a tragic weakness or flaw in his character, which will lead to his downfall. It might be argued that the flaws in Satan’s character are such that we should feel no admiration, fear or pity for him, yet he can be seen to inspire these emotions. Satan’s tragic flaws are pointed out in Book I. They are envy, pride, and ambition towards self-glorification. Satan’s pride, in particular, is stressed throughout Paradise Lost. In accordance with epic convention, Satan is frequently qualified by Milton’s use of the word ‘proud’. Virgil used the same device in his epic the Aeneid, in which the name of Aeneas rarely appears without being preceded by ‘pious’. The most striking visual example of Satan’s main weaknesses appears in Book IV (89-90) during Raphael’s narrative to Adam regarding the battles in Heaven, Raphael refers to Satan as ‘the proud/Aspirer’. ‘Proud’ at the end of one line and ‘Aspirer’ at the beginning of the next gives equal emphasis and impact to Satan’s pride and ambition and it is implied that, in Satan, the two characters are inseparable and of equal importance. Milton, in fact, defended his use of blank verse as a suitable vehicle for epic poetry, as opposed to the frequently favored heroic couplet. How then, does Satan inspire the feelings of admiration, fear and pity necessary to a tragic figure? Milton was, undoubtedly, conscious that he was in danger of portraying Satan as too much of a heroic figure and made efforts to belittle him through the use of unflattering imagery, and by highlighting his less complimentary characteristics. Nonetheless, our emotions are still fired. Our first encounter with Satan and his rebel hosts occurs in Book I when they are recovering from the shock of having been expelled from heaven by the Son after three days of fighting the angels of God. Despite the defeat he has suffered, Satan gains our admiration by displaying resilience in quickly coming to terms with the change in his circumstances, in remustering his forces and organizing the building of his palace, Pandemonium. At the same time he demonstrates his determination not to be defeated and shows true qualities of leadership, persuasively arguing that there is still hope for battle and victory. Satan is convincing in his first speech to Beelzebub, his chief partner in crime, as he declares: What though the field be lost? All is not lost; the unconquerable will, And study of revenge, immortal hate, And courage never to submit or yield: And what is else not to be overcome? That glory never shall his wrath or might Extort from me. (I. 105-111) The language here is particularly powerful and the lines are extremely weighted, underlining Satan’s resolution. He similarly instills renewed resolve in his followers to challenge God and hope of regaining their former state, claiming that they are now better placed to contend because there is not fear of division in their...
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