Satan As The Most Well-developed Character In Paradise Lost

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

Satan is the most heroic subject that was ever chosen for a poem, and the execution is as perfect as the design is lofty. He was the first of the created beings, who, for endeavouring to be equal with the highest, and to divide the empire of Heaven, was hauled down to hell. It is only in the first two books of Paradise Lost that Satan seems heroic. There is grandeur but no heroism in his later soliloquies. After seducing Eve, he retreats to Hell leaving the world to his agents, Sin and Death. There is no doubt that Milton wanted to degrade him step by step, down to the scene of his second and involuntary appearance in serpent form in Book X. For centuries, critics believed that the pure allegory of Sin and Death was a blemish to the epic poem. Recently however, they wonder whether it is part of the structural irony of the entire design. Satan, Sin and Death are therefore now viewed as a parody to the Holy Trinity in Heaven. Some critics see Satan as a dramatic failure and a hopelessly inconsistent personality. His character does not degenerate; it is degraded and he constantly misses his opportunities for tragedy. This criticism however falls flat when we think of Satan’s shrewd consistent play on Eve’s vanity in the two temptation scenes. A different view regards Satan as a great opportunist, putty to be mould by the changing circumstances, constant only to his resolve in Book I — “out of good still to find means of evil.” This view of Satan is actually more historical than it is critical. For Milton’s contemporaries of the 17th century, Satan was simply an adversary, “an enemy that is in courage most hardy, in strength most mighty.” In poetry and in life alike, he was the father of lies and that was his main character.

Yet, he was also courageous and “in skill of war most ready” — we see him fighting despite his wounds, like Hector, through the three days of battle in Heaven. With the odds against him, he struggles and wins our profoundest sympathy and admiration. Satan shows a noble and virtuous energy in rousing himself from the fiery lake and inspiring his fellows with his own desire for action. Milton allows to Satan the grandest of all virtues, courage and perseverance, the root virtues without which no virtue can flourish. Although for a bad cause, madness does not make it any less courageous. So, Satan’s archangelic strength and the taunts by which he arouses his dejected followers culminate in the serpent’s “awake, arise or be forever fallen”. He may have lost the battle, but not the war, and the flaming defiance of his spirit remains unconquered. In “justifying the ways of God to men”, Milton believed in the existence of the Author of Evil — a negation of good, produced solely by pride, and Satan was portrayed as vaunting his proud will and denouncing the physicality of Heaven: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n”. In the end however, the artist in Milton fails to portray Satan as two dimensional. Over the years, Satanists celebrate Satan’s courage in his mutiny — Shelley thinks him a Promethean evangelist of human regeneration and Byron, an inspiring metaphor of revolution against political tyranny.

Satan is proud and sensually indulgent. He exhibits all the restlessness and cunning that marked the greatest minds of mankind, from Nimrod to Napoleon. These great men act from the same great motive that Milton pronounced in his Satan, the “intense selfishness, the alcohol of egotism” that would rather “reign in Hell then serve in Heav’n”. But around this character, he also threw a “singularity of daring, a grandeur of sufferance, a ruined splendour that constitutes the very height of poetic sublimity”. Having introduced Satan as an infernal serpent Milton immediately sets before us the ambiguity of Satan’s role as Man’s tempter and the adversary of God. He acted by guile, the coward’s way and was stirred up by envy, the barest and the most despicable of the Seven Deadly Sins. However, he was also stirred by revenge, an old heroic motive. The infernal serpent consumed by a bitter energy thus begins to fade into the proud leader of the rebel angels. While, the aim of the rebellion was not fighting for liberty and just rights but personal dominion and glory, the war in heaven was “battled proud” and glorious. Satan comes before us invested with grandeur of “battles magnificently stern array” and the “pride, pomp and circumstances of a glorious war.”

We know from the very beginning that Satan is a doomed figure. Milton’s treatment of him would have been different if he could not rely upon our recognition of that. He can give Satan all the splendour and tragic beauty of an archangel ruined, as he can make him the most beautiful of all serpents. In the end, Satan is but a fool who absurdly believes he can stand against God when all he does is by God’s commission. His malice only serves to bring forth more goodness, more glory to God and more goodwill towards Man. Satan’s “monomaniac concern” with himself necessitates the Satanic predicament. The same is true of the great tragic heroes of Shakespeare and what makes them the heroes of their plays. In presenting Satan Milton writes as a tragic artist, exploring to maximum intensity the idea of exclusion. Wherever he goes, whatever he looks at, Satan is perpetually conscious of this. His exclusion is self-willed, like that of Faustus or Macbeth. Like them he gazes on a Heaven he cannot enter, is deformed and remains only in the memory as just tragic. If it can be accepted that Satan, as he is conceived and presented to us, is a tragic figure, our final impression of him, is the image of enormous pain and eternal loss.

Works Cited

  1. Calvin, John. The Institution of Christian Religion. Translated by Thomas Norton, London, 1578, Print.
  2. Fernie, Ewan. The Demonic: Literature and Experiece. Routledge, 2013, London, Print.
  3. Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. Oxford University Press, 1942, London, Print.
  4. Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Edited by F.T. Prince, Oxford University Press, London, 1962, Print.
  5. Milton: A Selection of Critical Essays. Edited by Alan Rudrum, Macmillan, 1968. Print.


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