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John Milton Essay

1129 words - 5 pages

Satan, as a character, has been satirized, mocked and made foolish in our modern world. John Milton, however, presents quite a different Satan from the devil-on-your-shoulder image people are used to seeing. In Paradise Lost, Milton draws on the Bible for his source of Satan’s character, thereby creating a horrifyingly corrupt Satan. Despite this portrayal, readers often find themselves sympathizing with Satan’s cause, and his determination, viewing him as a hero for his cause, as evidenced by his long, brave speeches. Later, however Satan’s speeches begin to show signs of regret, making the reader question their initial reaction to him. In the end the image of Satan is further skewed by his own incriminating speech. Thus, the speeches of Satan, which initially draw readers to be supportive of his plight, later reveal his truly destructive character, resulting in the reader disliking Satan more than if he initially presented himself as a coward.

Early on in Paradise Lost, Satan is found in conversation with his right hand man, Beelzebub, plotting another attack on Heaven. In this conversation, Satan establishes himself as a defender of freedom, a role that is attractive to readers. This is demonstrated in his speech in Book 1, where he says, describing Hell:

Here at least We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: Here we may reign secure, and in my choice To reign is worth ambition though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav’n (1.258-263)

Readers admire Satan’s independent attitude, that he feels he would rather be free and reign in Hell, than be under someone else’s authority in Heaven. This speech elevates Satan in the minds of readers to hero status, willing to defend what he believes in, even if it means suffering. His advocacy of freedom gains him reader support, which serves useful later in the poem when Milton uses this perception to highlight Satan’s destructive attitude. Milton is able to do this because it is always worse, and more shocking to see a liked individual reveal himself to be bad, than to always know a bad individual to be bad. Thus, the initial support that Satan gains from readers is designed to alienate him further when his evil side prevails.

As the character of Satan progresses, the reader becomes less willing to accept Satan’s goal of freedom of choice. This is largely due to Satan’s own words regarding his actions. In Book IV Satan is found reflecting on his actions, and wonders if he made the right decision in rebelling against God. He says:

how glorious once above thy sphere; Till pride and worse ambition threw me down Warring in Heav’n against Heav’n’s matchless King: Ah Wherefore! he deserved no such return From me, whom he created what I was In that bright eminence, and with his good Upbraided non, nor was his service hard (4.39-45)

Looking back, Satan sees that his actions against God were not fully justified. He recalls how glorious things...

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