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Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost

Milton in his Paradise Lost narrates the poetical story of the fall of Satan along with his followers as well as mankind. As regards to this, many critics affirm Satan as the tragic hero of the epic poem. Satan is no doubt the chief character throughout the poem, but he cannot be declared necessarily the hero. Satan’s main purpose is to fight God, and try to be on the same level as Him. The important thing is to realize that Satan is sin, and being humans, who are all born into sin, we can easily relate to a sinful character. God is holy and perfect. This is something which we, being fallible humans, cannot begin to comprehend.

Satan does, at the beginning, follow many of the attributes which coincide with Aristotle’s definition of a tragic hero; however, after the first few Books, Satan looses his status as a tragic hero rather rapidly. Along with this, Satan’s thoughts parallel the idea of “Evil, be thou my good,” (Book IV, Line 110) which is the opposite of what God intends. In order to attempt to discern if Satan is a tragic hero, his character must fit a certain profile. According to Aristotle’s theory, the tragic hero has the potential to be great, but is doomed to fail.

The tragic hero, although fallen, still wins a moral victory. The general characteristics follow that the tragic hero is a noble, is responsible for their fate, contains a tragic flaw, and is doomed to make a severe error in judgment. Eventually, the tragic hero falls from a high status, realizes the mistake that was made, faces and accepts their death, and finally ends in a tragic death. It is important to state that, in all tragic heroes, the audience is affected by fear and/or pity. In Paradise Lost, the reader is easily able to relate to Satan, even pity him at some points, especially in the opening books.

When viewing the character Satan, it is obvious that he possesses great leadership skills and the ability to achieve greatness; however, his prideful and sinful faults will get in his way. (Steadman, 69) Although Satan and his followers have been cast out of Heaven, Satan still maintains hope and courage. He states, Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell Receive thy new possessor: one who brings A mind not to be changed by place or time… 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… ” (Book I.

Lines 251-253, 258-262) Satan encourages his followers and reminds them of their original cause. He shows great leadership skills by re-emphasizing their ideas that at least when they are reigning in Hell, God doesn’t interfere, and although it is Hell it is still worth ruling rather than serving in Heaven. Satan is dwelling on his power which could be seen as his tragic flaw. He is allowing his pride and ego to surface by glorifying Hell and declaring himself in possession of Hell. He starts to think of the idea of Heaven and Hell as a mindset. He starts to believe that the mind is what creates a place as Heaven and a place as Hell.

Satan feels as though Heaven is Hell because he must serve God there, but in Hell, he has a true Heaven because he is served and worshipped. This could be determined as his tragic flaw. In Book I, Satan is certainly the central character; it is obvious that he possesses qualities which could lead him to greatness, but, the reader also realizes that Satan is doomed to fail. Satan gathers his troops together, as a good leader would, and raises their spirits. The reader gets another glimpse into the idea of Satan as a possible tragic hero, Signs of remorse and passion to behold The fellows of his crime, the followers…

For ever now to have their lot in pain, … yet faithful how they stood, … He now prepared To speak… Tears such as angels weep, burst forth: at last Words interwove with sighs found out their way. (Book I Lines 605-606, 608, 611, 615-616, 620-621) In this quote it is important to note that Satan is showing signs of true emotion through his tears and remorse for his crimes. He is feeling responsible for the painful fate of not only himself, but also, of all of his followers. This is another example of Satan revealing characteristics of a tragic hero because of his willingness to take responsibility.

However, as the epic poem continues on, Satan becomes a more and more complex character. In Book IV, the character of Satan is beginning to develop further. He realizes his evil deeds, considers repenting, but ultimately decides to continue on his sinful path. He states, … 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 What could be less than to afford him praise? … and pay him thanks (Book I Lines 40-44, 46) Satan, in this passage, comes to an awareness of his actions.

He battled against God, his creator, who loved him and only asked service in return. Satan is realizing that God did not deserve the actions which Satan and his followers committed. He is beginning to realize his mistake which brings him into another characteristic of being a tragic hero. Satan, in the above verse, is recalling how he was highly favored by God. Satan continues on with, … the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n… … is there no place Left for repentance, none for pardon left? None left but by submission… But say I could repent and could obtain By act of grace my former state…

For never can true reconcilement grow Where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep… Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost; Evil be thou my good… (Lines IV 78, 79-81, 93-94, 98-99, 109-110) This is Satan’s major soliloquy where he attains several aspects of a tragic hero while at the same time turning away from the characteristics which fit a tragic hero. First, Satan reminds himself that he has made a serious mistake; he begins to wonder about repentance, but accepts that it cannot occur. At this same point, he veers off of being a tragic hero because, at his realization, he embraces sin and evil.

Satan takes comfort in his situation because he can be in control of Hell, and not have to serve God in Heaven. He is beginning to truly develop as a character and become rather complex. He has characteristics which could place him as a tragic hero, perhaps somewhat as a protagonist as well; however, he has faults which do not align with the traditional Aristotelian ideas of a tragic hero. As Book IV progresses, Satan truly embraces his evil nature. He appears to desire to bring others to the same desolate, melancholy state he is in. Upon looking at Adam and Eve Satan states, Ah gentle pair, ye little think how nigh.

Your change approaches, when all these delights Will vanish and deliver ye to woe, More woe, the more your taste is now of joy… (Book IV Lines 366-369) Satan’s anger and perhaps jealousy appears again. He is like an animal waiting to pounce upon his prey. It seems as though Satan merely wishes to cause chaos and disturb the beautiful, peaceful world that God created. He has simply ceased to be a tragic hero, and is becoming more of an antagonistic character. His desire to stir up evil and sin negates any sympathy or pity the reader once had for him. Satan’s sole purpose seems to be to anger God and disrupt any beauty that He creates.

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