Given the magnanimity and vigour of Satan’s character in Paradise Lost, there has been a lot of speculation regarding Milton’s portrayal of him. Being a Puritan, Milton does not vindicate or support Satan’s rebellion against God. In the eyes of Milton, Satan is anti-God because he has rebelled against God’s supremacy by challenging the latter’s authority. Hence no Puritan Christian can ever tolerate this kind of rebellion or anti-God attitude of Satan.
20th Century critics (J.B. Broadbent’s, ‘The Graver Subjects,’ Professor Helen Gardner’s, ‘Reading of Paradise Lost’ and Professor Tillyard’s, ‘John Milton’) have pointed out that Milton’s representation of Satan in Book IV in particular of Paradise Lost is an account of “progressive degeneration” (Gardner). From Books I to XII, Paradise Lost continues to portray the gradual, progressive and successive degeneration or degradation in the character and attitude of Satan.
In Book I, Satan is the leader of the fallen angels. He is bold and unhesitant. He attempts to inspire the other angels to rise against God in a rebellion. He also attempts to explore the new region created by God (the Garden of Eden) and its new inhabitants (Adam and Eve). As we progress, we find that the entire development amounts to a gradual degeneration – from the bold Archangel in Book I he is transformed into or advances to a state of secret spy on an espionage service in Book IV.
From the spy he transforms himself into a voyeuristic entity (more like “a peeping Tom”) which looks into the intimate moments in the life of Adam and Eve. From that state, he passes on to a state of becoming an ugly toad, whispering his venomous words into the ears of a sleeping Eve. Again from this, he is transformed into a snake in Book IX tempting Eve to taste the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Lastly from this state of a serpent, he turns out to be an eternal sinner without any hope of redemption.
The romantic critics with their romantic ideology have attempted, however, to romanticise Satan. For instance, Coleridge’s observation regarding Satan’s portrayal in Miscellaneous Criticism, Lecture No.10, delivered in 1818 says-
“The character of Satan is Pride and sensual indulgence. Milton has carefully appropriated to his Satan the intense selfishness, the alcohol of egotism which would rather rain in Hell than serve in Heaven. But around this character, Milton has invested a singularity of boldness, a grandeur of sufferance, and a ruined splendour which constitute the very height of poetic sublimity.”
Another romanticist, P.B Shelley, in his ‘A Defense of Poetry’ remarks:
“Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. Milton’s Devil as a moral being is far superior to his God.”
Thus Coleridge and Shelley have romanticised partially the figure of Satan because in their eyes, Satan personifies the spirit of rebellion against the established authority of God. The romantic critics with their revolutionary ideas and ideologies have not hesitated to idealise or romanticise the figure of Satan.
But the 20th Century views have been supported by Stanley Fish, one of the early 21st Century critics on Milton.
Thus one can conclude by saying that despite presenting Satan in Paradise Lost as a powerful, bold figure with magnificence and power, Milton has never been sympathetic with Satan.
By Fatema Chakkiwala