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Character of Satan in Paradise Lost: Hero or a Villain?

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

It has been said by Raleigh that Milton lavished all his power, all his skill and in spite of himself the greater part of his sympathy on the splendid figure of Satan. In Book I of Paradise Lost, Satan appears to be an indomitable fighter against the autocracy of God. He is presented as a heroic figure fighting a relentless battle against the arbitrary act of God for elevating his son above the angels. Milton himself fought against feudal monarchy and defended the execution of Charles I. So Milton put much of himself into the character of Satan and makes him the embodiment of the Renaissance spirit of challenge and adventure.

Soon after the invocation to Book 1, we find Satan fallen in the Lake of Fire. He was overthrown by God from Heaven to Hell because he dared to challenge the supremacy of God:

“…..with ambitious aim

Against the Throne and Monarchy of God

Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battle proud

With vain attempt.”

(II. 41-44)

Yet, Satan is an important personality in the theme of Paradise Lost. He is instrumental to the fall of man from the Paradisal bliss. He remains prominent all through the earlier Books of the epic and appears as the protagonist of the entire action, at least in the opening Book.

From the beginning, Satan is presented as a villain-hero. He is a plotter (the etymological meaning of ‘Satan’). He is like the villain-heroes Marlowe and Shakespeare, ambitious, revengeful, boastful, deceitful cunning and melancholic.

The opening Book presents Satan as the central figure. His fall, humiliation and resolve to wage an uncompromising war against God are presented in the Book. His powerful speeches, five in number, form the assets of the opening Book, and they serve to bear out some typical traits of his character- his iron determination, efficient leadership, heroic spirit and commanding personality.

It is to be noted in this connection that Milton‘s original plan was to write a tragedy on the theme of Paradise Lost. Had he actually written such a drama, he might have made Satan his tragic hero. In fact, in his conception of the tragic character, Milton is found to have invested the arch-fiend with a heroic grandeur, which exclusively belongs to a typical hero of a classical tragedy. Valour, spirit, determination and the power to inspirit and persuade are all the virtues of Satan, and these are all the qualities of a grand tragic hero.

Of course, Milton’s intention in Paradise Lost is not to idealize Satan but his sole project is to disturb and annoy God in whatever way he can.

Satan is definitely an evil force, yet, in Milton’s representation, he is invested with the grandeur of a tragic hero, of course, like a villain-hero, like Macbeth, or a villain-heroine like Medea.

Satan is one of the highest angles in Heaven and the nobility of his station remains even after his humiliating fall among the fallen angels. Something sublime and spirited still shines in him and he exhibits this in his heroic words and resolute spirit. He stands, even after his tragic defeat and fall in hell, like a tower, with a firm determination to retaliate, and not to yield to any pressure or to surrender helplessly to despair. He does not approve Beelzebub’s despondent views and give out a clarion call of inspiration:

“Fall’n Cherub, to be weak is miserable,

Doing or suffering”

This is truly befitting to a grand tragic hero.

Milton’s Satan, as already noted, is a villain-hero, and as such, he derives pity and admiration even in his failing and never appears totally despicable, like Edmund, Goneril, or Regan (in King Lear). He is no timid or cowardly personality, but one who bears a titanic energy and a gigantic will-power. He does not stoop low to think himself inferior to God or to submit to His authority.

Satan’s leadership comes out here, revealing his authority and position among the fallen angels. As an effective leader, he inspires his fallen followers to rise from their state of stupor. Satan’s speech rousing his followers is profoundly ironical. He concludes with a trumpet call:

‘Awake, arise, or be for ever fallen’.

What, however, specifically characterizes Satan is his firm opposition to all forms of domination and subjugation. He champions liberty, denounces slavery and prefers to reign in hell than to servility in heaven.

“Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

Satan’s voice here is against tyranny and oppression and there is nothing evil or villainous in it. He is here an inspiring hero, and not a notorious villain.

Along with his spirit of liberty, Satan possesses a steady determination. He stands out resolutely in his opposition to God. He is, no doubt, overthrown and expelled, but he admits no defeat, allows no despair to overwhelm him, but rather plans to work, with a steady desire, to avenge what he considers God’s injustice and tyranny to his followers and himself. His declaration in unequivocal and echoes his courage and determination.

“What though the field be lost?

All is not lost; the unconquerable will …….”

Satan is an egoist. He is haunted with the sense of his injured merit. This is the cause of his staunch opposition to God. But in his opposition to Him, he does not plan recklessly. His heroic spirit, of course, is not definitely ready to surrender to any threat or tyranny. Nevertheless, he is practical and prudent in his measure and proposes to wage an uncompromising war against God, by force or guile, according to the exigency of the situation.

Milton’s delineation of Satan’s character bears much his instinctive sympathy for his rebellious and uncompromising spirit. In fact, Satan seems to have a self-projection of the poet himself. Milton’s own love for liberty and hate for tyranny are particularly evident in his representation of Satan’s character. Of course, Satan is the evil personified, and can never be the ideal of a. devout Puritan, like Milton.

Thus Milton presents Satan as a mixed character. With evil passions in which good lingers. He is not the hero of the epic. Yet, he remains a grand epical personality and such a personality is seldom found elsewhere. In his fearless defiance, steady determination and protestant spirit, he stands out heroically as Aeschylus’s Prometheus or Euripedes’s Medea. He is definitely not a thorough villain, like Iago or Edmund. He is more likely to be placed by the side of Macbeth as a villain-hero.

Character Analysis Satan

Probably the most famous quote about Paradise Lost is William Blake's statement that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it." While Blake may have meant something other than what is generally understood from this quotation (see "Milton's Style" in the Critical Essays), the idea that Satan is the hero, or at least a type of hero, in Paradise Lost is widespread. However, the progression, or, more precisely, regression, of Satan's character from Book I through Book X gives a much different and much clearer picture of Milton's attitude toward Satan.

Writers and critics of the Romantic era advanced the notion that Satan was a Promethean hero, pitting himself against an unjust God. Most of these writers based their ideas on the picture of Satan in the first two books of Paradise Lost. In those books, Satan rises off the lake of fire and delivers his heroic speech still challenging God. Satan tells the other rebels that they can make "a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n" (I, 255) and adds, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav'n" (I, 263). Satan also calls for and leads the grand council. Finally, he goes forth on his own to cross Chaos and find Earth. Without question, this picture of Satan makes him heroic in his initial introduction to the reader.

Besides his actions, Satan also appears heroic because the first two books focus on Hell and the fallen angels. The reader's introduction to the poem is through Satan's point of view. Milton, by beginning in medias res gives Satan the first scene in the poem, a fact that makes Satan the first empathetic character. Also, Milton's writing in these books, and his characterization of Satan, make the archfiend understandable and unforgettable.

These facts certainly make Satan the most interesting character in the poem — but they do not make him the hero. Because the reader hears Satan's version first, the reader is unaware of the exaggerations and outright lies that are parts of Satan's magnificent speeches. Moreover, the reader can easily overlook the fact that Milton states that, whatever powers and abilities the fallen angels have in Hell, those powers and abilities come from God, who could at any moment take them away.

In essence then, Milton's grand poetic style sets Satan up as heroic in Books I and II. The presentation of Satan makes him seem greater than he actually is and initially draws the reader to Satan's viewpoint. Further, because all of the other characters in the poem — Adam, Eve, God, the Son, the angels — are essentially types rather than characters, Milton spends more artistic energy on the development of Satan so that throughout the poem, Satan's character maintains the reader's interest and, perhaps, sympathy — at least to an extent.

No matter how brilliantly Milton created the character of Satan, the chief demon cannot be the hero of the poem. For Milton, Satan is the enemy who chooses to commit an act that goes against the basic laws of God, that challenges the very nature of the universe. Satan attempts to destroy the hierarchy of Heaven through his rebellion. Satan commits this act not because of the tyranny of God but because he wants what he wants rather than what God wants. Satan is an egoist. His interests always turn on his personal desires. Unlike Adam, who discusses a multiplicity of subjects with Raphael, rarely mentioning his own desires, Satan sees everything in terms of what will happen to him. A true Promethean / Romantic hero has to rebel against an unjust tyranny in an attempt to right a wrong or help someone less fortunate. If Satan had been Prometheus, he would have stolen fire to warm himself, not to help Mankind.

Milton shows his own attitude toward Satan in the way the character degenerates or is degraded in the progression of the poem. Satan is magnificent, even admirable in Books I and II. By book IV, he is changed. In his soliloquy that starts Book IV, Satan declares that Hell is wherever he himself is. Away form his followers and allowed some introspection, Satan already reveals a more conflicted character.

Similarly, Satan's motives change as the story advances. At first, Satan wishes to continue the fight for freedom from God. Later his motive for continuing the fight becomes glory and renown. Next, the temptation of Adam and Eve is simply a way to disrupt God's plans. And, at the end, Satan seems to say that he has acted as he has to impress the other demons in Hell. This regression of motives shows quite a fall.

Satan also regresses or degenerates physically. Satan shifts shapes throughout the poem. These changes visually represent the degeneration of his character. First, he takes the form of a lesser angel, a cherub, when he speaks to Uriel. Next, he is a ravening cormorant in the tree of life — an animal but able to fly. Then he is a lion and a tiger — earth-bound beasts of prey, but magnificent. Finally, he is a toad and a snake. He becomes reptilian and disgusting. These shape changes graphically reveal how Satan's actions change him.

Even in his own shape, Satan degenerates. When Gabriel confronts Satan in Book V, none of the angels initially recognize Satan because his appearance is noticeably changed. Likewise, in Book X, when Satan once again sits on his throne in Hell, none of the earlier magnificence of his physical appearance is left. Now he looks like a drunken debauchee.

Though Satan is not heroic in Paradise Lost, he at times does border on tragedy. Ironically, he also borders on comedy. The comic element associated with Satan derives from the absurdity of his position. As a rebel, he challenges an omnipotent foe, God, with power that is granted him by his foe. God simply toys with Satan in battle. Satan is, in fact, cartoonish when he and Belial gloat over the success of their infernal cannon in Book VI. Satan and Belial stand laughing at the disorder they have caused, but they are unaware of the mountains and boulders just about to land on their heads.

If all of Paradise Lost were on the level of the battle scene, the poem would be comic. But Satan's temptation of Adam and Eve moves the demon closer to tragedy. Satan's motives in destroying the human couple may be arguable, but the effect and its implications are not. Satan brings the humans down and causes their removal from Eden. In so doing, he also provides the way to salvation for those humans who choose freely to obey God. However, Satan provides nothing for himself. Hell is where Satan is because he has no way to rejoin God. Unlike humanity, Satan and the other fallen angels have already sealed their fates. They live always with the knowledge of Hell.

In the end, Satan calls to mind the Macbeth of Shakespeare. Both characters are magnificent creations of evil. Both are heroic after a fashion, but both are doomed. Both are fatalistic about the afterlife. Satan knows that he must remain in Hell; Macbeth says that he would "jump the life to come," if he could kill Duncan with no consequence on Earth. Both characters are the driving force in their own works. And finally both create a kind of Hell; Macbeth's on Earth, Satan's in the universe.




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1 Comment

Mir Hassan
Mir Hassan
Apr 15, 2023

Well written and very helpful for new blogger

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