Is Milton's Satan rightly regarded as a tragic hero?

Categories: Tragedy

Aristotle, inventor of the concept of heroism, defined the hero as 'noble or honourable by birth or deed'. Both classical myth and history influenced Milton greatly in his writing, and no doubt he knew Aristotle's works and applied his formulae to the creation of perhaps his most attractive character, Satan. He is certainly of noble birth, having been created by God as the brightest of all the archangels, but do his deeds justify his title as 'a tragic hero'? Since the writing of 'Paradise Lost' there has been an ongoing argument as to whether Satan is a tragic hero.

Romantics such as W. Hazlitt regard him as the 'most heroic subject that ever was chosen for a poem', whilst others, such as C.S. Lewis, see him as fundamentally flawed in both his tragic and heroic intentions.

Satan's conduct throughout Paradise Lost displays many attributes which facilitate his status as a tragic hero. He is tragic in the extent of his loss.

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He has fallen from Heaven's 'happy realms of light' to a 'dungeon horrible'. There is a tragic sense of waste in his fall; in Heaven he was the glorious Lucifer, brightest of all the angels; now he is the 'new possessor' of 'profoundest hell'. Such loss may also be argued as undeserving, as Satan was rebelling against the 'fixed laws of Heaven', implying oppression under God. If he were fighting for freedom rather than power, his fall would certainly be a tragic one.

Satan's strength and stature above the other angels is soon apparent.

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He is heroic in his display of resilience and strength in that he is the first to wake up after their nine days' slumber in Hell, and the first to speak in this newly created realm with his 'bold words'. Never does he fall victim to the hopelessness and torment of Hell. His sorrow is channelled into aggression and he draws hope from the fact that he retains a 'fixed mind', despite change in 'outward lustre'. Satan's optimism in the face of calamity supports his tragic heroism; he subjects only his physical self to the torments of Hell, whilst making 'a Heaven of Hell' with his spiritual being.

In his speech to the fallen legion Satan inspires them to share in his hope. His speech is beautifully constructed and he has a majestic, reverential power over his audience. Beautiful speech being a characteristic of heroism, his first address to the fallen both begins and ends in dramatic tripartite rhetoric, opening with 'Princes, potentates, / warriors', and finishing powerfully with 'Awake, arise, or be for ever fallen'. He presents being 'for ever fallen', as an unfavourable alternative, rather than a inevitability, implying that their time in Hell is limited. Again he is breeding hope in the masses, whilst using the imagery of a military epic through speaking of 'the toil a battle', their 'scattered arms and ensigns' and their 'swift pursuers'. This instils the energy in the angels, and 'up they sprung' as a result of Satan's rousing words.

He shows a personal level with the angels when he ironically mocks them, referring to 'The ease [they] find / to slumber' in Hell, and asking whether they have 'chosen this place / after the toil of battle to repose', as if their sleep is a leisurely one. This would counter accusations of his being self-exalting above the other angels. Satan speaks like a hero. His military stature over the fallen angels is obvious, and he inspires them so much that they immediately obey their 'great sultan's' closing words, and take to the air 'innumerable'.

Tragedy in a hero is attributed to by dramatic status, as is heroism itself. Satan is an extremely dramatic character, and this is first apparent in Milton's description of him rising up from 'yon lake of fire', symbolic of the remaining potency of his power having rebelled against his master. He is described with mountainous proportions, with his shield that 'hung on his shoulders like the moon', and his spear, 'to equal which the tallest pine'. Dramatic moments such as this enhance his tragic heroism, as do the dramatic nature of his momentous addresses to the masses.

Milton shows Satan as hugely courageous in the events that encompass his exit of Hell and crossing of the abyss. His heroism is validated by his courage in electing himself to cross chaos, as no other angel volunteered, but 'all sat mute' through fear of such a task. So being the only one strong and fearless enough to embark on this 'dreadful voyage', Satan crosses Hell and reaches its gates. Milton dramatises the moment when he encounters Death, and stands 'unterrified' before the 'grisly terror'. He does so with his elaborate description of detail such as; 'So frowned the mighty combatants that hell / grew darker at their frown'. Death is presented as truly terrifying, and Satan is intensely appealing as a tragic hero in that he does not wince in encountering 'so great a foe'.

The interpretation of the readers of Paradise Lost must be the defining factor in whether or not Satan is a tragic hero; if he comes across to the audience as deserving then arguments that say otherwise are greatly weakened. His tragic nature is ratified in that the audience may feel pity and pathos towards his fall, or be in awe of his strength or resilience, symbolised by defiant acts such as ironically exclaiming 'Hail, horrors, hail' into the dungeon. They may also find him sympathetic in that he imposes 'free choice' as a core of Hell's constitution, which is particularly poignant considering that God's rule was with an 'iron sceptre'. Scholars may delve into Satan with extensive attention to every connotation and detail, but Satan's true nature is the one that is perceived by the more 'everyday' audience of the poem.

That said, Satan is primarily flawed in a number of ways, being self-exalting and vastly over ambitious in assuming that he can overthrow his maker. There is strong evidence throughout Books I and II that Satan is in love with himself. He feels that he deserves Godlike status, admitting to feeling 'high disdain from sense of injured merit' at God's increasing the rift between Satan and himself by creating Jesus, whom, being his son, he loved more. Perhaps such vanity is unsuitable in a tragic hero.

Satan dramatises himself as a result of this narcissism, and this undermines his seemingly natural dramatic status. The fact that Satan sees himself as a tragic hero detracts from him gaining such an epithet. He ennobles himself by appearing untroubled by his predicament, saying 'be it so' at the 'mournful gloom' that has replaced Heaven's 'happy fields'. Here he is contradicting his words earlier in Book I, having described their new situation as a 'dire calamity'. This suggests that Satan is false, acting only to fulfil his image of himself, and if he feels he has to project himself as a tragic hero, there may be someone less impressive behind his facade.

It appears that Satan's vanity is so great that whilst in Heaven he fell in love with himself. Milton symbolises this in Satan's encounter with Sin at the gates of Hell. Sin reminds him that she had 'sprung' from his head in Heaven, and that Satan, his 'perfect image viewing' in his effective clone, became 'enamoured' as a result, and enough so that she conceived their lovechild, Death. Satan loved a product of his own head, and therefore his own ego. This detracts from the sense of tragic loss when one considers the deeper character of Satan; an incestuous egotist's fall from Heaven is less tragic than that of an inspirational, undeserving hero's.

From his initial awakening in Hell Satan plans to gain revenge over God for his condemnation. Although theoretically impossible in a perfect being, the illusion of his own power and capabilities that he creates seems to cloud the vision of the plausibility of his objective. It is evident that Satan considers himself of potentially equal in stature to God, which C.S. Lewis considered a 'nonsense of intellect', as God was his creator and source of his power, which as a result must be finite. He considers that God has only been the true ruler of Heaven since his fall, referring to his maker as 'he / who now is sovereign', thus implying that God did not previously hold such a position.

Satan sees his army's assault on Heaven as a 'dubious battle', which reveals his interpretation that they were realistically contending for God's seat; that they shook his thrown and therefore threatened his kingdom. He is also fundamentally flawed in believing that it is only force that raises God 'above his equals', although he is their creator, and therefore all-powerful. Lewis describes his attack on his maker as effectively 'sawing off the branch he is sitting on', and it is reasonable to believe that is must be impossible to gain victory over the source of one's power, and that Satan is therefore being an absurdity rather than a tragic hero.

Similarly he gloats that they 'shall be free' in choice and independent of God, but this means little considering that God gave them the gift of free will, so their movements are all under the permission of God. This especially weakens the otherwise momentous image when he 'rears from off the pool / his mighty stature'; his first movement which he perceives as independent from God.

Anagnorisis, absent in Satan, is often a key element in a tragic hero; it is perhaps customary for a tragic hero to see the error of their ways at the moment of their death. Firstly Satan does not, and cannot die, although his fall and transformation reflect the death of his former self, and death has traditionally been the end of a chain of tragic events for less arguable tragic heroes. Secondly Satan learns nothing from the tragedy of his fall; his contemptuous feeling is intensified rather than reversed and he claims that is has given him 'immortal hate' and 'unconquerable will'. Satan lacks this aspect of self-revelation.

Milton intentionally derides Satan by connotations in his description, and being the omnipresent influence that he is throughout Paradise Lost this can detract from his character. The poet likens him to a 'Leviathan', mocking his unpleasant, transformed appearance through comparing him with this ugly, cumbersome beast with a 'scaly rind'. There are also connotations through the description of his 'ponderous shield' reflecting the shield of Achilles. Despite Achilles stable position as a classical hero, Milton is making Satan appear inferior through being linked to a mere human rather than a perfect being.

Milton also presents him as being childish in certain aspects of his speech. He ruminates that God intends to 'bring forth good' from their evil, and his primary plan is to 'pervert that end'. His injured pride is driving him to gain revenge for the sake of 'scoring points' against God, a tendency that would more usually be attached to a spoilt child than a tragic hero. His scheme revenge his revenge is also warped, his first priority being to 'consult how' they 'may henceforth most offend / our enemy', with no motive implied other than to offend, whilst his second priority is the more logical, as he then goes on to contemplate how to 'overcome this dire calamity'.

These flaws do not conclusively disprove that Satan is a tragic hero. Imperfection is often necessary in a hero to breed tragedy, such as with the immoral overambition of Macbeth or the credulity of Othello, in fact a hamartia can be considered essential for a hero to be tragic. But are Satan's flaws too great and too numerous to allow him to be the tragic hero that romantics have often claimed that he is? It can be argued both ways, but it would be reasonable to conclude that his flaws are of a nature that particularly undermines the essence of heroism, but perhaps not of tragedy, considering the extent and pith of his loss.

The complexity of this issue would be furthered if the question were asked, 'is Milton's Satan a classical or biblical tragic hero'. Being an immoral being, inappropriate in a biblical hero, and bearing in mind Milton's love and following of the classical myths, he may have created Satan as a classical hero, which may shed a more sympathetic light on some of his faults such as his depravity and sin. Either way, he has the intricacy and depth of any tragic hero, and for this reason is a vastly appealing character.


Updated: Dec 12, 2023

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Is Milton's Satan rightly regarded as a tragic hero? essay
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