The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton's Rejection of God as King

By Michael Bryson | Go to book overview

3
“Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to Arms”:
Satan's Fall from Hero to King

Who can in reason then or right assume / Monarchy over such
as live by right / His equals, if in power and splendor less, /
In freedom equal?

—John Milton, Paradise Lost


SATAN AS TRAGIC HERO

SATAN IS, OF COURSE, A GREAT VILLAIN (WITH EMPHASIS ON THE WORD great, not villain: villains are inexpensive, common, and often uninteresting—Satan is none of these things). By far the most interesting non-human character in Paradise Lost, and Milton's most brilliantly Shakespearian creation,1 Satan is a hero-villain, or, to use a modern cinematic phrase, an antihero: were Satan a human character, Iago and Lady Macbeth could very well be Satan's father and mother. Harold Bloom goes further:

Satan is both Iago and the ruined Othello, both Edmund and the mad-
dened Lear, both the exalted and the debased Hamlet, both Macbeth
poised on the verge of regicide and Macbeth lost in the ensuing web
of murder.2

Bloom's claim is apt. Milton, like Shakespeare, is writing secular literature, not sacred texts. Milton's Satan is not a religious figure, but a literary character whose family tree is as much Shakespearean as Biblical. A Shakespearan view of Milton's Satan necessarily opposes the idea that Milton is, as John Carey suggests, attempting to

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