Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Theatrical Wonder, Amazement, and the Construction of Spiritual Agency in Paradise Lost

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Theatrical Wonder, Amazement, and the Construction of Spiritual Agency in Paradise Lost

Article excerpt

Criticism that addresses the presence of theatrical language and imagery in Miltons later poems is usually one of two types. The first type considers the ways in which the later poems incorporate dramatic conventions and criticize or redefine particular theatrical genres. Issues of genre are especially relevant to Samson Agonistes, a tragedy "never intended" for the stage. (1) Essays by D. M. Rosenberg, John D. Cox, and Peggy Samuels all explain ways in which Samson engages with the dramatic conventions of the Restoration and especially the work of Dryden. An alternative path is followed by Elizabeth Sauer, who looks at Samson specifically as a closet drama and examines the ways in which Milton's play criticizes theatricality in general. (2)

Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained require alternative approaches, since they are not dramatic in form. Nevertheless, critics have argued persuasively that each engages with theatrical genres. In the case of Paradise Regained, Steven Zwicker has emphasized its pairing with Samson, showing how Milton uses dramatic technique in Paradise Regained to correct Dryden's conception of heroic drama. Regarding Paradise Lost, Barbara Lewalski's classic study of literary forms in the epic takes tragedy as one of those literary forms and analyzes the dramatic structure of Books 9 and 10, which follow first Aristotelian and then Christian paradigms of tragedy. Her reading counters that of Richard S. Ide, who sees Books 9 and 10 as shaped by the conventions of Elizabethan tragicomedy. Finally, John Demaray's Milton's Theatrical Epic shows how much of the imagery in Paradise Lost comes from the English masquing stage. (3)

The second type of criticism that deals with theater in Milton's late poems tends to consider theater as a trope. For example, David Loewenstein's Milton and the Drama of History shows how Milton conceptualized history as a form of theater. Milton incorporated the metaphor of drama into his prose writings and later poems as a way of linking literature with history: A second notable example is Historicizing Milton, by Laura Lunger Knoppers, which argues that Milton criticized the English monarchy for its manipulative histrionics while also figuring his own political and authorial agency through the metaphor of the stage. (4)

This essay offers a different perspective on theatricality in Paradise Lost, and argues that Milton's literary imagination was also stimulated by his conception of the emotional responses of theatrical audiences. He systematically incorporated into the poetic language of his epic a pair of words, wonder and amazement, that link these emotional responses to a rich philosophical history and ultimately to Milton's sense that spiritual agency is as much a form of response as it is a form of performance.

I do not base this claim on any assumptions about Milton's actual experience with theater. Certainly he was interested in theatrical literary forms; he wrote a masque, and sketched out several ideas for stage tragedies, one of which, entitled "Adam Unparadiz'd" eventually became his epic poem. As Zwicker points out, these sketches speak to "a vivid theatrical imagination." (5) The extent of Milton's own experience as a playgoer is not known. In 1992, the historian Herbert Berry argued that John Milton, Sr., became a trustee of Blackfriars Playhouse in 1620, and may well have had the privilege of attending that theater, with his family, free of charge. (6) This is only speculation, however, and a more recent article by T. H. Howard-Hill tries to lay to rest the idea that Milton had much interest in the English stage, either literarily or as an audience member. (7)

Nevertheless, the preface to Samson Agonistes suggests that the experience of emotionally responding to drama interested Milton. There he writes that tragedy is the "gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other Poems: therefore said by Aristotle to be of power by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions. …

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