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

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


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'.


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.

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