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’. 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. 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.

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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 ...

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