Satan in Paradise Lost presents an unusual dichotomy; he is both the personification of cosmic malevolence and a pathetic character. As a theist who is resolved to “justify the ways of God to man”, one assumes that Milton would not deliberately show Satan in a wholly sympathetic light. Indeed, Milton warns that humans are particularly attracted to Satan’s “guile” and that he is ultimately a deluded fraud. Yet Satan’s villainy is caused by his faults and his conflict as the “the Antagonist of Heav’n” contributes to both the plot and God’s over-aching scheme.
It seems counter-intuitive to suspend the ethical context of a theodicy, however, Satan’s exploits could be described as tragically heroic. As Milton engages in other conventions of classical epics such as epic similes and the invocation, one would assume that Paradise Lost has a hero of some kind. The protagonist, God, does not appear until the third book whilst Satan features prominently in the first two books. He is the first identifiable character which would gain the audiences sympathy in a traditional drama.
He also exhibits the traits of a villainous tragic hero as his downfall was caused by hubris. His hamartia is “obdi??rate pride”; by fancying himself as “equalled to the Most High”, he is appropriately cast into ruin by God. What is especially villainous about Satan is that he rationalises and justifies his rebellion. He insists that the battle’s outcome was “dubious” and that God goaded him as He “tempted [his] attempt”. In this sense, he is in the vein of Othello’s Iago or King Lear’s Edmund as both believe their actions are not subjection to moral judgment.
Aristotle defined the archetypal tragic hero as an “intermediate sort of person, one who is not pre-eminently virtuous and just, one who incurs misfortune” and deserves the audience’s sympathy. Satan is not wholly malignant as Milton states that even damned Spirits do not “lose all their virtue”. Satan’s remorse is shown repeatedly as he casts “signs” of his despair. His self-pity is genuine as he reveals his emotions “in spite of scorn”. This evokes empathy as Satan is identifiably flawed. This is enhanced by Milton using anthropomorphic images as he describes his “Atlantei??n shoulders” and the “soles/Of [his] unblest feet”.
His magnificence is still apparent as he is depicted as “Archangel ruined”. His sheer size, “many a rood, in bulk as huge/As whom fables name of monstrous size”, is symbolic of his prowess. In these admissions, Milton presents Satan as a complex character of some virtue. Satan’s leadership is inspiring as he is able to rouse his initially hopeless army to draw “millions of flaming swords”. He is morally admirable in believing that “to be weak is miserable”. Yet one must be vigilant against viewing Satan as absolutely heroic.
The first two books are from Satan’s perspective, therefore his view of God and his resultant situation is somewhat perverted. Unlike tragic figures such as Oedipus, Satan’s punishment does not lead to either self-knowledge or catharsis. He bitterly demands why he should “bow and sue for grace/With suppliant knee”, re-enforcing his role as the antagonist of the poem. His unwillingness to repent is to his blinding “fixed mind” which proudly refuses to abandon his “high distain”. The loyalty he inspires in his troops verges on sinister as they “bend/With awful reverence prone”.
This, coupled with Milton calling him “great Emperor” and “Sultan”, shows Satan to be comparable to Ottoman Emperors whom the English despised as wicked, dehumanised despots. His other names of “apostate angel”, traitor angel” and the “Arch-fiend” have great pejorative resonance. They highlight that Satan is not entirely worthy of the reader’s pity. Satan’s duplicity is apparent in his discourse with his troops, in the debate and with his daughter Sin. He uses flattery to rally his troops, addressing them as “Princes, Potentates/Warriors” and referring to their former glory.
By wondering aloud how “such a united force of gods… could ever know repulse”, he is almost sycophantic. His leadership may seem inspirational and his oratory arresting to hold the Cherubs on “mute… attention”, yet the unity of his troops is due to “Devil with devil damned/Firm concord holds”. Milton repeatedly refers to Satan’s immoral “vain[ity]”, “aspiring” and lust for “glory” as his “pride” is the ultimate sin against God. In his “steadfast hate”, Satan suffers from what Coleridge deemed the “alcoholism of egotism” as the nature of his sin leads to delusion.
This is observed by God later in Paradise Lost as He sees that “so bent [Satan] seems/On desperate revenge that shall redound/Upon his rebellious head”. As he is entrenched in his sin, Satan is to be view suspiciously. Milton prefaces his appearance by alluding to “th’ infernal serpent” who was capable of deceiving humans before. Therefore the reader should be wary of his ambiguous “merit”. The opening of the second book clearly shows Satan as a fraud as he initiate debates even though he is resolved to corrupt God’s work by “fraud or guile”.
This charade of democracy and ironic “full consent” is specious and affirms Satan to be deceptive. His reaction to Sin and Death perhaps best characterises his ability to manipulate. He initially casts a “disdainful look” and calls Sin an “execrable shape” until he realises her usefulness. This disgust is masked as he assures her he is “no enemy” and affectionately refers to her as “dear daughter”. This “subtle” shift illustrates Satan’s Machiavellian nature that is willing to cajole in order to gain. The Miltonic Satan deliberately provokes a moral tension as the reader is inclined to empathise, or indeed sympathise, with him.
In his dilemma of being “confounded though immortal”, the pathos does give Satan a tragic dimension. Although he may be a sophisticated literary character, Satan should not be entirely vindicated even though he is more recognisable than the abstract protagonist. Perhaps it is the reader’s post-lapsarian state which is partly seduced by Satan in Paradise Lost. “In some ways Satan resembles villainous tragic heroes such as Macbeth, but there are many indications that the reader is supposed to regard him as a fraud. “