John Milton wrote Paradise Lost (1674) after living in England’s political and religious turmoil preceding the Restoration in 1660, and accordingly the epic is rife with pointed statements and governmental critiques. Though his stance varied slightly throughout his life, Milton’s theology and politics primarily leaned toward Puritanism, especially for the replacement of the monarchy with a free commonwealth (Roberts). Milton was, therefore, an ardent supporter of the English revolution and mourned when the crown was restored to Charles II. In many ways, his desires for no monarchy, especially one given authority through the church, are reflected in Paradise Lost. Although his epic is an extension of a Bible story, it is much more than that, for he criticizes both God’s authority in heaven and Satan’s in hell.
Milton begins his political statements with Book 1, when, speaking of Satan, he writes “and with ambitious aim/Against the throne and monarchy of God/Raised impious war in Heav’n and battle proud with vain attempt” (Greenblatt 1947). While one might initially read these lines as a critique of Satan’s actions, upon further scrutiny they appear sympathetic of Satan. Perhaps Milton can relate to Satan’s attempts at a Revolution. Furthermore, the subsequent lines–“Him the Almighty Power/Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky/With hideous ruin and combustion down/To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/In adamantine chains and penal fire,/Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms” (1947)–do not act as a justification of God’s booting Satan out, but rather lead the reader to feel sorry for Satan. Surely just questioning God’s omnipotence did not deserve such an agonizing fate, the reader is prompted to ponder.
Satan’s speech after his painful fall is similarly compelling. “Is this the region, this the soil, the clime/ . . . this the seat/That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom/For that celestial light? Be it so, since he/Who now is sov’reign can dispose and bid/What shall be right” (Greenblatt 1951-2). Satan appears genuinely despairing of his forced relocation, and, again, an audience is not led into fearing or disliking Satan but instead questions God’s actions. By rewriting a biblical account that typically goes unquestioned, Milton warns readers against the dangers of unlimited power. Obviously Milton isn’t literally proposing support of Satan, but he is, it seems, craftily disguising a political critique of a single monarch as ruler, especially one given so much power with the church.
Interestingly, this sympathetic portrayal of Satan does not appear to extend past the first book, and definitely not through the poem’s entirety. The shift occurs after the second book, and perhaps this is because Satan sets up his own kingdom in hell. Milton criticized God’s unchecked actions, and, similarly, he no longer sympathizes with Satan after he establishes himself as monarch of hell. Satan, “whom now transcendent glory raised/Above his fellows, with monarchal pride/Conscious of highest worth,” is acting no differently than the God of Milton’s critique in book 1 (Greenblatt 1973). Like the lines referring to God in book 1, Milton again pointedly references a monarch or monarchy, and in the rest of the epic, Milton pens Satan as cunning and fiendish, a much different approach than the tortured Satan of book 1.
Milton’s Paradise Lost is wholly political and reflects his own distaste for the English monarchy. Ultimately, Milton communicates that a single ruler takes away the rights of his or her subjects. This is shown first through his telling of God’s rejection of Satan, and the point is reenforced when Satan’s downfall does not occur with his fall from heaven but, rather, with his establishment of a monarchy in hell.
Roberts, Gabriel. “Milton’s Political Context.” Darkness Visible. http://darknessvisible.christs.cam.ac.uk/politics.html