Is Satan the Hero of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”?

Some have alleged that Satan is the real hero of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. For instance, William Blake held that Milton was “‘of the devil’s party,’ though ‘without knowing it’” and Percy Bysshe Shelley thought that Satan was “‘a moral being,’ one ‘far superior to [Milton’s] God as one who perseveres in some purpose . . . in spite of adversity’” (The Great Books, 256).

Satan is no more the hero of Paradise Lost than Judas is the hero of the Gospel according to Mark.

Why would people think Satan is Milton’s hero? A big reason seems to be the way that Milton so faithfully presents Satan’s point of view. In presenting Satan’s perspective, Milton doesn’t impose his authorial voice on the drama to pronounce condemnation on Satan. Instead, he allows the evil of Satan’s actions and purposes to be shown. Milton isn’t telling us Satan is evil; he is showing us. Milton expects his audience to recognize the evil of what Satan says and does.

Commenting on Satan’s speech in Book 9, lines 119–30, Anthony O’Hear (The Great Books, 266) writes:

This speech, as Milton surely intends, puts into perspective the admiration of Satan of some of Milton’s critics, who see only Satan’s splendid defiance in the earlier books, but pass over the extent of his sheer malice in the later ones.

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