In what ways does Milton’s depiction of Satan in Paradise Lost reflect the “crisis of authority” experienced during the early 17th century?
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Perhaps the most important “crisis of authority” in England in the seventeenth century was the rebellion against King Charles I and his execution as part of the English Civil War. Milton was a strong proponent of revolution and held a key position in the revolutionary government. He justified the execution of the king, whom he considered a tyrant rather than a legitimate, godly ruler. Charles, by ruling in ungodly ways, had provoked the “crisis of authority” that led to his execution. This, at least, was certainly Milton’s view.
Milton’s earthly, political republicanism might seem to conflict with the enthusiastic support he shows for divine kingship in Paradise Lost. The same person who opposed tyranny on earth had no trouble justifying the ways of God to man in Paradise Lost. This was because God, by definition, was not a tyrant but a king who was essentially goodness personified.
The character in Paradise Lost who most resembles Charles I is Satan. Satan is unscrupulous, dishonest, driven by pride, and in revolt against God – all traits that Milton also associated with Charles. Although defeated on the battlefield, as Charles had been, Satan refuses to submit (as Charles had also done):
. . . What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit of yield:
And what is else not to be overcome?
Rather than showing any regret or repentance or humility for rebelling against God and goodness, Satan is defiant – just as Charles (in Milton’s opinion) had also been. Charles, in Milton’s view, had ruled over a court that was corrupt, self-indulgent, superficial, materialistic, and selfish. Charles, again in Milton’s view, had lied to people and had misled them. He had tried to use propaganda to prop up his own power, and he had been more concerned with shows of virtue than with the functioning as a truly good king. In all these ways he resembled Satan.
Above all, Charles (in Milton’s view) had been motivated by pride and selfishness and showed little real concern for the beings who depended on him to think and act wisely.
Therefore, Paradise Lost celebrates the righteous authority of God while condemning the evil tyranny of Satan.
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