Analyse the character of Satan as he has been sketched in Book I of Milton's Paradise Lost.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Satan is a complex and intricate character around whom much controversy centers. Milton begins Book I of Paradise Lost by presenting Satan as he would have been moments after his expulsion from Heaven, where he was the chief angel with the highest honors and most exquisite beauty. His angelic qualities of ministering and compassion would still be intact and at the height of their strength: angels would retain their essential traits even after rebelling and being cast out of Heaven as punishment.

In shape and gesture proudly eminent [ 590 ]
Stood like a Towr; his form had yet not lost
All her Original brightness, nor appear'd
Less then Arch Angel ruind, and th' excess
Of Glory obscur'd:

As a result, one of the first things evident about Satan is his regret, sorrow, and compassion for the suffering of his followers (605-612). Satan weeps. He is unable to speak for the depth of his emotion at the changed condition he sees before him in the appearance of the other angels. Satan shows compassion and empathetic suffering (615-621).

On the other hand, in Book I Satan also makes it clear that his war against God will rage on and that he will ultimately attain revenge against God. Satan’s hatred, arrogance, violent nature, pride, and vengefulness are clearly displayed.

but of this be sure,
To do ought good never will be our task,
But ever to do ill our sole delight, [ 160 ]

These two sides of Satan demonstrate what he was and might have continued to be and foretell what he will become later in Paradise Lost. Book I is a snapshot, if you will, of Satan during his first moments of separation from God’s grace and presence.

The controversy around Satan arises because of all the good and, therefore, sympathetic qualities Satan possesses during this snapshot moment. Some critics contend Satan’s good qualities indicate that Milton was fashioning him as the hero of the epic poem because only heroes, even Byronic heroes, are introduced in such a positive and sympathetic light. In this opinion, the Book I presentation of Satan isn’t a snapshot of an interim position, it is the representation of the inner truth of the character of Satan. Other critics contend Milton begins with a justifiably authentic picture of Satan so that his fall into degeneration can be tracked and eschewed, or shunned, because of the revulsion Satan’s fall must engender.