Please discuss the significance of three speeches by Satan in John Milton's Paradise Lost.

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Satan’s speeches in Milton’s Paradise Lost are interesting not only for what they say about the different topics he discusses but also for what they reveal or imply about Satan himself. Whenever Satan speaks, he is inevitably telling us something about Satan, no matter what the ostensible “subjects” of his speeches are.

Take, for example, his very first words in the poem, words which he addresses to Beëlzebub. Satan begins as follows: “If thou beest he; but O how fall’n!” (1.84). Satan speaks just four words before he interrupts himself and blurts out a surprised exclamation. He looks at Beëlzebub and is shocked by the change he sees. He cannot, of course, at this point see himself, but Milton will make clear throughout the poem that Satan has been physically changed as well. Yet these physical changes in the fallen angels are far less important than the spiritual degeneration they symbolize.

Later in the same speech to Beëlzebub, Satan refers to their “glorious enterprise” in rebelling against God (1.89). The word “glorious” is, of course, highly ironic, because the rebellion was glorious neither in its inception, its execution, or its ultimate results. Satan is either deceiving Beëlzebub or deceiving himself (perhaps both); he habitually refuses to face reality, but he is also, of course, a great liar. Thus, when Satan a few lines later refers to God’s “rage” (1.95), he actually reveals one of his own most important characteristics. Indeed, he is exhibiting this characteristic in the present speech.

Another interesting example of the ways Satan’s speeches are self-revealing occurs in lines 681-87 of Book 2. In that speech, addressed to Death (whose identity Satan does not yet recognize), he reveals his pride, his contempt for others, his combativeness, his defiance, and his resolute determination. Yet he also reveals his tendency to deceive himself, as when he calls himself one of the “Spirits of Heav’n” (2.687). Of course, he is at present no such thing, and indeed he will be such a spirit never again. Having led the revolt that caused his own fall from heaven, he cannot really bring himself to admit that he is now a denizen of hell.

Finally, another example of the ways Satan’s speeches reveal aspects of his own character occurs in Book 4, where he essentially tries to blame God for his own evil designs on Adam and Eve (4.387-87). Here as so often elsewhere in the poem, Satan refuses to face facts, refuses to accept personal responsibility, and lies as much to himself as he does to others.

For an excellent brief overview of the poem, please see C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).

 

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