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Rise and Shine, Third Essay
The Principal Source Behind Milton's Portrait of Satan in PL I.84-124
The turning point in Satan's first speech is line 94, when he says "yet not for those." The preceding ten lines, 84-94, saw a downward literary 'movement.' Satan began his speech in confusion, but quickly valuted to the realms of light with his memories of Beelzebub's incredible brightness. But then, as they joined in the mutual league, which led to defeat at the hands of God, things declined. Down, down, down they go. Only at line 94 do we have a reversal of downward movement. Satan is now getting his bearings and, even if he is quite deluded, he is planning a strategy to restore their place in Heaven. In his portrait of Satan Milton is dependent on Aeschylus' description of Prometheus in the Prometheus Bound. This essay will compare and contrast those pictures. Milton's portrait of Satan illutrates that that his store of mental images is so extensive and precise, derived from a lifetime of study and mastery, that he could readily take an image "off the shelf" and use it with stunning efficacy in PL.
Prometheus in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound
Prometheus is many things for Aeschylus, but he is primarily the one who gave the gift of fire to humans. Since fire is a requisite for technology and improvement of life, the gift of fire is really an affirmation of human progress. Fire allows the possibility of simplifying life and providing occasion for leisure, thought and art. Prometheus thought he would have good grounds for doing this act because in Zeus' previous war with the Titans Prometheus had sided with Zeus, providing crucial support for Zeus' victory. Zeus, therefore, owed him one.
Prometheus was portrayed as a noble figure, one who was motivated by thought rather than simply by force, one who chose the right side in the primordial battle with the Titans, and one who, therefore, thought that he should have some recognition from Zeus as well as protection in the future. But Zeus was not at all happy with the Prometheus' gift of fire to humans. After all, humans just didn't discover in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century that progress in human learning and technology tends to erode faith in traditional deities. Zeus was, rightfully, worried that Prometheus' "gift" really would be the first step in mankind's neglect of the traditional gods.
Thus, Prometheus had to be punished for this act of effrontery. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to carry out his punishment, which was to secure or bind Prometheus to a mountain in Scythia, where the elements and dangerous animals could 'have at him.' The purpose was to get him to repent, to rue the day he had ever gone outside the will of Zeus to help frail humanity. But what is Prometheus' reaction to this punishment? Three passages help us:
"He (Zeus) shall not then beguile with honeyed tongue/ My will, nor with his mailed threats dissipate/ My wrath: till he restore me whence I sprung/ And loose my bonds, I'll give him hate for hate," Prometheus Bound in An Anthology of Greek Drama, p. 8 (there are no line numbers in this translation).
Later, Zeus decided to send Hermes, his messenger, to see if there was any relaxing of Prometheus' opposition. After Hermes upbraided him, Prometheus responds:
"Come then the serried lightning flash of Zeus,
Or let him, with the cold white winged snow
And with this earth-born thunderings, confound
All things that are: he shall not bend my will
To tell him whence he must come his destined fall," Ibid., p. 31 (near end of the play).
A brief word of explanation is in order. Prometheus not only helped humans get fire, but he claimed to have insight about the future. One of the things he claimed to know was that Zeus' rule was as unstable as his predecessor's (Cronos') grip on power. But, he also claimed to know how Zeus could avoid the supposedly destined fall. Thus, Prometheus is also a symbol of knowledge ignored or suppressed.
In response to Prometheus' words, Hermes can only say:
"Foolhardy one, have courage even now,
Courage to view aright thy present lot."
"As vain to importune the surging sea.
For know thou this, never in fear of Zeus
Shall I be woman-hearted (sorry to our modern sensibilities!), raising hands
In prayer effeminate to him I loathe
To loose my bonds. My temper is not such," Ibid., p. 32.
Moving to Paradise Lost
Milton has obviously and ably picked up on Prometheus' defiance as he shapes his picture of Satan. Let's hear a few of Satan's lines and compare them with the lines just quoted (111-116).
"To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deify his power...
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
Prometheus mentions suppliant prayer and submission to God, which are far from his temperament. Satan's sentiment is precisely the same. Or, take the following passage (94-96):
. . . . "yet not for those,
Nor what the potent victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent or change"
Satan's major thought--that whatever pain God might inflict on him would not lead him to repent or change, is perfectly captured in Prometheus' thought: come what may, he shall not bend my thoughts.
There is no doubt that Prometheus was a hero for Aeschylus and for the Greek mythological tradition in general. Indeed, Aeschylus adds the additional factor in his play of having the cow Io come talk with Prometheus while he is bound. Io was punished by Hera with stinging pains for Zeus' lustful attitude towards her. Aeschylus wants to show the arbitrary, unjust and tyrannical acts of Zeus as ruler of the world. But when Milton borrowed generously from the stock of ideas behind Prometheus Bound in shaping his picture of Satan, we are not necessarily to assume that he has also brought the same admiration of Satan that Aeschylus had of Prometheus. I think Milton has portrayed Satan in a superficially attractive way because, as we all know, the portrait of a wayward life draws far more intrest than the life of fidelity. But I don't think that Milton has made Satan thereby admirable. Determined, yes. Eloquent, yes. Able to convince others of his way, yes. But also deluded? Yes. And, that is the rub. Prometheus was a genuine benefactor of humanity; Satan cannot be. But the borrowing from Aeschylus gives Milton's picture a rawness, an urgency, a passion that moves the action very vigorously.
The next essay will show how he is quite different in temperament and words from his first lieutenant, Beelzebub.