The middle part of the 17th century was a tumultuous time in England. The nation had been through a bloody civil war in which one of its long-standing institutions, the monarchy, had been abolished in the most violent of fashions. The English Commonwealth that seized power had done what was at the time considered unthinkable: deposed and executed a king. Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Commonwealth and the spiritual head of England’s Puritans, had instituted a raft of changes in English society, from closing down theatres across the nation as “degenerate” to stepping up their persecution of Catholics, already a disliked minority. Furthermore, Cromwell’s army had committed a heinous genocide in Ireland, stripping the land of all its resources and reducing the Irish to an abject poverty that they would remain in for over two centuries. Despite Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the changes that the Commonwealth brought to England, as well as the scars left by the Civil War, reverberated through English society for decades afterwards.
It was in this society that John Milton published his best-known work, Paradise Lost. An epic poem dealing with the fall of Adam and Eve and Satan’s revolt against God, Paradise Lost is more than just a retelling of the Bible; it is an allegory about the English Civil War and the rise and fall of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans. Despite Milton’s Puritan beliefs and his support of the Roundheads in the war, his poem can easily be read as a tale of what happens when idealistic men are corrupted by power. In Milton’s estimation, Cromwell and his supporters may have meant well, but in deposing a tyrant, they only became tyrants themselves.
England at the Crossroads
The historical epoch that birthed John Milton and Paradise Lost was one of the most turbulent in English history. Under the nearly half-decade reign of Elizabeth I, England had become one of the major powers of Europe, solidifying its independence from Catholic dominion through the defeat of the Spanish Armada, beginning its explorations of the New World, and experiencing a cultural renaissance through the works of playwrights like William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Upon her death in 1603, her throne passed to the Stuarts of Scotland as she lacked a direct heir. James I, her successor, had to deal with growing religious tensions in England as well as the growing reluctance of Parliament to accept a subservient role in governing the nation. Barely two years into his reign, he had to contend with the Gunpowder Plot, in which a group of Catholics sought to destroy the Parliament building and restore England to the Pope’s dominion. Furthermore, James’ financial profligacy lead to the nation running up a huge debt, further straining the relationship between the king and Parliament. Despite all this, England remained relatively stable under James’ leadership, as it expanded into the Americas with the founding of Jamestown and other colonies and saw a continued flourishing of culture under Shakespeare, John Donne and other writers.
It was under James’ successor, Charles I, that tensions in England finally exploded into violence. Charles sought to curb the growing power of Parliament, believing himself to be entitled to rule as an absolute monarch due to the divine right of kings. This lead to repeated conflicts as the parliamentarians sought greater power and opposed Charles’ attempts to rule unilaterally. Lingering debts from James’ reign caused England financial difficulty, resulting in Charles unilaterally levying new taxes on the English citizenry, further alienating the population. Finally, religious conflict in England reached a head with the rise of the Puritans, a Protestant sect heavily influenced by the teachings of John Calvin. The Puritans felt that the Protestant Reformation had not gone far enough in England, believing the Anglicans to be nothing more than ersatz Catholics and seeking to eliminate all Catholic influences from English life. Charles’ marriage to a French Catholic princess failed to endear him to them, and his attempts to assert the primacy of the Church of England also galvanized non-Anglicans.
It was in 1642 that war broke out between Parliament and Charles’ supporters, who were known as Roundheads and Cavaliers, respectively. The English Civil War raged for nearly a decade, ending with the Roundheads victorious and Charles executed for treason in 1649, an unthinkable act in 17th century Europe. Following Charles’ death, the English monarchy was abolished and the Commonwealth of England was declared, headed by Oliver Cromwell, a prominent Puritan religious figure and commander of the Roundheads’ forces during the Civil War. While nominally a representative republic, Cromwell seized total control of the government in 1653, declaring himself Lord Protector and reigning as leader of England until his death in 1658. Succeeded by his son Richard, who was unable to maintain control as effectively as his father, the Commonwealth collapsed in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II, Charles I’s son, as king of England.
Under Cromwell’s tenure as ruler of the Commonwealth, English society was turned on its head. As a devout Puritan, Cromwell and his followers were fervently opposed to practices and hobbies they considered “Catholic” or “immoral,” rewriting English laws to enforce their morality on others. Under orders from Cromwell, theatres across England were shuttered and numerous inns and pubs were also forced to close their doors. Freedom of speech ended, with dissenting voices censored and oftentimes forced into exile by Cromwell’s enforcers. The government even went so far as to ban Christmas, imposing fines and punishments on citizens caught celebrating it or placing Christmas decorations (a similar prohibition on celebrating Christmas was enacted in Puritan-dominated Massachusetts around the same time). Additionally, Cromwell led a genocidal conquest of Ireland, killing as much as half of the Irish population and seizing property and wealth from Catholics in that land, plunging most Irish into abject poverty. The Commonwealth’s campaign of terror and disenfranchisement in Ireland was so devastating that its effects were felt well into the 19th century.
The end result of all this was that England’s cultural progress and development virtually ground to a halt during Cromwell’s rule. With opposing views suppressed by the government’s censors, artists and writers were forbidden from expressing views or creating works that ran counter to the Puritans’ worldview. The closure of theatres across Britain also deprived the nation of what was at that point its most notable literary product: plays. The stultifying austerity imposed by the Commonwealth government led to a massive backlash following Cromwell’s death, with Restoration writers such as Aphra Behn celebrating sex and sin in ways that not even pre-Cromwell English writers had done. It took decades for the divisions caused by the English Civil War and Cromwell’s rule to fully heal.
Paradise Lost and the Rise and Fall of John Milton
It was in this era that John Milton lived and wrote. A celebrated Puritan intellectual prior to the Civil War, Milton was an ardent republican and a fervent supporter of Oliver Cromwell. Following his defense of the regicide of Charles I, Milton was appointed Secretary of Foreign Tongues in 1649, acting in an unofficial capacity to produce propaganda for the Commonwealth government. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Milton was forced into hiding; while later pardoned, he lived the remainder of his years in poverty. Even with this, he continued to advocate for the ideas that the Commonwealth had been founded on.
It was in this context that Milton wrote Paradise Lost. Despite Milton’s devout Christianity, scholars have long been puzzled by the fact that he chose a subject that would require him to contradict his longstanding opposition to monarchy. However, this shallow analysis ignores the violent backdrop against which its creator lived and died. Paradise Lost can be read as a bittersweet allegory about the English Civil War and its aftermath, Milton’s attempts to reconcile his idealistic beliefs with the reality of the destruction that Cromwell and his supporters brought to England. While Milton never repented of his support for English republicanism, his approach to Paradise Lost is completely unlike what a devout Christian would be expected to turn out.
Sympathy for the Devil
The most striking aspect of Paradise Lost is the sympathetic manner in which its chief antagonist, Satan, is depicted. Traditional Christian teaching holds Satan to be the embodiment of evil and temptation, the nemesis of God. While this is true in many ways in Milton’s work, Satan is given a more complex characterization then is typically found in Christian literature. Satan’s motivations are not handwaved away as being simply a desire to be evil, but out of genuine dissatisfaction with submitting to God.
Satan’s central beliefs is that angels should be free to determine their own destinies, not condemned to a life of servitude. He argues God’s supposed authority over himself and other angels has no basis, the arrangement between them only existing because God decrees it so. It’s fairly obvious that this is meant as a parallel to the conflict between Charles I and Parliament, a denunciation of the divine right of kings that the former used as justification for his autocratic rule.
Furthermore, Paradise Lost’s Satan presents the idea that freedom is the highest good and is worth sacrificing everything else, even comfort and security. His iconic line, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” reflects this. In Heaven, Satan and his followers were guaranteed protection, happiness and enjoyment, the cost being that they were under God’s dominion and could not contravene His whims. While Satan’s rebellion against God damned him to the loss of all these comforts, he regards his freedom from God’s control as being worth the cost. Again, the parallel to history is obvious: while England may not have had the creature comforts of the theatre and other frivolities under Cromwell’s reign, Milton regards the freedom gained from Charles’ execution to be worth it in the end.
At the same time that Milton compels us to sympathize with the Devil, he does not shy away from depicting the negative aspects of Satan’s rule in Tartarus. Following his exile from Heaven, Satan organizes his renegade angels into a highly regimented army subservient to his whims. While Satan remains free, Hell is an unpleasant place, absent God’s grace or any trace of goodness. Additionally, Satan is depicted as being unsatisfied with what he has; motivated by his anger and hatred, he travels to Earth for no other reason than to corrupt Adam and Eve, spreading his misery to God’s creations. This is possibly a critique of the way that the Commonwealth’s governance of England turned out in practice. While initially motivated by lofty and high-minded goals, Oliver Cromwell’s government devolved into a cruel, petty dictatorship, losing sight of the princples that had guided the Roundheads to revolt against King Charles to begin with. Cromwell’s regime sought to kill and oppress for no other reason than because it could, a far cry from the Roundheads’ original goal of freedom. Thus, it is possible to read Paradise Lost’s Satan as a stand-in for Oliver Cromwell himself: a renegade who broke with centuries of tradition for admirable reasons, but lost sight of his principles and allowed himself to be overcome by hubris and greed.
The Role of Adam and Eve
Paradise Lost also deals with Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden. While on the surface, Milton’s rendition appears to just be a retelling of Genesis’ account of the fall of man, like with his depiction of Satan’s revolt against God, there is a more complex set of themes bubbling underneath the surface. Much in the same way that Satan’s struggle is an allegory for the Roundheads’ struggle against the monarchy, Adam and Eve likely represent the people of England themselves, and more importantly, how they were callously used by both Charles and Cromwell.
Milton’s presentation of Adam and Eve is much in line with the Bible’s. Adam was created by God in His image, with Eve being created from Adam’s rib to be his helpmeet and companion. The two begin life in ignorant bliss amid the plenty that Eden represents; lacking any intelligence or self-awareness, they frolic about in the nude without the slightest hint of embarrassment. Satan, disguised as the serpent, tempts Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, who in turn offers it to Adam; this defiant act gives them knowledge, but angers God and results in their expulsion from Eden.
Adam and Eve’s status as pawns of God and Satan likely represents the people of England’s status as pawns of both the monarchy and Parliament. Even with the great advancements of the English Renaissance, most Englishmen were poor and uneducated, easily manipulated by the more intelligent and learned. While Adam and Eve are taught to pay obeisance to God, it’s never made clear whether He reciprocates their love or even cares about them beyond using them for His own purposes. Conversely, Satan’s temptation of Eve is not motivated out of a desire to help them achieve the freedom that he possesses, but out of pure envy at the pleasurable life they lead. Effectively, Adam and Eve are two innocent individuals being manipulated by forces more powerful than them, who don’t care for their well-being or their interests. Milton is likely critiquing the suffering the English people received at both the hands of Charles and the Commonwealth, the latter of which turned its back on its principles in favor of enriching itself.
While it is true that John Milton remained a republican and a Puritan up until his death, the writings of his later years suggested he had misgivings about the deeds committed by those he supported and respected. His dream of a republican England where freedom was the highest virtue was betrayed by Oliver Cromwell and his allies, who sought to use the English Civil War to implement their own brand of tyranny. Paradise Lost is a lamentation of that broken promise. Its framing of the origin story of Christianity is a subtly disguised critique of the failure of the Commonwealth to live up to its principles. As an allegory about the English Civil War and Cromwell’s rule, it sends a potent message indeed.
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