As you like it (or maybe not): Thoughts on Milton, Shakespeare, and Evil


By Dustin S. Hungerford

The seventeenth century England in which John Milton found himself, was one of intense strife, turmoil, and disappointment. Milton, whose life is well know from myriad sources, had been a strong supporter of Cromwell’s rebellion against Charles I. This is partly evidenced by several of his published works which attempt a legitimation of the Protectorate. Of note among these was his book, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, which generally defended regicide and explicitly defended the execution of Charles I.[1] It is safe to say that Milton, upon witnessing the restoration of Charles II, found himself in a world riddled with the question of good and evil. If the state he had so diligently labored for was ordained by God, how is it that it was fallen? Could Milton’s answer have been anything less than the all-pervasive influence of a global and self-willed evil?

What we know Shakespeare, as opposed to Milton, is almost completely restricted to his works.[2] Shakespeare, working several decades before Milton, wrote in a time of a much more settled (though, we will not say peaceful) England, that is to say, the major problems for Elizabeth’s crown came from outside the realm rather than from within. This England, however, was one no less plagued by the worry and doubt stemming from the radical conduct of Henry VIII and the messy succession which followed.

If, as has been suggested, Shakespeare was a secret Catholic,[3] the questions of the rights of the Church, the legitimacy of the Tudor throne, and the heinous acts of Tudor monarchs, while intensely personal, would not have been ones the Bard could have engaged head on.[4] We are left then to discern, from his plays and poems, what precisely this great playwright thought and believed.[5] To that effect, when we examine the ways in which Shakespeare addresses the question of evil, we get a subtler, less potent, and more classically Catholic answer than what we receive from Milton. It is not that Shakespeare failed to see the problems of evil in the world, it is that he simply was not prepared to hand power and responsibility for human ills wholly over to an abstract, inhuman, power. In this way, he denies an ontological status to evil which Milton was only too happy to grant.

When one picks up John Milton’s Paradise Lost for the first time, it may not be immediately evident that the system of thought (and ethics) it advocates, contravenes (or at least challenges) a classical Catholic approach to God, humanity, and evil (not surprising as he was a Protestant). The unprepared reader, however, can be so engrossed in the powerful and flashy Satan, whose arrogance and pride make him the first “Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms,”[6] that they may well gloss over the implications of such a “puissant” antithesis (should we say anti-god?) to the “bright effluence of bright essence increate.”[7] The Satan of John Milton is a transplanted Angra Mainyu, heavily endowed with chthonic power and eternally engaged in subtle warfare against the Almighty. This is not the Satan of Dante’s Comedia, who “stands forth from mid-breast out of the ice,”[8] frozen at the lowest pit of Hell. This is a Satan ever mobile, ever active in his defiance of God, the God who dared exult the Son as the highest.[9]

At its core, Milton’s Satanic character operates as a larger gloss on the nature of evil itself. Is evil a thing? Is evil an ever moving reality which sneaks into the heart of man as he sleeps?[10] Or, does evil represent a more ancient or medieval view, a no-thingness? Is evil simply the privation of God and good?[11] While at first these questions seem innocuous, they have real implications for our view of the world. Not the least of which is the idea of God’s creative goodness and His supreme divine justice.

When one looks at the world Milton occupied, one in which, at least from Milton’s view, the bright and glorious reign of Protectorate England was dashed by the corrupt pertinacity of the Restoration, one is able to understand why it may have been an inevitability that he viewed evil as a corruptive and powerful force in its own right. Surely it was this evil that had destroyed all his hopes and dreams for the “Sceptered Isle.”

At the same time, Shakespeare’s work will represent a more classic approximation of the nature of evil and the way in which humans encounter that evil, not from without, but from within. The nature of evil in his characters highlights, not an external influencing presence (even in the evil Aaron of Titus Andronicus), but the internal failings and brokenness of the those characters. As expressed so eloquently by Mark Antony, it is the “evil that men do[12] (emphasis mine) that is the problem, rather than some formless evil that stalks the earth.[13]

For Milton, it seems very evident that evil itself has real existence. Evil is a functional outcome of the will of the human person, the subject of choice. Much as St. Thomas uses the angels in his Summa as a means of discussing human traits in a “frictionless” way, Milton uses the Satan of Paradise Lost as a means of speaking about evil in the world. In the face of the ever omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, Satan does not despair of a means of rebellion. He still has one thing with which to challenge God, the will. Turning to Beelzebub he says, “All is not lost; [this remains] the unconquerable Will, And study of revenge, immortal hate, And courage never to submit or yield.”[14] Milton reflects a certain Nominalism in constructing evil this way. As opposed to the Thomistic system, this evil does not emerge through privation, but rather through the direct choice of the will between contraries.[15] The will may directly choose to do what is evil, for the sake of evil. Thus humans, for the sake of nothing else but evil, can overthrow a righteous government (the Protectorate) and install an unrighteous government (the Monarchy). This ceases to be a function of God’s divine fiat and becomes the result of the pervasive power of evil to corrupt men in the world, enticing them to choose evil qua evil.

The seeming inability of God to respond to this evil, bound as He is by human free will, may be the reason that Milton’s depiction of God paints Him as a weakling. He is devoid of any effective potency outside the realm of Heaven, where often among “thick clouds and dark doth Heav’ns all-ruling Sire choose to reside, his Glory unobscur’d, And with the Majesty of darkness round covers his Throne; from whence deep thunders roar must’ring their rage, and Heav’n resembles Hell.”[16]

In reading Shakespeare, we discern a concept of evil that is not the presence of any “thing.” In fact, it is the absence of a “thing.” When we look at the hatred felt by Oliver against his brother Orlando in As You Like It, we are looking at the “absence” of fraternal love which should be naturally present within human families. Oliver goes as far as saying, “I hope I shall see an end of him (Orlando); for my soul, yet I know not why, hates nothing more than he.”[17]

There is a Thomistic realism in what Shakespeare does here. The defect is not contained in the act of the will, for the will perceives what it believes to be good and pursues that.[18] The defect is within the activity of the intellect in discerning and selecting an appropriate good to be pursued. The human being is incapable of pursuing evil qua evil, he merely pursues what he perceives to be a good.[19] When Oliver is saved by Orlando, his feelings are wholly transformed, his perception of the good is corrected, the evil (which was a privation in Oliver) is filled up with goodness. Evil, then, exists precisely in the refusal to be human. Oliver confirms this when, reflecting upon the man he was before reconciling with Orlando, he says, “for well I know he (meaning himself) was unnatural.”[20]

Were we to imagine Satan through the lens of Shakespeare, we would see a creature who is not free to roam the earth, tempting humanity to sin. He would not be Milton’s bold and heroic rebel, so much as a fool, a fool who obstinately rejects what would make him whole. Through his own pride, Satan deprived himself of Heaven. In this way he lost all goodness, all unity with the Most High, and thus it makes sense for him (in Milton’s words no less), in the presence of the faithful angels in Eden, to have “felt how awful goodness is, and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined his loss.”[21]

In his encyclical Salvifici Doloris, Pope St. John Paul II took up the question of evil, relating it to human suffering. He states, quite pointedly, that “man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good,”[22] reinforcing the classical Catholic approach followed by St. Thomas. Human beings do not suffer because devils range the world tempting us in all things or because we are base creatures incapable of goodness, humans suffer “because of a good in which [they do] not share.”[23]

Ultimately, this good is God, but Pope St. John Paul goes on to teach that the privation of evil also amplifies suffering when it “cuts us off” from more particular goods, specifically goods that we “ought—in the normal order of things—to have a share in.”[24] This way of approaching evil always sees it in relation to the good.[25] Evil is never given free reign, it always exists in tension with the vision of perfection in which it can never participate. This vision of humanity, sees the human person as always an inherently good creation. Evil and suffering are the outcomes of our separation from God and, to their (evil’s and suffering’s) dismay, serve as a continual means of turning humanity towards true happiness and fulfillment in the Summum Bonum, that is, God.

When one considers the ideas put forth by these great men, one cannot, regardless of intellectual leanings, but be awed by their thought. However, in final consideration we have a system, which paints the picture of humanity as inherently susceptible to evil, enticed by it, even naturally evil, and plagued by the roaming and ravaging powers of darkness. They are even unable,  to turn to God, who is impotent to come to our aid because He must respect the free-will with which He Himself endowed us. On the other hand, we have a system which sees in the human person a primarily and inherently good creature. Through the problem of sin we are “cut off” from our natural relationship with God and goodness. This does not result in the creation of some all-powerful maleficent creature who  proceeds to tempt us, but the privation of our original and natural state. The project of humanness (and redemption) then, is the restoration of what has been taken away from us through sin. By this process of transforming evil into good, we are able to come, like Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, to Herne’s Oak and declare, “I do begin to perceive that I am made into an ass.”[26] However, in Christ Jesus, I may yet become a saint.

[1] Barbara Lewalski, The Life of John Milton, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 224 & 231.

[2] Bill Bryson, Shakespeare (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 33.

[3] See Claire Asquith, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (New York: Public Affiars, 2005). See especially pages 90-104 where the nature of evil in Titus Andronicus is discussed.

[4] Bryson, Shakespeare, 48. See also pages 38-65.

[5] Bryson, Shakespeare, 48. See also pages 38-65.

[6] John Milton, Paradise Lost (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), I.51. Textual references are to book number and line number(s) of this edition.

[7] Milton, Paradise Lost, III.6. For what power can truly challenge the Almighty?

[8] Dante, Inferno (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), XXXIV.28-29. Textual references are to canto number and line number(s) of this edition.

[9] Milton, Paradise Lost, V.657-665.

[10] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.799-809.

[11] St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica I, vol. 1 of The Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton Pegis (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), q.5, a.4, respondeo; q. 49, a. 1, respondeo & a.3, ad. 2. See also, St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Contra Gentiles III, vol. 2 of The Basic Writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Anton Pegis (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), III.vii.

[12] William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar,” vol. 2 of The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), III.ii.75. Textual references are to page number, act number, scene number, and line number(s) of this edition.

[13] We are not, here, rejecting the existence of the Devil, only that he suffers from the same condition.

[14] Milton, Paradise Lost, I.106-109.

[15] Servais Pinckaers, O.P., The Sources of Christian Ethics (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 337.

[16] Milton, Paradise Lost, II.263-268.

[17] William Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” vol. 1 of The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 405, I.i.164-166. Textual references are to page number, act number, scene number, and line number(s) of this edition.

[18] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, iii, iv, x, & xi.

[19] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, iii. pg. 7-9.

[20] Shakespeare, As You Like It, 428, IV.iii.124.

[21] Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.845-849.

[22] Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, Encyclical on Human Suffering, Vatican website, accessed September 30, 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris.html, sec. 7.

[23] Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, sec. 7. Again, this is not to say that demons do not exist or do not tempt us, merely clarifying that what they do is tempt us away from a proper understanding of the good.

[24] Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, sec. 7. Perhaps food, water, land, the ability to conduct virtuous labor, etc.

[25] Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, sec. 7.

[26] William Shakespeare, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” vol. 1 of The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 95, V.v.119. Textual references are to page number, act number, scene number, and line number(s) of this edition.

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