John Milton, born in 1608, was an English writer of great renown. Known for his prose and his poetry, Milton’s writing offered a re-presentation and critique of political, social, religious, educational, and historical issues. He encouraged readers to parse out meaning for themselves, and offered his text as an opportunity to engage with this process. Recently, scholars have identified Milton’s handwritten notes engaging in William Shakespeare’s plays, making suggestions for editorial emendations; Milton also may have transcribed Shakespeare’s works, offering a new lens through which Milton’s readers might reconsider his own writing. Some of Milton’s most notable works include Lycidias, Comus, Areopagitica, as well as Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.
Throughout his works, Milton proposes a reformation of church government, including the elimination of bishops, equating the church government to monarchs and tyrants. For Milton, a tyrant is someone who holds themselves above the law. Milton finds that, though man is born free, Adam’s transgression gave birth to governance of man to keep him in check; that being said, for one man to rule over another seems ludicrous to Milton. He believes instead in social contracts and the power of people to overthrow their governing authorities.
Milton’s first decisive critique of church government is seen in Lycidias, an anti-episcopal work. While Lycidias reads as a pastoral elegy, it is notable for its blending of Christian and Pagan imagery, as well as its nascent attempts to “justify God’s ways to man” that we see later in Paradise Lost. In this later poem, readers are seduced by the intense pagan imagery before being redirected toward recognizing how Christian morals and values are superior.
Milton prided himself on his classical education, but also read contemporaries including William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser. In his Areopagitica, he lauds “our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than (Duns) Scotus or (Thomas) Aquinas.” Milton considers Spenser’s enchantment of the senses to have conceptual power and finds The Fairie Queene’s world an intellectually fascinating space.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, one finds echoes of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, namely in the representations of hell through Mephistopheles and Satan. For Milton, hell is wherever the Satan goes, and for Marlowe hell is everywhere that Mephistopheles goes — an absence of God. However, Paradise Lost takes a step beyond Faustus and presents Satan in direct opposition to God, who plays a more active role in this later poem.
John Milton’s work is not limited to exploration of Christian stories, though his work provided a fresh take on how those stories could be reinvented through the lens of Greek mythology. His melding of Pagan and Christian imagery presented critique of Christian institutions without deliberately criticizing these institutions. Instead, his writing allows the reader to arrive at their own conclusions as navigated by his text.