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Five Reasons to Teach John Milton's Paradise Lost

Teaching Paradise Lost by John Milton

Alongside Dante and Shakespeare, John Milton is heralded as one of the greatest poets of all time. Not surprisingly, Paradise Lost, his greatest work, is likewise praised as one of the greatest works of English Literature. In spite of its many accolades, the poem is not widely taught in the English classroom, so here are five reasons for teaching Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost has deep themes. As he clearly states at the beginning of the poem, Milton's purpose in writing his epic poem is to justify the ways of God to man–or to explain why an all-powerful God would allow evil to enter the world. The answer is simple and complex at the same time: Free Will. If God's creations did not have Free Will, would they truly be good? If there is not a choice between good and evil, are His creations autonomous or automatons? These questions make the story a great springboard for deep discussion.

The poem has the ultimate villain. Milton's characterization of Satan is an intriguing one. Although he has lost (and can never win) his battle against God, he continues to fight. While this tenacity might be commendable in others, Satan’s cause is not a noble one. It is a petty form of sabotage, corrupting humanity rather than admitting defeat. Those who try to turn Milton's Satan into a modern hero must gloss over his vain motives and terroristic tendencies. He is the epitome of a “sore loser” with no redeeming qualities.

Milton’s Satan is a blueprint for Frankenstein’s monster. It’s no secret that Mary Shelley patterned her reanimated corpse of a monster after Milton's Satan. In fact, in Frankenstein the Creature literally reads a copy of Paradise Lost. Sympathizing with Satan's war of retaliation against God, he begins a similar destructive war against his own creator. Reading a bit of Paradise Lost before Frankenstein strengthens the connection between these two classic characters.

Paradise Lost is incredibly quotable–full of famous lines like, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” and common terms coined from the poem like pandemonium (the name Milton gave to the newly-built capital for hell.) Not only that, but Milton’s poetry is some of the finest composed in the English language, which is why he is considered only second to Shakespeare.

While teaching the entirety of Paradise Lost is probably not feasible, teaching an excerpt from the poem provides students with a snapshot of the great work, its themes, and events. Many British Literature textbooks feature a quality excerpt from the poem, but our website also has a more interactive option: “The Fall of Satan” is a Reader's Theater script-story adaptation of the poem's most famous portion. It comes with a 40-question reading guide (and key), which draws out the poem’s main themes, and an anticipatory guide with agree/disagree statements based around the concepts of Free Will and good vs. evil. Click here to find out more about this Reader's Theater script-story.

Teaching Paradise Lost by John Milton



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