In both Shakespeare’s The Tempest and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, characters commit acts considered to be explicitly evil. However, we cannot help but feel sympathy to some extent, as there is always deeper meaning as to why the actions are taken. In The Tempest, despite Caliban’s savage demeanour and unattractive appearance, he has a noble and gentle side that the audience only gets a glimpse of briefly. He is enslaved on his own land, and therefore commits evil deeds in order to retrieve what he believes to be rightfully his. In Paradise Lost, Satan’s evil nature is unwavering. However, his pride results in the personal belief that his actions are justified, as he is only reciprocating what was done to him. In both works, heinous acts are committed in the spirit of revenge, and in hopes that through these acts, the characters will gain back what was once theirs. We reluctantly sympathize for these characters as we comprehend their rationale and underlying motives are performed in the spirit of injustice.
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Both Caliban and Satan feel that something was unjustly taken from them. In their minds, vengeful deeds are justifiable in that they aid in seeking revenge on those who unrightfully stole what was not theirs. In The Tempest, Caliban, Prospero’s dark slave is a native of the island, and insists that the island was stolen from him and his mother: “This Island’s mine, by; Sycorax my mother / which thou takest from me” (I.II.337-338). Caliban desires for the island to return to sovereignty. Caliban attains dignity on the island through his hateful demeanour, and refuses to be subject to Prospero’s intimidation tactics. We sympathize with Caliban because he uses evil simply to gain revenge.
In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan’s greatest fault is his pride. When Satan is thrown from Heaven by God, he reacts by debating whether to pursue revenge through guile or force; there is no question that revenge is necessary. Satan does not consider the effects of his deeds; he simply acts in hopes of achieving revenge on God. Satan makes the best of his situation, insisting it is “better to reign in hell, than serve in heav’n” (Milton 263). Perversion of God’s work is Satan’s vengeful strategy. Therefore, it is easy to sympathize, as he was overthrown from a position that belonged to him. He believes that gaining revenge will reconcile the harm that was done.
Secondly, both Caliban and Satan anticipate that along with the acts of evil they will not only gain revenge, but their actions will also result with retribution. They both feel betrayed, Caliban by Prospero and Satan by God, and believe that the only way to feel whole again is to take back what is theirs. Retribution comes with a cost. At the core of The Tempest is the strained relationship between a colonizer, being Prospero, and the colonized, being Caliban and Sycorax. Caliban not only hopes to secure his land once again, but also his identity. With the status of a slave, Caliban feels lost and ungrateful. From Caliban’s perspective, language is the key integral to his identity. However, Prospero taught him a new language upon his arrival: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” (I.ii.366–368). The new language is a constant reminder to Caliban that his identity has been altered by the introduction of Prospero, and he is now a different person. Caliban must now not only gain back his land, but also his native tongue. Although he can be seen as evil, we sympathize with Caliban because he acts with the hope that his previous identity will be returned, and he will rid himself of the new identity given to him through assimilation and enslavement.
In Paradise Lost, Satan’s evil nature is unwavering. We sympathize with him not only because his actions are based on revenge, but because Satan is extremely confident, and his narcissism is seen as both his greatest asset and his greatest weakness. When thrown out of Heaven, his persuasive powers are so effective that he even influences himself. Satan’s pathological vanity is sympathized with. Being cast out of Heaven is unacceptable to Satan. He insists “the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n” (Milton 254-5). This narcissism fuels Satan’s desire to rebel against all beings, especially God, and his belief that not all beings deserve freedom. Satan engages our sympathy from the beginning of the poem, as we can see the twisted and seductive ways his mind works, and understand that his acts are performed purely because evil is in his nature.
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, we sympathize with the characters considered to be ‘evil’. In both works, heinous acts are performed out of revenge. In the case of The Tempest, we sympathize with Caliban because he acts through blind ambition to retrieve both his language and homeland. In Paradise Lost, Satan’s twisted and narcissistic mind allows us to understand his thought processes and empathize with his motivation for evil. In both works the audience understands the underlying motives, and therefore is able to sympathize with the characters. Although their actions are considered evil, these characters are sympathized with because they act in hopes of retrieving revenge and retribution in the spirit of injustice.
Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. New York: Folger Shakespeare Library. 1994: Print.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2006: Print.