When comparing John Milton and William Shakespeare, it is interesting to note similarities and parallels between works such as "Julius Caesar" and "Paradise Lost." Indeed, the characters in both works show remarkably how the underlying politics in their relationships create a platform for the ultimate betrayal of the respective autocratic leaders. In his poem, "On Shakespeare," Milton shows his admiration for Shakespeare, as well as the common belief that the spirit of the author continues by means of his words and in the admiration of his audiences. Both Milton and Shakespeare then continue to live in the admiration of their audiences and in works of art such as films.
The poem "On Shakespeare" was the first of Milton's works to be published. It was composed during 1630 and published in the Second Folio of Shakespeare's play in 1632, where it appeared among other eulogies and verses in Shakespeare's honor (Poetry Foundation, 2011). In the poem, Milton promotes an opinion that was prevalent at the time, according to which Shakespeare was an "untutored genius." With his education stopping at grammar school, Shakespeare was a natural poet who used easy flowing language rather than the highly intellectual "art" of many of his peers at the time.
Another theme in Milton's poem is that of the monument and its suitability to Shakespeare's legacy and his potential for intellectual immortality. Milton recognizes that erected monuments in Shakespeare's honor are inadequate to memorialize his genius. Instead, his readers function as his monument. Instead, Milton echoes a theme that has been one in Shakespeare's Sonnets as well, that the words and ideas of his art, and the readers that appreciate these, are what creates a monument for the artist (Poetry Foundation, 2011). In this way, Shakespeare's words and readers combine to provide for him a fitting and immortal monument (Hunter, 1986, p. 88). The phrase "Make us marble" is significant here. Marble is used as a metaphor for the monument that readers become in reading and admiring Shakespeare's works.
Even in his writing of this tribute, and although Milton clearly had great admiration for Shakespeare, it is unlikely that he relied greatly on the playwright for subject matter influence, having mainly concentrated his work around religious and biblical themes. Hunter (1986, p. 88) suggests that Milton's epitaph may indicate his knowledge of epitaph literature in general and his awareness of other Shakespeare epitaphs particularly.
Julius Caesar and Paradise Lost
This is however not to say that similarities between Shakespeare and Milton are absent. Indeed, when considering Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" in comparison with Milton's "Paradise Lost," certain parallels can be identified. Brutus and Satan, for example, show some parallels in terms of betrayal and power. Although one is religious and the other political, both plays share the theme of betrayal by a trusted and loved subordinate. Both also focus on the theme of power as instigator for this betrayal (Textual Tapestry, 2009).
In "Julius Caesar," for example, Brutus is a tragic hero whose actions are not based upon initially negative intentions. Instead, he had noble intentions but was unintentionally the victim of those who sought civil war in Rome. A comparison can be made with Lucifer's Satan, who is also the victim of the political circumstances that surround him. Although Satan and God are religious figures, their particular relationship and their relationship with those around them are primarily based upon the politics of power. While both Satan and Brutus are then encouraged or even forced by circumstances to become traitors to their supreme rulers, God and Julius Caesar present rulers whose power can be perceived as supreme. Both superiors place trust in the subordinates in question who ultimately betray them. In both cases, the betrayal addresses issues of morality (Textual Tapestry, 2009).
In the case of Satan, betrayal is regarded as almost inevitable because of the assumption of evil in the character, his comparison with Brutus indicates that evil is not the primary reason for his drive to betray God. Instead, there were additional issues such as the relationship of the subordinate with the powerful, and the hunger for power. This relationship creates a platform for betrayal that is not based only upon the morality of the traitors, but also upon the way in which they experience this morality in terms of loyalty and power.
In Shakespeare's play, Caesar's ambition overtakes his higher ideals and he seeks to usurp the Roman republic. This ambition is what instigates Brutus' jealousy and his drive to ultimately betray Caesar. For Brutus, this decision is one that caused great mental agony. He spends a large among of time in contemplation on Caesar's nature as tyrant as opposed to friend. His decision hinges on whether the greater good is best served by eliminating Caesar, and whether the greater good is sufficiently important to betray his friendship and his leader.
There is also a parallel in terms of the imagery the two authors use, where there are several biblical elements in both the themes used by Shakespeare and Milton. Caesar's increasing tyranny, for example, can be compared to the "adder" of "Paradise Lost." In this way, evil is personified in the character of Caesar, which can be compared to the snake image by Milton. In this way, the story by Shakespeare is somewhat more complex than that by Milton. For Milton, his characters are at different religious poles, whereas both poles are represented by Brutus, the traitor, and the absolute power of Caesar. In "Paradise Lost," in contrast, God could never be compared to the image of the serpent.
As a man, Caesar can, however, also not successfully compare himself to the super-human, or godlike power. He seeks godly power and rulership over others, but being known as a man, succeeds only in creating resentment and jealousy among his subordinates. Shakespeare then uses this characterization to justify the later assassination.
Another comparable element between the works is Caesar's gift for oratory. This type of charisma is also something that Milton's Satan has. Both characters use their charm to gain popular support for their cause. It is also interesting to note that Brutus has significant oratorical skills, which he uses in order to gain support for an action that would generally be considered as morally reprehensible.
Satan's rebellion is instigated when God, like Caesar, makes a fundamental political change. In this, God is again compared with Caesar in Shakespeare while Brutus is compared with the rebellious Satan. Both God and Caesar are dictatorial figures, whose decisions are not open for discussion. This lack of potential input by subordinates creates the spirit of rebellion. Whereas Satan is generally accepted as an evil figure, Milton does portray his betrayal as a logical consequence of God's dictatorship and absolute power.
In the same way, Brutus' actions can be seen from two perspectives: the morally reprehensibility of betrayal, and the active choice for the unpopular option for the greater good. Brutus is not necessarily morally reprehensible, but appears so for the choice he makes. However, like Satan's, his choice can be seen as rational in the light of the conditions that lead up to it and surround it. As such, Brutus is portrayed as profoundly human, placed before a choice that is impossible from all perspectives. There is no favorable outcome in either case. Satan is also caught up between the drive to be loyal to his leader and the compulsion to rebel. It is this choice that create for both characters a reputation as morally reprehensible, since this is the popular opinion, although it is not necessarily deserved.
Indeed, both Milton and Shakespeare infuse their traitors with remarkable courage. Both are aware that they are acting against the popular opinion. Knowing their respective leaders intimately, both also know that the consequences of their betrayal could also result in disaster. Even in the face of death, however, Brutus' participation in the conspiracy against Caesar overrides his fear of death in favor of his sense of honor.
Both Brutus and Satan then occupy positions that are both condemned and admired. They make the best decisions they possibly can with the information and abilities they have at hand. In the roles that are assigned to them, neither can make a choice that redeems them, but both make the choice that they feel best serves their purpose.
As mentioned, Brutus is therefore a tragic hero. He begins as a man who is admired for his prowess within the Roman Empire. He ends as a man who is condemned for an action that others see as morally reprehensible. In the same way, Satan's initial position is one of extreme privilege and admiration, as God's chief musician.
Both Brutus and Satan are averse to the subordinating themselves to rulers with whom they can neither agree nor negotiate. Hence, defiance is a trait that both Brutus and Satan display. At the same time, both characters' relationship with their leaders was one of great significance to all involved. Nevertheless, the…