The characters of Satan in Paradise Lost by John Milton and of Othello in Othello by William Shakespeare are prominent examples of heroes. Interestingly, they represent considerably different views on heroism. Comparing Satan and Othello as heroes can help to understand how the concept of the hero transforms over time because of the changes in society and in people’s views, largely caused by historical processes.
The depiction of heroism in Othello, a play published in 1622, was significantly influenced by the consequences of the discovery of the New World and by the active foreign policy of England of that period. Expanding the borders of the known world in the 15th century led to the emergence of multiple celebrated adventures and privateers. The latter were actively used and encouraged during the Anglo-Spanish War that lasted till the beginning of the 17th century and during England’s attempts to colonize a part of South America in the 17th century. In a way, an image of such adventurers and privateers can be seen in Othello. The Moor has been to many exotic countries and went through countless dangers and calamities, including even slavery. However, due to his courage, will power, strength, and military skills, he succeeded in overcoming all of these dangers and achieved fame, wealth, and high status. Retelling his breathtaking adventures also helped him to win over a beautiful young woman’s heart and make her his wife. His physical and psychological superiority, comparing to regular people, and his great achievements make him a hero.
But the purpose of Othello’s heroic deeds was rather personal and selfish (the aforementioned fame, wealth, and status, as well as maybe his love for adventures and battles). In all his endeavors, he didn’t really strive to help or save anyone besides himself. In this regard, the Moor is similar to the heroes of the ancient world (ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, for example). One may mention that Othello was loyal to Venice when performing his heroic deeds. But this loyalty was rather a sign of his professionalism as a military officer than of his patriotism to the country, which was foreign to him. The image of the enemy opposing Othello as a hero is also very specific for that historical period. It is a foreign invader, alien and professing a different religion. Such image of an enemy may be inspired by the natives of the New World the Europeans encountered and by the Protestant-Catholic antagonism in the Thirty Years’ War, which started a few years before the play was published.
The heroism in Paradise Lost (1667), on the other hand, was influenced by the changes in the English society caused by the long-lasting opposition of the king and the Parliament in the 17th century, the climax of which was the English Civil War and the temporary abolition of monarchy. The confrontation began when the King of England started increasing taxes, inventing unfair fines, oppressing the Scots, various religious groups, and the people of England in general. The Parliament and the army accused the King of tyranny and rebelled, claiming the aims of freedom and equality for all the citizens of England. This situation is very similar to the rebellion of Angels in Paradise Lost. In the poem, the all mighty tyrant was the enemy of heroic Satan. The Devil also claims to fight for freedom and equality in Heaven and against the oppressive absolute monarchy. As much as Othello, Satan possesses such features and skills as courage, will power, strength, and military skills. But the main difference between the two characters in terms of heroism is that whenever the Fallen Archangel was truly heroic, he did it for the sake of others. When he and his troops lost the war, Satan risked his life and went through multiple dangers and great difficulties to ensure that all of his peers and followers could escape Hell and find a pleasant place to live. The Fallen Archangel may have sent any of his subordinates to perform the task. But he decided to take this responsibility himself and never forgot about his obligations before his followers in the process. In this regard, Satan is much closer to the modern understanding of heroism, which implies risking one’s life and making some sacrifices to help and save others.
Comparing the heroism of Othello and of Satan allows to trace the evolution of the concept of the hero and to determine some of the causes of such changes. Othello embodies a hero of the ancient world: a superior human being, who performs heroic deeds while pursuing personal purposes. Satan’s heroism is much closer to the modern understanding of the concept: he possesses all of the merits of Othello, but also acts heroically not only for himself, but for the sake of others too. However, both views on heroism are largely influenced by the changes in the society, which, in turn, are brought about by historical processes. Thus, one can expect that the concept of the hero will continue to change over time.