Controversies, #7 (Fall 1999)

"Hell in Milton and Shakespeare"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #7: This one began as a misunderstanding generated by my selective assignment of portions of Paradise Lost.  That raises issues about how survey courses operate and what cautions students (and teachers!) should bring to this kind of reading.   Further thought brought us to see that some deeper concerns lurked here in the depths.  As I look back on this discussion, a final question occurs: why have a "Hell" at all?  See More for one answer, but the consequences of going Hell-less are interesting to contemplate.  I believe that you can find survey data from recent decades which indicates Americans tend to believe in a Heaven, but not in a Hell.  Hmmm... Particpants: Shana Hellman, Beth Allee, and Arnie.

Hell inside the self vs. Hell outside the self?--Shana Hellman, 11/16/99

        I was just wondering why the idea of hell seems to be so transformed from Shakespeare's plays like Hamlet where hell is internal and can also be caused by other people. Milton seems very concerned with the outward hell, yet he himself admits that hell and heaven are related to the mind. Does the outward version of hell as a terrible place have to do with Milton's relationship to preachers, and the idea that preachers need to create such a scary place in order to influence congregations? Would the C17 see that means as more effective than Shakespeare's method of internalizing hell, and relating it to other people affecting your state of mind?

Milton's blindness and "Hell"--Beth Allee, 11/16/99

        Perhaps Milton refers to hell as external because of his blindness. The lack of a physical sense certainly leads him to focus more on the physical--external--things he can no longer see. For him, this could be his own personal kind of hell (obviously exaggerated) since it was a loss; something he once had but no longer does. The loss of a physical sense makes the person acutely conscious and longing for of all of her/his external surroundings. As for Shakespeare, well, someone else can answer that one... Beth Allee, 11/16/99

The Instructor's Hell?--Arnie, 11/16/99

        Sorry--the apparently exclusive emphasis on the external in Milton is an artifact of the selection I made when I wrote the syllabus. Books 1 and 2 are more involved with setting up the marvels of the epic's exotic locales than the later books, in which inward events like temptation and rebellion become important. In Book 4, at lines 32-113, Satan sighs with grief at his first sight of Eden, and he comes to echo Mephistophelis and Hamlet when he says: "Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell; / And in the lowest deep a lower deep / Still threatening to devour me opens wide, / To which the Hell I suffer seems a heaven" (ll. 75-8, 1534 in the Norton 6th ed.).  We've all got to keep in mind that English 211 is a survey course whose rapid pace causes it to resort to excerpted primary sources on occasion.  That necessarily distorts the reading, though I try to remember to correct for those distortions when I can predict them.  It's somewhat like taking the scissors to a videotape of a great movie--I'm in pain every summer as I contemplate the cuts I have to make because of our limited time. 

        However, any time you read, you're reading in a context that focuses your attention in a way different from the way you read the last time.  For instance, in my English 222 class in Fall 2000, many students were astonished at how much better Bronte's Jane Eyre was than the first time they read it in junior high school!  Think about it.  How much social and economic history do kids that young know, and how could they imagine Jane's 19-year-old struggle for authority against the adult male suitors, Rochester and Rivers, until those readers had approached or even passed through that age themselves?  The course's nominal subject, gender and writing, also puts a weird spin on things.  The women in that class read Jane's youthful interaction with the Reeds much differently from the way I did, in part because they knew some important things about being six to eight years old and female.

        Getting back to the current issue, the idea of linking Milton's rhetorical strategy and dramatic conventions with those of Protestant preachers makes a lot of sense, given his creed. Compare his Hell with Donne's in the sermon excerpt we read (1125-6). Shakespeare's participating in that Jacobean interest in the divided self, the torture inflicted upon us by contradictions in our lives which we cannot resolve, but it's not like that goes away when dramatic tastes turn toward grand spectacle. I think you're right to see a change of taste in this, maybe something to do with the shocking effects of the Civil War?  Remember that the notion of "Man the Microcosm" was still a popular piece of wisdom which many authors explored.   If we're all little "universes" and reflect the disorders seen in the Big Universe (the Macrocosm), then the disruption of the Macrocosm's "natural order" by scientific discovery, geographic exploration, political revolution, and commercial development all should be showing up in the microcosms which inhabit it.  Can you see this being represented in the character construction of late-Elizabethan and Jacobean literature?