"Paradise Lost" as Oral Epic


Hugh Macrae Richmond

Much literature was written for oral performance or may gain from it, not just drama but lyrics and narratives, as the successful staging of many a novel confirms. Specifically, many early epics were composed for recitation, from Homer’s Iliad to the Chanson de Roland. Teaching is mostly oral performance, requiring dynamism, pacing, diversity, and progression. Our experience at U.C. Berkeley is that performance by theatre professionals, faculty, or students themselves greatly increases the impact and intelligibility of most assigned texts. In addition to numerous plays of Shakespeare, and both Milton’s Comus and Paradise Lost, we have successfully staged works as different as dialogues of Plato, St. Paul’s letters, incantations by the witch Celestina of Rojas, speeches of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and even parts of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock,

Little or nothing in the way of costumes or props is required, but memorization is absolutely essential: reading aloud from the printed page rarely achieves textual mastery. The performers’ cadence, tone, and physical presence in such presentations enormously clarifies their scripts’ meaning and implications for other students, as well as ensuring a deeper understanding by the performers themselves, who are credited chiefly for communicating their understanding of their scripts via intelligible phrasing and emphasis, not for display of professional performance skills . Over many years of pursuing this practice I have almost invariably found that if a student understands a text, with a minimum of advice it will sound right and effectively communicate any insights. For example I have found I had never understood how dangerous the naïve and idealistic Don Quixote might be until I heard a perceptive but vocally untrained student recite one of his more idealistic speeches in passionate tones reminiscent of Adolf Hitler. Production costs for such limited performances can vary from nil, for rehearsal mode staging, to a few dollars for a modest supply of costume and props. These student performances are credited to them (and usually much welcomed!) as alternatives to minor exercises such as quizzes in the relevant courses in which the texts were assigned. A little advice and notes at a single brief rehearsal before each individual’s or team’s class presentation are very advantageous and may be offered by the instructor or any interested assistant. This advice is usually limited to correction of self-evident and elementary lapses in phrasing, posture, or audibility. Such minimal experience in public speaking ought to be a part of all education, and my students have always expressed great appreciation of a modest opportunity to develop their oral skills.

I was led to apply this oral experience specifically to the poetry of Milton by modest approaches including oral presentations of such brief poems as his Sonnets, which display a fascinating range of tone and style: the indignant imperiousness of “Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d Saints,” the colloquial wryness of his defense of his Tertrachordon, the epicurean delights of his dinner invitation to Lawrence, and the pathos of his lament for his wife “Methought I saw my late espoused Saint”. These make good preliminary exercises for dramatic recitations as do equally intense, brief extracts showing the personal overtones of his prose pamphlets, such as the appalling implications about his first marriage in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (Book 1, Chapter 3). Surprisingly, among the best brief excerpts for preliminary recitation from his longer works are Satan’s speeches in praise of Rome and Athens, in Paradise Regained. These are remarkably vivid surveys of these cities as seen from a high vantage point, like modern television travelogues, heightened by the irony of the guide’s identity in this case. From such brief excerpts my students aspired to the rather more ambitious project of a successful staging of complete briefer works such as Comus, which was lightly transposed to a graduation celebration by my undergraduates, and video-recorded. The related music was separately recorded for us by professional musicians to accompany the student production. More recently Comus has also been given a full concert performance by my U.C.B. colleague James Turner, including the songs and music. Since its composition Comus has often been revived by professionals and amateurs because of its modest production requirements, enforced by its origins at Ludlow Castle as an enterprise for the family of the Earl of Bridgewater. It proves far more amusing and vivid when performed than when read on the printed page, and was partly designed by Milton for unprofessional performers from the Bridgewater family.

The relevance of this kind of performance approach to Paradise Lost is increasingly recognized by such scholars as John G. Demaray in Milton’s Theatrical Epic: the Invention and Design of “Paradise Lost.” Every Miltonist knows that the blind Milton must have recited Paradise Lost in order for it to be written down by a scribe. Indeed, it was first conceived as a play as surviving drafts of plot and speeches confirm. Perhaps as a result of this initial conception, the text of Paradise Lost responds powerfully to vocal interpretation in ways which reverse conventional judgments by critics limited to silent reading of the text. Among other outcomes, the option to perform a part of Paradise Lost led to a startling presentation of selections about Satan’s intrusion into Eden by a group of my Philipino students who transposed the location to their homeland - opening with an Edenic setting in their native islands for which they used their own Tagalog translation of Milton’s text (surely the first appearance of Milton in that tongue). Their use of this language for the idyllic pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve was accompanied by indigenous native manners and costumes. But then an English-speaking Satan arrived in the disguise of a Calvinist missionary, through his speeches bringing a corrupting knowledge of sin, now expressed by the performers via parts of Milton’s original English text. The progression from native innocence to sophisticated corruption was painfully vivid, even in the compressed half hour of their selected dialogues. I have always regretted not having been able to make a video recording of this unique classroom experience, which stunned the rest of the class by its implications about manic crusaders of all kinds. Making such recordings with modern technology is now much easier for everyone and is valuable for use in subsequent classes as models or interpretative illustrations.
I would now like to explore a more detailed range of options for using this performance approach to help study Paradise Lost. There are great critical gains from such efforts in oral performance of many truly dramatic scenes from the work: the speeches by Satan and his cohorts in their debate in Hell; the contrasting family dialogues between God and his Son; the choric interjections by Milton himself as a human re-incarnation of the psychology behind many of these exchanges; and above all the truly dramatic progression of a marital relationship displayed in the dialogues between Adam and Eve. These last prove to have elements of psychological subtlety and even high comedy – which may remind us that it is a work contemporary with Restoration drama.

The first point to make is the unexpected ease of memorization of such scenes by students that confirms the vividness and plausibility of Milton’s style, insights, and characterizations. Among the seeming challenges to staging Paradise Lost is the length and syntactical complexity of the speeches. If one wishes to achieve fully effective performance, merely reading the text aloud is inadequate, lacking the full impact of physical involvement that is a crucial component in the audience’s grasping of meaning, which physical performance so enhances. However, one may well be concerned in a student performance by the sheer challenge to non-professionals of memorizing and sustaining speeches which (even when edited down somewhat) may run to fifty lines of blank verse of sophisticated rhetoric, as in the debates of the devils. To my surprise, my students had no problem of this kind whatsoever, which demonstrated that the devils’ speeches, for example, were so structured in a natural progression of feeling that the multiple clauses had a psychological continuity making memorization easy.

This factor led to our first discovery about the devils’ identities, that they are coherent mental structures, though not with the full complexity and even discontinuity which makes approximations to full human psychologies so much harder to master. Each of Milton’s devils is a study in mental aberration, whether nowadays we call it a neurosis or, as Milton might, a Vice. Every diabolic characterization is a formal diagnosis demonstrating the initiation, progression and outcome of a mental disease, each linked to its causal antecedent and consequent outcome. Thus Satan’s sense of dependency and subordination leads to resistance, subterfuge, conspiracy, violence, intransigence, nihilism, and self-destruction, all reflected in the positions advocated by his followers. Students will readily grasp this series of Miltonic insights if they are invited to perform characteristic speeches of each devil as a study in neurotic sensibility, not as a primarily rhetorical performance.

Inevitably one should begin with Satan himself as something like the over-riding ego of a dislocated personality, as communicated by Satan’s first speech (1.84-121) which displays all the obsessive determination of a resentful failure incapable of coming to terms with its own inadequacy. It is crucial for the performing student to recognize the progression in the mental condition displayed in this speech, from ruefulness to inflexible anger, which asserts a potency invalidated by the contextual circumstances. The insidious rationalizations of Beelzebub’s response, which follows (1.128-49), illustrate the diplomatic sophistries invited by failure, which we made more overt by casting this devil as a fawning female. This flexible accommodation to failure led in turn to the suicidal macho aggression of Moloch’s speech (II.51-105), whom we cast as a violent football lineman.

We found that such argumentative progressions gave the debate in Hell a remarkable accessibility and sequencing which aided memory by clarifying the psychological meaning of what was said. Thus the virile brutality of Moloch is followed by another potentially feminine casting if we make Belial’s speech (II.119-225) one of passive accommodation in the face of superior physical force – again a psychological option in the response to defeat. It is crucial to encourage students to rationalize the latent motivation in each speech in this way as an actor would do, not as a literary critic, at least initially. Mammon’s option following next (II.229-83), ,reflects a further choice in the face of loss – that of the practical businessman out to turn the given situation, however bad, into any possible kind of local profit. The wily Beelzebub resolves the conflict of options by advocating safely local action, however insignificant as a sop to frustration: activity will offset fear, as Satan then confirms. Thus the debate is a perfectly-unified psychomachia relevant and fully intelligible to modern psychology.

In our consolidated script this debate produced a manageable scene of some 250 lines that required each student participant to memorize and understand about 50 lines or so, which provides each individual with an excellent training in public speaking, without protracted effort. If this can be prepared and rehearsed before the class reads the scene the performance will have an electrifying effect. Students can be encouraged to volunteer by suspending their obligation to complete some minor class exercise such as a quiz or midterm or, more constructively, by offering an analytic essay to follow the performance, on such a topic as “what did you learn from performing Moloch before the class?”

However, the relation of the diabolic neuroses to living human reality ultimately requires consolidation in a full human personality, hence the early emergence of the author himself as the full incarnation of all these attitudes, immediately after the debates in Hell (III.1-55). This passage again offers an excellent opportunity for dramatic insight, because Milton’s own political defeat and blindness reduces him to a personal analogue to Satan’s Hell, full of darkness and despair. But unlike Satan and his cohorts Milton presents himself as more than eternally despairing, and works himself up to a positive glimpse of Heaven. This progression is another opportunity to give immediacy and meaning to the text, if a student can be persuaded to dramatize Milton’s own more human progression of feelings which match the narrative progression of the epic from hell to heaven, in terms similar to subjective passages in the prose writings such as the previously cited description of marital problems in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. In our performance of the whole script we found it best to use this epitome of the work’s psychological progression as an introduction, prefiguring the evolution of the subsequent story-line.

In paradoxical similarity to the debate in Hell in Book 2, the following debate in Heaven in Book III.80-322 invites a dramatic psychologizing of the text in actor’s terms. God the Father has often been compared to Milton’s own rather dogmatic parent, and if this divine version of the relationship in Paradise Lost is presented by live performers we perceive that God is far more paternally concerned with the fate of his son than determined to be repressive of delinquency or devising a theological resolution of the problem of evil. Again it is salutary in meeting the misreadings of Shelley and Empson if students can be invited to explore a condensation of this heavenly debate as an epitome of familial attitudes, tensions, and outcomes.

However, the full realization of social enactment of all these attitudes come at the climax of the epic in the realistic progression of the psychologies of Adam and Eve into fully aware and mature human beings, sharing the positive attitudes of Heaven, after running through a similar progression of negative attitudes to those in the debates in Hell. It is possible to create a string of vignettes of this progression, beginning with the idyllic cadences of their early dialogues, which have the sweetness of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet (IV.610-56). However, this interaction is modified when Eve decides that she should be allowed independence of Adam’s supervision (IX.205-383), and then is further attracted by the option of superiority offered by Satan, leading to a debate with herself about whether to confine the advantage to herself (IX.473-834). She decides that option is too risky, leaving Adam free of potential penalty, in a speech that is a comic masterpiece of solipsism. She then deliberately seduces him into acceptance of any penalties by sharing her choice, inviting a testimony of devotion by Adam which is an ironic contrast to their initial mutual loyalty, since it requires him more or less to accept a suicide compact (IX.856-1032). In due course, their disobedience having been discovered, a brutal Adam shockingly reproaches her and they quarrel bitterly, only for a repentant Eve to seek reconciliation (IX. 967-1187). Thereafter
Adam dissuades her from her suicidal inclinations, so that mutual affection and marital resiliency are restored (; X.888-1096).

In many ways this archetypal series of exchanges delineates the first marital quarrel of any newly married husband and wife, in lively scenes approaching the character of Dryden’s roughly contemporary comedy Marriage à la Mode. The nuances of feeling involved invite dramatic performance but require no excessive histrionic skills. The range of emotion is well within the reach of most undergraduates’ verbal powers since they have probably observed or experienced something like this kind of emotional cycle, With the addition a few additional speeches by Raphael and the Son, this sequence can be compacted into a core playlet which elucidates the whole epic, because the emotions of Adam and Eve realistically incarnate the full range of experience allegorized by the fallen angels, from Satan’s ambitions to the options elucidated in the debate in Hell, to the subsequent celestial ones in which resolve the crisis.

These sequences in Heaven, Hell and Eden, are vividly dramatic and mutually illuminating if played together – particularly if Milton’s own soliloquies are added to provide a further possible dimension of analogous modern experience of the progression from error to resolution. If we extract and slightly abbreviate the direct speech of all these characters in the epic, the result is a compact neoclassical drama needing about 120 minutes to perform and presenting an economical epitome of the work. However, each of the four progressions can also stand on its own. providing a self-sufficient one-act play needing half an hour to present. Even single speeches in each progression can be treated dramatically, such as Eve’s soliloquy meditating on whether to involve Adam in her transgression, or her contrasting plea for reconciliation with him. Even such brief presentations are enormously illuminating to a class, and invite deeper understanding and legitimate sympathy for Eve in this case, just as similar extracts by Satan have traditionally done for him (though appropriately misleading, if given without a context). Many of other single speeches in Heaven and Hell, or by Milton himself provide opportunities for vivid realization of personality or mood, but it is preferable to establish contrasting pairs of speeches, attitudes or personalities, because this evokes the intrinsic dramatic tension of the whole epic.

Brief examples realizing the performance approaches described here can be found in the video documentary Milton by Himself, distributed by Films for the Humanities. Our two-hour script based on the dialogue in Paradise Lost has been published by Peter Lang and it provides a consecutive sequence of all scenes which can be acted, presented as a coherent play, and thus including appropriate individual speeches for oral performance, and self-sufficient scenes which can be staged with minimum or no cost. The text’s introduction is a descriptive essay about how such staging works in practice. As for alternative experiences in performing the epic, a libretto based on it by Benjamin Stillingfleet with music by John Christopher Smith the Younger was first performed in 1760, with a printed version that year (re-edited by Kay Stevenson and Margaret Sears in 1998), and other musical versions followed. More currently, in 2006 there were favorably-reviewed stage performances of a three-hour version of Paradise Lost at the Oxford (U.K.) Playhouse. For several years concert recitations of Paradise Lost have also been successfully presented in England and elsewhere by David Burns, based on recitation of complete books chosen from the full text.


Demaray, John G., Milton’s Theatrical Epic: the Invention and Design of “Paradise Lost,” Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Milton by Himself, Videocassette and DVD, produced by Hugh M. Richmond, directed by Paul Shepard, Princeton: Films for the Humanities, 1988.

Revard, Stella, “From the State of Innocence to the Fall of Man: the Fortunes of Paradise Lost as Opera and Oratorio,” in Milton’s Legacy in the Arts, ed. Albert C. Labriola and Edward Sichi, Jr., University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988, 95-104.

Richmond, Hugh M., John Milton’s Drama of “Paradise Lost,” New York: Peter Lang, 1991.

Richmond, Hugh M., The Christian Revolutionary: John Milton, Berkeley: California University Press, 1974.

Stevenson, Kay Gilliland, and Margaret Sears, eds., Paradise Lost in Short: Smith,
Stillingfleet, and the Transformation of Epic, Farleigh Dickinson Press, 1998.

For further material about "Paradise Lost" see "Approaches to Teaching Milton's 'Paradise Lost'," Second Edition, Editor: Peter C. Herman, New York: Modern Languages Association, 2012.