Chauvinist Pig: Situating John Milton in a Feminist Discourse Through Comparative Study

An illustration William Blake made for Milton's 'Paradise Lost'.

An illustration William Blake made for Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.

Introductory note: The following post is a little long (15 single-spaced pages), so be sure have a little time before you start reading.  And if you are interested in the works of John Milton, I have another piece on ‘Areopagitica’ and how it’s arguments  are applied to works of dystopian fiction which can be found here.  I also have short reviews of his masque Comus and his closet play Samson Agonistes and have reviewed two monographs on Milton by Achsah Guibbory and Sharon Achinstein respectively.  Please feel free to check them out, share and leave comments.




Chauvinist Pig:

Situating John Milton in a Feminist Discourse Through Comparative Study


John Milton

John Milton

Given his standing as one of the most highly syllabized authors from the Restoration period, it is no surprise that many feminist theorists have enlisted the works of John Milton to promote progressive attitudes on gender equality.  Diane McColley, for example, claims that when writing Paradise Lost, Milton “struck off the chains of custom” and that he held “high regard for… both sexes” (McColley, 177).  Holding high regard for both sexes does not, however, mean Milton saw the two sexes on parity terms.  Like McColley, Larry Langford argues that “Eve represents an alternative realm which… manifests its independence and… [allows] the reader to consider… better worlds than the one inhabited by the original human pair” (Langford, 120).  This observation may be accurate as well, but does not mean that Milton promoted equality for the sexes.  Such interpretations may help promote feminist ideals, but can be problematic as Milton’s work does carry the potential for far less progressive readings and may undermine gender equality.  Though many of Milton’s work were considered politically progressive during the Restoration, they often served to forward Milton’s own political agency and not the political agency of women.  Being a Dissenter, works like Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes serve as allegories that promote Puritan ideals that worked in concert with Milton’s personal religious beliefs.  The ‘Doctrine and the Discipline of Divorce’ argues in favour of divorce and was published at a time when Milton himself was hoping to procure a divorce.  When the tract was censored, Milton responded with his landmark work ‘Areopagitica’, which argued against prepress censorship and in favour of allowing Milton the agency to express himself in the public realm.  Many of Milton’s works function in the same way, and most promoted progressive views concerning the rights of men and religious freedoms, but few, if any, promoted expanded rights for women.  An open reading can pull feminist arguments out of Milton’s work, however, when doing a comparative study between Milton’s works and both the works commonly studied during the Restoration, and works published during the Restoration, it is clear that, though Milton was eager to argue for an expansion of his own rights and freedoms, his works ultimately serve to reinforce the patriarchal archetypes of women in the era.


Homer, not to be confused with Homer SImpson.

Homer, not to be confused with Homer SImpson.

There was perhaps no poet who more widely read in the Restoration than Homer, and though Homer composed The Odyssey several centuries before Milton, when comparing Homer’s Penelope to Eve, as presented in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Homer can be read as the more progressive of the two poets.  Milton’s work calls for a comparison to such epics as he intentionally employs the epic form for his work.  A comparison between Eve and Penelope seems especially logical because in both narratives the female protagonists find themselves in the absence of their patriarchal counterparts: Adam in the case of Eve, and Odysseus in the case of Penelope.  Perhaps the starkest contrast between the two women is their intellect.  When left alone, Eve is confronted with Lucifer, who seeks to deceive her with “His fraudulent temptation” (Milton, Pl 9.531).  His deceitful nature is reinforced by Milton with words like ‘sly’, ‘wily’, and ‘guilefully’ (613, 624, 655), but Eve is ‘unwary’ (614) and Lucifer gains easy entrance confidence (734).  Milton is careful to note how dishonest Lucifer is, and equally particular in noting that Eve is utterly unequipped to deal with such cunning.  This sits in stark contrast to how Penelope interacts with male figures who approach her whilst her husband is absent.  When a horde of suitors press Penelope to choose a new husband under the pretense that Odysseus had died, she asks them to wait whilst she weaves a burial shroud for her father-in-law: Lord Laertes.  Each night Penelope had “torches set beside [the shroud] and undid the work” (Homer, 16), outwitting her male suitors for three years.  Though physically weaker than her suitors, Penelope overcomes whatever might they may possess by cunningly employing what is seen as a feminine and domestic hobby to “fend off the suitors for a protracted period” (Lowenstam, 225).  Even after being fooled by Penelope once, the suitors find that Penelope is able to convince them to provide her with gifts, though she has no intention of marrying any of them.  Odysseus “was delighted with her words because she was extorting from her suitors and bewitching them by her persuasive words” (Homer, 245-246).  Rather than being the victim of deceitful words, as Eve was, Penelope is able to defend herself against those who seek to exploit her, outwitting such predators.  Some have argued that Penelope was merely supplicating to her patriarchal lord in outwitting the suitors, but whilst Penelope was weaving the shroud, there was no promise that Odysseus would return, and, as Steven Lowenstam notes, the trick of the shroud allowed her to extend “her independence from the suitors” (Lowenstam, 337).  The shroud, then, was not necessarily a trick that facilitated her reunion with her patriarch, but rather one the extended her own autonomy.  When comparing how their respective women handle themselves, it seems clear that Homer’s Penelope is far more capable and progressive than Milton’s Eve and that Milton’s work is dismissive of the female intellect, negating a feminist reading.


Hans Balinding's portrayal of Eve.

Hans Balinding’s portrayal of Eve.

It is important to not only compare how the women constructed by Homer and Milton perform intellectually, but also how they are perceived by the men around them.  In Paradise Lost, the perceptions of Eve, both on the part of the characters, as well as from the perspective of the poetic voice, are less than flattering.  Adam suggests that Eve is “inferior in the mind” (Milton, PL, 8.540).  Despite such an overtly defamatory assessment of Eve, critics such as Langford suggest that Eve “represents and alternative realm” that allows readers to consider “other and possibly better worlds” (Langford, 120).  This seems unrealistically optimistic when considering the views on Eve expressed by the poetic voice which states that the sexes are “not equal” (4.296), and states that it is men who are, for “contemplation… and valour

Henri Rousseau's depiction of Eve.

Henri Rousseau’s depiction of Eve.

formed” (297), whilst women were created for their “softness… and sweet attractive grace” (298).  How Langford managed to gather that Milton wrote Eve in such a fashion as to encourage the reader to imagine other and even better worlds through her perspective is perplexing when not even the poetic voice has nothing complimentary to offer concerning Eve’s intellectual capacity.  Eve also subordinates her intellect to Adam, saying that Adam is her law and that “to know no more/ Is woman’s happiest knowledge” (637-8), prescribing a limited intellectual scope for women to aspire to.  Such perceptions of women are ascribed by celestial authority as well, as the angel Michael tells Adam that he must “learn/ True patience” (11.360-361) and be able to lead (364).  Michael does not see Eve as fit for learning and leading, duties that require intellect, as he suggests that he and Adam let Eve “sleep below while” (367-368) Michael teaches Adam about humanity’s future.  Raphael also has disparaging comments to say about Eve, claiming that she is the weaker of the two (6.909).  Whether it be the poetic voice, the male characters, the celestial characters, or even Eve herself, there seems to be an utter absence of characters in Paradise Lost who believe that women are on a par with men intellectually.


Penelope, as she works on the shroud.

Penelope, as she works on the shroud.

This is a stark contrast from how Penelope is perceived in The Odyssey.   Odysseus, for one, has a far different opinion of Penelope’s intellect than Adam does of Eve’s, stating that “there is not a man in the world who could find fault” with Penelope (Homer, 252).  The poetic voice refers to Penelope as “intelligent and resourceful” (258), placing Homer and Milton at odds in how they view the intellectual capacity of women.  Telemachus, Penelope’s son, proclaims that Penelope has an “excellent brain, and… genius… that has no equal” (18), placing Penelope not merely as an equal to a masculine intellect, but above it.  On the matter of learning, while Milton’s angels saw Eve as unfit to learn, Homer sees Penelope as an instructor, as she tutors her son on social interactions, guiding him on matters of judgement and shrewdness (244).  Homer, where Milton makes Eve clearly subordinate, make Penelope not only intellectually resourceful, but superior to all men, while Homer’s poetic voice is far more complimentary to Penelope than Milton’s is to Eve.  Of the contrasts that appear in the two poems, there are perhaps none more overt than the fact that Penelope acts as the instructor of men, whilst Eve is incapable of even understanding such instruction.  It is clear when examining how Eve and Penelope are respectively perceived in Paradise Lost and The Odyssey, the Milton’s portrayal of women is far less progressive than is Homer’s.


God, as depicted here by Mike Angelo Michelangelo, was not nearly as chauvanistic as Milton.

God, as depicted here by Mike Angelo Michelangelo, was not nearly as chauvinistic as Milton.

Given that Paradise Lost is based on a biblical narrative, it is possible that the source material, and not Milton, is the basis for the chauvinistic presentation of Eve.  However, when comparing Milton’s poem to the Genesis narrative, it becomes clear that Milton is indeed the author of many of these chauvinistic views.  In the biblical narrative, it is asserted that Adam and Eve were, upon Eve’s creation at least, “one flesh” (Genesis, 2.24).  In being ‘one flesh’, there is a kind of implied equality between the two.  Rather than being one flesh in Milton’s work, though, Eve is merely the “flesh of [Adam’s] flesh” (Milton, 4.442).  The word ‘of’ is often denotes possession or ownership, and so places Eve in a subordinate position to Adam.  Eve does apply a metaphor which suggests the two are one, stating that without Adam she is without a head (443), but this uniformity does not offer the kind of equality that the biblical assessment does.  Instead, the man is placed squarely as the very literal head, reaffirming patriarchal hierarchies.  When it comes to Adam’s eating of the forbidden fruit, in Milton’s work Eve is moved by self-preservation and jealousy in beguiling Adam to eat as she states she is worried that Adam might be “wedded to another Eve” (9.829) and that she “shall be no more” (827).  In the biblical text, there is no such references to Eve beguiling Adam.  Instead it simply states that Eve gave the fruit “unto her husband” and “he did eat” (Genesis, 3.6): no motivations for her actions are offered.  Eve does, in both instances, talk Adam into eating the fruit, but the self-preserving act of jealousy is invented by Milton and is not present in the source material.  Another key difference between Paradise Lost and Genesis, is the presentation of the subordination of women.  As a result of her lapse, the source material states that Eve’s “desire shall be to [her] husband [and that] he shall rule” (3.16) over her, suggesting that it was not until the fall that Eve was made subordinate to her husband.  In Milton’s text, though, Eve is subordinate to Adam upon her conception, with the poetic voice claiming that Adam was made “for God only, and she for God in him” (Milton, 2.299).  With this language, Milton connects Eve, not directly to god, but rather, to Adam.  In the pre-lapse world, Adam serves god and Eve serves Adam: a stark contrast to the source text which clearly articulates that the subordination of women did not exist in the utopic, Edenic world, but rather only in the post-fall world.  When examining Milton’s work alongside the source text, be it in his metaphor of Adam being head, or his postulation as to what Eve’s motivations for convincing Adam to eat the fruit, or even his presentation of the nature of Eve’s subordination to Adam, it is clear that Milton can be ascribed as the author of many the chauvinistic elements present within Paradise Lost.


Gustave Klimnt's Eve.

Gustave Klimnt’s Eve.

Milton’s portrayal of Eve often focuses on her physical attributes, rather than her cognitive or spiritual potential, an aspect which is especially troubling when put in the context of Milton’s dissenting views and one that is present neither in the source text, nor in Homer’s work.  For many Dissenters, the Church of England (COE) represented the physical and carnal world and “Christ’s descent into flesh and triumph in the spirit represent the history of God’s church” (Guibbory, 149).  Ceremonies, in turn, represented the flesh (149), which Christ was sent to overcome, and because the COE embraced ceremony, many Dissenters believed the COE had “turned the religion of Christ into something ‘outward’ and carnal” (150).  Milton’s presentation of Eve, focusing primarily on her physical being, can then be seen as aligning Eve, and in turn women, with the COE.  The poetic voice of Paradise Lost notes that Eve was made beautiful for Adam’s enjoyment (Milton, 8.576), an observation which situates Eve with carnality.  Adam reinforces this when he says he is attracted by her beauty and filled with ravishment when he gazes upon her (46-47).  Adam makes

Penelope Cruz would make a great Penelope in a film adaptation of 'The Oddyessy;.

Penelope Cruz would make a great Penelope in a film adaptation of ‘The Odyssey’.

no mention of admiring Eve’s spirit or intellect.  When confronted with Eve’s lapse, Adam agrees to join her in the fallen state, claiming that they are one flesh (9.959) and stating that he is dependent on Eve (943).  This ties Adam’s lapse with the physical world, which is represented by Eve.  Both of the arguments Lucifer employs to sway Eve are entrenched in the physical world.  Eve is described both as mindless and as the fairest flower (431-432), and when Lucifer speaks to her, he addresses her beauty, calling her the fairest “celestial beauty” (539-540) and recognizing her as the “Empress of the world” (568).  In linking her with the world, he ties Eve to the corporal realm.  Penelope, contrarily, is not celebrated for her beauty as “the gods destroyed [her] loveliness of face and form… when… Odysseus” (Homer, 245) left for Troy.  Penelope, despite not being the ‘fairest flower’, remains celebrated by her son and husband, as well as the many suitors.  Neither is the celebration the corporal beauty present in the biblical narrative.  The snake, who isn’t even identified as Lucifer, appeals strictly to Eve’s intellect and virtue, assuring her that she will gain knowledge and an understanding of good and evil (Genesis, 3.5).  Eve’s fall is then, according to Milton, facilitated by the physical realm as her “eager appetite [is] raised by the smell” (Milton, 9.740) of the fruit.  It is her “rash hand” (780), not her rash mind, that takes the forbidden fruit, linking her decision making, not with her mind or spirit, but with her body.   In the source material, Eve ate the fruit because she believed it would “make one wise” (Genesis, 3.6).  Just as the celestial being dismissed Eve’s intellect, so to do they define her by the corporal.  Raphael, for example, when speaking to Eve, does not address her spirituality, nor does he engage her intellect.  Instead, when he addresses her, he calls her the

Caravaggio depicts much stronger biblical women than Milton.

Caravaggio depicts much stronger biblical women than Milton.

“mother of mankind, whose fruitful womb/ Shall fill the world” (5.388-389) with her sons.  Eve is defined in strictly physical terms by Raphael.  This exchange is completely an invention on Milton’s part as the source material describes no scenes where Eve or Adam interact with any angels.  This comes into play again when Adam and Eve are guided out of Eden.  Whilst the angel Michael is foretelling Adam about the future of humankind, Eve is put to sleep.  In her slumber god speaks to Eve in her dreams and tells her of the role the Virgin Mary will eventually play in delivering Christ into the world (12.610-623).  The contribution that women are to make to the redemption of humanity, then, is not one based on spirit or intellect, but rather one based on their physical functions, and so, even when providing redemption to humanity, women are relegated specifically to the corporal realm.  This dream sequence, like the dialogue between Adam, Eve and the angels, is the product of Milton’s imagination as no such sequence occurs in the source material.  Milton clearly links Eve with the corporal world, and though the source material lacks the presence of such an overt association, Milton invents scenarios that tie women almost exclusively to the corporal world, and there by links Eve with the COE and places women in opposition to the dissenting views which Milton sough to promote.


Paradise Lost isn’t the only work in which Milton reinvents the role of a woman appropriated from a biblical text, as he does the same in his closet play Samson Agonistes, linking women again with the corporal world via a dialogue set in a Philistine prison.  The work centers on Samson’s tenure in a Philistine prison and, as Sharon Achinstein notes, it was common in England for Dissenters to be imprisoned.  This dissenting prisoners often received a multitude of visitors and, in the case of celebrity prisoners such as George Fox, required “a guard of now fewer than fifteen or sixteen” to keep watch over them (Achinstein, 61).  These “Dissenters sought known stories that would give meaning to their experiences” (75), and the story of Samson was one such narrative.  By introducing prison visits to the Samson narrative, Milton, who himself had been one such prisoner, made that source material even more relatable to his contemporaries.  This link is made expressly when comparing the rhetoric of the era to Milton’s text.  Achinstein notes that Dissenters saw themselves as free in prison, since they could not be further punished, and goes onto observe that “Samuel Butler mocked this saying ‘No where, but in a Prison, free’” (74).  Samson, with a sincere tone, echoes this sentiment, asserting that he counted the jail as “the house of liberty” (Milton, SA, 949), making this link between Samson and the dissenting prisoners overt.


Delilah with Samson, as painted by Peter Paul and Mary Rubens.

Delilah with Samson, as painted by Peter Paul and Mary Rubens.

The prison dialogue between Samson and his visitors is meant to mirror the conversation between imprisoned Dissenters and their visitors, and it is through this dialogue that Milton constructs womanhood and reinforces the connection between women and the corporal world.  In the biblical text, Delilah is offered financial recompense for betraying Samson, and though it is not explicitly stated that she accepted this incentive (Judges, 16.5), most readers would assume that the link is at the very least implied.  This, however, is not Delilah’s motives in Milton’s work.  Samson presses Delilah, asking her to confess that it was Philistine gold that motivated her (Milton, 829-831).  Delilah counters that it “was not gold”, but “all the bonds of civil duty” that moved her to rescue her “country from a fierce destroyer” (849, 853, 984).  Though loyalty to her country may seem, on the surface, to be more commendable than assumed avarice present in the source material, in the context of dissenting culture in Restoration England, this may not have been the case.  As Guibbory notes, Delilah was “a woman symbolically identified with a foreign, seductive idolatry [who] enacts the stance of the godly nonconformist in the Restoration” (Guibbory, 224).  Being loyal to a civil power over a godly power, then, would have been linked with loyalty to the corporal realm over the spiritual.  To counter this, Delilah states that she was hoping to be “meritorious with the gods” by “ensnar[ing] an irreligious” (Milton, 859-860) enemy like Samson, uplifting “the public good” over private respects (867-868).  For Milton’s dissenting readers, however, this would have reinforced Delilah’s link with the corporal, as they rejected ritual and ceremony with the hopes of finding a personal and private relationship with god.  Delilah, adversely, sought to conform.  Samson makes such a debate strictly academic when he debunks Delilah’s claim to a religious motivation, claiming that she “feigned religion smoothly” (872).  He goes onto link her with witchery when he states that he needs to “fence [his] ear against [Delilah’s] sorceries” (937) and calls her a “cunning sorceress” (819).  Milton invents Delilah’s loyalty to the civic body, and by doing so links Delilah with the corporal realm.  Though ascribing such nationalistic loyalty in place of avarice might seem, to a modern reader, as though Milton were making Delilah’s betrayal to Samson more commendable, to a dissenting reader in the restoration, Delilah likely would have been the epitome the enemy, her civic loyalty linking her with a corporal monarch over a spiritual one.



Jan Steen's Samson and Delilah looks more like Othello and Desdemona, but may be more accurate than most other depictions for that reason.

Jan Steen’s Samson and Delilah looks more like Othello and Desdemona, but may be more accurate than most other depictions for that reason.

Milton’s reformation of Delilah goes beyond this link with the corporal monarch and extends to an attack on the female intellect and weakness in a manner that is not dissimilar to Milton’s portrayal of Eve in Paradise Lost.  Delilah claims the weakness in her is “incident to all [the female] sex” (774-775), something she repeats throughout her dialogue (779, 785).  This weakness extends to her intellect as she goes onto claim that she was “a fool, too rash, and quite mistaken”, linking her with Milton’s Eve whose hands were also too ‘rash’ and whose intellect was likewise mistaken.  Just as Lucifer has tempted Eve with false logic to forgo her spiritual saviour in favour of corporal desire, so to do the Philistines, “ever at [her] ear”, preach how estimable Delilah would be in the eyes of the gods should she forgo her spiritual link with her husband in favour of her civic duties (858-860).  Like Eve, Delilah confesses that she was unable to “oppose… such powerful arguments” (862), admitting that in “argument with men, a woman ever/ Goes by the worse” (903-904).  This situates the female intellect as inferior to the male, but Delilah’s repentance, at first, seems to suggest that she is capable enough to recognize, like Eve, the error of her ways, as she admits that her actions were rash and humbles herself before Samson, begging for forgiveness and peace (965).  This repentance, and in turn her apparent intellectual growth, seem to be undermined by her latter assertion that she chose to be celebrated at “solemn festivals”, have “annual flowers” placed on her tomb (984, 986) and will not “count it heinous to enjoy/ Public marks of honour and reward” for her actions against Samson (991-1000).  Such boasting negates everything that precedes this,

The Samson/Lion story is not featured in Milton's play, but has been depicted through a lego story board here.

The Samson/Lion story is not featured in Milton’s play, but has been depicted through a lego story board here.

and so, even as she proclaims to be aware of the follies in the appeal laid out to her, she still hangs onto them as valid.  Delilah also indulging in vanity as she fanaticizes about the manner in which she will be uplifted by the generations that will follow her, just as Eve thought she would be uplifted to the status of goddess.  To readers who have the benefit of hindsight, such boasting is doubly degrading considering that she will not, in fact, be celebrated as she postulates, and so further demonstrates her foolishness.  All of this dialogue, though it might work in concert with Milton’s presentation of Eve, is entirely absent from the source text.  Once Samson has been apprehended by the Philistines, there is no further mention of Delilah in the biblical narrative, and her link with Samson, according to the biblical text, was not a marriage.  Milton, though, makes it such when Samson articulates that Delilah “received [him] as a husband” (883) and refers to her as his traitorous wife (726) when she is first introduced into the work.  Milton adds this marriage to make Delilah’s betrayal more reprehensible, and so increases the severity of her unfaithfulness to a level that is simply not present in the biblical tale.  It is clear both that Milton departed drastically from the source text, and that his additions to the Samson narrative, just like his additions to the creation narrative, serve to portray women as weak both spiritually and intellectually.


comusComus is an example of an original work Milton authored that features female characters that were uniquely his own and who did not serve as examples of the shortcomings of women.  In the masque, Milton portrays a woman named The Lady who, like Eve, is left to her own devices in a natural setting where she meets an antagonist who seeks to sully her purity by corrupting her through the corporal world.  Unlike Eve, however, The Lady is more than capable of seeing through the false logic of her seducer.  The Lady demonstrates a degree of humility when she first enters the narrative, hypothesizing on the location of a sound based on what she heard, but being care to add “if my earns be true” (Milton, Comus, 170: emphasis added).  Here The Lady questions her own senses, in this case her hearing, and follows her senses tentatively, recognizing that they may not be true by employing the word ‘if’.  This is a sharp contrast from Eve and Delilah who are both described as rash, and Eve especially who is eager to indulge in her senses rather than question them.  This also situates The Lady as a dissenting heroine as she questions the corporal realm.


Comus was like a Restoration version of Robin Thicke, trying to talk ladies into fornicating.

Comus was like a Restoration version of Robin Thicke, trying to talk ladies into fornicating.  If Comus was a musical, it would be called Not So Blurred Lines.

Hearing is not the only sense which The Lady rejects as, when confronted with Comus’s logical defence of engaging in the sex act, The Lady does not fall prey to his seductive words and ultimately opts to abstain from the sensations of the physical gratification offered by the title character.  Comus tells The Lady that she is wasting her fertility (729) and draws on nature to support his argument, claiming that “Nature lent/ For gentle usage” a fertile young body to The Lady and that she is “an ill borrower” for receiving this gift “on other terms” (680-684).  This rhetoric is extended when Comus notes, after being rejected by The Lady, that if she allows time to slip, she will be “like a neglected rose” and wither “on a stalk with [a] languished head” (743-744).  The Lady, however, recognizes these words as deceitful and says as much, calling Comus a “false traitor” who will “not restore the truth” and has “banished from [his] tongue with lies” (690-693).  Though Comus vainly attempts to pass his words off as sincere, The Lady is not fooled and confronts him, stating plainly that he “betrayed [her] credulous innocence” with “vizored falsehood and base forgery” (697-698).  With this language, The Lady makes it clear that she sees through the mask Comus has attempted to disguise his motives with, placing her far above Eve in her ability to discern sincerity from false reason.  Though Comus attempts to entice The Lady with the promise of physical gratifications, The Lady opts instead to maintain her spiritual integrity and chastity.



The Lady, unlike Eve, has a wise appetite.

The Lady, unlike Eve, has a wise appetite.

Taste is another sense which The Lady addresses and ultimately rejects in favour of the spiritual world.  The Lady employs a rhetoric that presents her as a feminine figure that is diametrically opposed to Eve, comparing Comus’s temptation to a fruit  and asserting that “that which is not good, is not delicious” and that she has a “too well-governed and wise [an] appetite” (704) to be deceived by Comus’s words.  This metaphor links Comus’s temptation with the consumption of food, drawing a parallel to Eve’s consumption of the forbidden fruit.  In the context of Milton’s description of Eve’s ‘rash hand’ and Delilah’s ‘rash mind’, this metaphor seems to place The Lady squarely in opposition to Eve and Delilah, both in terms of restraint and in terms of intellect.  This is rhetoric of the rejection of gastronomic temptation is reinforced when The Lady describes Comus as possessing a “swinish gluttony” (776).  The rhetoric of consumption seems to place the conversation in the corporal realm with The Lady rejecting the taste of alluring sustenance in favour of spiritual purity.


The Lady, as illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

The Lady, as illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

When Comus’s persists with his rhetoric, The Lady simply asks if he thinks he would “charm [her[ judgment, as [her] eyes/ Obtruding false rules pranked in reason’s garb” (758-759).  Her again The Lady sees through false reason, and also links her rejection with the rejection of the corporal world.  She admits that his garb is pleasing to her eyes, but she separates the spirit from the body.  Just as she questions her hearing, and then chose not to taste of a metaphorical fruit, so too does she reject her vision, all in favour of spiritual insight over physical gratification.  Her analysis of Comus’s false rhetoric offers him one final insult as she invites him to “enjoy his dear wit, and gay rhetoric” (790) as she stands firm in her refusal of his advances, even under the threat of physical harm.  In each of these instances, be it in questioning her hearing, forgoing physical gratification, positioning her temptation as the rejection of a false fruit, or renouncing the appraisal of her own eyes, The Lady utterly rejects all aspects of the corporal realm in favour of the spiritual, making her a unique figure within Milton’s canon.


It was a young John Milton who penned 'Comus'.  In later years his presentation of women would not be so kind.

It was a young John Milton who penned ‘Comus’. In later years his presentation of women would not be so kind.

It is not only the corporal realm which Comus appeals to in Milton’s masque, as he also petitions The Lady’s pride.   Vanity is an attribute present in both Eve and Delilah, but such narcissism is utterly absent in The Lady.  Just as Lucifer, in the form of the snake, appeals to Eve’s vanity, Comus likewise appeals to The Lady’s vanity. Upon meeting The Lady, Comus refers to her as an “unblemished form of Chastity” (215), and goes onto observe that “earth’s mould” had breathed “divine enchanting ravishment” (245-246) into The Lady.  Comus them seems to echo the words offered to Eve by Lucifer, stating that The Lady “shall be [his] queen” (265).  Such flattering rhetoric, though, is wasted on The Lady who quickly responds that his praise “is lost” when “addressed to [her] unattending ears” (270-271).  Rather than indulge in such vanity The Lady informs Comus that “virtue has no tongue to check her pride” (761).  Whereas Eve yielded with ease when Lucifer invoked her vanity, and Delilah’s pride caused her to fanaticize about being immortalized in song, The Lady has no vanity to appeal to.  She cherishes virtue over vanity, and so Comus’s approach miscarries.


Like the protagonist in the film 'I Spit On Your Grave', The Lady is not a passive victim.

Like the protagonist in the film ‘I Spit On Your Grave‘, The Lady is not a passive victim.

Just as The Lady’s actions differ from both Eve and Delilah, so to do the perceptions others have of her.  While Adam, the celestial beings, and even Eve herself, all have disparaging things to say of Eve’s strength and intellect, and Samson has no kind words to offer Delilah, this is not the accepted view of The Lady.  When The Lady goes missing, her younger brother expresses concern for her, but just as Homer presented Penelope as no less than an equal to men, The Lady’s elder brother suggests his primogenitive subordinate balance his fear with “equal poise and hope” because their sister “has a hidden strength” which “heaven gave… termed her own… chastity” (410-42).  Primogeniture tradition places the elder brother as the authority, and so the younger brother’s concerns are superseded by the elder brother’s confidence. By suggesting his brother have equal hope to match his fear, he is suggesting that The Lady’s strength is no less than equal to any danger she may face, placing her on parity terms with any men she might come across.  The elder brother even dismisses the threat of a “savage fierce, bandit or mountaineer” (426) and links The Lady’s strength with the virgin huntress Diana (440), expressing confidence that his sister’s trial will “prove most glor[ious]” (592).  Such language not only places a great deal of faith in his sister, but rather than simply noting she might be able to outwit her antagonist, the elder brother also asserts she can handle herself in the face of any physical threats.  Just as Penelope is praised by her male counterparts, so too is The Lady uplifted by her elder brother, suggesting that the perception of The Lady is far more flattering than that of Eve and Delilah.


Sabrina the Nymph is not to be confused with  Aithousa the Nymph (left) or Sabrina the teenaged witch (right).

Sabrina the Nymph is not to be confused with Aithousa the Nymph (left) or Sabrina the teenaged witch (right).

Celestial or superhuman figures appear frequently in Milton’s work, but it is only in Comus that there is a flattering portrayal of a female celestial being: Sabrina the nymph.  In works by the likes of Homer and Virgil, female celestial beings are integral to the narratives and have varied representation; some exude positive characteristics and have constructive influences on the narrative, some impede progress through folly or selfishness, whilst many others cannot be categorized with such strict binaries.  With Milton, however, there is only one female ‘celestial’ being in Paradise Lost: Sin.  Needless to say, the only female celestial being in Paradise Lost is far from a paradigm of feminine virtue.  The celestial beings that visit Adam and Eve are both male, and so the reader is not offered any suggestion that femininity is present anywhere in the chain of being above man, a reading that is reinforced by the fact that Milton’s Paradise Regained it utterly devoid of any female characters, celestial or otherwise.  Comus, though, does offer one example in Sabrina the nymph.  Though nymphs are part of the Grecian mythos, they are at the very least superhuman entities, and are certainly feminine entities.  Once The Lady’s brothers find her, they are unable to rescue her from the spell that Comus has cast on her, which leaves her fixed to a chair (818).  The men, physically unable to break the mystical restraints, must call upon a virgin nymph (824-826) and Sabrina eventually descends and frees The Lady (889-890).  Here Milton creates a scenario where the typical male hero of the narrative is unable to fulfill a rescue and instead it is a virgin who fills the role of the liberator.  The fact that it is noted that the nymph herself is a virgin, reinforces the elder brother’s assertion earlier in the masque that there is a strength in chastity.  Milton places this strength above both the physical and intellectual strength of the masque’s men.  The reference to Diane is reiterated as the nymphs were associated with Diane, but perhaps most importantly, it is The Lady’s ability to maintain her chastity that saves her as it is stated that Sabrina loves “maidenhood… and will be swift/ To aid a virgin such as was herself” (855-856).  Had The Lady not remained chaste, Sabrina may not have offered her services, and so it was The Lady who facilitated her own rescue by maintaining her chastity.  When examining the role of female celestial figures alongside the celestial figures present in Paradise Lost, it is clear that Comus offers a narrative that is far more empowering for women than Milton’s use of such entities in his others works.


The Lady, rather than challenging patriarchal norms, can be seen as kowtowing to them, like some Republican women.

The Lady, rather than challenging patriarchal norms, can be seen as kowtowing to them, like some Republican women.

Though both The Lady and Sabrina the nymph serve to diversify Milton’s presentation of female characters, the female characters who manage to ingratiate themselves to Milton’s pen do so by uplifting patriarchal values.  Eve is vilified for seeking to expand her intellectual understanding of the world, thereby challenging the role prescribed to her in a patriarchal social structure.  The Lady, conversely, is celebrated, not because she outwits a man, but because she upholds the prescribed patriarchal duties that are expected of her.  She is not celebrated for her ability to recognize false logic, but rather for her chastity.  Sabrina does not love ‘intellectual’ women, but rather ‘maidenhood’.  It is also important to note that Comus was written very early in Milton’s life and that most of his prose writings and major poems came years afterwards.  It is in these works where Milton creates problematic portrayals of women, and so these works can be seen as preponderant to preceding, positive portrayals of women placating to patriarchal prescriptions.  Though the presentation of The Lady does broaden and diversify the presentation of women in Milton’s canon, Milton still places them in rigid binaries where they are either vilified for seeking roles outside of the patriarchal prescription of femininity, or celebrated for embracing such prescriptions, both of which serve to reinforce the patriarchal status quo.


John Dryden

John Dryden

Though Milton does not appear to criticize patriarchal standards, there were those among his contemporaries who did.  John Dryden, in State of Innocence and Fall Of Man, his operatic reinterpretation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, exemplifies the differences between Milton’s views on patriarchy, and those of his contemporaries.  It is important to first note that Dryden’s Eve does endorse some chauvinistic mentalities. As Jennifer Airey notes, Eve displays the same kind of vanity which Milton portrayed “when she first sees her own reflection” (Airey, 531), but Airey also notes that Dryden’s work considers “the extent of man’s ideological complicity in determining woman’s ‘nature’” (537).  When Eve, for example, is challenged by Adam for his indiscretion, she suggest that he is complicit in that he “should have shown th’Authority” he boasts and employed “absolute restraint” (Dryden, 5.165).  This is similar to Milton’s work as, in Paradise Lost, Eve asks Adam why he didn’t, as “the head/ Command [her] absolutely not to go” (Milton, PL, 9.1156-1157).  There is a subtle difference though.  In Dryden’s work, Eve, with confident authority, tells Adam what he should have done, whereas Milton’s Eve, more passively, asks Adam why he didn’t command her.  Dryden furthers this attack on patriarchal norms when he has Eve explain her inability to defend herself against sin, claiming that she was of “reason void [and] accountable for none” (Dryden, 5.189), comparing her position in the patriarchal hierarchy to that of beasts (188).  Dryden makes it clear that in preventing women from developing their intellect, women are left ill-equipped to decide between vice and virtue.  This, ironically, is a core tenant to Milton’s argument against prepress censorship and his tract on education.  Without such education, women are, in turn, fated for a life of disappointment.  This is articulated best by Eve when she observes that the “unhappiest of creation is a wife,/ Made lowest in the highest rank of life:/ Her fellow’s slave; to know and not to chuse:/ Curst with that reason she must never use” (190-193).  Here Dryden identifies the potential to learn and reason, and the pain that comes with being relegated to a social role that forbids the exploration and development of such intellectual potential.  This patriarchal usurpation of choice, coupled with innate reason, is a curse.  This perspective is one that is utterly absent from Milton’s work, which ends with Eve gladly accepting her role as child bearer whilst yielding any future choice she might have to her patriarch.  Such submissiveness is not easily identifiable as promoting feminist ideals.


Virginia Wolf promotes women's education in her essay 'A Room of One's Own'.  Why would Milton not want angels in the libraries?

Virginia Woolf promotes women’s education in her essay ‘A Room of One’s Own‘. Why would Milton not want angels in the libraries?

This subduing of the female intellect shows up in Milton’s prose work as well, most especially in ‘On Education’.  When viewed alongside ‘Areopagitica’, it is clear that ‘On Education’ does not present the female intellect on parity terms with the masculine intellect, a hypocritical stances that, according to Milton’s logic, would stunt the spiritual growth of women.  Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’ argues that one comes to “knowing good by evil” (Milton, ‘Areopagitica’, 247) and states that “how much we thus expel of sin, so much we expel of virtue” (253).  To deny access to written works, then, is to create, “a blank virtue, not a pure” virtue and that the whiteness that results is “an excremental whiteness” (248).  Milton argues for a true virtue for men, rather than such excremental whiteness.  This argument is reinforced in ‘On Education’ where Milton contends that a good education would create “good men and good governors” and would “save men from vices such as vengeance and gluttony” (‘On Education’, 235) whilst promoting the “knowledge of virtue and hatred of vice” (232).  When it comes to women, however, Milton seems to have a very different approach as Milton’s educational reform excludes women entirely.  Milton clearly argues in both ‘Areopagitica’ and ‘On Education’ that one requires knowledge in order to conquer vice and attain true virtue, but his prose works only propose methods for men to obtain these goals and relegates women to the realm of excremental virtue.

This, however, was not the prevailing thought amongst Milton’s predecessors or peers, as can be seen when examining Milton’s work alongside that of Thomas Hobbes.  In his work Leviathan, Hobbes notes that “the faculties of the body and mind” (Hobbes, 183) are equal in so many respects that the difference between one mind to another “is not so considerable” (183) and that rather than an innate potential being bestowed on one at birth, it is “experience; which… equally bestows on all” (183) the intellectual capacity which defines one’s capabilities.  Hobbes does use the gender-specific term ‘man’ in these instances, but the title of the chapters overtly states that he is speaking to ‘mankind’ (183), a term which at the time Hobbes wrote meant humankind and not men specifically.  Milton, however, speaks specifically to men as he says education will make good “good men and good governors” (Milton, 235, emphasis added), employing gender specific pronouns that are meant to be applied exclusively to men since only boys are addressed in his tract on education.  Hobbes, in many respects, fails to promote feminist ideals himself, but in describing the cognitive capacities of ‘mankind’, he does speak of them in terms of universal parity.



Mary Astell

Mary Astell

Mary Astell also suggests an equality regarding the intellectual capacity of women in her essay ‘A Serious Proposal to the Ladies’, but and borrows from many of Milton’s own arguments to explain why it is important to allow women to be educated.  Astell notes that the intellectual soil of womankind “is rich and would, if well cultivated” (293) be no less than equal to a man’s, going onto state that the cause “of the defects… is… to be ascribed to the mistakes of [women’s] education” (293), not to an innate intellectual inferiority.  This does not only extend to intellectual defects, but spiritual ones as well.   The “knowledge of virtue and hatred of vice” (Milton, ‘On Education’, 232) which Milton speaks to, but reserves for the masculine realm, is a theme picked up by Astell when she notes that “ignorance and a narrow education lay the foundation of vice, and imitation and custom rear it up” (Astell, 291).  Astell’s approach calls for a broad education for women, and draws on Milton’s own argument against vice, noting that education is the difference between vice and virtue, just as Milton does.  Her words are linked even more with Milton in that they rail against custom, which was, among Dissenters, linked with the corporal world and ceremony.  Astell further rejects the corporal world when she claims that it is folly to teach aseriousproposala young woman that it is “wisdom enough for [them] to know how to dress” (292).  Eve, at the end of Milton’s epic, is content with serving her purpose through the physical realm, but Astell does not believe women can find spiritual fulfillment strictly through the corporal, noting that without a proper education, a woman’s eyes will be “dazzled with… pageantry”, and though women might be told of the spiritual world, such women will, without proper education, be “busied and concerned about what happens” in the corporal world (292).  Such an argument should appeal to the dissenting Milton who seeks to uplift the spiritual realm over the corporal realm, but his language counterintuitively forces women to seek purpose in the corporal over the spiritual.  This approach is corrected by Astell notes that even if a woman were “taught the principles and duties of religion”, it is important that they also be “acquainted with the reasons and grounds” for these duties (292).   For Astell, this must be done, otherwise keeping such duties would amount to the mimicking of ceremony and serve to be the excremental virtue Milton warns about in ‘Areopagitica’.  Astell also draws on the equality of mind that Hobbes speaks to, stating that god “has given women as well as men intelligent souls” and questions why women “should be forbidden to improve them” (295).  Her argument seems to draw on the rhetoric employed by Milton and exposes the inherent hypocrisy of his own words when applied to his thoughts on education.  It is clear when looking at Milton’s work on education alongside the works of Hobbes and Astell, that Milton’s views are not only far from progressive from a modern perspective, but also far from progressive according to the perspective of some of his own contemporaries as he fails to recognize the potential of the female intellect and relegates their spiritual well-being to the realm of excremental virtue, which he, himself, rails against.


'The Doctrine on the Discipline of Divorce' is often referred to as 'DDD' among scholars.  Or simply: 3D.

‘The Doctrine on the Discipline of Divorce’ is often referred to as ‘DDD’ among scholars. Or simply: 3D.

Milton’s exclusion of women from the realm of academia seems especially hypocritical in the context of his arguments in favour of companionate marriages.  In ‘The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce’, Milton argues against defining marriage in terms of the corporal, and instead argues for a relationship defined by spiritual and intellectual compatibility.  Milton argues “that marriage… must proceed from the mind rather than the body, els it would be but a kind of animall or beastish meeting”, going onto say that “if the mind… cannot have that due company by marriage, that it may reasonably and humanly desire”, then it is “little better than a brutish congresse, and so in very wisdome and purenesse to be dissolv’d” (Milton, ‘DDD’, 199).  Rather than being defined by the corporal, Milton’s suggests that marriage is meant to provide man with “cheerfull conversation… with woman, to comfort and refresh him against the evil of solitary life” (183).  This language contains an overt patriarchal bias in that marriage is defined as something that provides men with comfort.  It is not designed so that men and women can share cheerful conversation, but rather, so that women can provide men with luxury.  This positions women strictly as servants to the desires and needs of men.  Still, the manner in which Milton defines these desires can be seen as progressive.  Rather than defining marriage, and in turn women, through the corporal, Milton suggests women are capable of providing “a fit matchable conversation” (185) to men.  The problem, of course, is that had England adopted Milton’s proposed approach to education, there would be few, if any, women who were capable of providing fit conversations since Milton would have denied them access to education.  Still, in defining marriage as a spiritual and intellectual relationship, Milton does suggest that women are more than corporal beings, which is a departure from his presentation of women in some of his other works.


William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Milton approach seems, on the surface at least, to work in concert with how predecessors such as William Shakespeare and John Donne define romantic relationships in their poetry.  In ‘Sonnet 116’, Shakespeare submits that there should be no impediments “to the marriage of true minds” (Shakespeare, 1-2) and suggests that a love which “alters when it” finds alterations in the corporal body (3), is not an authentic love.  This presentation of loves defines love by the mind, and by extension the intellect, rather than through the corporal.  This seems to work very well with Milton’s dissenting approach which places the spiritual above the corporal.  Stephen Booth points out, the poem, though “universally admired” can be read as a “grand, noble, absolute…moving gesture” that allows for little “critical comment”.  Such “simple, clear content”, (Booth, 387) would have been less obvious in its own context than in a modern reading, promoting an intellectual equality that is assumed by reasonable, modern readers, but likely would not have been so assumed by an Elizabethan or Jacobean reader.  Donne employs a similar approach in his

John Donne

John Donne

poem ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, describing a sublunary love based on the corporal as inferior, stating that such love cannot admit absence because it removes the “thing which elemented it” (Donne, 14-16).  Instead, like Milton, Donne suggest the superiority of a love that is “Inter-addured of the mind” that cares less for “eyes, lips and hands” (19-20).  It is, for Donne, the souls that define the relationship, and not the body.  Where Shakespeare places the intellectual mind as the center piece of a relationship, Donne places the spirit as the central component to a relationship.  This also supports the dissenting approach which devalues the corporal in favour of the spiritual.  It is important to note that neither Shakespeare, nor Donne, suggest that the purpose of the relationship is for a woman to provide the man with any sort of sustenance, be it physical, intellectual, or spiritual.  A marriage, for Shakespeare and Donne, unlike Milton, is a symbiotic relationships that is mutually beneficial to both the man and the woman.  In looking at Milton’s tract supporting divorce, it seems that Milton presented ideas that were very much akin to companionate relationships described by Shakespeare and Donne, even if these sentiments were diluted in part by the fact that Milton saw marriage as an institution that served men.



Milton, unlike Jean Martin Charcot, wanted nothing to do with a woman suffering from 'hysterics', even if he had been married to her for 20 years.

Milton, unlike Jean Martin Charcot, wanted nothing to do with a woman suffering from ‘hysterics’, even if he had been married to her for 20 years.

Digging deeper into Milton’s text tough, the corporal aspect of the relationship, which Milton at first places as secondary, has more value to him than when first postulated upon.  McColley suggests that Milton “redefines marriage in a language of thorough mutuality” (McColley, 182-183), apparently having not read how Shakespeare and Donne had already defined marriage on such terms, whilst simultaneously gleaming over the parts in Milton’s tract where he defines marriage as an institutions where women are to provide men with ‘cheerful conversation’, or else risk being abandoned: hardly a ‘thorough mutuality’.  Milton speaks to instances where “in menstruous bodies, where nature’s current hath been stopt… the suffocation and upward forcing of some lower part, affects the head and inward sense with… idle fancies” (201).  The reference could speak to either menopause or the ‘wondering uterus’, and suggests that the ‘mutual happiness’ which McColley suggests Milton proposes (183), may not apply to women who have hit menopause or are suffering through ‘hysterics’.  Though the impact on the mind that Milton alludes to could impact companionate marriages, it is the result of a physical change, and is therefore part of the corporal world.  Milton suggests that when such instances occur, the man be allowed to remarry, stating that divorcing the woman would prevent men from committing adultery.  Milton does not chastise men for potentially indulging in such ‘sin’, citing the “blameless nature of man” (201) as the source of this impending debauchery, and noting that marriage is the “appointed refuge of nature” (201).  This seems to be contrary to what Milton suggested earlier in the work, as well as Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’.  Indeed, Milton is suggesting that when he finds alteration in his love, he should be able to dissolve the relationship.  Milton first defines marriage as an amalgamation of two minds, noting that men should be allowed to remarry if the minds of the two parties are not compatible.  Here though, he suggests that the man be allowed to remarry on the basis that the bodies are not compatible, not only relieving the man of any responsibility he has to take care of his wife in sickness, but sanctioning adultery for men.



Milton seems to be akin Othello, suggesting the the mere suspicion of adultery warrants action, though Milton suggests simply divorcing the suspected adulterous, not smothering her to death.

Milton seems to be akin Othello, suggesting the the mere suspicion of adultery warrants action, though Milton suggests simply divorcing the suspected adulterous, not smothering her to death.

Should a woman commit adultery, however, the man should be allowed to leave the woman, not only in cases where adultery has been proven, but also, when “sensible men may suspect the deed to be already done”, stating that the “act of adultery… is as difficult to be found as ‘the track of an eagle in the air, or the way of a ship in the sea’; so that man may be put to unmanly dignities ere it be found out” (218).  It is not upon the discovery of adultery that Milton suggests a man be allowed to divorce his wife, but on the suspicion of adultery.  Such rhetoric essentially gives a man carte blanche to leave a wife whenever he might desire.  The ironic part of this is that Milton, though he claims that marriage is defined through the mind and spirit, allows for corporal trespasses, or rather, the suspicion of corporal trespasses, to invalidate any intellectual or spiritual bond, and thereby places the corporal above the spiritual.  Milton’s concern is not for spiritual well-being, but for concern of ‘unmanly dignities’ which a man might incur, suggesting that the social construct of masculinity, an extension of the corporal world, be placed above the spiritual relationship.  Adversely, Milton makes no argument for women who might be the victims of adulterous husbands.  When reading the full context of ‘The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce’, it becomes clear that Milton does not set out to argue for companionate marriages, or for the intellectual and spiritual equality of women.  He doesn’t even seek to argue for women who are the victims of domestic abuse, be it through physical violence, adultery, emotional violence or economic violence.  Instead Milton defines marriage as an institution meant to provide men with happiness which men can, with any number of reasons, dissolve whenever they might see fit.  Marriage was the only way in which women at the time could ensure any sort of security in their life.  Milton’s argument seeks to give women no such refuge and instead aims to leave them at the whim of their husbands: not an argument that supports the promotion of women’s rights in the era.


John Milton

John Milton

Milton’s utter disregard for the position of women is clear, not only in his exclusion of women from education and his condescending portrayal of their role in marriage, but also in the language he uses throughout his oeuvre.  In ‘The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce’, Milton refers to marriage as “a tyraness [and] a goddess over the enfranchised life and soul of man” (200).  The fact that Milton invents a feminized version of the gender neutral term ‘tyrant’, demonstrates his intent to identify tyranny as feminine, whilst the word ‘goddess’ reinforces this feminization.  The term ‘enfranchisement’ implies a kind of servitude and usurpation of freedom from ‘man’.  Milton’s presentation of the feminine is less than flattering in this instance.  ‘Areopagitica’ presents similar issues.  In the essay Milton employs over four-hundred masculine-specific pronouns, not including names and personal pronouns.  Feminine pronouns, on the other hand, are used on less than fifty occasions.  This, in and of itself, is not surprising as the word ‘man’ was used to describe humanity and ‘he’ was the default gender, but as is the case with ‘The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce’ and ‘On Education’, many of these instances are intended to speak exclusively to men and not humanity in general.  Of the feminine pronouns used, just as Milton associates the feminine with tyranny and enfranchisement in his tract on divorce, his first feminine pronoun in ‘Areopagitica’, which does not occur until the tenth page of the essay, is employed to describe vice, and he writes that man must “apprehend and consider vice and all her baits” (Milton, ‘Areopagitica’, 247).  He then uses ‘her’ again to describe virtue, but not a true virtue. Instead, it is to describe a “cloistered virtue” which he cannot praise (247).  There are more flattering uses of feminine pronouns, such as when Milton feminizes Truth (250) and England (259), but even in these instances both Truth and England depend on men in order for their full potential to be realized, noting, in the case of England, that ‘she’ needs leaders to provide a “deliverance as shall never be forgotten” (259).  These leaders are, of course, men.  Truth is described as coming into the world with a patriarchal master in the form of Christ (263), and so in each instance where Milton offers a positive portrayal of a feminized abstract, it is only when that metaphoric female is under the rule of a man.  Virtue, when it is feminized, is likewise only turned to true virtue through the restraint of a man (248).  Milton even undermines the uniquely female experience of childbearing when he refers to books as “man’s intellectual offspring” (244), employing a metaphor that places the male intellect on parity terms with the female corporal experience.  Milton’s use of gender specific pronouns seems to offer no reading that would suggest he was seeking to do anything other than uphold patriarchal standards.


Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Though some might suggest that Milton’s use of male specific pronouns was simply in keeping with trends from the era, there were writers who did not rely on them as heavily, as is evidenced when looking at the works of Alexander PopeCarole Fabrincant notes that Pope’s “ambiguous and contradictory position in society affords [readers] the opportunity to explore the dialectal interaction between the voices of marginality and dominance” (Fabricant, 507).  This is especially clear in his use of gender neutral terms and persona pronouns.  In his ‘Essay On Criticism’, Pope does not refer to intelligent men, but rather ‘wits’ (Pope, ‘EOC’, 36), using a gender neutral term to describe a person with intelligence.  He refers to the “Poet’s song” (337), again using a gender neutral term in ‘poet’.  Pope also refers to ‘critics’ throughout the poem, a gender neutral term as well, and when he speaks of hypothetical writers, he says “one who writes amiss” (5), not ‘men’ who write amiss.  In some instances using gender neutral terms may be required in order to create a prescribed metre, but in this instance ‘mam’ and ‘one’ share the same metric value, and so, it

Pope was like the Price of the Restoration: a short guy that could rhyme and was popular with the ladies.

Pope was like the Price of the Restoration: a short guy that could rhyme and was popular with the ladies.

seems Pope likely chose the gender neutral terms with purpose.  He also uses an inclusive rhetorical device by employing words like ‘we’ and ‘ours’, rather than ‘men’ or ‘men’s’, or ‘I’ or ‘mine’.  These terms work in concert with terms like ‘others’ and ‘some’, or ‘they’ and ‘theirs’, which are also gender neutral.  Though many of these terms would have been assumed to imply men when read in the era, the wording Pope selects allows female readers to place themselves in any of the positions Pope writes of, making his work far more inclusive than Milton’s.  Fabrincant notes that Pope adopted certain voices “as a rhetorical tactic” (Fabrincant, 506), and though she speaks specifically to Pope’s adoption of a female voice, his poetic voice does embrace a tone that encourages the reader to see the world through Pope’s own perspective with inclusive words like ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’.  In his poem ‘Essay On Man’, Pope is sure to explain that by ‘man’ he means “Human life and manners” (Pope, ‘EOM’, 501).  Pope even, as Fabricant points out, “assumed a female persona in one of his major works” (Fabrincant, 503).  It is important to note that Pope did use many gender specific pronouns, but he did intentionally employ many gender specific terms and inclusive words that allowed all readers, regardless of gender, to identify with his work, an approach that it utterly lacking in Milton’s androcentric approach.

We can do it... without chauvinist pics like Milton!

We can do it… without chauvinist pics like Milton!

In examining Milton’s oeuvre, it becomes clear that whilst there are readings that can potentially uplift women in some respects, whilst simultaneously, albeit only occasionally, challenging patriarchy, Milton’s work can be seen as promoting chauvinistic attitudes and that Milton was more concerned with advocating and expanding his own personal rights and freedoms than he was interested in endorsing, or encouraging the rights and freedoms of women.  Eve not only fails to match intellect with the likes of other epic heroines like Penelope, but is perceived as inferior by all those around her, unlike her Homeric counterpart.  She is even instilled with shortcomings that are not present in the source text.  Delilah, likewise, though she is rescued from avarice by Milton, is presented as having failings that were not present in the source text and that are no more flattering than the implied greed present in the biblical narrative.  Though Milton’s The Lady is presented in a positive light, she is only presented as such because she adopts patriarchal prescriptions of femininity and virtue.  Milton’s presentation of women

This is a sign mean to represent women's power, not fisting.

This is a sign mean to represent women’s power, not fisting.

fails to offer as insightful an exploration into the state of womanhood as Dryden offers, and though Milton’s tract on divorce offers some progressive views on companionate relationships that can be linked with the likes of Shakespeare and Donne, the work, in concert with his essays on prepress censorship and education, relegates women to the realm of supplementary beings worthy only of excremental virtue.  This is reinforced by his use of gender specific pronouns that either serve to exclude women, or disparage women.  Because Milton was the victim of and witness to tyranny in his life, his works do contain arguments that remain crucial to outlining important social issues, but his work does carry with it an overt, chauvinistic tone.  Still, the works can be used to illuminate both important social issues, which Milton speaks on behalf of, whilst simultaneously offering insight into the hypocrisies inherent in patriarchal ideologies.  Crafty and clever critics can uncover crumbs within Milton’s work that can even present progressive views on women, but in a broad context it is clear that it was his own agenda that Milton was hoping to promote with his pen, often the expense of women.






Works Cited

Primary Sources:

Astell, Mary. A Serious Proposal to the Ladies.  The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Restoration and The Eighteenth Century. Ed.  LePan, Don.  Broadview Press.  Peterborough, ON, 2006.  291-296.  Print.


Donne, John.  ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’.  The Complete English Poems.  Ed. Smith, A. J.  Penguin Classics.  New York, NY, 1971.  84.  Print.


Dryden, John.  The State Of Innocence and Fall Of Man.  An Opera. Ed. Summer, Montague.  New York, NY, 1673.  407-462.  Print.


God. The Holy Bible: King James Version. Ed. The Council of Carthage.  Trans. Tyndale, William, Benjamin Blayney.  Thomas Nelson Inc.  Nashville, Tennessee, 1977.  Print.


Hobbes, Thomas.  The Leviathan.  Ed. Macpherson, C. B. Penguin Classics.  New York, NY. 1968. Print.


Homer.  The Odyssey.  Trans. Rieu, E. V. Penguin Classics.  New York, NY, 1946.  Print.


Milton, John.  John Milton: The Major Works. Ed. Goldberg, Jonathan and Orgel, Stephen.  Oxford University Press.  Oxford, UK, 1991. Print.


Pope, Alexander.  The Poems Of Alexander Pope.  Ed. Butt, John.  Yale University Press.  Chelsea, MI, 1963.  Print.


Shakespeare, William.  Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  Ed. Booth, Stephen.  Yale University Press.  London, England, 1977.  Print.



Secondary Sources:

Achinstein, Sharon.  Literature and Dissent In Milton’s England.  Cambridge University Press.  New York, New York.  2003.  Print.


Airey, Jennifer.  ‘Eve’s Nature, Eve’s Nurture in Dryden’s Edenic Opera’.  Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 , Vol. 50, No. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Summer, 2010), pp. 529-544.  Project Muse.  Web.  12 December, 2013.


Booth, Stephen.  ‘Sonner 116’.  Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  Yale University Press.  London, England, 1977.  pp. 384-392. Print.


Fabricant, Carole.  ‘Defining Self and Others: Pope and Eighteenth-Century Gender Ideology’.

Criticism, Vol. 39, No. 4 (fall, 1997), pp. 503-529.  JSTOR.  Web.  27 October 2013.


Guibbory, Achsah.  Ceremony and Community From Hebert to Milton: Literature, Religion, and Cultural Conflict in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge University Press.  New York, New York.  1998.  Print.


Langford, Larry. ‘Adam and the Subversion of Paradise’. Studies in English           Literature, 1500-1900Vol. 34, No. 1. (Winter, 1994).  119-134.  JSTOR.  Web.  26 October 2013.


Lowenstam, Steven. ‘The Shroud of Laertes and Penelope’s Guile’. The Classical Journal , Vol. 95, No. 4 (Apr. – May, 2000), pp. 333-348.  JSTOR.  Web.  27 October, 2013.


McColley, Diane. ‘Milton and the Sexes’ from  The Cambridge Companion to Milton, ed. Dennis Danielson (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999), 175-192.


Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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