Article Title

Theatrical Wonder, Amazement, and the Construction of Spiritual Agency in Paradise Lost


This essay analyzes theatricality in Paradise Lost, arguing that Milton’s literary imagination was stimulated by his conception of the emotional responses of theatrical audiences. He systematically incorporated into the poetic language of his epic a pair of words, wonder and amazement, that link these emotional responses to a rich philosophical history and ultimately to Milton’s sense that spiritual agency is as much a form of response as it is a form of performance. These words take on their highest moral significance in Paradise Lost, but several occurrences in other works indicate both that he thought of them as a pair and that he associated them with theatrical spectacle. When characters or figures become internal audiences—that is, when they witness and react to performances by other characters—their responses are often divided into wonder and amazement. In the epic, internal audiences who respond to spectacles with amazement become morally incapacitated, unable to change direction and recover from their fallen stupor, whereas those audiences who respond with wonder set in motion a process of spiritually regenerative responses. They are moved by theater. For Adam, theatrical amazement becomes the means of redemption, whereas for Satan it is the path to total damnation. Theatrical emotion thus has divergent functions: it either entangles (as in amazement) or provides productive distance and self-reflection (as in wonder).

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.