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Sinister Aesthetics

Joel Elliot Slotkin

Sinister Aesthetics
The Appeal of Evil in Early Modern English
Joel Elliot Slotkin
English Department
Towson University
Baltimore, Maryland, USA

ISBN 978-3-319-52796-3 ISBN 978-3-319-52797-0 (eBook)

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52797-0

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For my parents, Richard and Iris Slotkin

Sinister Aesthetics grew out of my dissertation, and I want to acknowledge

again the professors and colleagues at UC Berkeley who helped with that
stage, especially Joel Altman, Albert Ascoli, Kevis Goodman, and my
advisor, the late Paul Alpers. Sarah Torpey deserves thanks not only for
her insightful feedback but also for keeping me mostly sane through most
of graduate school.
I would like to thank everyone at Palgrave for valuing this project
enough to see it into print, as well as for the generous and helpful
comments I received during the peer review and editing process.
Previously, I had adapted parts of my dissertation into articles:
“Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s Richard III”
(Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 7.1 [2007]: 5–32) and
“Poetic Justice: Divine Punishment and Augustinian Chiaroscuro in
Paradise Lost” (Milton Quarterly 38.2 [2004]: 100–127). I want to
thank both journals for publishing my work and for allowing me to
reincorporate versions of this material (significantly revised and expanded)
into my chapters on Richard III and Paradise Lost.
Stanford University’s Introduction to the Humanities Program and
Towson University provided me with employment, research leave, and
other professional assistance during my work on the book. I am grateful to
my colleagues in both places for providing such welcoming scholarly
This project benefited from seminars at the Shakespeare Association of
America annual meetings in 2006 and 2010, led by Lara Bovilsky and


Simone Chess, in which my work received thoughtful responses from Jay

Farness, Justin Kolb, Aaron Kunin, and Zachary Lesser.
Several colleagues and friends gave generously of their time to read
drafts and to provide feedback, including Katherine Attié, Jennifer
Ballengee, Elizabeth Bearden, Kent Cartwright, Chris D’Addario,
Raphael Falco, Wendy Hyman, Natasha Korda, Linda McJannet, John
McLucas, and Bryan Reynolds. Rick Davis, of Towson’s Cook Library,
provided some time-saving research assistance and helped me acquire the
print and electronic resources I needed.
The love and support of family and friends have been at least as
important during this process as the scholarly assistance I have received,
and I want to thank all of you for sustaining me on this journey. My
parents, Iris and Richard Slotkin have spent considerable time and energy
over the years, not only providing moral support but also serving as
sounding boards and readers for innumerable ideas and drafts. I am also
grateful to my grandmother Roselyn Slotkin for her unflagging confidence
and interest in this project; I was motivated to finish the book in no small
part because I knew she wanted to read it. Lastly, I want to express my
deep gratitude and love to my wife Caroline Egan for her editorial and
strategic advice as well as her steadfast support in this—and every other—

1 Introduction: Representing Evil in Early Modern England 1

Aesthetics and Morality 4
Sinister Aesthetics 8
The Problem of Evil 13
Chapter Overview 16
Notes 19

2 “Dreadful Harmony”: The Poetics of Evil

in Sidney, Tasso, and Spenser 23
Introduction: Literary Theory and Poetic Practice 23
Monsters and Medicine: Pleasure and Morality
in The Defence of Poesy 26
“The Contraries of These Delights”: Curiositas
and Chiaroscuro in Augustine 31
Chimeras and Concordia Discors:
Tasso’s Augustinian Aesthetics 39
“That Detestable Sight Him Much Amazde”:
Aesthetics of Filth in The Faerie Queene Book 1 48
“Pleasant Sin”: Beauty and Evil in the Bower of Bliss 61
Conclusion 65
Notes 69

3 Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Richard III 79

Introduction: Staging Evil 79


Elf-Marks and Virtuous Visors: The Epistemological

Problem of Richard 84
Palpable Devices 86
Playing the Devil: The Theatricality of Evil 90
Descanting on Deformity 93
The “Nest of Spicery” and the Limits of Seduction 100
Poetic Invective and Demonic Identity 104
Providential Narratives and the Persistence of the Sinister 110
Conclusion 113
Notes 116

4 Monsters and the Pleasures of Divine Justice

in English Popular Print, 1560–1675 125
Introduction: Providential Punishments 125
Ballads, Pamphlets, and Sermons 128
Pleasure and Terror in Monster Ballads and Pamphlets 132
Monsters and Divine Wrath in Early Modern Sermons 138
Aesthetic Responsibility and the Problem of Evil 150
The Teratogenic God 154
Cultivating Sinister Piety 158
Conclusion 164
Notes 165

5 Satanic Sensibilities in Paradise Lost 173

Introduction: “Milton the Poet” and “Milton the Moralist” 173
“Strength from Truth Divided”: Satan and the Normative 178
“Evil Be Thou My Good”: Moral Perversity 186
“This Horror Will Grow Mild”: Aesthetic Perversity 192
“Materials Dark and Crude”: Sinister Pleasure and Poesis 198
Conclusion 209
Notes 210

6 Milton’s Sinister God: Poetic Justice and Chiaroscuro

in Paradise Lost 217
Introduction: God as Sinister Allegorist 217
Malum Poenae and “Enthusiastick Terror” 220
“A Universe of Death”: God’s Infernal Aesthetic 226

“Grateful Vicissitude”: Divine Chiaroscuro

and the War in Heaven 237
“Odious Truth”: The Degradation of Satan
and the Education of Adam 242
Conclusion 250
Notes 251

7 Epilogue: The Sinister After Milton 255

Notes 264

Bibliography 267

Index 281

Introduction: Representing Evil in Early

Modern England

This book addresses a fundamental contradiction between theory and

practice in the literary culture of early modern England. On the one
hand, Renaissance theories of poetry emphasize that literature must
morally improve its audience; indeed, a preponderance of Renaissance
theorists treat this didactic imperative as a defining feature of literature.
On the other hand, Renaissance writers are responsible for some of the
most compelling and attractive literary representations of evil ever pro-
duced: demonic villains like William Shakespeare’s insidious, enigmatic
Iago or the Machiavellian Richard III; protagonists who descend to
baroque acts of sadism or depravity, like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or
Beatrice-Joanna in The Changeling; and the lush, cruel depictions of
infernal landscapes we see in The Spanish Tragedy or Edmund Spenser’s
The Faerie Queene. Such representations frequently seem to undermine
the very moral systems that early modern poetry was supposed to incul-
cate. This conflict of literary values was itself the expression of larger
cultural crises in early modern England concerning the role of evil in a
Christian cosmos and the proper relationship between religion and art.
These crises were fueled by the rise of Protestantism and the political and
sectarian conflicts of the seventeenth century.
Understanding the relationship between the treatment of evil in litera-
ture and religion requires careful attention to the central role played by
aesthetic constructs and aesthetic experience in both spheres of activity.
The domain of aesthetics encompasses abstract intellectual principles (ideas

© The Author(s) 2017 1

J.E. Slotkin, Sinister Aesthetics,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52797-0_1

about beauty), concrete cultural constructions (works of art that embody

these ideals), and affective responses (the reactions of audiences to these
works). Thus, an approach through aesthetics can bridge the gap between
literary theory and practice by showing how the embodiment of general
poetic principles in a particular poem may generate a particular audience
response. An aesthetic approach can be similarly productive for an investi-
gation of religion, because it helps to illuminate what Perry Miller, discuss-
ing early American Puritanism in The New England Mind (1954), calls
“piety”: “the inner core of Puritan sensibility apart from the dialectic and
the doctrine” (6). For Miller, piety is a form of subjectivity that includes
aesthetic elements.
In recent years, scholars of the early modern period have sought to
reorient the still-influential new historicist paradigm by re-engaging with
aesthetics and its associated concerns. Literary scholars have focused atten-
tion on two of its key components: artistic construction and affective
response. New formalist or historical formalist critics have re-emphasized
questions of literary form and its effects.1 Scholars belonging to the so-
called “affective turn” have investigated the importance of emotion and
the passions in early modern literature and culture.2
At the same time, scholars of the “religious turn” have moved away
from the new historicist and Marxist tendency to look through religion to
the networks of social and political power that undergird it. Instead, they
have sought to foreground the cultural manifestations of religious belief as
important objects of study in their own right.3 Scholars such as Debora
Shuger and Kevin Sharpe have rightly asserted that religion is not only a
system of theological beliefs; rather, aesthetic and affective elements are
also essential to its nature and function.4 As Sharpe notes in Remapping
Early Modern England (2000), “Religion was not just about doctrine,
liturgy or ecclesiastical government; it was a language, an aesthetic, a
structuring of meaning, an identity, a politics” (12). He urges further
attention to “religion as a visual, sensual and emotional experience—as
opposed to a theological system or polemical sermon” (390). These
scholars highlight the interplay between theological concepts and argu-
ments and the subjective experience and perspective of believers. Their
work raises a central question in the cultural history of religion, which is
well stated by Sharpe: “Were aesthetic revolutions the motor of changing
religious sensibilities or driven by them?” (390). Sinister Aesthetics
addresses this question by looking closely at what happens when writers
of the English Renaissance—poets and playwrights, as well as authors of

ballads, pamphlets, and sermons—try to integrate literary aesthetics with

religious piety in their accounts of evil.
In addition to clarifying the relationship between aesthetics and reli-
gion, this focus allows us to analyze the intersection of two overarching
problems regarding evil’s nature and function in the culture of the English
Renaissance. In religion, the so-called “problem of evil”—why an omni-
potent, omniscient, and totally benevolent God would permit evil to
occur—is the central challenge of Christian theodicy. It is traditionally
considered as a logical and theological problem, but this study will con-
cern itself primarily with the aesthetic and affective aspects of the problem
that seem to resist or survive resolutions of the logical conundrum. In early
modern art, the problem is to explain why artists at least nominally
committed to the inculcation of virtue would devote so much energy
and skill to the production of aesthetically pleasurable representations of
evil, and the monstrous, grotesque, and demonic forms conventionally
associated with evil. The latter problem has proved nearly as intractable for
literary scholars as the first has been for theologians, because critics have
lacked an appropriate language to talk about the appeal of aestheticized
evil. Indeed, both early modern writers and modern scholars of the period
all too frequently discount the idea that evil can possibly have aesthetic
appeal, or they dismiss positive aesthetic responses to evil as exceptional or
perverse.5 Such neglect inhibits their understanding of both the real
aesthetic complexity of Renaissance poetry and the affective complexity
of Renaissance piety.
This study speaks to both of these problems by recognizing at the
outset that attractive representations of evil are intrinsic to the production
of Renaissance poetry, to the pleasures of literary experience, and to early
modern English Protestant religious sensibilities. The appeal of evil in
both secular and religious writings of the period rests crucially on the
aesthetic qualities associated with evil, and the power of this appeal derives
from the interplay between two kinds of aesthetic systems: normative
aesthetics, which associate attractive beauty with prevailing notions of
the good; and sinister aesthetics, which evoke pleasure in the dark side
of divine creation, and thereby offer a potential resolution to the affective
component of the problem of evil.
No single work of literature better exemplifies the contradictory treat-
ment of evil in Renaissance thought and poetry than John Milton’s
Paradise Lost (1674), which provides early modern England’s foremost
instance of poetic theodicy and, in the character of Satan, its most

notoriously engaging villain. Many Milton critics over the centuries have
framed this paradox as an opposition between the poem’s poetic and
theological aspects, between aesthetic pleasure and religious doctrine.
This study argues instead that in Paradise Lost explicit theological argu-
ments are necessary for but prove inherently insufficient to the task of
theodicy, and that the poem’s justification of God ultimately relies on
aesthetic manipulation to supplement its theological arguments.
Specifically, the poem employs a complex aesthetic in which evil and
good, infernal and celestial, “dreadful shade” and “holy light” are seen
as integral to the beauty of God’s creation (6.828, 3.1).6 This reading of
Paradise Lost offers a more productive context for understanding Satan’s
attractiveness, a major crux (or deadlock) in Milton criticism. It also
elucidates the poetic strategy behind the theodicy of Paradise Lost: to
develop an aesthetic sensibility in readers that will make them capable of
loving a God whose creation includes the darkness of evil and the cruelty
of punishment.
Although aspects of Milton’s solution are strikingly original, Paradise Lost
is important because it brings together several major strands of Renaissance
discourse that explored the appeal of evil for both artistic and religious
purposes. This study traces the historical development, and the poetic and
religious effects, of sinister aesthetics through a range of early modern
English texts (in the context of such non-English writers as Saint
Augustine and Torquato Tasso): Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (written
1580s, published 1595), Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596),
Shakespeare’s Richard III (c. 1592), and the popular print literature of
ballads, pamphlets, and sermons. I examine how these authors have used
the sinister to attract audiences to representations of evil, and in many cases
to produce affective theodicies that aim to make divine punishment viscerally
appealing, rather than simply morally justifiable. Paradise Lost represents the
culmination of these strategies in the period, and it serves as one of the
foremost inspirations for subsequent theorists to develop an aesthetic para-
digm—the sublime—that can encompass the pleasures of the sinister.


Immanuel Kant’s seminal Critique of Judgment (1790) represents aesthetic
judgment as a subjective, individual response that aspires to universality
(47). While I share Kant’s insistence that judgments about beauty imply a
“subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure” (35), my approach more

closely follows Joseph Margolis’s Art and Philosophy (1980), which argues
that “works of art exist only in cultural contexts” and posits a mutually
constitutive relationship between the work’s “rule-governed order” and
culturally specific “appreciative traditions” (49). Crucially for my purposes,
Margolis’s theory allows for “divergent appreciative systems” within a
single culture (227).
Instead of treating aesthetics or the aesthetic as a universal philoso-
phical category, this book focuses on the idea of an aesthetic; that is, a
specific set of aesthetic standards operative in a given cultural, histor-
ical, and artistic context. This context could be broad or specific; for
example, we could speak of a Renaissance aesthetic, or a Miltonic
aesthetic, or even an aesthetic that operates only in a particular poem.
More precisely, an aesthetic is a culturally specific system comprising a
set of artistic ideals governing what should be depicted, and conventions
governing how things should be depicted, the successful use of which
produces a pleasurable affective response in the observer. A Petrarchan
aesthetic, for instance, would express a particular ideal of feminine
beauty through the culturally determined conventions of golden hair,
ruby lips, ivory neck, and so on. Presumably, this evocation of feminine
beauty would be expected to produce certain emotions in the poem’s
target audience. When referring to more than one of these aesthetic
systems, I use the plural form, aesthetics (not to be confused with the
singular noun).
Morality and aesthetics have a complex and interdependent relationship.
Aesthetic ideals are inherently prescriptive and reflect the values of a given
culture; as such, they can include or imply a moral component. For exam-
ple, Petrarchan depictions of feminine beauty are also invested in certain
notions of feminine virtue, as when Sir Philip Sidney, in Astrophil and Stella
(written c. 1582, published 1591), calls Stella’s face “Queen Virtue’s
court” and provides a blazon of her physical features that emphasizes her
purity and chastity (sonnet 9, line 1). Aesthetic conventions, on the other
hand, are more or less arbitrary signifiers possessing moral valences only
through their traditional association with ideals—there is nothing inher-
ently moral or immoral about golden hair, for instance. Nonetheless, early
modern writers routinely use such iconography to suggest the moral nature
of whatever object they are representing. The Platonic idea that beauty and
goodness were ultimately one was highly influential in the Renaissance. In
Renaissance literary practice, moral and aesthetic elements frequently bleed
into one another, and this study will trace some of these slippages.

An aesthetic whose ideals derive from culturally sanctioned conceptions

of beauty and/or virtue is what I term a normative aesthetic: it makes
pleasing those things that are positively valued within the relevant cultural
context. Most theories of early modern literature presuppose that norma-
tive aesthetics are the only aesthetics operative in Renaissance poetry. Early
modern theories such as Sidney’s in The Defence of Poesy assume that
artistic depictions of the opposites of beauty or virtue are unpleasant
because they violate normative standards. In Sidney’s model, images of
evil ought to function as a kind of aversion therapy by producing an
educational revulsion in readers. This theory explained the potential
appeal of evil characters in a few different ways. They could charm audi-
ences through normative forms of aesthetic beauty, like the seductive
disguise of Spenser’s evil witch, Duessa. They could also inspire approval
or admiration by invoking normative moral values, such as the heroic
virtues of Milton’s Satan, his “courage never to submit or yield”
(Paradise Lost 1.108). In other words, evil could appeal by deceptively
masquerading as good or ambiguously combining with good. A properly
moral poem would eventually resolve such confusions, making the evil
identifiable or separable and therefore repugnant to a right-thinking audi-
ence. Evil or ugliness as such could only appeal to audiences whose own
sensibilities were corrupt and perverse.
Like Renaissance critics, modern scholars have had difficulty fully
addressing the appeal of evil in literature because of their reliance on
normative models. Moreover, many modern critics have been just as
suspicious as Renaissance moralists of the myriad capacities of literature
to cause pleasure, although often for quite different ideological reasons.
Milton criticism has been especially susceptible to moralistic interpreta-
tions that, in an attempt to respect Renaissance poets’ own stated theories
about poetry and theology, often treat these theories too uncritically as
accurate representations of poetic and religious practice. The most promi-
nent example of this critical mode, which William Empson in Milton’s God
(1961) refers to disparagingly as “neo-Christian” (26), is Stanley Fish’s
Surprised by Sin (1967). Fish’s work has been and remains influential;
indeed, scholars such as John Rumrich, Neil Forsyth, and Peter Herman
argue that it has become the foundation for a kind of repressive “ortho-
doxy” in Milton studies.7 Fish reproduces key aspects of Sidney’s account
of vice in poetry, particularly the idea that representations of evil should
disgust readers and thereby incite them to virtue, and the assumption that

evil can appeal to healthy readers only by incorporating elements of mis-

guided virtue or deceptive beauty.
In fact, far from simply revolting audiences, the passages that describe
infernal landscapes, wicked villains, and demonic or monstrous beings
have been among the most attractive parts of The Faerie Queene,
Richard III, Paradise Lost, and many other works of poetry and drama
in the period—attractive in that they have drawn readers’ attention, inter-
est and emotional engagement, and they have inspired discussion, praise,
and debate. The catalog of such passages includes not only instances of evil
concealed within a fair exterior (which are readily explained in terms of
normative aesthetics) but also those generally described as repugnant:
Spenser’s serpentine Errour, who vomits pamphlets and blind toads;
Macbeth’s hideous witches, with their cauldron of unsavory spell ingredi-
ents; and Milton’s depiction of Sin, a literary descendant of Errour with a
pack of “hell hounds” (2.654) that crawl in and out of her womb. For
many readers, these supposedly distasteful representations have often
proved more poetically engaging than others that adhere to a normative
To understand these representations, and readers’ responses to
them, we have to broaden our concept of what an aesthetic system
can contain. In theorizing the seemingly paradoxical appeal of evil and
the monstrous in art, it is helpful to consult scholarship on a genre
whose very existence depends upon the reality of this appeal: the
modern horror film. Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror: Or
Paradoxes of the Heart (1990) and Cynthia Freeland’s The Naked
and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (2000) are useful
indicators of the gap between Renaissance critics and critics of later
periods. These authors, in effect, provide serious analyses of the
“Horror-Comic or drug-like thrill” that even a pro-Satan critic like
Empson dismisses as both contemptible and irrelevant to an authenti-
cally Miltonic appreciation of Paradise Lost (Empson 272).
Carroll notes that the debate over horror tends to alternate between
two extremes:

Many journalists . . . underscore only the repellent aspects of the work—

rejecting it as disgusting, indecent, and foul. Yet this tack fails to offer any
account of why people are interested in partaking of such exercises. Indeed,
it renders the popularity of the genre inexplicable.

On the other hand, defenders of the horror genre . . . often indulge in

allegorical readings that make their subjects appear wholly appealing and
that do not acknowledge their repellent aspects. (160)

Commentators in the Renaissance often resort to analogous tactics, con-

demning poetic texts for their supposedly repugnant foulness, or defend-
ing them with elaborate allegorical interpretations that render the foulness
safely abstract.8 Carroll’s dichotomy of responses also finds an echo in the
work of “orthodox” Miltonists, who labor to make unappealing the poetic
elements that readers should find unappealing, while demonstrating that
these supposedly unattractive elements effectively convey a commendable
didactic message.
Carroll offers two hypotheses that enable a more productive view of the
problem. The first is that a love of horror is not in itself pathological or
anomalous: “it does not seem plausible to regard these consumers—given
the vast number of them—as abnormal or perverse in any way that does
not beg the question” (160). More importantly, Carroll theorizes that
“the monster—as a categorical violation—fascinates for the self-same
reasons it disgusts and, since we know the monster is but a fictional
confection, our curiosity is affordable” (189). The idea that fascination
and horror are sparked by the same elements, as part of a distinctive
aesthetic, is essential to any understanding of the appeal of evil.9

Representations of evil, and the imagery associated with evil, can indeed
be described as ugly, to the extent that they violate normative aesthetic
principles. But artistic representations of evil are also aesthetic construc-
tions, crafted according to principles and traditions analogous to those
governing beautiful things. Thus, if these supposedly ugly representa-
tions are in some way pleasing, we could also say that they possess a
kind of beauty.10 Ultimately, though, the terms beautiful and ugly are
equally misleading ways to describe this category of aesthetic objects.
Neither is adequate by itself, and together they are oxymoronic.
Indeed, part of the difficulty in discussing attractive representations of
evil is that the language we use to describe them makes their very
existence seem paradoxical and implausible, when in fact they are
quite common.

For that reason, I propose the concept of sinister aesthetics to describe

imagery that appeals aesthetically while violating normative standards of
beauty. The word “sinister” can refer to moral evil or to the aesthetic
conventions associated with it; the Oxford English Dictionary (hereafter
OED) definitions include such phrases as “full of dark or gloomy sugges-
tiveness” and “Of looks, etc.: Suggestive of evil or mischief” (I.6.a,b). Its
secondary meanings relating to “the left hand” (II.9.b) suggest a dichot-
omy of normative and alternative rather than superior and inferior, which
more accurately describes the role of sinister aesthetics in art.
Whereas a normative aesthetic derives its ideals from culturally sanc-
tioned conceptions of beauty and virtue, a sinister aesthetic is a set of poetic
conventions that generates pleasure by representing things we are sup-
posed to dislike, including deception and cruelty, filth and disease, defor-
mity and monstrosity, destruction and punishment, and the demonic and
infernal.11 In this scheme, poetic objects would be ugly only insofar as they
violate a normative aesthetic without evoking a sinister one. Although the
sinister stands in opposition to the normative (what we are supposed to
like), it could be described as normal, in that artists frequently make use of
it, audiences frequently take pleasure in it, and there is nothing inherently
pathological about either of these practices.12
Like any aesthetic judgment, distinguishing between the beautiful, the
ugly, and the sinister necessarily involves a subjective component. We can
empirically demonstrate the existence of particular artistic traditions for
representing evil, but they can evoke a wide variety of affective responses
from readers in practice. In this study, I have tried to focus on the kinds of
responses that texts appear to model or encourage, with the understanding
that these textual cues do not ineluctably determine whether actual readers
will experience attraction, aversion, or some combination of the two. If a
reader takes no pleasure from a given representation of evil and is simply
repulsed by it, then for them it is not sinister but ugly.
The normative/sinister relationship I propose is more complex than the
mutually defining binary model of containment and subversion popular in
new historicism and derived from post-structuralist linguistics and anthro-
pology. In a post-structuralist framework, the subversive represents all that
opposes the hegemonic, and for that very reason, so the logic of the
argument goes, the subversive defines and is defined by the hegemonic.13
Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (Ästhetische Theorie, 1970) describes
how this idea works when translated into the realm of aesthetics:
“According to traditional aesthetics, the ugly is that element that opposes

the work’s ruling law of form; it is integrated by that formal law and
thereby confirms it” (60).
This paradigm has been productive, but it can also lead to oversimpli-
fication, reducing the subversive to the mere negation of whatever is
hegemonic, of order itself. Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject has been
very influential on these kinds of models, particularly for early modernists
analyzing monstrosity.14 Kristeva’s Powers of Horror (1982) describes the
abject as “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect
borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”
(4). The abject is useful because it offers a more inclusive notion of what
motivations can be psychologically realistic by theorizing a fascination
with what is horrifying, disgusting, or otherwise rejected by normative
standards. However, when defined purely in these terms, the abject ulti-
mately serves to re-inscribe the order that it violates.15
Another problem with overuse of this binary is that, as Eve Sedgwick
and Adam Frank’s “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold” (1995) tartly notes, it
becomes all too easy to label everything as “kinda subversive, kinda hege-
monic” (500). Shuger’s analysis of early modern English Protestantism in
Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance (1990) reveals that the
supposedly “orthodox and subversive” elements are quite mingled in
actual religious discourse, to the point where “it is not always clear what
precisely is subversive with respect to the dominant ideology, nor does
orthodox ideology seem quite as monolithic and hegemonic” (1, 2–3).16
In their discussion of sexuality, Sedgwick and Frank advocate “an affect
system described as encompassing several more, and more qualitatively
different, possibilities than on/off” (504). The same could be said for
aesthetic responses to art and literature. Critics need to keep seeking more
precise and flexible alternative models for talking about the things we
associate with categories such as the other and the subversive. The sinister
and the normative do exist partly in symbiotic, mutually defining opposi-
tion to each other, but the sinister is above all a category of competing
aesthetic orders that exploit the appeal of objects rejected by normative
Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of
the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) offers a productive model for a binary
system that nonetheless maintains these qualitative distinctions between
its opposing aesthetics. Burke wrote almost a century after Milton, but he
and most other early theorists of the sublime were inspired in no small part
by a desire to explain the poetic power of Paradise Lost, which they saw as

the defining example of sublimity. Burke ascribes to the sublime a set of

concrete aesthetic traits, such as large size, dark colors, rough textures, and
bitter tastes. Although most of these traits have corresponding opposites
in Burke’s definition of the beautiful, the accumulation of detail and
texture reveals the sublime to be a distinctive style, not merely an anti-
style. On the affective side, the sublime stirs a kind of paradoxical pleasure
in things that are supposed to be unpleasant. Finally, the aesthetic qualities
Burke identifies have inescapable moral valences, particularly in the sub-
lime’s association with darkness, terror, and pain, and yet Burke refuses to
simply identify the beautiful as good and the sublime as evil. Burke’s
distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is thus a useful example
of the distinction between a normative and a sinister aesthetic. I have
coined the term “sinister” because Burke’s sublime is not quite synon-
ymous with the concept I will discuss, and because theories of the sublime
after Burke have drastically expanded the term’s meaning in directions less
relevant to the aesthetics of evil.17
Like Burke’s sublime, the sinister uses its own representational stan-
dards and conventions that do not merely reproduce or invert normative
aesthetics. It has what Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness (2007) describes as an
“‘autonomy’ . . . which makes it far richer and more complex than a series
of simple negations of the various forms of beauty” (16).18 This autonomy
allows the sinister to produce qualitatively distinctive forms of pleasure.
A sinister aesthetic is thus not simply the violation of aesthetic order, but
an aesthetic order in its own right, partly overlapping with the normative,
partly conflicting with it, and partly independent of it. As such, the sinister
encompasses literary traditions of substantive representational techniques
that are amenable to classification. They include the medieval Vice tradi-
tion for representing villains, the classical and Dantean traditions for
representing the underworld and hell, some aspects of the early modern
grotesque, and the chimera (a creature composed of disparate animal
parts) as a paradigm for constructing monsters.19 By the early modern
period, there were many rich traditions of visual iconography that could be
categorized as sinister, such as the conventional depiction of devils with
horns, bat wings, tails, and cloven hooves.
Renaissance authors faced a dilemma in confronting these traditions.
Sinister aesthetics constituted a significant and powerful portion of the
poetic repertoire they inherited. Unfortunately, although these conven-
tions were not evil in themselves, their association with evil rendered them
problematic for a culture that placed such great emphasis on literature’s

moral responsibilities. Authors in the early modern period thus felt power-
ful pressures to contain and assimilate the sinister within a larger whole
that was morally and aesthetically normative. As a philosophical grounding
for this practice, early modern writers could draw on Augustine’s depic-
tion of the universe as a chiaroscuro painting that derives its beauty from
the combination of good and evil elements (see The City of God book 11,
Chapter 23). Similarly, the neoclassical aesthetic principle of concordia
discors, or discordant harmony, allowed authors to employ sinister ele-
ments provided that they were balanced with normative ones.
While they strove to circumscribe the dangerous power of the sinister,
early modern authors—often the very same authors—also pursued a con-
trary impulse: to push the limits of readers’ tolerance for the horrible with
elaborate depictions of physical and psychological cruelty, baby-eating
hags, the torments of hell, wasting diseases, and blind toads in puddles
of vomit. The level of intensity and sensuous detail in such descriptions
often accumulates to a point of excess that becomes a sinister technique in
its own right, insofar as it violates normative principles of literary decorum,
harmony, order, and restraint for its own aesthetic purposes.
Central to the nature and significance of the sinister are the complex
cognitive and affective responses that it evokes in audiences. Whereas pure
ugliness is simply unpleasant and produces aversion or repulsion, the
sinister offers a pleasure that is analogous to but qualitatively distinct from
the response to beauty. Moreover, because an object that conforms to a
sinister aesthetic must also, by definition, violate a normative aesthetic,
appreciating it involves an attraction to something that one simultaneously
also recognizes as evil, horrifying, or disgusting. The sinister thus requires
audiences to balance opposing sensibilities, emotions, and systems of value.
Works that employ the sinister almost inevitably rely on the normative as
well, and this combination of elements within a single work can demand a
kind of code-switching from audiences. Ultimately, they must negotiate
their relation to the dark and morally questionable subject matter and
reconcile their interest in it with their ostensible moral and aesthetic values.
Enjoying a representation of evil is not the same as committing an evil act
oneself, but the sinister can create a powerful imaginative engagement that
raises questions about the audience’s complicity. Renaissance authors who
wished to capitalize on the sinister had to help readers manage this process:
to decide which aesthetic sensibilities should govern their responses in a
given instance, and to assimilate their appreciation of the sinister into the
context of their own moral standards. The result was a poetry that played

complex games with readers’ understanding of the difference between

reality and fiction and the interplay of good and evil in the moral universe.
Sinister aesthetics have several consequences for the poetic enterprise,
consequences that are both enabling and, for poets and critics with a moral
agenda, potentially problematic. On the one hand, they provide the poet
with a much wider range of sensuous, emotional, and symbolic expression.
On the other hand, the pleasure they produce complicates the normative
presumption of a mutually reinforcing relationship between beauty and
virtue. Since sinister aesthetics have their own appeal as major elements of
the poet’s art, the poems run the risk of making evil itself appealing. Concern
about this fascination with evil was strongly felt in the Renaissance, and not
without reason.
Although critics and philosophers often moralize aesthetic issues,
poetry inevitably aestheticizes moral ones. Literary depictions of evil are
poetic constructions like any other, and therefore capable of producing
aesthetic pleasure. It follows that we must understand the aesthetic prin-
ciples behind these constructions and the responses they elicit, if we are to
understand how poetry functions. Without a concept like sinister aes-
thetics, all representations of evil must be considered either ugly or decep-
tively beautiful. This limited paradigm makes it difficult to explain or even
discuss the appeal of literary epics such as The Faerie Queene and Paradise
Lost, as well as the mysterious poetic energy associated with so many
villains in early modern drama. It prevents critics from accurately describ-
ing the aesthetic structures out of which representations of evil are built,
and it makes readers’ engagement with representations of evil look like
bad aesthetic and/or moral judgment: either they naïvely take beauty for
virtue, they wickedly take vice for virtue, or they perversely and inexplic-
ably take ugliness for beauty. In fact, an appreciation of the sinister reflects
a more sophisticated aesthetic sensibility, not a failure of aesthetic judg-
ment, and acknowledging the sinister complicates moral judgment rather
than impairing it.


While the idea of the sinister could productively be applied to a wide
variety of historical periods and art forms, from medieval sculpture to
contemporary popular music, part of its value as a concept is that it allows
us to identify historically and culturally specific aesthetic traditions for
representing evil. Moreover, the sinister can play very different roles in

different cultural contexts: demonic iconography does not function in the

same way for Milton as it does for heavy metal fans. Accordingly, although
I hope that the sinister as a theoretical paradigm may find a wider scholarly
application, this study will not attempt to prove its universal or transhis-
torical validity. Rather, I will focus on the development, use, and cultural
significance of certain particular sinister aesthetics in English literature
from the Elizabethan period through Milton.
Concerns about evil manifested in a variety of early modern literary,
dramatic, and popular texts. Some of the most important literary works of
the period were Christian epics that took the conflict between good and
evil as their central focus. There was also an explosion of newly sophisti-
cated theatrical productions and of cheap printed material that examined
evil from a variety of angles. These developments allowed elite and popular
culture, as well as secular and religious culture, to overlap and enter into
dialogue in new ways. Playwrights, ballad-makers, and preachers and
publishers of sermons competed with each other for market share.
All of these writers used the sinister in order to attract audiences.
Underworld set pieces had been an essential feature of the epic genre
since its inception, long before Milton made Satan one of his main
characters. Dramatists built on the medieval tradition of the demonic
Vice figure to create a range of engaging villains. Marlowe’s Barabas in
The Jew of Malta (c. 1590) seeks to draw the audience in with his gloating
evil even though he quickly sheds any redeeming human qualities with
which he began the play. Shakespeare’s Richard III seduces other char-
acters and many audiences despite—or rather, by means of—his villainy
and monstrosity. Although Protestant anti-theatrical writers derided the
London theater as Satanic, religious writers and dramatists freely appro-
priated sinister poetic techniques from each other. Writers of ballads and
sermons employed the sinister not only to terrify audiences but also to
engage them. It is important to emphasize that, with the exception of
compulsory churchgoing, early modern audiences chose to invest their
time and money in experiencing these representations.
In this period, the sinister is not merely an artistic element; it has
significant religious consequences and is fundamentally linked with shifts
in early modern Protestant piety. The aesthetic appeal of evil, as both a
theoretical problem and a practical poetic resource, becomes entangled in
important religious debates about divine providence and the problem of
evil. These concerns grew particularly urgent with the Protestant
Reformation, the rise of Calvinism, and the conflicts between more and

less radical Protestants. The opposing branches of early modern

Christianity distinguished themselves in no small part through their dis-
agreements about what kind of moral agency human beings possessed,
and whether and how sinful behavior could be avoided and/or expiated.
Their differing answers to these questions necessarily had implications for
understanding God’s responsibility for evil.
If we acknowledge the intimate relationship between aesthetics and
religious ideology, we can see that the Christian problem of evil has both
a logical and an affective component. Solving the problem of evil requires
more than a proof of God’s innocence based on abstract moral and theo-
logical principles, as many early modern writers and modern scholars
assume. Logical theodicy is obviously necessary for resolving the problem
of evil, but by itself, it cannot offer a complete solution because it does not
satisfy the aesthetic sensibilities, which are a fundamental component of
religious piety.20 It is challenging but not insurmountably difficult to
demonstrate, as a matter of doctrinal logic, that humanity is morally
responsible for its own sins. Indeed, the Christian theological tradition is
littered with such justifications. But God shapes the form that evil takes; as
Shuger says, he “plots the didactic narrative of crime and punishment”
(Habits 201). It is precisely when we see divine providence as a literary
narrative—as in the narratives of the Bible, of history, and of personal
experience—that troubling questions arise about the sensibilities of the
author. The weakness of any merely logical theodicy is that it does not
assuage the repugnance inspired by a God whose aesthetic sensibilities
determine both the horrifying details of the human crimes he permits
and the cruel forms of the punishments he inflicts in response. This dis-
junction between divine and human aesthetic sensibilities is the aspect of
monotheistic divinity that has always been most in need of justification.
In seeking an affective solution to the Christian problem of evil, one that
would work not simply on the level of theology but on the level of piety, some
early modern writers exploited the poetic techniques that their contempor-
aries used to make evil engaging. Sermon writers such as Thomas Adams
(1583–1653) and Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667) used sinister imagery not
only to describe Satan, as we might expect, but even more to describe God
and thereby make his punishments appealing. Milton’s Paradise Lost repre-
sents the period’s most searching and ambitious attempt to address both
aspects of the problem of evil. The poem demonstrates the limits of logical
theodicy and the necessity of a poetic theodicy that uses aesthetics to generate
an appropriate affective response to God.

As a poetic theodicy, Paradise Lost must convince its readers not just to
accept but to actively approve the universe and all of the many evils within
it. By presenting divine punishment, particularly its infernal manifesta-
tions, as a source of aesthetic pleasure, the poem in effect grants God
some aspects of the appeal of a Renaissance stage villain. Of course, Milton
also powerfully presents some of God’s more conventionally positive
aspects. Overall, in fact, the God of Paradise Lost is characterized by a
chiaroscuro aesthetic, the fusion of light and dark elements, and the poem
thereby presents an Augustinian vision of the universe as a troubling but
ultimately beautiful combination of good and evil.
This study thus offers an answer to Sharpe’s question about whether
“changing religious sensibilities” produced new aesthetic sensibilities or
vice versa: the two are causally interdependent. Christianity inflects sinister
aesthetics by emphasizing the importance of evil as a moral category and by
providing a wealth of demonic cosmology and iconography for early
modern authors and playwrights to exploit. Christian writers, from lowly
ballad-makers to preachers to Milton himself, re-appropriate sinister aes-
thetics in order to attract audiences and to offer affective theodicies.
Finally, sinister aesthetics inflect Christianity by shaping the religious sen-
sibilities of believers who experience an affective response to them—and by
becoming part of how early modern Christians represent the divine.

This book examines the development of sinister aesthetics in England
from the late sixteenth century to the late seventeenth century, through
the interaction and competition between several different forms of early
modern cultural discourse: elite literature (as embodied particularly in
poetic theory and the epic tradition), cheap print, religious writing, and
drama. That development culminates in Milton’s Paradise Lost, which
combines and transforms the various strands of sinister poetics into a
new kind of poetry and a new conception of God.
The second chapter ranges over a generically diverse set of ancient and
early modern texts in order to provide some of the intellectual–historical
context for the more historically focused chapters that follow. It highlights
the tensions between early modern literary theory and practice regarding
the attractiveness of artistic representations of evil by looking briefly at
selected elements of the literary philosophy and epic poetry of Sidney,
Tasso, and Spenser. As theorists, these writers were unable to fully

reconcile the appeal of literary representations of evil with their own

models for how poetry ought to function. However, they did open up
the possibility of acknowledging the sinister and assimilating it into a
Christian context by drawing on the ideas of Augustine, who conceives
of the universe aesthetically, as a chiaroscuro composition of good and evil
elements that together produce a divinely ordained beauty. Moreover, as
epic poets, Tasso and Spenser helped to develop an elaborate repertoire of
images and techniques for representing evil in appealing ways, thereby
generating and refining several varieties of sinister aesthetics for subse-
quent early modern writers.
Chapter 3 uses Shakespeare’s Richard III as a model for the treatment
of evil and the demonic in English Renaissance drama. Theater in this
period saw a tremendous proliferation of figures that challenge or overturn
traditional moral and aesthetic standards: attractive villains, malign gods,
and humanized or even sympathetic devils. Richard III is one of the most
influential examples of a Renaissance stage villain whose physical and
moral monstrosity empowers him to dominate his play and charm other
characters and audiences. Not only is the play unusually comprehensive in
the kinds of sinister aesthetics that it explores but it also offers some of the
most explicit theorization available within an early modern play about the
appeal of ugliness and evil. While Richard III primarily presents evil as a
form of entertainment, it also raises questions about divine providence,
which in the play appears to operate largely through the sinister curses of
the vengeful “hag,” Queen Margaret (1.3.212).
Early modern theater lies at the intersection between literary and
popular culture, and the popularity of demonic figures on the stage reflects
larger cultural interests and concerns, including the theological problem of
evil. The fourth chapter therefore examines the depiction of divine punish-
ment in two kinds of Renaissance cheap print texts: broadside ballads and
sermons. The market competition between plays, ballads, and sermons
encouraged their appropriation of infernal and monstrous aesthetics from
each other. Ballads about so-called monstrous births not only present
them as pleasurably fearful spectacles but they also employ what Helaine
Razovsky in the title of her 1996 essay calls “Popular Hermeneutics,”
treating monsters as texts written by God. Depicting God as a monster-
maker has important implications for early modern English conceptions of
God and his relationship to evil. The chapter concludes with a look at
seventeenth century sermons that explore this relationship and cultivate an
approval of monstrous and infernal forms of divine punishment.

In choosing to write Paradise Lost as a poetic theodicy and not a

treatise, Milton inherits both the literary and religious problems of evil
faced by early modern English Protestants. He must offer a theological
explanation for God’s apparent tolerance of evil, but more importantly, he
must make his vision of God poetically compelling. The resulting work
fundamentally integrates the aesthetic and the theological. Milton sees
God’s creation as a chiaroscuro composition in which darkness and light,
evil and good, are closely intermingled. The poet’s task is to bring the
reader to a state of mind in which that mingling seems divinely beautiful.
From drama, Milton borrows the model of the attractive villain and applies
it, first to Satan but eventually to God himself. Milton’s representations of
divine evil and punishment recall and transform the imagery of popular
religious discourse. He constructs a poetic theodicy that engages with the
darkest elements of God’s nature, and he seeks to justify these elements
affectively by infusing them with pleasingly sinister qualities.
Milton’s Satan, the period’s most notoriously appealing villain, is essen-
tial to this strategy. Accordingly, the fifth chapter analyzes Satan’s attrac-
tiveness and his gradual degeneration. The centuries-old critical debate
about Satan has traditionally placed Milton’s poetic impulses in opposition
to his theological principles. Understanding that piety includes aesthetic
and affective components as well as abstract dogmas, however, allows us to
see the ways in which Milton’s Satanic poetry can express his religious
sensibilities. Attending to Satan’s own changing aesthetic perspectives
elucidates the poem’s interweaving of moral and aesthetic concerns, as
well as the importance and the dangers of engaging with the infernal.
The sixth chapter examines the crux of Milton’s poetic response to the
problem of evil in Paradise Lost, which is to gradually transfer the poetic
power of the sinister from Satan to God, and it explains the religious
consequences of this strategy. Milton develops the poetic power of evil
while revealing the ultimate origin of that power in God, thus creating a
poetic universe that encourages approval of and pleasure in God’s punish-
ments, not merely reluctant acceptance of them. In this way, Milton
depicts God himself as a sinister allegorist: one who afflicts his creations
with punishments that are horrible representations of their own evil for
artistic purposes, namely to delight and instruct heavenly and human
audiences. Milton seeks to show that God’s justice is a poetic justice and
that the aesthetic principles behind that poetry are sinister.
The epilogue summarizes the book’s analysis of how early modern
authors made aesthetic use of the appeal of evil, and how the sinister

aesthetics they developed affected their religious piety and theodicy. It then
briefly considers the life of the sinister after Milton. The rise of the sublime
as a major aesthetic paradigm in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
offered a theoretical validation for taking pleasure in artistic representations
of evil, one that ultimately allowed sinister aesthetics to become more
independent from religious concerns. Finally, the epilogue suggests some
of the uses of—and anxieties about—the sinister in the modern era.

1. See Susan J. Wolfson’s “Reading for Form” (2000) and the other essays in
the Modern Language Quarterly special issue of the same title, Mark David
Rasmussen’s collection Renaissance Literature and Its Formal Engagements
(2002), Stephen Cohen’s collection Shakespeare and Historical Formalism
(2007), Marjorie Levinson’s “What Is New Formalism?” (2007), Verena
Theile and Linda Tredennick’s collection New Formalisms and Literary
Theory (2013), and Frederic V. Bogel’s New Formalist Criticism: Theory
and Practice (2013).
2. See Gail Kern Paster’s Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean
Stage (2004) and several collections, including Reading the Early Modern
Passions (2003) edited by Paster, Katharine Rowe, and Mary Floyd-Wilson;
Politics and the Passions, 1500–1850 (2006) edited by Victoria Kahn, Neil
Saccamano, and Daniela Coli; and Passions and Subjectivity in Early Modern
Culture (2013) edited by Brian Cummings and Freya Sierhuis.
3. Ken Jackson and Arthur Marotti, in “The Turn to Religion in Early Modern
English Studies” (2004), contrast Marxist scholars who “decode religious
language and ideas as mystifications of economic, political, and social con-
ditions and relationships, usually assuming that religion itself is a form of
‘false consciousness’” with scholars who “take seriously religious beliefs,
ideas, and history” (168).
4. See, for example, Shuger’s Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance
5. C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942) and Stanley Fish’s Surprised
by Sin (1967) have helped promulgate this perspective among Miltonists.
6. Paradise Lost passages are cited by book and line number.
7. See, for example, Rumrich’s 1996 study, Milton Unbound: Controversy and
Reinterpretation (1).
8. Stephen Gosson’s Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582), for example,
castigates playgoing as sitting in “the chaire of pestilence” (B7, Kinney
154) and eating the “pollution of idoles” (B8v, Kinney 155). On retro-
spective moralizing, see my Chapter 2, especially regarding Tasso’s

“Allegoria del poema” and Lodovico Ricchieri’s comparison of allegory to

an antidote.
9. Most scholars of monstrosity focus on the monster as a “categorical viola-
tion”; see, for example, Jeffrey J. Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven
Theses)” (1996), which associates monsters with “Category Crisis” (6).
I emphasize the monster’s status as a “fictional confection.”
10. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whom I quote in the epilogue, uses “beautiful”
in this sense.
11. In this book, “demonic” and “infernal” are by default aesthetic terms, not
moral ones, pertaining to the representational traditions of demons and hell.
12. As an umbrella term for a variety of deviations from normative expectations,
the sinister resembles Bryan Reynolds’s concept of the “transversal,” which
he describes in Transversal Enterprises in the Drama of Shakespeare and his
Contemporaries (2006) and elsewhere. But the transversal is constituted by
its boundary violations (2, 37), whereas the sinister ultimately represents an
alternative aesthetic order.
13. For a seminal new historicist example, see Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-
Fashioning (1980), where the binary terms are “authority” and “alien” (9). For
Greenblatt’s use of the terms “subversion” and “containment,” see
Shakespearean Negotiations (1988; 30–39 and elsewhere).
14. See also Eric B. Song’s Kristevan reading of Milton in Dominion
Undeserved: Milton and the Perils of Creation (2013; 5–7).
15. Joel Fineman’s Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye (1986) attempts to move beyond
this limitation, arguing that the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets “is not a
negative version of, nor is she an alternative to, conventional sonneteering
ideals” but “the perversion of any such idealization, not simply the lowest
rung on the ladder of love, but a power that kicks the ladder out altogether”
(58–59). But this approach still relies on negation, rather than attending to
what Linda Charnes, in Notorious Identity (1993), calls “the structural
operations of transgression” (47).
16. This suspicion is not new. Louis Adrian Montrose’s The Purpose of Playing
(1996; 12) traces it back to Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature
17. Another largely post-Renaissance term overlapping with the sinister is the
macabre, which can suggest a pleasurable gruesomeness and is applied to
literary style beginning in the late 1800s (OED A.2).
18. Eco’s formulation is based on Karl Rosenkranz’s Aesthetic of Ugliness
(Aesthetik des Häßlichen, 1853). Because the sinister encompasses Eco’s
pleasurable ugliness, I typically reserve the term “ugly” for things that are
genuinely unpleasant, with some exceptions when it is shorthand for “that
which is conventionally considered ugly.”

19. Like the sublime, the grotesque partly overlaps with the sinister, partly
diverges from it, and has undergone significant shifts of meaning since the
early modern period. By the 1650s, “grotesque” could imply an aesthetics of
monstrosity and “distortion or unnatural combinations” (OED B.2.a).
According to the OED, Ben Jonson’s Timber says the “vulgar” associate it
“unaptly” with “Chimaera’s,” but at least through 1823 it could also be
characterized as a “light, gay, and beautiful style of ornament” (OED A.1.a).
Milton uses “grotesque” to describe the unruly foliage of Eden in Paradise
Lost (4.136); see Janice Koelb’s The Poetics of Description: Imagined Places
in European Literature (2006; 90–91). Following Mikhail Bakhtin’s
Rabelais and His World (1965), early modernists often link the grotesque
with the carnivalesque; see, for example, Neil Rhodes’s Elizabethan
Grotesque (1980). Alison Milbank’s “Divine Beauty and the Grotesque in
Dante’s Paradiso” (2009), however, connects the grotesque with divine
punishment. Like the sinister, the carnivalesque inverts social and cultural
expectations, and employs the grotesque and the Vice archetype; but the
carnivalesque differs in its festive, comic, and redemptive connotations. See
Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression
(1986) and Peter Lake and Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd Hat
20. Modern theologians remain interested in the relationship between aesthetics
and the problem of evil. John Hick’s influential Evil and the God of Love
(1966) opposes Augustine’s “aesthetic theodicy” (93), while Philip Tallon’s
The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (2012) argues “that
aesthetic considerations play a valuable role in the task of theodicy” (xviii).
Marilyn McCord Adams’s book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God
(1999) opens by acknowledging that “writing or reading about evil affords
opportunity to taste that delicious dread of picking and tasting fruits pri-
mordially disallowed” (1).

“Dreadful Harmony”: The Poetics of Evil

in Sidney, Tasso, and Spenser


As a neoclassical movement, the Renaissance relied heavily on the works of
ancient Greek and Roman authors, in particular Plato, Aristotle, and
Horace, to develop its sense of the purpose and effects of literature. At
the same time, these pagan ideas had to be integrated with a Christian
theology and worldview. Although early modern writers routinely and
often unselfconsciously combined classical and Christian ideas and values,
negotiating the conflicts between these two cultural systems remained a
perennial challenge and a fundamental part of the intellectual work of the
Renaissance. The Protestant Reformation and its calls for religious purity,
variously defined, made it even more important for writers to properly
manage their Christian-pagan syncretism.
By the middle of the sixteenth century in Italy, the epicenter of the
Renaissance, critics had developed a rich tradition of literary theory based
on classical models.1 Their approach to the ancient authors was both
moralistic and eclectic. They tended to interpret classical observations
about poetry as sets of prescriptive rules possessing an ultimately moral
significance, despite the fact that their sources often contradicted one
another. By treating all classical sources as authoritative, they created
paradoxical conflicts of values that complicated their aesthetic theories
while enriching their poetic practice. From these conflicts emerged a set
of central dilemmas, each of which had advocates on both sides: whether
the primary aim of poetry is to delight or instruct, whether virtue is

© The Author(s) 2017 23

J.E. Slotkin, Sinister Aesthetics,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52797-0_2

naturally beautiful or appealing, whether evil is naturally appealing,

whether poetry makes ugliness appealing, and whether poetry can move
readers to action.
The theological premises of Christianity added urgency to these pro-
blems. Belief in an omnipotent and perfectly benevolent God made it
difficult to explain the very existence of evil, let alone the possibility of
its attractiveness. The anti-materialist strain in Christianity, which became
more powerful with the rise of Protestantism, encouraged the belief that
aesthetic pleasure itself was a form of evil and artistic representation a form
of idolatry. At the same time, Christianity’s perennial tendencies toward
Manichean dualism, and its foundational narrative paradigm of sin and
redemption, gave evil a fundamental importance in the cosmic scheme.
This dualistic impulse led to a preoccupation with imagining heaven and
hell, which in turn produced a rich tradition of demonic and infernal
imagery in both the visual and literary arts. This tradition, which began
long before the Renaissance, reached an apex in Dante’s Inferno (c. 1314),
the most detailed and influential literary survey of hell and its torments
available to early modern writers. The Inferno was an incredibly compre-
hensive poetic resource, weaving together classical depictions of the under-
world with Christian accounts of hell and ranging in tone from the sublime
to the scatological. Moreover, the enduring popularity of the Inferno in the
early modern period stood as one of the most striking rebukes to the idea
that representations of hell must be unpleasant.
The Renaissance’s greatest impact on English culture coincided with
England’s rocky conversion to Protestantism in the sixteenth century, and
the subsequent clashes between factions of Protestants with divergent
religious and secular agendas, which continued through the seventeenth
century. England thus had to assimilate neoclassical debates about poetry
during a time of religious and civil conflict. Attitudes toward art and
aesthetic pleasure took on a heightened significance as they became mar-
kers of political and sectarian divisions.
The cultural, intellectual, and religious forces operating in the late
sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries made it particularly difficult for
early modern critics to explain the pleasure many writers and readers
evidently took in representations of evil and monstrosity. Their theories
generally presumed that poetic representations of evil should generate
aversion and thereby discourage immoral behavior. Although aesthetically
engaging representations of evil pervade English Renaissance literature
and drama, most of the theoretical paradigms available during the early

modern period tended either to condemn such representations or to deny

the possibility of their existence. Nonetheless, a careful reading of some
important early modern theorists reveals an abiding interest in the pro-
blem and a recognition of the possibility of an aesthetics of evil.
To frame this conflict between theory and practice as it manifested in early
modern England, I will examine a combination of theoretical and poetic
texts by a group of authors whose stature and influence on early modern
English literary and intellectual culture are well established, but who are not
uniformly early modern or English: Saint Augustine (354–430), Torquato
Tasso (1544–1595), Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586), and Edmund Spenser
(c. 1552–1599). Although Augustine is an ancient author, his influence on
the texts I discuss is sufficiently complex to merit a brief dedicated analysis in
this chapter. Tasso, for his part, is a notable exemplar of the Italian critical
tradition that was one of the primary influences on early modern English
literary theory, and Tasso’s epic is arguably the most direct precursor of
Paradise Lost—in some ways an even closer analogue than The Faerie
Queene. Sidney’s and Spenser’s seminal contributions to early modern
English literary theory and epic poetry, respectively, make them obvious
points of reference. A comprehensive examination of how these four authors
treat the appeal of evil would be far beyond the scope of a single chapter.
Here, I offer selective readings of their work to introduce crucial pieces of the
intellectual context for my subsequent chapters.
Sidney, Tasso, and Spenser are among the most prominent writers in the
latter part of the sixteenth century who wrestled with the issues surrounding
attractive representations of evil as theoreticians and as practicing poets.
They drew directly and indirectly on a variety of ancient sources, including
Plato, Aristotle, Horace, and Augustine. Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy
demonstrates the contradictions that arose when early modern theorists
used classical models to establish the relationship between the pleasurable
beauties of poetic form and what they hoped were the moral benefits of
poetic content. Tasso’s theoretical writings and his epic poetry engage more
directly with Christianity as a poetic subject. His linkage of aesthetics and
religion ultimately derives from Augustine, especially the idea that true
Christian piety must recognize darkness and evil as essential elements in
the beauty of God’s creation. Tasso justifies the poet’s use of evil to beautify a
poem by comparing it to God’s own practices. However, this literary claim
has theological consequences: it suggests that God employed a sinister
aesthetic when he made the universe. Finally, Spenser’s Faerie Queene
indulges in gorgeous renderings of the monstrous, disgusting, and cruel

that test the limits of poetry’s ability to aestheticize evil and thereby help
establish some of the repertoire—and the boundaries—of the sinister in
Renaissance poetic practice.


The Renaissance understanding of the purpose of literature was fundamen-
tally shaped by Horace’s dictum, in the Ars Poetica, that poetry should both
delight and instruct.2 But this formulation inspired innumerable debates
about the proper relationship between delight and instruction, and ulti-
mately between aesthetic and moral elements in art. Some writers presented
the aesthetic pleasures of imitation as the central purpose of poetry.
According to Gioseppe Malatesta, poetry “proposes for itself, indeed, a
proper end, which is to imitate elegantly in order to delight; but frequently
another extrinsic end follows this one, namely, that of profit,” meaning
moral improvement (Weinberg 333).3 However, most Italian critics insisted
that the pleasures of poetry be subordinated to its didactic function: “the
poet wishes first and absolutely to profit, but since he cannot do so without
the accompaniment of pleasure, he uses it as a servant of the first” (Weinberg
279).4 The extreme form of this position held that poetic aesthetics were too
conducive to evil to serve any purpose, even the delivery of moral lessons.
These anti-poetic treatises increased in frequency through the mid to late
sixteenth century in Italy (see Weinberg 294).
Literary theorists in the English Renaissance were influenced by the
already well-developed critical discussions happening in Italy. Although the
Italian critics offered support for positions all across the spectrum of the
debate between delight and instruction, the balance favored a moralistic
rationale for literature, and there were suggestions that poetry might be an
inherently immoral activity.5 In England, these concerns were exacerbated
by the rise of Protestant sects that contained powerful impulses toward moral
rigor and away from sensual or artistic pleasures. Although Renaissance poets
and dramatists routinely flouted these principles in practice, English writers
seeking to formulate theories about the purposes of literature had to contend
with critics who found the literary arts as such morally suspect.
Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy (written c. 1580, published
1595) is one of the period’s most influential theoretical works in
English. Sidney takes a moderately moralistic position, in opposition to

more stringent moralists like the prominent anti-theatrical writer Stephen

Gosson (1554–1624), whose condemnations of poetry and drama may
have inspired the Defence (see Sidney 371n212). Sidney defends poetry
and drama primarily as forms of moral instruction, but he also praises the
poetic imagination as superior to nature. He rejects the argument that
the delights of poetry are inherently immoral, but he acknowledges the
capacity of literature to do harm and condemns most of the actual
poetry and drama written by his English contemporaries. By positioning
himself in the middle of the Horatian debate and trying to address both
extremes, Sidney ends up reflecting his culture’s ambivalence about
whether the pleasurable beauty of poetry is fundamentally linked to mor-
ality or disconnected from it. His inconsistent treatment of poetic aes-
thetics presents it alternately as a mask and a manifestation of moral truths.
Some of Sidney’s metaphors suggest a gradual alienation of poetic form
from content. When he calls poetry the “skin . . . and beauty” of Plato’s
work, philosophy the “inside and strength” (213), he assumes that the
poetic qualities of a text present a fair outside covering the truths
presented in the text. Although the poetic skin is clearly subordinated to
the philosophical skeleton, the metaphor nonetheless posits an organic,
mutually supporting relationship between the two. Later, however, Sidney
takes a more instrumental view of the relationship between beauty and
instruction, arguing that the poetic exterior serves primarily to get the
audience’s attention: “neither philosopher nor historiographer could at
the first have entered into the gates of popular judgements, if they had
not taken a great passport of poetry” (214). In Sidney’s most extreme
formulations, the poetic skin becomes a deceitful concealment: “even
those hard-hearted evil men . . . will be content to be delighted . . . and so
steal to see the form of goodness (which seen they cannot but love) ere
themselves be aware, as if they took a medicine of cherries” (227).6
The medicine of cherries simile highlights Sidney’s ambivalence about
the relationship between poetry and morality. The analogy suggests that
poetry is a beautiful shell concealing the bitter pill of moral instruction,
and it places the sweetness of poetic beauty in direct opposition to the
unpleasant taste of truth. And yet, in the midst of this image, Sidney
interjects a parenthetical comment that insists on a Platonic conception
of virtue as something that audiences “cannot but love” once they have
“seen” it. The assertion that viewing goodness must cause pleasure
directly contradicts the surrounding metaphor of goodness as an unpala-
table medicine that must be covered up with cherry flavoring.

Indeed, the Defence contains a powerful contrary impulse to present

beauty not as an instrument of deception, but as an instrument of vision.
When Sidney compares poetic representation to a hypothetical painting
of the virtuous Lucretia, he does not say that Lucretia’s beauty will lure
observers into contemplating her goodness. Rather, the image of Lucretia
is “the outward beauty of such a virtue” (218). Here, the beauty of the
painted face incarnates the inward goodness rather than masking it.
Furthermore, this kind of representation is the best expression of virtue
available to us, which is precisely the point of Sidney’s long argument
about poetry’s superiority to the dry abstractions of philosophy and the
sordid realities of history (221–228).
Sidney’s contradictory formulations demonstrate the permeability of the
division between the aesthetic and moral realms, as well as the ways they
frequently oppose each other. In Sidney’s work, as in the work of many of his
contemporaries, there is a pervasive slippage between moral and aesthetic
evaluations, where, for example, ugliness continually functions as a stand-in
for evil. When an early modern author describes something as ugly, they are
frequently expressing an implicit—or in many cases, utterly explicit—moral
condemnation. Aesthetic choices have moral implications, and conversely,
articulations of moral truths inevitably have aesthetic effects. In conse-
quence, The Defence of Poesy also instantiates a larger Renaissance debate
about whether goodness is naturally pleasurable or unpleasant. Some parts of
the essay support what John Rumrich, in Milton Unbound: Controversy and
Reinterpretation (1996), calls the “ordinary Platonic paradigm—that beauty
is the good registered according to its aesthetic appeal” (140).7 However,
presenting instruction as a foul-tasting medicine undermines the Platonic
equation of truth, beauty, and pleasure.
Doubt about whether goodness is pleasurable leads naturally to the
question of whether evil can be pleasurable. The Platonic argument, that
beauty is naturally pleasing and a natural consequence of goodness,
implies that evil should produce displeasure through ugliness. Therefore,
poets who represent evil would do so as a form of aversion therapy. As
Sidney puts it,

who seeth not the filthiness of evil, wanteth a great foil to perceive the
beauty of virtue. . . . And little reason hath any man to say, that men
learn the evil by seeing it so set out, since as I said before . . . nothing
can more open his eyes, than to see his own actions contemptibly set
forth. (230)

This aversion therapy model is a fundamental component of early modern

poetic theory. It presumes that the poet’s job is to align aesthetic and
moral values and makes the notion of attractive evil virtually oxymoronic.8
Within the confines of the Platonic paradigm, artistic representations of
evil can become attractive only through the agency of irresponsible poets
or corrupt readers. Sidney cautions that “If the poet do his part aright, he
will show you in Tantalus, Atreus, and such like, nothing that is not to be
shunned” (224). Wicked poets can conceal evil behind or combine it with
something beautiful or good, in order to deceive readers. However, while
such poetic deception represents a significant social and moral danger, it
does not suggest that evil (or ugliness) as such can be appealing.
The more troubling problem Sidney raises is that the reader’s “infected
will” might perversely love what should be naturally loathsome (217).
Gosson’s anti-theatrical work Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1582)
expresses this view even more forcefully, arguing that when a play mingles
good and evil, “the hereditarie corruptiõ of our nature taketh ý worst and
leaueth the best” (C7, Kinney 162).9 Both Sidney and his antagonist
blame the enjoyment of evil on the infection or corruption of original
sin. Because original sin is a universal feature of humanity after the Fall,
these arguments raise the disturbing possibility that our natural aesthetic
sensibilities are diseased and therefore the opposite of what Platonic
theory would dictate.10
Although Sidney’s theoretical paradigms resist the notion, the Defence
occasionally acknowledges that evil and what we call ugliness can have an
aesthetic appeal that is not pathological. At one point, Sidney suggests that
artistic representation is pleasing in itself, even when the object is hideous
or malign: “as Aristotle saith, those things which in themselves are hor-
rible, as cruel battles, unnatural monsters, are made in poetical imitation
delightful” (227). The source for this argument is Aristotle’s Poetics
chapter 4, which argues that “we enjoy contemplating the most precise
images of things whose actual sight is painful to us, such as the forms
of the vilest animals and of corpses,” because “understanding” what the
images represent “gives great pleasure”—or, failing that, “because of
its execution or colour, or for some other such reason” (1448b, pages
37–39).11 For Aristotle, at least here, skillful artistic representations and
the pleasures of viewing them are valid ends in themselves. But Sidney
links this Aristotelian perspective to the didactic imperative of Renaissance
poetic theory. Aristotle finds the animals and corpses despicable in a way
that approaches moral judgment but is not overtly moralistic. Sidney,

following the interpretive habits of his contemporaries, chooses examples

of horrible things with stronger moral valences: cruel battles and unnatural
monsters (presumably the monstrous antagonists of the classical and
romance traditions). Moreover, Sidney argues that by making battles
and monsters pleasant, a poem can encourage heroic virtue in its audience.
In doing so, he provides another example of poetry as a “medicine of
cherries,” but he also conflates the unpleasantness of monsters, which are
ugly and evil, with the unpleasantness of courageously fighting them,
which is the virtuous action the poet wishes to promote. The ambiguity
raises questions about what exactly poetry renders delightful and how—
that is to say, which element is the medicine and which is the flavoring.12
The passage certainly argues that the beauties of the poet’s art make the
unpleasant but virtuous business of monster-fighting more palatable.
However, by describing the representations of monsters as delightful
and alluding to Aristotle, the passage also asserts that poetry can make
ugly and evil things aesthetically appealing.
Although Sidney does not explicitly pursue this argument in the passage,
the concept of delightful monsters opens up the intriguing possibility that
representations of the ugly and evil could themselves be part of the aesthe-
tically pleasing sugar-coating on the bitter pill of virtue. A closer look at
Sidney’s descriptions confirms that he considers cruelty, monstrosity, and
the infernal to be central elements of the poetic repertoire and potential
sources of delight. His praise of the poetic imagination lists “Heroes,
Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like,” freely juxtaposing
the majestic and admirable with the monstrous and despicable as examples
of the poet’s superiority to nature (216). Sidney also argues that the poet
can create “more delighting” than the historian, “having all, from Dante’s
heaven to his hell, under the authority of his pen,” implying that hell and
heaven are equally pleasurable poetic subjects (225). Finally, his discussion
of tragedy suggests a pleasurable aesthetics of violence and diseased fluids:
he commends tragedy’s “sweet violence” and the fact that it “openeth the
greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue”
(230). This, too, Sidney could have learned from Aristotle, who argues
that the pleasure of tragedy should come from “scenes of suffering”
(Poetics chapter 24, 1459b, page 119), which involve “a destructive or
painful action, such as public deaths, physical agony, woundings, etc.”
(chapter 11, 1452b, page 67). To generate this suffering, Aristotle advo-
cates the representation of actions that Sidney and his contemporaries
would certainly consider evil, in particular, the murder of close relatives.

These statements suggest Sidney’s recognition of a pleasure in artistic

representations that are not beautiful in the normative sense, and a
response to the evil and monstrous that is not aversive. He thus at least
implicitly acknowledges the operation of what I have called sinister aes-
thetics. However, the Defence does not fully theorize this concept, nor do
Sidney’s own literary works particularly emphasize monstrous or infernal
imagery, or prominently feature engaging representations of evil. In his
theoretical work, Sidney, like many Italian Renaissance critics, finds it hard
to move beyond the Aristotelian claim that a painting of a flower and a
painting of a corpse are both pleasurable in the same way, because they are
skillful imitations.13 The main disadvantage of this model is that it pre-
supposes a uniform pleasure in all artistic imitation regardless of its actual
content. While there is certainly a great deal of overlap between the poetic
techniques used to add sensual vividness to both beautiful and ugly
objects, depicting un-beautiful content more vividly does not typically
prettify it, but makes its own distinctive and divergent aesthetic qualities
ever more clear.
Aristotle’s Poetics actually does allow for a qualitatively distinct form
of engagement with literary representations that transgress normative
aesthetic and/or moral conventions, but this possibility is largely
restricted to the genre of tragedy. More importantly, neither Aristotle,
Plato, or Horace could help early modern theorists reconcile the appeal
of the sinister with Christian conceptions of evil and sin, and specifically
with the accusations of moralists like Gosson that tragedy was a corrupt-
ing influence: “The beholding of troubles and miserable slaughters that
are in Tragedies, driue vs to immoderate sorrow, heauines, woma—/nish
weeping and mourning, whereby we become louers of dumpes, and
lamentatiõ, both enemies to fortitude” (Playes Confuted C5v-C6,
Kinney 161). For a treatment of the aesthetics of evil that highlighted
its distinctive pleasures and explained their relationship to Christian
morality and cosmology, early modern writers could look to a different
ancient source: Saint Augustine.



Augustine’s writings were well known to authors in both the Italian and
English Renaissances and had been available for centuries beforehand.
Italian literary critics acknowledged his authority as a theologian with a

particular interest in poetry (Weinberg 268). Augustine also exerted a great

influence on the Protestant Reformation; indeed, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s
The Reformation (2003) argues that the intellectual spark of the
Reformation was “a new statement of Augustine’s ideas on salvation”
(107) and describes the “emerging Lutheranism” of the early sixteenth
century as “the Augustinian Reformation” (111). Even after the
Reformation, Augustine remained a respected authority for both Catholics
and Protestants, although they obviously highlighted different aspects of his
teachings: “his emphasis on obedience to the Catholic Church or his discus-
sion of salvation” (MacCulloch 108). The fact that such bitterly opposed
branches of Christianity could both call themselves Augustinian suggests the
variety and capaciousness of his theological ideas. This analysis will focus on
one particular strand of Augustinian thought: his account of the relationship
between evil and aesthetic pleasure, primarily but not exclusively in the
Augustine insists on the importance of appreciating God’s created
universe aesthetically, and he gives evil a valid place within that crea-
tion. His account of how humans respond to evil, and how they ought
to respond, goes beyond the Platonic paradigm to offer a more
nuanced understanding of the relation between the ethical and aes-
thetic sensibilities in the development of a Christian piety—one that
incorporates a version of sinister aesthetics. Augustine is sensitive to the
distinctive aesthetics and pleasures offered by evil or hideous objects,
presenting evil as a unique flavor that produces a special aesthetic
delight, or a color on the artist’s palette that can be skillfully used to
generate aesthetic wholeness. Although he criticizes this appeal at
times, he also provides a rationale for integrating it with Christian
piety. As such, his work was a vital resource for the great Christian
epics of Tasso and Milton.
Augustine’s ontology of evil in the Confessions presents it as the man-
ifestation of a perverse will: “I inquired what wickedness is; and I did not
find a substance but a perversity of will twisted away from the highest
substance, you O God, towards inferior things” (7.16.22).14 In this
scheme, evil is not a “substance” that exists independently, but rather
the choice to value lesser goods over the supreme good. Before his con-
version, Augustine had been a Manichean, and in denying the substantial
existence of evil, he was specifically rejecting a core tenet of his former

Viewing evil as a deficiency and not a presence, as a non-thing with no

distinctive qualities of its own, would not seem conducive to treating evil
aesthetically. Nonetheless, as Augustine develops his arguments in the
Confessions and elsewhere, it becomes clear that his depiction of evil is
intimately bound up with the aesthetic. Despite his vehement repudiation
of Manichean dualism as an abstract dogma, the figurative language of his
theological writings continually imagines evil as a sensually vivid and
distinctive substance: filthy mud, delicious spices, or dark-colored paint.
As with Sidney and his contemporaries, the un-beautiful and the immoral
continually overlap or substitute for one another.
When Augustine describes evil as perversity, this perversity manifests
not merely as a twisted set of moral priorities, but as a misguided aesthetic
sensibility. The form of evil that Augustine finds easiest to theorize is an
excessive interest and pleasure in the beauty of created things, to the
exclusion of a respect for God and proper moral action. Augustine refers
to this temptation as voluptas oculorum, the delights of the eyes
(10.34.51). He treats even very serious crimes as the result of aesthetic
stimulus and response, beauty and the enjoyment of beauty. For example,
he argues that a man who commits murder does so in order to obtain
someone’s wife or property, or to redress a previous injury; however,
Augustine insists on the beauty rather than the utility of these lesser
goods: “They are beautiful [pulchra] and attractive [decora], even if, in
comparison with the higher goods which give true happiness, they are
mean and base” (2.5.11).15
Although it can lead to mortal sin, this aesthetic appeal is what I would
call normative for Augustine. Everything that Augustine’s hypothetical
murderer desires is consistent with reason, societal convention, and even
Augustine’s own moral theology. The problem is simply that the murderer
values these goods more than a human life or obedience to God. Thus,
although voluptas suggests the moral danger of beauty, it does not ques-
tion normative conceptions of what kinds of objects can cause aesthetic
Here and elsewhere, Augustine’s theoretical framework appears to deny
the possibility of taking pleasure in something non-normative. He asserts
that “No one would commit murder without a motive, merely because he
took pleasure in killing. Who would believe that?” (2.5.11). Augustine’s
critique of tragedy echoes this incredulity at the possibility of non-normative
pleasure: “Why is it that a person should wish to experience suffering by
watching grievous and tragic events which he himself would not wish

to endure? Nevertheless he wants to suffer the pain given by being a

spectator of these sufferings, and the pain itself is his pleasure. What is this
but amazing folly [mirabilis insania]?” (3.2.2).16
However, Augustine does find examples of people—most notably,
himself—acting on similar motivations, motivations that appear nonsensi-
cal in the normative model. Thus, Augustine’s discussion of voluptas
oculorum leads him to examine the human fascination with sensory experi-
ences that violate accepted standards of beauty. He calls this desire

From this observation it becomes easier to distinguish the activity of the

senses in relation to pleasure [voluptatis] from their activity in relation to
curiosity [curiositatis]. Pleasure pursues beautiful objects—what is agreeable
to look at, to hear, to smell, to taste, to touch. But curiosity pursues the
contraries of these delights with the motive of seeing what the experiences
are like, not with a wish to undergo discomfort, but out of a lust for
experimenting and knowing.

The reactions engendered by Augustine’s curiositas correspond to the

complex and ambivalent affective response that I have identified as a
product of sinister aesthetics—a fascinated engagement with objects that
are supposed to cause disgust and aversion:

What pleasure is to be found in looking at a mangled corpse, an experi-

ence which evokes revulsion? Yet wherever one is lying, people crowd
around to be made sad and to turn pale. They even dread seeing this in
their dreams, as if someone had compelled them to look at it when awake
or as if some report about the beauty of the sight had persuaded them to
see it. The same is true of the other senses, but it would be too long to
follow the theme through. To satisfy this diseased craving, outrageous
sights are staged in public shows [in spectaculis exhibentur quaeque
miracula]. (10.35.55)

A mutilated body lying in the street is not only horrible but it is also a
product of violence and therefore linked to some recent evil: homicide,
cruelty, or at the very least suffering. Once again, Augustine’s use of
rhetorical questions suggests the difficulty of imagining such a corpse
producing aesthetic pleasure. Yet it inspires curiosity, primarily as a visually
hideous spectacle, but presumably also by its potential involvement in the
evil of murder.

Augustine identifies curiositas as a specifically sensual appetite and

associates it with the theatrical arts. These qualities, along with its struc-
tural similarity to voluptas, suggest that curiositas can also be seen as an
aesthetic, analogous to the appetite for beauty but taking the un-beautiful
as its object, an attraction that coexists with the revulsion we would
expect. Voluptas, then, refers to a normative aesthetic and curiositas to a
sinister one. Augustine considers both to be sinful, but he seems to regard
curiositas as an even greater perversion because it violates normative
aesthetic principles as well as moral ones. This judgment suggests the
importance of aesthetic sensibilities to Augustine’s sense of morality.
Augustine’s description of the fascination exerted by a mangled corpse
recalls the notorious passage from Aristotle’s Poetics about enjoying
images of corpses. Like Aristotle, Augustine is fascinated by the human
attraction to seemingly repulsive objects, and like Aristotle, he attributes it
to a desire to learn. However, Augustine’s formulation is both more
enabling and more judgmental than Aristotle’s. Aristotle attributes the
aesthetic appeal of a picture of a corpse solely to its status as an artistic
representation; accordingly, he denies that the corpse itself could be
visually appealing. Augustine extends the sinister aesthetic of curiositas
not only to works of art but also to actual corpses, which cannot possibly
serve as examples of skillful painterly imitation. Thus, Augustine suggests
that the corpse does have distinctive sensual qualities that can engage the
interest of spectators. Perhaps as a consequence of this alteration, though,
Augustine condemns this fascination, which Aristotle finds productive, as
“diseased.” Overall, Augustine’s formulation advances the theoretical dis-
cussion by positing the appeal of the beautiful and the horrible as two
parallel yet distinct aesthetics, with their own sensual flavors and moral
Augustine’s own experience, specifically his notorious theft of “a huge
load of pears” (2.4.9), requires him to postulate another idea that conflicts
with the normative sensibilities he articulates: that the act of crime itself
could be a source of pleasure. Although the corpse Augustine describes
derives some of its interest from being the potential product of a moral
crime, it functions most explicitly as a sensually horrible object. Augustine
uses his own pear-stealing, however, to explore the enjoyment of sin qua
sin. In explaining his theft, Augustine ascribes to himself the motive that
he denies (at 2.5.11) to murderers and to notorious figures of cruelty like
Catiline: a pleasure in evil actions themselves. Augustine describes his own
impulse toward stealing pears not as a love for the objects stolen, but as a

pleasure in doing forbidden acts: “My desire was to enjoy not what I
sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of
what was wrong. . . . I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness
itself” (2.4.9).
This transgression for transgression’s sake, which seems at first like a
purely moral perversity, becomes fundamentally aesthetic in Augustine’s
account of it. He specifically denies that the pears were useful to him, or
that they appealed on a normative aesthetic level: “I stole something which
I had in plenty and of much better quality”—in fact, the pears were
“attractive in neither color nor taste” (2.4.9).17 However, he describes his
pleasure in the crime as analogous to the aesthetic pleasure that a less
depraved person would have derived from the fruit: “My feasting was solely
on the wickedness which I took pleasure in enjoying” (2.6.12).
Augustine describes this pleasure metaphorically in two conflicting
ways, but both suggest a sensual appeal that differs from the normative
aesthetic motives for crime that he outlines earlier. On the one hand,
he compares his love of wickedness to an attraction to filth: “It was
foul [foeda], and I loved it” (2.4.9). The word foeda has concrete sensual
connotations as well as abstract moral ones. On the other hand,
Augustine describes his criminality as a condimentum, a spice or season-
ing that adds a spark of flavor to the otherwise bland pears (2.6.12). This
comparison suggests a particularly pleasing flavor that is uniquely
associated with evil, which is one reasonable definition of a sinister
aesthetic. Just before this episode, Augustine combines these two figura-
tive strategies of filth and spiciness to describe his wicked behavior in the
city: “I rolled in its dung [caeno] as if rolling in spices [cinnamis] and
precious ointments” (2.3.8).18
Representing evil as filth highlights the foolish perversity of taking
pleasure in it, but at the cost of imaginatively presenting filth itself as
pleasurable, a metaphorical connection that could encourage readers to
stretch their aesthetic sensibilities beyond normative standards.
Conversely, treating evil as a condiment or spice makes its appeal seem
less perverse and explains why sin is so prevalent, since everybody likes
condiments. However, this view implies that goodness (and the normative
beauty that is persistently conflated with it) is bland and in need of flavor
enhancement, since after insisting on the lackluster appearance and taste of
the pears, Augustine makes them an emblem of the goodness and beauty
of God’s creation: “The fruit which we stole was beautiful because it was
your creation, most beautiful of all Beings” (2.6.12).

Although it often appears that Augustine invokes a variety of aesthetics

only to demonize them, in fact Augustine’s theology also tries to redeem
both normative and sinister aesthetics by insisting that the proper worship
of God requires an aesthetic appreciation of God’s creation. Robert
O’Connell’s Art and the Christian Intelligence in St. Augustine (1978)
aptly notes the centrality of the aesthetic to Augustinian thought: “the
quest for Truth and Wisdom is fundamentally identical with the quest for
Divine Beauty, source of all the multifarious beauties the world of sense
discloses to the ordered soul” (14).
In Augustine’s account of voluptas oculorum, every condemnation of
earthly beauty is juxtaposed with an insistence that appreciating this
beauty is part of the proper worship of God: “The physical light of
which I was speaking works by a seductive and dangerous sweetness to
season the life of those who blindly love the world. But those who know
how to praise you for it, ‘God creator of all things,’ include it in their
hymn of praise to you” (10.34.52).19 Similarly, Augustine condemns the
beauties of the arts, which “entrap the eyes” with “things which go far
beyond necessary and moderate requirements and pious symbols.”
Nonetheless, these same arts reveal the divine beauty: “the beautiful
objects designed by artists’ souls and realized by skilled hands come
from that beauty which is higher than souls; after that beauty my soul
sighs day and night” (10.34.53).
Augustine’s insistence on the necessity of aesthetically appreciating
God’s creation encompasses not only normative conceptions of
beauty but also the sinister ones that he elsewhere condemns. He
suggests that there are some legitimate avenues for the aesthetic
appreciation of evil, and for un-beautiful things associated with evil.
First of all, some things conventionally categorized as evil are in fact
natural and good: “in the parts of the universe, there are certain
elements which are thought evil because of a conflict of interest.
These elements are congruous with other elements and as such are
good, and are also good in themselves.” Properly considered, these
sometimes horrible, monstrous, and terrifying objects are occasions
for joyful worship: “That you are to be praised is shown by dragons
on earth, and all deeps, fire, hail, snow, ice, the hurricane and
tempest, which perform your word.” Such destructive aspects of
nature—or, as Augustine suggests, of divine punishment—are worthy
objects of contemplation, both “in themselves” and as part of a
whole: “I no longer wished individual things to be better, because

I considered the totality. . . . I held that all things taken together are
better than superior things by themselves” (7.13.19).
Even that which Augustine himself considers moral evil can function as
part of this aesthetic whole: “Let the restless and the wicked [iniqui]
depart and flee from you (Ps. 138: 7). You see them and pierce their
shadowy existence: even with them everything is beautiful, though they
are vile [pulchra sunt cum eis omnia et ipsi turpes sunt]” (Confessions
5.2.2). Augustine makes this point at greater length in The City of God
book 11, chapter 23: “For just as a picture is enhanced by the proper
placing within it of dark colours, so, to those able to discern it, the beauty
of the universe is enhanced even by sinners, though, considered in them-
selves, theirs is a sorry deformity” (page 479).20 Here, the evil of sin
becomes part of a beautiful whole, not merely to a degenerate viewer,
but to the trained eye of the connoisseur. Although sin is unpleasant in
itself (and even this caveat is undermined elsewhere, by the concept of
curiositas and the idea of evil as condimentum), it can be used to produce
an artistic effect. Just as the skillful juxtaposition of dark and light pig-
ments can increase the beauty of a painting through the aesthetics of
chiaroscuro, so God’s artful manipulation of various kinds of evil in the
universe contributes to a beautiful and pleasing result.21
Augustine thereby translates the theologically important concept of God
bringing good out of evil into aesthetic terms. Evil produces beauty, as the
picture simile describes, and beauty helps constitute goodness. Augustine’s
Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love asserts that created things “are good,
even taken separately. Taken as a whole, however, they are very good,
because their ensemble constitutes the universe in all its wonderful order
and beauty” (3.10). This perspective breaks down the opposition between
aesthetics and morality that Augustine’s condemnation of voluptas oculorum
in the Confessions appeared to establish, and it dissolves many of the conven-
tional distinctions between good and evil, for example, by classifying dragons
as good. In his discussion of curiositas, Geoffrey Galt Harpham presents this
aesthetic contemplation as a danger to the central ascetic impulse of the
Confessions: “this temptation is irresistible, for a perfect resistance would
demand a perfect unresponsiveness to the world, a great dishonor to God
and his creation” (116). This claim identifies a real conflict in Augustine, but
it is also a backhanded acknowledgment that aesthetic contemplation of
God’s universe is a way to honor God and one of the central features of
Augustine’s process of confession. In the picture analogy, the connoisseur
who can appreciate the presence of evil elements among the good ones is a

figure for the enlightened Christian. Thus, the linked, and supposedly
repudiated, concepts of aesthetics and evil turn out to be crucial for the
Augustinian religious experience.
The chiaroscuro painting emblematizes a perverse epistemology that
Augustine’s writings develop, in which our perception of good allows us
to perceive evil, and evil increases our appreciation of good. Augustine says
that to seek a cause for evil is: “like wishing to see darkness or hear
silence.” In other words, we cannot understand evil directly, only indir-
ectly: “For when the bodily eye runs its gaze over corporeal objects, it sees
darkness only where it begins not to see” (City of God 12.7, page 508). We
know evil through good, as the absence of good. Conversely, Augustine
argues that we know good in part (Milton, more radically, will say only)
through evil: “And in the universe, even that which is called evil, when it is
regulated and put in its own place, only enhances our admiration of the
good; for we enjoy and value the good more when we compare it with the
evil” (Enchiridion 3.11).
Augustine thus advocates the joyful contemplation of God’s universe as
a complex aesthetic object which contains light and dark elements. In
emphasizing the importance of the aesthetic, he develops several sinister
aesthetics, some of which he tries to repudiate and some of which he
actively endorses. Nonetheless, he exploits all these forms of the sinister in
his writing to help flesh out his account of evil on both the human and
cosmic scales. The resulting picture goes far beyond his abstract, ontolo-
gical definition of evil as a deficiency: evil for Augustine is a vivid presence,
both repulsive and enticing, and ultimately part of the divine beauty of
creation. He disapproves of the pure appeal of transgression that he feels
when stealing the pears, but he praises purely sinister things, like dragons,
in themselves when they manifest God’s power. Deriving aesthetic plea-
sure from evil seems to be an inevitable activity in Augustine, whether as
part of the sin that fallen beings are prone to, or as part of a redemptive
contemplation of God’s design.


Augustine had an incalculably large influence on Christian thought in
the medieval and early modern periods. But although early modern
English authors had direct access to Augustine, their understanding of
his ideas about the appeal of evil and its application to poetry was

influenced by writers of the Italian Renaissance. One of the most

important figures in this regard is Torquato Tasso. Tasso not only
theorizes the poetic function of evil in his Discorsi dell’arte poetica
but also incorporates engaging representations of evil into his epic
Gerusalemme liberata, one of the defining texts of early modern litera-
ture. This combination makes him an extremely useful case study of the
relationship between early modern literary theory and practice regard-
ing the representation and appeal of objects that violate normative
moral and aesthetic standards.
Gerusalemme liberata, completed in 1575 and published without
Tasso’s approval in 1581, is a fanciful account of the First Crusade
(1096–1099) that describes the conquest of Jerusalem by a Christian
army under the command of Godfrey of Bouillon. Tasso’s choice of the
Crusades as a subject reflects his desire to transform the pagan genre of
epic into a vehicle capable of conveying a Christian message and celebrat-
ing Christian heroism. Along with the other great epic of the Italian
Renaissance, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1532), the Liberata is
one of the most direct precursors and models for both Spenser’s The Faerie
Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost, which build on Tasso’s strategies for
translating the classical epic into Christian terms.22
Tasso’s Discorsi dell’arte poetica, commentaries on heroic poetry, were
published in 1587, but written around 1562–1565, during the early stages
of his work on the Liberata.23 The Discorsi thus provide important
insights into Tasso’s perception of his own poetic project. Although he
is closely engaged with the debates derived from Plato, Aristotle, and
Horace, Tasso’s own approach to the poetic representation of evil is
Augustinian, in that his theories portray evil and discord as a part of a
larger, beautiful unity. Tasso’s poetic practice goes further, suggesting that
discord itself possesses its own special harmony. Both his theory and
practice emphasize the poetic power of the demonic.
Tasso shares with Sidney a conflicted relationship to the Horatian
debate between delight and instruction. The early Discorsi take an explicit
stand in favor of pleasure over moral instruction: “I concede that which I
think true and which many would deny, that is, that the aim of poetry is
delight” (Rhu 129).24 The opening of Gerusalemme liberata, however,
identifies the poem as a Christian epic intended to have moral benefits for
its audience.
Tasso is equally ambivalent about whether moral truths are inherently
pleasurable and beautiful, and thus whether poetic ornamentation is a

morally suspicious deception or an essential manifestation of truth. At

times, the Discorsi suggest a Platonic correspondence between beauty
and goodness:

Guided by an unerring light, she [Nature] always attends to the good and
the perfect; and since the good and the perfect are always the same, her way
of working must always be the same. Beauty is a work of nature that consists
in a certain proportion of parts, as well as appropriate size and lovely grace of
coloring. These conditions, which were at one time beautiful in themselves,
will always be beautiful; and custom cannot make them seem otherwise. So,
by contrast, custom cannot make pointed heads and goitres beautiful among
those nations where such qualities appear in the majority of men. (Rhu 127)

This model suggests that truth and beauty are both naturally ordained
absolutes and designed according to related principles. Its account of
beauty as a manifestation of perfection in “a certain proportion of parts”
represents Tasso’s normative aesthetic. The passage also implies that truth
should be pleasant for the same reasons that beauty is. Indeed, this
account of their nature and the appropriate response to them makes it
difficult to disentangle truth from beauty.
On the other hand, Gerusalemme liberata begins with a more conflicted
account of the relationship between truth and beauty: “You know that the
world flocks there where feigning Parnassus most pours out her sweet-
nesses, and that the truth in fluent verses hidden has by its charm per-
suaded the most froward. So we present to the feverish child the rim of the
glass sprinkled over with sweet liquids: he drinks deceived the bitter
medicine and from his deception receives life” (1.3).25 This metaphor
for the role of poetic beauty in moral instruction, derived from Lucretius
and analogous to Sidney’s “medicine of cherries,” denies the capacity of
naked truth to give pleasure. Instead, it combines “bitter” truths with
poetry that is pleasurable but deceptive.26
The early Discorsi’s unapologetic focus on aesthetic pleasure, unusual
for a work of Renaissance poetic theory (and a position that Tasso tem-
pered in his later Discorsi), allows it to expand the range of aesthetic
options available to poets. Despite the Platonic absolutism of Tasso’s
claim that beauty is “always the same,” the early Discorsi actually permit
a certain aesthetic flexibility: “There are some things that are neither good
nor evil by nature, but that depend on custom; and they are good or evil as
custom determines them. . . . Thus it happens that many words . . . once

avoided as barbaric and frightful are now accepted as lovely and civilized”
(Rhu 125). Some forms of beauty are not natural and eternal, but may
appear as ugliness to certain audiences; likewise, the ugly may become the
beautiful as tastes change. This aesthetic relativism is grounded in the
Renaissance notion of decorum, according to which different literary styles
are appropriate to different contexts.27
Although early modern theorists typically subordinated aesthetic plea-
sure to moral and religious instruction, Tasso asserts a deeply interdepen-
dent relationship between poetry and Christianity that recognizes the
aesthetic elements of religion. Tasso assumes but does not explicitly stress
the superiority of Christian moral lessons to pagan ones. Instead, he argues
from a poetic perspective in which Christianity is superior because it allows
the poet to more effectively combine the verisimilar [verisimile] and the
marvelous or wondrous [meraviglioso]. Verisimilitude is an essential obli-
gation of the epic poem, but a poet who does not “season his poem” with
marvels, “as with spices,” will fail to please his audience (Rhu 102).28
Christianity is verisimilar because it is true, but it also provides more
powerful examples of the marvelous than classical mythology can offer.
By describing the marvelous as a flavor which produces pleasure, Tasso
reveals it to be an aesthetic category.
Tasso cites the demonic as a crucial element in the aesthetic superiority
of Christianity as a poetic subject: “works that greatly exceed the power of
men the poet attributes to God, to His angels, to demons, or to those
granted such power by God or by demons, like saints and wizards and
fairies” (Rhu 103). Tasso’s lists of marvels consistently place representa-
tions of angels and demons on a parallel and equal footing: “our religion
brings with it—in heavenly and infernal councils, as well as in prophecies
and rituals—such grandeur, such dignity, and such majesty as Gentile
religion does not offer” (Rhu 104). From the standpoint of poetic con-
struction at least, hellish scenes have the same aesthetic stature as heavenly
ones: both are essential flavors, or “spices,” that produce pleasure.29
By valorizing the poet’s ability to encompass the monstrous and evil as
well as the conventionally beautiful and good, Tasso links the sinister to an
aesthetics of variety. Variety was an important aesthetic principle for
Renaissance writers, but it was also theoretically problematic because of
its potential to include evil.30 Tasso’s Discorsi accordingly treat poetic
variety on the one hand as a monstrosity that violates classical aesthetics
of unity and simplicity, and on the other as a necessary component of a
more complex ideal of poetic unity.

In his discussion of epic narrative, Tasso argues that “unity of

plot . . . by its very nature brings goodness and perfection to a poem”
(Rhu 128).31 This argument echoes Horace’s Ars Poetica, which asserts
the principle of unity as the most important aesthetic value: “denique sit
quod vis, simplex dumtaxat et unum” (“In short, be the work what you
will, let it at least be simple and uniform”; line 23). Horace here invokes
a particular conception of unity that is also simplex (simple, plain, and
Conversely, Tasso and Horace condemn variety as a kind of chimera: a
monstrous combination of body parts from different species.32 For Tasso,
poems with multiple plots create “greater variety” (Rhu 130), but “the
mingling and intertwining of their parts, one with another, is monstrous,
resembling that beast Dante describes” (119). The beast in question is the
serpent that exchanges shapes with Agnello in the Inferno canto 25, lines
58–63: a disorienting mixture not only of disparate animal parts but also of
two different beings. This demonization of poetic form as a monstrous,
chaotic hybrid recalls the image of the chimera that opens the Ars Poetica,
where it likewise serves as an emblem of bad poetry:

Humano capiti cervicem pictor equinam

iungere si velit, et varias inducere plumas
undique collatis membris, ut turpiter atrum
desinat in piscem mulier formosa superne,
spectatum admissi, risum teneatis, amici? (lines 1–5)

If a painter chose to join a human head to the neck of a horse, and to spread
feathers of many a hue over limbs picked up now here now there, so that
what at the top is a lovely woman ends below in a black and ugly fish, could
you, my friends, if favoured with a private view, refrain from laughing?33

Horace maximizes the jarring impact of this image by presenting it in the

first lines of the poem, without any preparation or framing device, and the
syntax of the original Latin heightens the sense of a confused jumble of
animal parts. Like Tasso’s reference to Agnello, Horace’s feathered,
human-headed, horse-necked, and fish-tailed beast symbolizes the oppo-
site of the proper poetic aesthetic. It ostensibly serves to render the lack of
artistic unity horrible and ridiculous, and thereby to drive poets and read-
ers away from it.
However, both authors’ denigration of the chimera is somewhat disin-
genuous. They themselves rely on the appeal of the chimera as a poetic

figure to affectively engage readers with their respective messages. The

chimera is anti-aesthetic only as a theoretical construct; as a practical poetic
resource it represents a rich representational tradition stretching from
classical antiquity through the early modern period. As with other images,
poets construct them by imitating and varying the appropriate representa-
tional traditions. The Ars Poetica is itself a poem, and the arresting,
fascinating power of the chimera is essential to the poem’s aesthetic and
rhetorical functioning.
Tasso’s epic poetry also deploys chimeras to encourage the interest and
fascination of readers. The fourth canto of the Liberata begins with a
description of hell and Satan, to which the poet assigns the classical names
“Tartarus” and “Pluto.” As Pluto calls a demonic council to discuss the
threat posed by the Crusaders, Tasso describes the attendees as a parade of
chimerical monsters borrowed from classical mythology:

Here might you see a thousand filthy Harpies and a thousand Centaurs and
Sphinxes and pale Gorgons; a myriad ravenous Scyllas howling and Hydras
hooting and Pythons hissing and Chimaeras belching forth black flames; and
horrible Polyphemuses and Geryons; and in strange monstrosities, no [sic]
elsewhere known or seen, diverse appearances confused and blended into
one. (4.5)

Although Tasso declares the sight to be terrifying and horrible, the lush-
ness of the catalog demonstrates poetic craft. Moreover, the passage posits
a reader potentially interested in engaging with chimeras by its insistence
on sight, which sets the monsters up as a spectacle, and on their novelty:
“novi mostri, e non più intesi o visti.” By framing the “strange monstros-
ities” as a sight never before seen, Tasso offers them to readers as the kind
of marvelous, monstrous display that enjoyed widespread popularity in
early modern Europe. Of course, despite their supposed novelty, all of the
monsters Tasso specifically mentions are staples of classical mythology, so
much so that Tasso deems it unnecessary to explain the anatomical differ-
ences between “Gorgons” and “Scyllas.” In counterpoint to the emphasis
on novelty, this familiarity reinforces the chimeras’ membership in a poetic
tradition; they are not simply violations of poetic decorum. Tasso’s depic-
tion of Pluto and Tartarus combines this sinister aesthetic of the chimera
with the Discorsi’s aesthetic of infernal majesty: when Pluto addresses the
“Godheads of Tartarus” (4.9), he has the “fearsome majesty” (4.7) that
the Discorsi praise as a poetic benefit of representing infernal councils.

Tasso’s ambivalent relationship to the chimera is characteristic of

early modern attitudes toward the sinister—indeed, it reflects one of
the more striking fissures between poetic theory and practice in the
Western tradition. While Renaissance writers condemn the chimera,
both as a literal demon or monster and as an emblem of chaotic
disunity in poetry, representations of chimeras pervade early modern
literary and non-literary texts. Spenser’s Errour and Milton’s Sin are
particularly famous examples, but chimerical monsters are a common
feature of representations of hell in epic and elsewhere. Even Sidney,
who is not one of the more notable practitioners of sinister aesthetics,
specifically mentions “Chimeras” (along with “Cyclops” and “Furies,”
all three of which appear in Tasso’s epic) as a valuable poetic resource
and part of the pleasurable, idealized “golden” world of the poetic
imagination in his Defence of Poesy (Sidney 216). The sinister produces
these contradictory, ambivalent responses because its alternative aes-
thetic conventions violate normative ones, and because it is typically
(but by no means exclusively) used to represent evil.
The morally and theoretically problematic nature of the sinister obliges
early modern authors to adopt various strategies to incorporate it into their
works, the most basic of which is to include an explicit disclaimer labeling
such representations as evil or wrong. These corrective impulses can reflect
genuine authorial ambivalence about diverging from the Platonic model.
However, they can also serve to package the sinister in a more acceptable
way while granting the author a form of plausible deniability. Sometimes
these didactic commentaries introduce sinister passages, implicitly or expli-
citly warning readers not to be taken in. Tasso, for example, makes a point
of interjecting condemnatory remarks into the Liberata’s initial description
of Pluto before the canto’s infernal poetry has acquired too much momen-
tum: “fool, who holds himself equal to Heaven, and consigns to oblivion
how the wrathful hand of God launches thunder” (4.2). Alternatively,
writers can delay their moralizing until after a sinister passage, allowing
readers to engage with the passage on its own terms before telling them to
reject it. Only after Horace’s Ars Poetica has strategically deployed its
arresting, vivid description of a chimera does the poem provide a didactic
rationale for mentioning it—and this rationale declares, paradoxically, that
the chimera is not worth representing. On a larger scale, Tasso’s essay
“Allegoria del poema” retroactively reduces the Liberata’s complexities
to a straightforward moral allegory (Rhu 155–162). The belatedness of this
corrective impulse, and its failure to convincingly demonstrate the

worthlessness of the preceding poetry, can suggest a deeper authorial

investment in the power of the sinister.
Gerusalemme liberata also employs another important technique for
advancing a sinister aesthetic while disavowing it: delegating the
expression of non-normative sensibilities to a villainous character.
After being incited to attack by the Fury Alecto, the Turkish prince
Solyman gives a deliberately poetic description of the violence he will
inflict on his Christian foes: “O thou that arouseth my heart with so
much fury. . . . I shall go; I shall make mountains there, where now is
plain: mountains of wounded and of slaughtered men; I shall make
rivers of blood” (9.12). Alecto serves as a muse for a poetry of violence,
arousing not only bloodlust but also the impulse to describe destruc-
tion figuratively as creation, building a metaphorical landscape of blood
and corpses. While Solyman may not be the most brilliant poet or the
most admirable character, the Liberata itself repeatedly treats violence
and brutality as a form of art.
When Tasso is not attributing these aesthetic principles to a demon-
maddened Turk, but articulating them through the voice of the nar-
rator, he couches them in paradox or oxymoron. This trope is one of
the most prevalent early modern methods for assimilating the sinister
into a normative context. In essence, oxymoron asserts the sinister
standard while acknowledging the normative standard being violated,
but without offering any explanation or rationale for how these two
opposing impulses can coexist. For example, Tasso’s description of the
demon-generated storm which strikes the Christian army in
Gerusalemme liberata compares its terrible sound to a kind of music:
“The rain is blended with thunder and wind and the cries of men in a
dreadful harmony [orribile armonia] that deafens the whole world”
(7.122). The oxymoronic phrase “dreadful harmony” suggests a kind
of music that avoids conventional ideas of euphony but remains a
pleasurable aesthetic construct.34 Tasso provides one of his most expli-
cit endorsements of the sinister aesthetics of violence in the final canto,
when he describes the meeting of the two armies: “The horror in so
handsome a sight is handsome too, and pleasure rises in the midst of
fear. No less to the ear are the thrilling and clarion trumpets an object
savage and pleasant” (20.30). Tasso is very clear that the scene is
aesthetically appealing not despite the horror of battle and the crude-
ness of the trumpets, but because of them—and it appeals not just to
wicked sensibilities, but to the narrator.

By relying on paradoxical formulations, the poem suggests that the

pleasure of horror is fundamentally inexplicable, but Tasso’s Discorsi
offer a more developed rationale for this paradoxical yoking of oppo-
sites. This argument relies on another concept alluded to by Horace, in
the Epistles: concordia discors, or the harmonious union of opposing
elements.35 While Horace’s Ars Poetica describes unity as simplex, and
variety as a chimera, concordia discors is a complex paradigm of unity
that incorporates the chaos of variety, conflict, and ultimately evil itself
into a larger order.36 Tasso introduces the concept as part of an effort to
redeem both the concept of variety and the attraction of the un-beauti-
ful, though his initial example lacks explicit moral connotations: “Nor
do I deny that variety gives pleasure; to deny that would contradict the
facts of our feelings, since we perceive that things unpleasant in them-
selves become pleasant through variation and the sight of deserts and
the frightful ruggedness of the Alps please us after the charm of lakes
and gardens” (Rhu 130).37 As Tasso observes, audiences can have a
positive affective response to supposedly horrible objects, which he
explains here as a kind of relief from the potentially cloying effects of
unmixed beauty. This claim denies an intrinsic pleasure in terrifyingly
jagged mountains, but the idea that they function as a kind of palate
cleanser suggests a distinctive flavor one could learn to appreciate. In
subsequent centuries, the pleasurable contemplation of “the frightful
ruggedness of the Alps” would become a paradigmatic example of the
In the ideal poem, Tasso asserts, the sinister power of variety is con-
tained in a larger formal unity, producing a “discordant concord [discorde

Just so, I think an excellent poet . . . by working like the supreme

Artificer . . . can shape a poem in which, as in a little world . . . we find
heavenly and hellish assemblies and see sedition, discord, wanderings,
adventures, enchantments, cruelty, boldness, courtesy, kindness, and
love. . . . And still, the poem which contains such a variety of matter
is one; its form and its plot are one . . . in such a way that by removing a
single part or by changing its place, we destroy the whole. (Rhu 131)

Here, unlike the example of the Alps, the oppositions are clearly moral as
well as aesthetic. While the sense of paradox remains, this passage offers a
fuller explanation of how and why these opposites might cohere. When

placed in the proper context, hellish scenes and cruel acts generate aes-
thetic pleasure and become necessary, irreplaceable parts of the whole.
This model moves beyond mere claims about poetic aesthetics; it also
has religious implications that echo Augustine. Tasso claims that the
poet’s inclusion of evil is an imitation of the artistic process by which
God (“the supreme Artificer”) created the universe.38 He prefaces this
description with an Augustinian praise of “this marvelous domain of God
that we call the world” that highlights the importance of appreciating
God’s creation aesthetically (Rhu 130), and then emphasizes the presence
of evil and the infernal (that is to say, the aesthetics of hell) in that
creation. Tasso’s account of the cosmos as a “discordant concord” thus
corresponds to Augustine’s description of it as a chiaroscuro painting.
Both models suggest the importance of dark and evil elements to the
aesthetic sensibilities of God the artist, creator and designer of the
Tasso’s Discorsi and Augustine’s Confessions and other works assert that
the monstrous is not attractive in itself, but only when placed within a
larger whole to provide contrast and variety. Yet Tasso and Augustine also
suggest that evil, monstrosity, and even filth possess an intrinsic appeal,
thus acknowledging, if not fully theorizing, the sinister aesthetics they
employ in their own writing. Their work includes not only majestic, or
what would later be called sublime, manifestations of evil, but also those
which by normative standards should produce disgust or contempt. While
Tasso employs an aesthetics of demonic grandeur that Milton would bring
to its full fruition, he also makes poetic use of evil and chimerical monsters,
and his Pluto is not only majestic but also monstrous, filthy, and stinking.
Augustine repeatedly describes the pleasure of wallowing in the filth of sin
(e.g., Confessions 3.11.20). English Renaissance writers explored the para-
meters of this latter appeal and tested its limits, raising questions about
how and when poetic representations of the supposedly disgusting might
inspire aversion or pleasure.


No work in the English Renaissance better exemplifies the appeal of evil
within the context of an aesthetic of variety than Edmund Spenser’s The
Faerie Queene (1590, 1596). This allegorical epic presents a profusion
of representations of evil, with almost every conceivable combination of

potentially attractive and repulsive qualities. These representations

offer a series of challenges to Spenser’s allegorical project, as he
attempts to navigate and put into practice the contradictory theories
about the representation of evil bequeathed to him by his precursors
and contemporaries.
Spenser shares Sidney’s belief that the aim of poetry is chiefly didactic.
His “Letter to Raleigh,” published with the first three books of The Faerie
Queene in 1590, claims that the epic’s goal “is to fashion a gentleman or
noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline” by allegorically representing
virtues in the persons of various knights (Spenser, page 714). As the
“Letter” explains, each book of The Faerie Queene is devoted to a different
virtue and takes a different knight as its protagonist. For example, book 1
explores the virtue of holiness through the adventures of the Redcrosse
Knight, and book 2 features Guyon as the representative of the virtue of
temperance. These knights go on quests and face various challenges that
help them more perfectly embody the virtue to which they are devoted.
They are periodically aided by the future King Arthur, at this point still a
knight errant himself, who embodies all of the virtues (page 716).
In responding to potential concerns that moral teachings should be
“deliuered plainly” or “sermoned” and not “clowdily enwrapped in
Allegoricall deuises," Spenser echoes Sidney’s arguments for the superiority
of poetry to philosophy: "So much more profitable and gratious is doctrine by
ensample, then by rule." Unlike Sidney, however, Spenser frames this strat-
egy as a regrettable but necessary capitulation to "the vse of these dayes, seeing
all things accounted by their showes" (page 716). He ruefully observes that
“men delight to read” the kind of chivalric romance he offers "rather for
variety of matter, then for profite of the ensample" (page 715). Moreover,
Spenser’s definition of allegory as a "darke conceit" highlights the difficulty
of extracting the poem’s moral message, even for well-intentioned readers
(page 714). He thus reproduces the longstanding Renaissance ambivalence
about whether poetic delight aids or impedes the goal of instruction.
On the surface, Spenser’s "doctrine by ensample" appears consonant with
Sidney’s view that poetry teaches by vividly representing virtue as attractive
and evil as unattractive. The Faerie Queene presents various forms of evil as
filthy and monstrous, supposedly to make them disgusting, in accordance
with the aversion therapy advocated by Sidney. Yet Spenser’s poetic prac-
tice ultimately supports Sidney’s contradictory claim that “poetical imita-
tion” makes “things which in themselves are horrible, as cruel battles,
unnatural monsters” into “delightful” experiences (Sidney 227).39 As

Tasso argues in his Discorsi and demonstrates in his own epic poetry, evil in
The Faerie Queene becomes a crucial part of the "variety of matter" that
generates poetic pleasure.
While Tasso’s theoretical and poetic work emphasizes an aesthetic of
demonic majesty, The Faerie Queene expands the palette of sinister effects
available to poets in a different direction. Like Tasso, Spenser employs
chimeras, but Spenser also displays an ambivalent fascination with the
representation of what he criticizes as “filth and fowle incontinence”
(2.12.87)—indeed, Spenser’s “variety of matter” includes quite an
unwholesome array of bodily fluids.40 Although Spenser’s monsters are
disgusting by normative standards, these representations almost always
employ sinister aesthetics that allow, or even encourage, readers to imagi-
natively engage with them, and Spenser provides characters both villainous
and virtuous who model this interest in filth for the reader.
My reading of The Faerie Queene suggests that promoting such an
aesthetic engagement with evil is a problematic but vital feature of poetry,
even poetry that aims at moral instruction. In this section and the sub-
sequent one, I examine two episodes from book 1 (Redcrosse’s encounter
with Errour and the unmasking of Duessa) and the conclusion of book 2
(the Bower of Bliss). The goal is not a comprehensive account of evil in
these two books, much less the whole epic. Rather, I use these episodes as
test cases for how early modern authors might deploy the beautiful, the
ugly, and the sinister to represent evil, how we as critics might distinguish
between them, and the challenges that limit our ability to firmly draw such
distinctions. Demonstrating that a given poetic object violates normative
standards of beauty—that is, the aesthetic ideals explicitly praised and
promoted by the relevant interpretive community—is relatively straight-
forward. Deciding whether to view such an object as sinister (potentially
appealing through an alternative set of aesthetic standards) or ugly (a
purely repulsive violation of aesthetic standards) presents greater interpre-
tive difficulties because it involves drawing conclusions about the subjec-
tive reactions of a text’s ideal or actual readers.
An aesthetic, as I have defined it, is a set of representational conventions
designed to evoke certain kinds of affective responses. We can use textual
evidence to identify particular conventions and to show how a poetic
object participates in one or more of them. Moreover, we can often
ascertain some of the emotional responses conventionally associated with
that aesthetic. To return to a normative example from the introduction,
Sidney’s representation of Petrarchan aesthetics in Astrophil and Stella

includes not only a conventional iconography of feminine beauty but also

a detailed account of the (male heterosexual) affective response corre-
sponding to those particular standards of beauty. Parts of this account
reflect established features of Petrarchanism and parts of it are, of course,
distinctive to Sidney. In other words, certain paradigmatic affective
responses are often baked into texts or aesthetic traditions and thereby
become accessible to critical inquiry.41
In contrast to the ideal reader posited by a text, or by a broader
aesthetic tradition in which it participates, the affective responses of real
readers depend on their historically situated but unique subjectivities and
cannot be predicted or determined by the text. Indeed, we can be virtually
certain that any reasonably sized group of readers will respond to a literary
text in diverse ways, potentially ranging between extremes of engagement
and aversion. The difficulty of accurately characterizing these possible
responses is compounded by the cultural and historical gulfs between us
and an early modern readership.
The sinister violates a normative aesthetic even as it instantiates an
alternative aesthetic, and thus it posits a response that is inherently ambiva-
lent. It is successful for a given audience when the attraction or fascination
outweighs (but is flavored by) the undercurrent of repulsion. However, if
a reader’s sense of the violated normative aesthetic overpowers the sinister
aesthetic, then, for them, the object in question will seem truly unappeal-
ing, or ugly, and not sinister. In general, sinister passages may make us
uncomfortable, but we want to re-read them, whereas we prefer to avoid
passages that we find purely ugly. Thus, the normative/sinister paradigm
provides a way to describe and think about the diversity of reader
responses to aesthetically challenging objects.
While the text cannot dictate what combination of attraction and
repulsion real readers may experience, it can make certain responses
more or less available by evoking or avoiding the relevant aesthetic stan-
dards. For example, a text can try to place a given representation of a
monster in the context of a tradition of poetic representations of monsters,
emphasizing how the monster fulfills or surpasses a shared set of standards
for how such things should appear in poetry. Alternatively, the text can
downplay this interpretive frame and highlight the ways in which the
monster violates or insults conventional standards of beauty. Characters
within the text can often model potential responses for readers: if a
character displays a fascination with monsters, for example, that response
becomes more available to readers. These cues tell us something important

about what the text is trying to say and do, whether or not they paint an
unambiguous picture of an ideal reader, and whether or not an actual
reader completely obeys them. This disagreement or ambiguity can itself
be productive and revealing. As Stanley Fish observes in “Interpreting the
Variorum” (1976), seemingly intractable disagreements among readers of
a poem can be “regarded as evidence, not of an ambiguity that must be
removed, but of an ambiguity that readers have always experienced” and
that is part of “what the lines mean” (166).
In the case of The Faerie Queene, Spenser’s representations of filth and
monstrosity partake of and develop a poetics of grotesque excess: in both
the quality and quantity of their visceral descriptions, they offer readers
too much of something they are not supposed to want, and more than
seems necessary to make the poem’s allegorical significance legible.42 This
apparent surplus demands an explanation. In theory, the accumulation of
vivid, repugnant detail could serve Sidney’s aversion therapy model. But
Sidney also argues that monsters can and must be made delightful, because
readers need to enjoy poetry in order to attend properly to its moral
message. A reader who feels real aversion to Spenser’s putrescent mon-
sters, in direct proportion to their poetic vividness and unmixed with any
sort of attraction or curiosity, would find large sections of the epic intol-
erable to read. While this reaction is understandable and perhaps not
terribly uncommon, it would tend to impede rather than enhance one’s
ability to appreciate Spenser’s epic and its allegorical significance.
Fish’s “Interpreting the Variorum” notes that “To construct the profile
of the informed or at-home reader is at the same time to characterize the
author’s intention and vice versa” (174). While authorial intentionality as
such is not directly accessible to critics, the ideal reader posited by a text
does have a direct relationship to the purposes of that text, insofar as we
can discern them. Constructing a vivid representation of, for example, a
vomit-spewing monster requires poetic craft. Its author must decide when
it is complete and suitable for publication, which requires judging it
against some sort of aesthetic standard and appreciating its fulfillment of
that standard. If such appreciation is in fact a condition of authorship, it
would also presumably be a quality of the text’s ideal reader.
Both Aristotle and Sidney maintain that vivid descriptions of anything,
no matter how “vile,” can be pleasurable. But the nature of the subject
does affect the kind of pleasure being offered. Spenser’s excess allows him
to explore the extremes of the poetic representation of ugliness while also
seeking to evoke a kind of delight in disgust. This play of contradictions

creates a tension between attraction and repulsion that is the essence of a

sinister aesthetic. More often than not, the poem treats evil and mon-
strosity as potential sources of fascination, but Spenser also pushes the
limits of readers’ capacity to enjoy these objects in ways that reveal the
subjective and contingent nature of sinister pleasures. Nonetheless, the
moments when the poem flirts with purely unpleasant ugliness are so rare,
and so ambiguous in their effects, that they ultimately confirm the unsus-
tainable nature of the aversion therapy model as the dominant mode for
representing evil.
The opening canto of The Faerie Queene almost immediately
encourages an imaginative engagement with a filthy monster. As the
poem begins, the Redcrosse Knight, the protagonist of book 1 and the
“Patrone of true Holinesse” (1.1 argument) quickly encounters a test of
his virtue in the form of a loathsome half-woman half-serpent called
Errour. Spenser loads the description of Errour with disgusting detail, a
choice that Sidney might recommend as a way of making readers want to
shun the vice she personifies. However, the Errour passage is actually the
first of many instances where Spenser invites the reader to take pleasure in
disgusting spectacles. Spenser’s exploration of sinister aesthetics here is
facilitated by the relative simplicity and clarity of the episode’s moral
message: Spenser can try to make Errour’s filth fun without worrying
that readers might sympathize with her as a character or adopt the vice
she represents.
Spenser emphasizes Errour’s hideousness, rather than concealing it
under a pretty poetic veil. The real richness of the Errour episode lies in
its lush depiction of filth, which reaches a peak in the following stanza:

Therewith she spewd out of her filthie maw

A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,
Full of great lumps of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke,
His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:
Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has. (1.1.20)

As the editor A.C. Hamilton’s detailed footnotes on the symbolism of raw

meat and toads indicate, the various ingredients of Errour’s vomit do all

enhance her allegorical significance. Nonetheless, the most striking feature

of the passage is its hideous sensual overabundance, which threatens to
upstage the passage’s allegorical meaning. The stanza begins with the
overflowing of Errour’s vomit and then piles on more and more “loathly”
substances and vivid details about those substances, in a confused succes-
sion from decayed meat, to cultural artifacts, to live but deformed animals.
The books that, surprisingly, appear in the midst of this torrent of filth
would seem an opportunity to develop a more precisely targeted allego-
rical message about particular theological errors. But Spenser devotes no
time to the books’ contents, focusing instead on the physicality of the
“lumps” and “gobbets” of flesh, and the power of their smell.
Spenser’s representations of the monstrous are subtly and ornately
crafted for maximum aesthetic impact. He approaches the disgusting
with the eye of a connoisseur and thereby encourages readers to do the
same. Into the poisonous flood, he adds frogs reminiscent of those emer-
ging from the dragon’s mouth in Revelation 16:13, but he first removes
their eyes. Spenser’s insistence on making his toads deformed, a detail not
in Revelation, suggests that having Errour vomit healthy toads would be
somehow inadequate for his poetic purposes. Certainly, the toads’ literal
blindness serves as an allegory for the blindness induced by Errour, but
this detail adds far more to the intricate horror of the description than it
does to our understanding of what Errour the abstraction is or how to
avoid it. The added allegorical meaning is just as excessive as the added
sensual data, unless we recognize the possibility that an interest in muti-
lated amphibians might be part of Spenser’s poetic sensibility. Careful
readers wishing to pursue these intricacies fully must imaginatively wallow
in vomit in order to do so.
During the combat itself, Spenser interleaves stanzas of hideous
description with stanzas of epic simile that make the possibility of enjoying
Errour’s vileness more available. The peacefulness and triviality of the
comparison of Redcrosse to a “gentle Shepheard in sweet euentide”
fending off “A cloud of cumbrous gnattes” (1.1.23) suggests that this
combat is something that readers can safely enjoy. The comparison of
Errour’s toads to those spontaneously generated from the “fertile slime”
of “father Nilus” (1.1.21) seems calculated to appeal to the Renaissance
interest in natural history and travel literature. The alexandrine emphasizes
that viewing such hideous toads is a rare opportunity: “Such vgly mon-
strous shapes elsewher may no man reed.” This line recalls the phrases
used in early modern ballads and pamphlets to advertise monsters to a

curious public, a phenomenon I will discuss in Chapter 4. It implies a

desire on the part of a generic observer to see “ugly” monstrous shapes, a
desire that the passage satisfies.
The Redcrosse Knight also models a fascination with Errour that
encourages readers to engage with her monstrosity. Redcrosse’s initial
acquiescence to the temptation of the “wandring wood” outside
Errour’s cave is figured as morally problematic but aesthetically normative.
“Led with delight” (1.1.10), he succumbs to the conventional beauty of
the forest without realizing that it conceals evil. Once Redcrosse is warned
that the wood hides “A monster vile” (1.1.13), however, he is filled with a
different emotion: “full of fire and greedy hardiment” at the thought of
investigating the “darksom hole” of Errour’s cave (1.1.14). Redcrosse’s
energized fascination is utterly unlike the laziness that leads him into the
wandering wood in the first place, and it is sparked by the promise of
encountering an evil and unpleasant monster. While his decision to engage
Errour in combat is perhaps unwise, it is also heroic and ultimately
successful. Thus, in this passage, Redcrosse’s interest in monsters proves
less morally problematic than his attraction to normative beauty.
When Redcrosse finally decapitates Errour, he appears to take plea-
sure in the disgusting spectacle that ensues: the monstrous children
vomited up by Errour turn on her corpse, devour it, and then explode
as a result of their gluttony, their “bowels gushing forth” (1.1.26).
The narrator’s account of Redcrosse’s reaction highlights the disjunc-
tion between the aversion that monstrosity is supposed to produce,
and the engagement that it frequently produces in practice: “That
detestable sight him much amazde” (1.1.26). Although “amazed”
often meant “stunned” (OED 1), it could also connote a sense of
wonder (OED 4), that is to say, a potentially pleasurable fascination.43
In any case, Redcrosse’s response to viewing the detestable sight is not
to faint or turn away, but to keep viewing it: we are told that “he
gazd” on the entire, elaborate process. The closing line of the stanza
strongly implies Redcrosse’s satisfaction with what he is seeing: “His
foes haue slaine themselues, with whom he should contend” (1.1.26).
Having killed Errour, Redcrosse becomes a passive but happily atten-
tive spectator to the denouement of the allegory—in other words,
more like a potential reader. This slippage between description and
response models the disjunction between the moralistic reaction that
readers are supposed to have when faced with the monstrous, and the
reaction that they often do have (at least, judging by the demand for

monstrous displays in the early modern period). Errour is able to be

detested, but she is regarded with wonder or fascination by Redcrosse.
Redcrosse’s reaction is not unique. Later in the poem, other characters
also evince an interest in filth, although not all of these characters are held
up as models for emulation. One of the more notable is Grylle, one of the
men transformed into a pig by the witch Acrasia in book 2, who complains
after his rescue that he preferred being a pig. The virtuous Palmer derides
this attitude but suggests that it is not uncommon: “The donghill kinde
/Delightes in filth and fowle incontinence” (2.12.87). Although the
passage itself does not make Grylle’s perspective particularly tempting
for readers, the placement of the Palmer’s dismissal, which forms a strik-
ingly abrupt conclusion to Book 2, suggests that the potential appetite for
filth is an important and unresolved concern of the poem.
Elsewhere in The Faerie Queene, Spenser offers worthier models for
affective engagement with the filthy and monstrous. In an episode in book
5 that parallels the encounter with Errour, Arthur demonstrates an interest
in the woman-headed monster that serves the equally monstrous
Geryoneo. Arthur hears a description of Geryoneo’s monster that ends
with “her poysnous entrails, fraught with dire decay” (5.11.20), and this
mention of rotting entrails immediately spurs his excitement: “Which
when the Prince heard tell, his heart gan earne /For great desire, that
Monster to assay” (5.11.21). Arthur is neither of Grylle’s “donghill
kinde,” nor is he a naïve and inexperienced hero like Redcrosse in 1.1;
rather, Spenser intends him to embody the sum of all virtues. Thus, his
apparent eagerness to engage with filth suggests the seriousness of this
impulse and its ability to coexist with, and even contribute to, a love of
virtuous action.
In this episode, the voice of the narrator provides a counterpoint to
Arthur’s interest in Geryoneo’s monster that highlights the ambivalent
affective response characteristic of the sinister, as well as the inadequacy of
normative accounts of filth and monstrosity. After Arthur stabs the mon-
ster “Vnder her wombe,” causing her “entrailes” to spew out floods of
“Most vgly filth, and poyson . . . That him nigh choked with the deadly
stinke,” the narrator observes that “Such loathly matter were small lust to
speake, or thinke” (5.11.31). This litotes invokes the normative standards
that should render such scenes intolerable, but Spenser’s poetic practice
gives the lie to his protestation: the description continues with unabated
enthusiasm, filling another five lines with noxious bodily fluids, including
“clouds of sulphure fowle and blacke, /In which a puddle of contagion

was” (5.11.32). As with other early modern writers like Tasso, and even
classical authors like Horace, Spenser couches his use of sinister aesthetics
within a rhetorical framework that (perhaps sincerely, perhaps disingenu-
ously) denies the possibility of their appeal. The fact that Spenser does not
use this comment as an excuse to terminate the description calls attention
to this disjunction between poetic theory and practice.
Although Spenser’s insistence on the repulsiveness of his monsters
often rings false, the possibility of genuine disgust remains an important
factor in these representations. Of all the vile passages in The Faerie
Queene, the unmasking of Duessa in 1.8.46–48 is one of the strongest
candidates for a representation of evil that makes aversion more readily
available than imaginative engagement. Duessa is an evil sorceress who
deceives the Redcrosse Knight by disguising herself as a beautiful and
innocent damsel. After being regarded as such for a considerable portion
of book 1, she is captured and stripped naked, revealing her true nature as
a “loathly, wrinckled hag” (1.8.46).44 In the figure of the disrobed
Duessa, Spenser explores the limits of his technique of aestheticizing filthy
monsters, and the result suggests that in some cases, poetry can function
aversively for some readers. Overall, the poetry describing Duessa makes
her harder to appreciate than Errour. But Duessa can still be seen as either
sinister or ugly, and it remains unclear which aspect Spenser might have
intended to make dominant.
The diverse and conflicted responses of modern critics to Duessa illustrate
the ambivalent affect that characterizes the sinister, the subjective compo-
nent of readers’ responses to it, and the difficulty of theorizing it. Scholars
have claimed that the passage evokes emotions ranging from disgust to
delight in the grotesque to quasi-sexual interest. Sheila T. Cavanagh’s
Wanton Eyes and Chaste Desires (1994) emphasizes the ambivalence of
demonic females, who embody “the most terrifying and desirable male
fantasies” (73). In “‘Her Filthy Feature Open Showne’ in Ariosto,
Spenser, and Much Ado about Nothing” (1999), Melinda J. Gough argues
that “the narrative of Duessa’s exposure continually oscillates between
moments of intense voyeurism and moments that attempt to look away
from the empty center of the horrifying image it describes” (52). Lauren
Silberman’s discussion of the episode in Transforming Desire: Erotic
Knowledge in Books III and IV of The Faerie Queene (1995) is especially
clear about the necessarily subjective nature of her response: “The question
remains, however, what are we to make of this? My own sense is that an
enthusiasm for the carnivalesque body and a kind of Grand Guignol delight

in grossness animate the descriptions of both the naked Duessa and the
hirsute Lust as much as does disgust” (57–58). Silberman’s reaction is
important enough to merit a prominent place in her analysis of Duessa,
and for Hamilton’s footnotes to cite as one of the primary glosses on the
passage. Yet Silberman explicitly frames her characterization as a personal
feeling that she cannot establish empirically. Moreover, she immediately
dismisses her own response in order to reassert the primacy of didactic
allegory over the poetry’s “grotesque physical description” (58).45
Although Silberman’s theoretical and rhetorical frame prevents her
from fully analyzing the sinister, her response demonstrates exactly the
kind of affect that it generates. Where Cavanagh and Gough describe the
passage as an alternation between lines of conventional sexual temptation
and those that offer a repulsive display of monstrosity, Silberman presents
a more unified characterization of the distinctive poetic features of
Duessa’s description. Her contrast between simple "disgust" and a
“delight in grossness” is another way of articulating the crucial difference
between the ugly and the sinister, between merely violating a normative
aesthetic and expressing a non-normative one.
While such subjective responses, from a modern reader trained in the
study of early modern literature and culture, can suggest lines of inquiry, a
textually grounded approach to these issues needs to focus on how the
poem places Duessa in relation to the competing aesthetic frameworks
available to Spenser. The exposed Duessa shares many important charac-
teristics with monsters such as Errour and Geryoneo’s monster. Physically,
all are female chimeras that spew bodily fluids, and thematically they all
suggest “the recurrent conflation of the female and maternal with the
monstrous” (Cavanagh 69). As in the Geryoneo’s monster passage, the
narrator’s stated reluctance to describe Duessa can appear disingenuous
because of the lavish description that follows. Spenser says that Duessa’s
“secret filth good manners biddeth not be told” (1.8.46) and then spends
the next two stanzas doing just that. He claims that his “chaster Muse for
shame doth blush to write” of Duessa’s “neather parts,” but he readily
pivots to her “rompe” with its excrement-smeared fox’s tail (1.8.48). If
the coyly blushing Muse is an artifice that calls attention to its own
insincerity, that could frame the description of Duessa as a guilty pleasure.
Most significantly, Arthur and Redcrosse experience amazement and won-
der at seeing Duessa, and they disrobe her so that she may serve as a
spectacle, with “all her filthy feature open showne” (1.8.49). These
knightly responses mirror Redcrosse’s “amazde” reaction to Errour and

his attentive viewing of her monstrous form (1.1.26). All other things
being equal, if these textual characteristics raised the possibility of a
pleasurable engagement with Errour, they should indicate a similar poten-
tial for Duessa.
But all other things are not entirely equal. There are subtle but sig-
nificant differences between Duessa and a monster like Errour, and they
make Duessa harder to enjoy as a species of the sinister. Duessa might
evoke sinister pleasure as a chimera, as an anti-blazon, or, following
Silberman, as an example of the grotesque or carnivalesque.46 However,
in her unmasking, the sinister aesthetics of filth and of the chimera are
threatened, and potentially overpowered, by the ugliness of a violated
aesthetic of feminine beauty. A few factors contribute to this effect.
First, the contexts of the Errour and Duessa passages set up differ-
ent aesthetic expectations. The poem introduces Errour as “A monster
vile” who lives in a “den” (1.1.13), priming readers to apply mon-
strous aesthetics to her from the start. By those standards, Errour is an
impressive specimen and part of a vibrant poetic tradition stretching
back to Echidna, a classical snake-woman hybrid and mother of mon-
sters (including the original Chimera). Duessa, in contrast, appears
initially as “A goodly Lady” (1.2.13), a stereotypical romance damsel
in distress. Although we learn of her hidden ugliness at 1.2.40–41, she
still functions as an erotic object for much of book 1, and she appears
beautiful until the moment that she is stripped. This context sets up
her disrobing as a bait-and-switch, a striptease with a horrifyingly
undesirable climax.
Another factor that facilitates engagement with the sinister is a sense
of distance from the actual suffering that accompanies evil. This distance
is relative and subjective: as Augustine’s account of curiositas demon-
strates, real-life horrors can still function as sinister spectacles, and as
Sidney’s Defence asserts, audiences can sometimes feel the pain of fic-
tional characters more keenly than real human suffering.47 But compar-
ing the depictions of Errour and Duessa suggests that the Errour passage
creates more aesthetic distance. Errour is a poetic construct that calls
attention to her own fictionality and membership in the chivalric
romance and epic traditions. Her filth is ridiculously exaggerated: she
gushes vile fluids like the overflowing Nile, which her children ultimately
drink until they explode, spewing more excrement over the scene
(1.1.21, 25–26). Moreover, Errour’s filth is part of her arsenal, and
filth seems to be her preferred element.

Duessa is the personification of deceptive illusions, and by stripping

her the poem creates the momentary illusion that it is taking readers
out of the world of poetic illusion and into the real world, where evil
has consequences. These consequences are marked not only in the pain
that Duessa has caused Redcrosse and Una, which is more significant
and lasting than what Errour inflicts, but also in Duessa’s own ailments.
Duessa’s filth is an affliction she seeks to conceal and something she
suffers from: witness her attempts at an herbal remedy at 1.2.40.
Though loaded with unpleasant features in a way that could be called
hyperbolic, Duessa nonetheless retains a human scale. Each of her
attributes, taken individually, is more realistic, more closely linked to
ordinary human or animal sickness and filth than to fantastic mon-
sters.48 Her incontinence is limited to bad breath, the filth that
“weld” from her breasts (1.8.47), and the excrement with which her
tail is adorned (“dight,” 1.8.48),49 and thus seems more embarrassing
than threatening. Like most allegorical villains, she is both the agent
and the victim of the vice she symbolizes, but the consequences here
seem more painful than when Errour is eaten by her children, or when
Despayre fruitlessly attempts to hang himself (1.9.54).
Duessa may be a rare instance where The Faerie Queene actually fulfills
Sidney’s injunction to represent evil in a way that will make readers want
to shun it. If so, it is the exception that proves the general rule that filth,
for Spenser, is fun, and that aversion therapy is not the poem’s dominant
mode. To a greater extent than most of the poem’s other notable antago-
nists, Duessa is presented in a way that seems to emphasize her status as an
aesthetic violation over her status as a sinister confection. Nonetheless,
even Duessa herself does not function aversively for all readers; as
Silberman’s characterization suggests, the “fowle deformed wight”
remains a potential source of engagement (1.8.49).
While the specific effect of the Duessa episode remains uncertain and
partially subjective, the contrast between Errour and Duessa demonstrates
some of the poetic strategies that can influence the potential fascination
with hideous objects. Regarded in the abstract, Errour and Duessa are
both disgusting, and if anything, Errour represents an even more extreme
example of filth and monstrosity. But by bringing to bear different aes-
thetic standards and contexts, the poem can differentially facilitate or
impede readers’ engagement with them. Making these aesthetic frame-
works available does not, of course, determine the subjective responses of
actual readers, but it does help elucidate the poem’s allegorical methods.

In the Bower of Bliss canto, which concludes book 2 of The Faerie

Queene, Spenser provides a representation of evil at the opposite extreme
from Errour and the disrobed Duessa, one based on overpowering beauty
rather than overpowering hideousness. Errour and Duessa generate a
conflict in the characters who observe them between detestation and
amazement, normative disgust and sinister fascination. The elaborate
gardens of the Bower of Bliss seem to offer a conceptually simpler chal-
lenge: an immoral but aesthetically normative sensual appeal. Like Errour
and Duessa, however, the Bower helps Spenser explore the boundaries
between the beautiful, the sinister, and the ugly, while complicating the
relationship between poetic delight and instruction.


The Bower of Bliss ostensibly presents the kind of deceptively beautiful
evil that bedeviled Redcrosse in his encounters with the disguised Duessa
and other seemingly innocent and attractive people and places. Guyon, the
protagonist of book 2 and representative of the virtue of temperance, must
recognize and resist the Bower’s temptations to “pleasant sin” in order to
confront its creator, the seductive witch Acrasia (2.12.77).50 Spenser’s
descriptions continually emphasize the Bower’s deceptive use of beauty
through images like the golden ivy, which is “so coloured, /That wight,
who did not well auis’d it vew, /Would surely deeme it to bee yuie trew”
(2.12.61). Moreover, the poem provides many examples of people who
have been fooled by the Bower’s appearance and have fallen victim to its
charms. To the extent that the Bower’s beauty is a seamless façade masking
its evil (or at least distinguishable from its evil), its appeal is morally
dangerous but aesthetically normative. Like Augustine’s voluptas ocu-
lorum, it is pleasant despite being sinful.
However, the Bower actually displays its deceptive nature to its
potential victims, and to readers, in ways that suggest evil could be
part of its appeal—in other words, that its artful gesturing at deception
partakes of a sinister aesthetic.51 In this case, the Bower’s sinfulness
would enhance rather than undermine the pleasantness of its more
conventionally beautiful elements. In Metaphor and Belief in The
Faerie Queene (1997), Rufus Wood hints at the possibility that evil
could increase readers’ interest: “Where the accumulation of moral
censure might be expected to produce increasing revulsion, the pleasure

of the text is experienced with growing intensity as the reader makes

progress through the Bower and its inner secrets are revealed” (148).
Overall, the Bower’s deceptions are more symbolic than actual, since
both Guyon and the reader are much too “well auis’d” to be genuinely
deceived. Guyon’s few misreadings occur early on and are immediately
corrected by his knowledgeable companions, the Palmer and the
Ferryman. As he progresses further, he easily evades potential temptations
using his unaided judgment. For example, he correctly interprets Excesse’s
“fowle disordered” clothing (2.12.55) and other suspicious attributes as
signs of vice, and he immediately dashes her wine cup to the ground as
soon as it is offered to him. If anything, Guyon seems less impressed than
the narrator, who lingers lovingly on the hand of Excesse crushing grapes:
“That so faire winepresse made the wine more sweet” (2.12.56).
These curiously transparent deceptions reflect the nature of the Bower’s
appeal, which comes in large part from the way it teases its viewers, not
merely with the revelation of further beauties, but with hints of the malice
underlying its beautiful display. The description of the golden ivy, quoted
earlier, is less notable for the beauty of its metallic leaves than for its coy
evocation of the dangerous falsehoods of Acrasia. Moreover, the poem
suggests the possibility of taking pleasure in immorality itself. For example,
the anonymous singer of the carpe diem song idealizes loving and being
loved “with equall crime” (2.12.75). The song is fairly conventional—and
imitates Gerusalemme liberata 16.14–15—until its final word, “crime,”
which, as Hamilton observes, implies an Augustinian perverse joy in sin-
ning (2.12.75n). The song thereby seeks to lull its listeners into assuming a
sinister sensibility according to which the moral transgression of crime is an
integral part of the joys of love.
Beauty is not just a shell for evil in the Bower; rather, the two are
inextricably fused. The Bower’s subtle interweaving of malevolence with
beauty produces art that embodies an aesthetic of cruelty, which is most
evident in the ivory gate depicting the story of Medea (2.12.44–45).
Wood argues that “The ‘piteous spectacle’ of Medea scattering the pieces
of her brother’s body on the surface of the sea and the equally brutal
immolation of Creüsa are fashioned in such a way that the horror of the
events is lost beneath the aesthetically pleasing surface of the work of art”
(144).52 He rightly notes that this “worke of admirable witt” (Spenser
2.12.44) seeks to convert horror to aesthetic pleasure—and if this conver-
sion truly effaced the horror then the ecphrasis would not be sinister. But
the text makes it difficult to escape the brutality of Medea. Medea’s

dismemberment of her brother stains the ivory in which the scene is

carved: “the snowy substaunce sprent /With vermell, like the boyes
blood therein shed.” Here, the narrator encourages readers to admire
the way the taint of blood infuses the beauty of the waves under the
Argo. Similarly, the description of Creusa not only eroticizes her torture
and murder as the consummation of a marriage but it also renders this
crime into ornamentation, as sprinkles of gold: “And otherwhiles with
gold besprinkeled; /Yt seemed thenchaunted flame, which did Creusa
wed” (2.12.45). The destructive flame is not lost beneath the surface of
the pure ivory that serves as the fundamental artistic medium for the scene,
but sparkling right on top. These transformations of evil into ornament are
more grotesque than they are successfully euphemistic. The presence of
malevolence sacrifices a certain conventional kind of poetic beauty in order
to offer the baroque cruelty of the Bower as an object of imaginative
contemplation. These and other transparent deceptions add spice to the
episode by keeping the undertone of Acrasia’s malevolence teasingly
within the threshold of readers’ perceptions.53
Both the Bower’s enticing beauty and its enticingly coy half-revelations
of evil are forms of artistry that characterize Spenser’s own poetry. As an
allegory of temperance, this episode appears to present beauty as directly
opposed to virtue, and to model the rejection of sensual temptations.54
But this condemnation of the aesthetic contradicts Spenser’s (and
Sidney’s) assertion that the best way to convey moral truths is to veil
them in poetic conceits. Wood notes that “the relationship between art
and nature in the Bower of Bliss epitomizes a blurring of boundaries that
highlights the religious anxieties inherent in an aesthetic creed that puts its
faith wholeheartedly in the figurative power of poetry to achieve moments
of spiritual revelation” (144). If the poem seeks to place the reader in the
position of Guyon, it risks placing Spenser in the position of Acrasia.55
The Bower’s demonization of aesthetics would thus be problematic
even if the aesthetic in question were purely normative, but Spenser’s use
of sinister aesthetics provides an even more serious challenge to Platonic
models for how didactic allegory should work. In Renaissance Self-
Fashioning (1980), Stephen Greenblatt argues that the evil of Acrasia,
like that of Duessa, “depends upon the ability to mask and forge, to
conceal their satanic artistry; their defeat depends on the power to
unmask,” and that Spenser distinguishes himself from Acrasia through
“an art that constantly calls attention to its own processes” (190). But
this self-conscious artfulness is an essential component of the cruel and

seductive games Acrasia plays with her victims. The fact that Spenser
engineers the Bower’s aesthetic of cruelty as much as Acrasia does high-
lights the potential conflict between the poem’s moral and aesthetic
Partly because of this troubled relationship between aesthetic and moral
elements, Guyon’s destruction of the Bower has produced notoriously
ambivalent reactions among modern critics.56 While the attractiveness of
the Bower is disturbing, its destruction is equally so. One of the more
unsettling features of the destroyed Bower is that it is purely and unin-
terestingly ugly, to a much greater extent than Spenser’s depiction of the
naked Duessa, which conveys a similar message about stripping away the
illusory beauty of evil. The destroyed Bower lacks even potentially sinister
qualities because it is simply the negation of its original beauty, as the
antithetical language of 2.12.83 makes clear: “their blisse he turn’d to
balefulnesse . . . And of the fayrest late, now made the fowlest place.” The
description lacks the vividness or what Eco calls the “autonomy” that
would allow a competing aesthetic to emerge; instead, the stanza presents
a mere list of what Guyon has ruined: “Their groues he feld, their gardins
did deface, /Their arbers spoyle, their Cabinets suppresse, /Their banket
houses burne, their buildings race” (2.12.83). The Bower thus transforms
from a sinister amalgam of beauty and evil to an ugly (and boring)
antithesis of its former state.
Both the destruction of the Bower and the transformation of Duessa
ought to represent a rectification of their allegorical function. As properly
didactic allegories, their evil natures should be represented by repellent
exteriors. By stripping Duessa and by ravaging the Bower, the knights act
like morally responsible poets, manipulating appearances to present a
clearer allegorical message.
However, in both cases, Spenser represents this allegorization as a kind
of violation. In the case of Duessa, the violation has disturbingly sexual
undertones, since it involves forcefully stripping a woman. But Redcrosse
and Arthur merely reveal Duessa’s pre-existing ugliness, while Guyon
deliberately creates it. Guyon’s destructive allegorization seems like a
crude way to convey a symbolic message when contrasted with the
Bower’s subtle blending of the admirable and the despicable.57 He deals
with the complex problem of the Bower’s beautiful and sinister art by
reducing it to the ugly.
The Faerie Queene ultimately cultivates and explores the attractiveness
of evil much more than its unattractiveness, even in cases where the evil

ought to be unambiguously repulsive. The poem depicts curiosity, not

aversion, as the paradigmatic response to evil for its knightly protagonists.
Spenser’s work thus embodies, and makes some effort to rehabilitate, the
impulse Augustine condemned as curiositas. The premise of The Faerie
Queene is that moral education requires a close engagement with the
appeal of evil itself—not merely the various beautiful or virtuous disguises
it might wear, but evil as evil. The poem’s sinister aesthetics enable and
encourage this engagement.
Moreover, the sinister allows Spenser to experiment with the conflict-
ing early modern theories about the Horatian binary of delight and
instruction. For example, Errour appears to represent the unity of mon-
strous form and (im)moral significance advocated by the Platonic para-
digm. But insofar as Errour is an engaging aesthetic representation of
monstrosity and filth, she more properly belongs to the theoretical
model that sees poetry as the sugar-coating on the allegorical message,
Sidney’s “medicine of cherries”—except that Spenser replaces cherries
with vomit. Like the cherry flavoring that has no direct relationship with
the bitter medicine, a pleasurable engagement with Errour’s monstrosity
would not impede a reader’s ability to decode and reject the particular vice
that Errour represents. Indeed, readers’ potential imaginative engagement
with Errour would enable and further their understanding of Spenser’s
The Bower of Bliss, on the other hand, uses the sinister to fuse beauty
and evil. This technique implies an integral connection between the moral
and the aesthetic, as in the Platonic model, but with the moral valences
reversed. In consequence, the larger arc of the episode’s narrative presents
delight and instruction as antagonists in a zero-sum game: the delightful-
ness of the Bower is its primary moral danger, and Guyon’s virtuous
destruction of the Bower completely eliminates its capacity to delight.
When Spenser pits these Horatian goals against each other, it becomes
unclear which ought to be victorious.

The Faerie Queene’s emphasis on morally didactic allegory, coupled with
its grotesque menagerie of villains, highlights the pervasive disjunction
between early modern poetic theory and practice regarding representations
of evil. The possibility that the hideousness of Errour or the sadism of the
Bower might appeal to readers troubled Renaissance theorists, because they

viewed such attraction as perverse and immoral. Spenser’s narrator attempts

to frame the poem’s representations of evil as unpleasant, because to enjoy
them would supposedly indicate a diseased sensibility and encourage emu-
lation of the sins they represent.
While sinister aesthetics can potentially complicate or undermine a
poem’s didactic goals, the fascination they create is what enables a poem
like The Faerie Queene to be read at all. Spenser’s epic demonstrates that
representing evil exclusively according to the normative expectations of
theory is not merely limiting; it is unfeasible. In the Platonic paradigm, evil
is naturally unpleasant, and literary depictions of it should automatically
function as aversion therapy. Spenser’s treatments of Duessa and the
Bower show that this model is unsustainable as the default mode for
didactic allegory.
It is difficult to imagine an early modern author constructing a descrip-
tion more calculated to induce disgust than that of the naked Duessa, and
yet, as we have seen, critics’ responses to Duessa still display an ambivalent
fascination with her depiction. This should not surprise us. True aversion
to a literary representation of evil—that is, a desire to turn away from it—
would encourage readers to skip ahead or stop entirely, and it would make
a poem as filled with evil as The Faerie Queene almost unreadable. By
starting the epic with Errour and her vomit, Spenser offers a warning to
the squeamish and posits the sensibilities necessary to fully appreciate the
The destroyed Bower of Bliss, in contrast, shows what it would take to
represent evil stripped of any possible normative or sinister charms—it
would have to be a bland negation, neither fascinating nor repulsive but
merely boring. Guyon’s destruction of the Bower is a virtuous action
intended to clarify the Bower’s allegorical meaning by bringing its aes-
thetic appearance into conformity with its moral significance. Yet this
destruction neither adds any new information about the Bower’s dangers
nor does it seem calculated to inspire strong aversion to the evil that the
Bower represents. On the contrary, the responses of modern critics sug-
gest that Guyon’s “rigour pittilesse” frequently alienates readers
(2.12.83). If the poem seeks to dissuade readers from engaging with the
Bower and what it represents, the Bower’s wreckage is a Pyrrhic victory
that emphasizes the reductive nature of Renaissance theories of didactic
poetry and their inability to capture the full spectrum of poetic effects.
These theoretical limitations did not prevent early modern poets from
making use of the sinister. Tasso and Spenser participate in and elaborate

upon several important and influential varieties of sinister aesthetics. Tasso

discusses in his Discorsi, and deploys in his epic, compelling depictions of
infernal realms and powers. Tasso’s Pluto embodies an aesthetic of demo-
nic majesty, while his depiction of Tartarus is filled with chimerical mon-
sters, descendants of the creature disingenuously criticized by Horace.
Gerusalemme liberata also aestheticizes the violence and brutality of war
as a “dreadful harmony.” The antagonists of The Faerie Queene are less
frequently characterized by terrifying majesty, but the poem depicts a
dizzying variety of monsters constructed according to the principles of
the chimera. Perhaps most distinctively, Spenser’s monsters develop an
aesthetics of filth to a degree few of his contemporaries could match,
offering spectacularly excessive descriptions of oozing viscera for readers’
consumption. Like Tasso, Spenser also aestheticizes cruelty, although he
associates it more frequently with amorous seduction than war.58 In the
Bower of Bliss, this artful malice manifests itself in the form of a deceptive
temptation that reveals its own status as a dangerous trap while still
maintaining its allure.
Because such pleasures could not easily be acknowledged, early
modern authors like Tasso and Spenser often couched their use of
the sinister in contexts designed to offer them plausible deniability:
framing sinister passages with condemnations from the narrator, or
associating the sinister with villains who are ultimately defeated. Such
rhetorical strategies were widespread in the period. William
Shakespeare’s sinister Richard III dominates the play that bears his
name, but he is defeated and verbally denounced by the virtuous
Richmond. In Paradise Lost, Milton famously gives his devils long,
compelling speeches bracketed by brief and arguably less compelling
critiques of those speeches.59
Spenser also provides models for positive responses to the sinister that
are less easily dismissed. In The Faerie Queene, heroic characters like
Redcrosse and Arthur display a fascination with monsters that could
serve as an example to readers. Conversely, Spenser makes Guyon seem
less temperate, and potentially less attractive, when he destroys the Bower
of Bliss without engaging its moral and aesthetic complexities. This tech-
nique of allowing a character within the poem to provide cues and ratio-
nales for the potential responses of audiences is central to the treatment of
the sinister in Richard III and Paradise Lost.
Although early modern authors lacked a systematic theory that could
explain and justify taking pleasure in aesthetic representations of evil,

monstrosity, or the demonic, they did have access to some useful con-
ceptual frameworks for approaching this problem. Aristotle’s assertion
that paintings of corpses could cause pleasure was widely accepted,
although it contradicted other equally prevalent tenets of literary theory.
Aristotle’s endorsement of the macabre pleasures of tragedy, which por-
trays acts of the deepest evil to evoke supposedly unpleasant emotions like
fear, provides one of the clearest classical models for an aesthetic that
violates normative standards without being condemned as immoral or
perverse. Augustine’s concept of the sin of curiositas expands this fascina-
tion with the macabre beyond merely fictional examples. His insistence
that people like to see real corpses is crucial, because it demonstrates that
the pleasure in such things depends more on their distinctive content than
on their status as artistic representations. In the early modern period,
concepts like the marvelous (which could be normative or sinister) and
the prodigious (a variant of the marvelous with more specifically sinister
connotations) reflected a similar understanding. They were applied to
poetic fictions, as Tasso does in the Discorsi, as well as to explain the
early modern interest in real-life monstrous spectacles, including the dis-
play of deformed people and animals. As we will see, the prodigious is
especially important to Richard III and to early modern texts dealing with
The most comprehensive early modern theory that made a place for the
sinister was the aesthetic of concordia discors described by Tasso. The self-
contradictory nature of this concept links it to early modern authors’
habitual use of paradox and oxymoron to assert, without explaining, the
counterintuitive pleasures of the sinister. Concordia discors suggests that
the sinister is not appealing by itself but only in juxtaposition with the
beautiful, or subsumed into a larger whole that is beautiful. It therefore
does not account for the full range of early modern poetic practice.
Nonetheless, the theory of concordia discors played a vital role in integrat-
ing the sinister into early modern religion and theodicy. It derives in part
from Augustine’s chiaroscuro aesthetic, which sees the universe as a beautiful
combination of good and evil elements. For Tasso, as for Augustine, this
aesthetic reflected not merely the rules of artistic construction—of a painting
in Augustine’s case and an epic poem in Tasso’s—but the actual principles by
which God constructed the universe. The parallel between the poet and God
as sinister artists, creators of beautiful evil, reaches an apex in Milton’s
Paradise Lost. Milton, like Spenser, produces an epic with a strong moral
and religious agenda, and Paradise Lost shares with The Faerie Queene a

tension between the ethical and aesthetic goals of the Christian epic. But
Milton’s epic also creates a systematic narrative progression that incorporates
the sinister into his religious ideology.
One of the underlying principles of Renaissance literary theory, which is
reflected in the work of Sidney, Tasso, and Spenser, is that literature
should provide moral instruction. The poet’s handling of evil is implicitly
a statement about its role in a Christian universe, and poetry is supposed to
evoke responses from readers that can serve as models for a proper moral
response to evil. The Christian epics of Tasso, Spenser, and Milton could
not achieve their goals without assimilating the sinister into a larger,
morally acceptable whole.
Other early modern writers were less constrained, however. In particu-
lar, Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists often allowed compelling villains
to dominate the stage while relegating the counterbalancing models of
virtue to secondary roles. Their exploration of the pleasures of evil demon-
strates that the dark components of Augustine’s chiaroscuro have a power-
ful appeal of their own, not merely when subsumed in a providential
concordia discors. One of the earliest, most powerful, and most self-aware
instances of sinister aesthetics given free rein is Shakespeare’s deformed,
malevolent, and charismatic Richard III.

1. Italian Renaissance literary theorists other than Tasso lie outside the chap-
ter’s primary focus; therefore, my discussion of them relies on excerpts
and paraphrases from Bernard Weinberg’s magisterial two-volume work,
A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance (1961).
2. Horace uses a few terms for this dichotomy: “Poets aim either to benefit
[prodesse], or to amuse [delectare], or to utter words at once both pleasing
and helpful [iucunda et idonea] to life. . . . He has won every vote who has
blended profit and pleasure [miscuit utile dulci], at once delighting and
instructing the reader” (pages 478–479, lines 333–334, 343–344).
3. Translating Gioseppe Malatesta, Della nuova poesia (1589), page 189.
4. Translating Scipione Ammirato, Il Dedalione overo del poeta dialogo (1560),
published in Opuscoli (1642) volume 3, page 377. This Christian didactic
imperative found classical support in Plato’s Republic, which emphasizes the
moral power—and dangers—of poetry (see esp. book 3, Stephanus number
398a-b, as well as 2.377b-c and 3.392a-b).
5. Lodovico Ricchieri (1516), for example, sees the beauty of poetry as a
poison and taking pleasure in it as a “sacrifice to the demons.” The only

“antidote” is allegorical moralizing by “those who are skilled in philosophy”

(Weinberg 259).
6. Sidney here adapts Lucretius’s comparison of poetry to a honeyed glass of
medicine (De Rerum Naturae book 4, lines 11–22).
7. See Diotima’s description of love in Plato’s Symposium (esp. Stephanus
numbers 210a-212a). However, book 10 of the Republic suggests a
disjunction between poetry and truth (e.g., 600e). In the Renaissance,
Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528), translated into English by
Sir Thomas Hoby as The Courtyer (1561), was one of the most influen-
tial articulations of the idea that beauty is a natural emanation of

beawtie commeth of God, and is like a circle, the goodnesse wherof is the
Centre. And therefore, as there can be no circle without a centre, no
more can beawty be without goodnesse. Wherupon doeth verie sildome
an ill soule dwell in a beawtifull bodye. And therefore is the outwarde
beawtie a true signe of the inwarde goodnes, and in bodies thys come-
lynesse is imprynted more and lesse (as it were) for a marke of the soule,
whereby she is outwardlye knowen. (book 4, signature Tt.4v, Early
English Books Online image 180)

Castiglione’s argument in this section imitates Diotima’s (see Gordon

Braden’s Petrarchan Love and the Continental Renaissance [1999], 99).
His comments about comely bodies reflect attitudes explored in
Shakespeare’s Richard III.
8. For example, Italian critic Lucio Olimpio Giraldi’s formulation verges on
tautology: “Terence’s intention was to show the ugliness [brutezza] of foul
[sozze] things so that men would abstain from them” (Weinberg 289,
translating Ragionamento in difesa di Terentio [1566], 65).
9. Quotations from Gosson are cited by signature and page numbers from
Arthur F. Kinney’s Markets of Bawdrie: The Dramatic Criticism of Stephen
Gosson (1974).
10. Although Protestantism intensified this pessimism, Italian critics made simi-
lar arguments. See, for example, Weinberg 327–328, translating Jacopo
Mazzoni, Della difesa della Comedia di Dante (1587), 22.
11. Citations of the Poetics are by Bekker number and the page numbers of
Stephen Halliwell’s facing-page translation (Loeb Classical Library, 1995).
12. The anxiety and ambivalence generated by the conflicts between Platonic,
Aristotelian, and Christian theories of aesthetic pleasure are evident in
Benedetto Grasso’s Oratione contra gli Terentiani (1566), which says that
when a painting depicts “lascivious acts, obscene objects, dirty and ugly
actions, it moves in us an honest blushing and arouses an unwillingness to
look at them. And even if we do look at them, it is rather because we are moved

by the artifice of the painter than by the beauty or the novelty of the painting”
(Weinberg 287–288, translating Grasso 31). Grasso makes the Platonic claim
that representations of evil are naturally repulsive, but he immediately revises it
(almost as if caught in the act of voyeurism) with the Aristotelian acknowl-
edgment that we can appreciate them aesthetically. The habitual slippage
between moral judgments (“lascivious acts”) and aesthetic ones (“ugly actions”)
is also quite clear.
13. Similarly, several Italian critics reproduce Aristotle’s claim without fully
explicating or assimilating it. Lodovico Ricchieri endorses an Aristotelian
pleasure in ugliness (see Weinberg 368, translating Lectionum antiquarum
libri XXX [1516], 160), despite his overall suspicion of even conventional
pleasures (Weinberg 259). Francesco Robortello’s In librum Aristotelis de
arte poetica explicationes (1548) argues for the pleasure of terrible things
while also arguing that vice is naturally repellent (Weinberg 388–390).
14. English quotations from the Confessions are from Henry Chadwick’s transla-
tion (Oxford, 1991). Latin quotations are from James J. O’Donnell’s edition
(Oxford, 1992). Both are cited by book, chapter, and paragraph numbers.
15. See also The City of God book 12, chapter 8.
16. For Renaissance concerns about the potential masochism of the tragic audi-
ence, see Weinberg 164 (translating Tractatus de Tragoedia [c. 1561],
Perugia, Bibl. com., MS 985 [M.8], fol. 96v) and Stephen Gosson’s con-
demnation of tragedy, quoted above (Playes Confuted C5v-C6, Kinney 161).
17. A bit later, Augustine revises this evaluation, but not his own motivations: “The
fruit was beautiful, but it was not that which my miserable soul coveted”
18. This fascination with filth recurs in Spenser, and the metaphor of spices
recurs in Tasso. Here, Augustine specifically compares sin to the spicy flavor
of cinnamon.
19. The word Chadwick translates as “season” is “condit,” from condio, the verb
form of condimentum. This echo of book 2’s language suggests the impor-
tance of the evil-as-spice metaphor to Augustine.
20. The City of God is cited by book, chapter, and page number. English
translations (and, unless noted otherwise, page numbers) are from R. W.
Dyson’s edition, The City of God against the Pagans (Cambridge
University Press, 1998). For the Latin text, see De Civitate Dei, edited
by B. Dombart (B. G. Teubner, 1877), in which this passage occurs on
page 493. I want to credit Henry Chadwick’s note to Confessions 5.2.2 for
highlighting this image and describing it as a “chiaroscuro,” a term that is
central to the argument of this book. Chiaroscuro and related techniques
for highlighting the light and dark elements in a picture were important
features of Italian Renaissance painting, but the first English usage cited in
the OED is post-Miltonic: William Aglionby’s Painting illustrated in three

Diallogues (1686), where it refers either to paintings that only use black
and white (OED 1a) or, more relevantly, to “the disposing of the Lights
and Shadows Skilfully” (OED 2a). I use the term to refer to an aesthetic
that relies on the contrast between light and dark, and by implication good
and evil.
21. See also Augustine’s On Order [De Ordine], which asserts that the “per-
ennial disorder” of a misspent life is “inserted into the order of things by
divine providence” (book 2, chapter 4, paragraph 11). This beautiful order
can encompass “a savage and terrible public executioner,” prostitutes, gory
cockfights, and “the shape of some animal organs” (2.4.12; see also
1.8.25). The treatise repeatedly links evil to literary aesthetics: “This
clashing of contraries, which we love so much in rhetoric, gives body to
the overall beauty of the universe” (1.7.18). Like “grammatical errors and
foreign words” (“Soloecismos et barbarismos”), sin and ugliness taste
bitter, fetid, and rancid (“acre, putidum, rancidum”), but employed in
the proper context they are as desirable as the sweetest spices (“suavissima
condimenta,” 2.4.13). Tasso also discusses the possibility of “barbaric”
words becoming appealing; see below.
22. Judith Kates’s Tasso and Milton: The Problem of Christian Epic (1983) calls
Tasso “both a creator of original poetry in the epic form and a theorist equal
to anyone else writing in the century” (31). She notes that Milton’s The
Reason of Church-Government unequivocally “ranks Tasso with Virgil and
Homer” as a model for epic (125).
23. Tasso revised both his epic (as Gerusalemme conquistata, 1593) and his
Discorsi (as Discorsi del poema eroico, 1594). Critics such as Kates have
generally seen these revisions as more aesthetically and morally orthodox
(21). I focus on the earlier versions for a few reasons. As Ralph Nash
observes in his introduction to Jerusalem Delivered, the Liberata proved
more successful and influential than the Conquistata (ix), and Lawrence
F. Rhu defends the earlier Discorsi as more relevant to an analysis of
Gerusalemme liberata, based on their probable dates of composition (8).
Lastly, I am concerned with the range of ideas and practices available to
Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and their contemporaries; therefore, Tasso’s
demonstration of the potential of the sinister is more important than his
later attempts to limit or condemn this potential.
24. Tasso mentions moral instruction as an afterthought and does not make it a
responsibility of the poet qua poet (see Rhu 104–105), although his prio-
rities change significantly in the revised Discorsi (see Kates 21). For the
Italian text of the Discorsi, see Angelo Solerti’s 1901 edition.
25. English quotations of Gerusalemme liberata are from Nash’s 1987 prose
translation, Jerusalem Delivered. Italian quotations are from Bortolo
Tommaso Sozzi’s 1964 edition. Both are cited by canto and stanza.

26. Elsewhere, the Liberata expresses concern about the deceitfulness of “orna-
mented fabling” (5.7) and the dangers of “shadowing the truth with evil
art” (5.24).
27. For example, Tasso’s Discorsi, following Aristotle’s Poetics, emphasize the
distinction between the effects produced by epic and tragedy, arguing that
terror and pity are fundamental to tragedy but “decorative” in epic (Rhu
28. The word Rhu translates as “spices” is sapori, which Solerti’s Italian edition
of the Discorsi glosses as “salse; condimenti” (9). Elsewhere, the Discorsi
explicitly include representations of evil in the category of the marvelous.
This conception of marvels (including demonic ones) as a seasoning recalls
Augustine’s view of sin as a condimentum.
29. Although distinctly Christian, the infernal aesthetic has its roots in classical
literature, as does the anxiety about its poetic uses. For example, Plato’s
Republic warns against poems that encourage “belief in the underworld and
its horrors” (3.386b). He quotes several Homeric passages that exemplify
the horrors of Hades, culminating in a spooky simile from the Odyssey, book
24, lines 6–9: “As in dark corners of mysterious caves/The squeaking bats
take flight . . . So, shrilly crying, did these souls depart” (Republic 3.387a).
Socrates explicitly admits that these passages are engaging: “Not that they
lack poetic merit, or that they don’t give pleasure to most people. They do”
(3.387b). In fact, they are so engaging that they may have dangerous effects
on those being trained to defend the republic: “So we must discard all the
weird and terrifying language used about the underworld. No more wailing
Cocytus, or hateful Styx, or food for worms, or mouldering corpses, or any
other language of the kind which makes all who hear it shudder. It may be
fine in some other context, but when it comes to our guardians, we are
worried that this shuddering may make them too soft and impressionable for
our needs” (3.387b-c). This unusually extensive and vivid list of examples in
effect promulgates the very sinister representations that it rejects.
30. Renaissance critics often cited Plato’s Republic, which famously banishes
poets; it links variety to sickness, evil, and distance from the divine unity, but
also to the most exalted, praiseworthy, and pleasurable kind of poetry
(3.397a-398b, 3.404d-e). Weinberg lists numerous praises of variety by
Italian critics (see his index entry for “Variety,” 1183), but also some
concerns, particularly about its capacity to encompass evil (see Weinberg
644 and also 222, 718). Desiderius Erasmus’s De Copia (“On Copia of
Words and Ideas,” 1512) is one of the more influential Renaissance texts
promoting variety. George Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesy (1589)
makes variety central to poetic excellence (222, 333).
31. Tasso’s arguments are part of a larger debate about “structural unity” versus
“variety, multiplicity, diversity, discontinuity” in the structure of epic plots

(Weinberg 447). While Tasso’s own epic was the preeminent Renaissance
example of a neoclassical, unified plot, Ariosto’s Orlando furioso was the
model of a romance epic with multiple plots (Weinberg 651–652). By this
standard, Spenser’s Faerie Queene is structured more like Ariosto’s epic, and
Milton’s Paradise Lost more closely resembles Tasso’s.
32. The original Chimera of Greek mythology was a fire-breathing, three-
headed combination of lion, goat, and serpent, killed by the hero
Bellerophon riding the winged horse Pegasus. This study uses “chimera”
to mean any creature, but especially “A grotesque monster,” that is “formed
of the parts of various animals”—an extension of OED sense 2. The vast
majority of chimeras are sinister; Pegasus is one notable exception.
33. For the Latin and English (translated by H. Rushton Fairclough), see
Horace’s Satires, Epistles, and Ars Poetica (Loeb Classical Library, 1978).
34. The original Italian verse emphasizes the passage’s musicality: “la pioggia a i
gridi, a i venti, a i tuon s’accorda/d’orribile armonia che ’l mondo assorda.”
The phrase “orribile armonia” is not unique to Tasso. Albert Ascoli discusses
Ariosto’s use of it and the related concept of concordia discors in his 1987
study, Ariosto’s Bitter Harmony (e.g., 6). Ascoli also connects the chimera to
concordia discors, seeing Pegasus and the Chimera as good and evil versions
of the poetic imagination, discordant opposites that are “yoked together” in
Ariosto’s hippogryph (251).
35. See Horace, Epistles book 1, epistle 12, line 19, which associates “concordia
discors” with the Greek philosopher Empedocles. Modern scholars also use
discordia concors, following the formulation in Samuel Johnson’s life of
Cowley (Lives of the English Poets [1783] volume 1, page 20). For
Johnson and others, discordia concors is not necessarily harmonious. See
also Melissa Wanamaker’s Discordia Concors: The Wit of Metaphysical Poetry
(1975) and James Biester’s Lyric Wonder: Rhetoric and Wit in Renaissance
English Poetry (1997).
36. Kates also notes Tasso’s “distinction between ‘simple’ and ‘composite’
unity” (33). Tasso himself takes pains to distinguish between “a great variety
of incidents in many separate actions,” which he condemns, from “similar
variety in one single action,” which represents the apex of the poet’s art
(Rhu 131).
37. Tasso also refers to variety uneasily as a spice, recalling his earlier treatment
of the marvelous and Augustine’s metaphor for sin: “Perhaps this variety was
not so necessary in Virgil’s and Homer’s time, since the tastes of men of that
epoch were not so jaded. . . . In our times, it is especially necessary; and
Trissino, therefore, needed to season his poem with the spice of this variety
so that delicate tastes would not shun it” (Rhu 130).
38. Maren-Sofie Røstvig’s Configurations: A Topomorphical Approach to
Renaissance Poetry (1994) also links Augustine, Tasso, Spenser, and

Milton and argues that “To the Renaissance, cosmic and poetic unity were
of the same kind” (4). For Tasso’s Augustinian views on the aesthetic of
unity and the analogy between poetic and divine creation, see Røstvig 204.
39. Faced with this contradiction, modern Spenser criticism has given more
weight to Sidney’s aversion therapy than his delightful monsters. A. C.
Hamilton’s general introduction to The Faerie Queene (Longman, 2001)
endorses Ben Jonson’s observation that Spenser’s method was to render vice
hateful (5). In Milton’s Spenser: The Politics of Reading (1983), Maureen
Quilligan makes a similar point about Errour, but her language exploits the
very attraction to the monstrous that her discursive argument rejects,
describing with compelling vividness the “moiling, sucking creatures” that
Errour vomits and devours (82). This rhetorical practice undermines her
claim that “It is easy (because more comfortable) to forget the peculiarly
slimy details of Errour’s portrait” (80).
40. Passages from The Faerie Queene proper are cited by book, canto, and stanza
41. For example, Sharon Achinstein’s Milton and the Revolutionary Reader
(1994) examines how “writers like Milton composed their audiences” (4).
42. This poetics of excess is one point where the sinister overlaps with Bakhtin’s
grotesque (see Bakhtin 303). Spenser personifies a kind of “Excesse” as a
wicked but beautiful woman with a cup of wine (2.12.55–57).
43. Spenser explicitly links amazement and wonder as responses to the witch
Duessa’s true, monstrous form (1.8.49), and he alludes to the delight that
typically accompanies wonder in Guyon’s attempts to resist it (2.12.53).
Biester’s Lyric Wonder provides an in-depth study of the significance of
wonder, astonishment, amazement, and the marvelous. Andrew Wadoski’s
2014 article, “Spenser, Tasso, and the Ethics of Allegory,” applies Biester’s
views on wonder to the Bower of Bliss (379).
44. This description of Duessa imitates Orlando furioso canto 7, stanzas 72–73,
where the seemingly beautiful witch Alcina is revealed to be an ugly old
woman. Spenser’s version places more vivid emphasis on the unclean exha-
lations and bodily fluids that Duessa exudes and makes her a chimera,
adorned with various animal parts.
45. See also Susan Carter’s “Duessa, Spenser’s Loathly Lady” (2005), which
argues that “Spenser’s Faerie Queene is instantly pleasurable because of its
extremes of imagery” and praises the “colourful, titillating” potential of
diseased hags but then describes Duessa as “surprisingly repulsive” (9, 10).
46. The anti-blazon occupies an interesting liminal space between poetic
engagement and disgust. An anti-blazon can be sinister insofar as it embo-
dies poetic conventions for representing something we are not supposed
to like. On the other hand, the anti-blazon’s tight oppositional relationship
to the normative blazon could potentially disrupt this alternative aesthetic.

To the extent that a given anti-blazon insists on its inversion and violation of
erotic imagery rather than fostering a connoisseurship of feminine ugliness,
it would tend to be repugnant and/or comical. However, Shakespeare’s
Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”), arguably the
most famous anti-blazon, is not primarily disgusting, comical, or sinister. An
example that may perhaps generate true aversion is John Donne’s Elegy 8,
“The Comparison,” because it systematically alternates between the beauty
of the speaker’s mistress and the hideousness of the addressee’s beloved.
Readers wishing to enjoy both descriptions would have to rapidly and
repeatedly switch between mutually incompatible aesthetic frameworks.
47. Sidney’s Defence describes “the abominable tyrant Alexander
Pheraeus . . . who without all pity had murdered infinite numbers” but who
wept an “abundance of tears” while watching a tragedy (230).
48. As Carter observes, “To some extent, all womankind is implicated in this
portrait,” which she describes as “a moment of misogynist indulgence”
(10). Duessa and the vast menagerie of monstrous females in Spenser
certainly reflect a variety of misogynist preoccupations that have important
implications for Spenserian and early modern views of gender. However, the
Duessa episode also potentially allows an uncomfortable empathy with these
signs of human mortality and vulnerability.
49. This perverse use of “dight” has its own entry in the OED (verb, III.10.d),
although its earliest exemplar is from 1632. Definition 10 is “To clothe,
dress, array, deck, adorn” and sub-definition d is “ironically. To dirty,
befoul.” This usage once again suggests the aestheticization of filth.
50. Much of The Faerie Queene 2.12, which details Guyon’s voyage to the
Bower and his defeat of Acrasia, is inspired by Gerusalemme liberata cantos
15–16, where the seductive witch is named Armida.
51. In Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt rightly debunks the
notion of the Bower’s deceptiveness: “I believe that one easily perceives
that danger from the beginning and that much of the power of the episode
derives precisely from the fact that his perception has little or no effect on
the Bower’s continued sensual power.” Although Greenblatt conceives of
this sensual power largely in terms of normative beauty, he does note the
way Spenser insinuates words such as “sin” and “crime” into descriptions of
the Bower’s beauties without reducing their attractiveness (172).
52. Harry Berger makes a similar claim in The Allegorical Temper (1957): “the
narrator, absorbed in esthetics, forgets about ethics” (223).
53. Evil also enables (and thereby potentially flavors) the episode’s more con-
ventional erotic appeals. Ogling a chaste female is not only a sinful indul-
gence in the viewer, it is also potentially damaging to the woman’s honor
(see 3.1.65). In contrast, the women of the Bower encourage voyeurism
and, having no virtue to lose, cannot be injured by it.

54. Paul Alpers’s discussion of the Bower of Bliss in The Spenser Encyclopedia
(1990) addresses the critical history of the “felt disparity or conflict between
moral purpose in The Faerie Queene and whatever most fills and pleases the
imagination.” While opposing “the readiness of nineteenth-century writers
to detach Spenser’s visions and representations from the moral realm,”
Alpers insists that “Early imitations and citations show that for Spenser’s
contemporaries, too, details of the Bower could provide aesthetic pleasure
unqualified by moral reservation” (105).
55. See Paul Zajac’s “Reading through the Fog: Perception, the Passions, and
Poetry in Spenser’s Bower of Bliss” (2013), which argues that “While the
epic poet strives to differentiate his own art from Acrasia’s, . . . the two
artistic methods lie uncomfortably close to each other” (237).
56. In “Boy Toys and Liquid Joys: Pleasure and Power in the Bower of Bliss”
(2009), Joseph Campana argues that the violence of Guyon’s action repre-
sents a critique of temperance (467). Zajac 231–232 summarizes much of
the critical debate as of 2013, including the perceived contrast between
poetry and morality in the episode. Wadoski sees the unpleasantness of the
Bower’s destruction as a rebuke to Tasso’s conception of moral allegory
57. There is some evidence that Guyon’s reaction is actually intemperate, and
therefore subject to criticism even in the strictest moral terms that book 2
lays out. Phrases like “rigour pittilesse” and “the tempest of his wrathful-
nesse” (2.12.83) imply an excessively cold unwillingness to compromise or
an excessively hot outburst of emotion. But even if Guyon acted in a
temperate manner, the results of his action would still be troubling.
58. Spenser aestheticizes the cruelty of erotic desire not only in the Bower of
Bliss but also in the Masque of Cupid (3.12.1–26), where the violence
inherent in Petrarchan love rhetoric is brutally literalized and presented as
a theatrical spectacle.
59. A. J. A. Waldock’s Paradise Lost and Its Critics (1947) is one of the seminal
works to claim that the corrective voice of Milton’s narrator does not do
justice to the demonic speeches on which it comments (77–81). For more,
see Chapter 5.

Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics

in Richard III


A few years before the publication of the first part of The Faerie Queene in
1590, extraordinary things began to happen on the English stage. The
great flowering of drama during this period created a social infrastructure
that gave theater an influence on English society unprecedented in its
nature and scope. For the first time, professional acting companies built
dedicated playhouses, making the theater a commercial enterprise on a
scale London had not seen before. The same plays could be viewed by the
full spectrum of society: the working class and the rising middle class, the
illiterate and the university-educated, and the aristocracy up to and includ-
ing reigning monarchs. Acting companies were beholden to the market
economy and to the popular taste while remaining partially dependent on
aristocratic patronage and government sanction. They occupied an ambig-
uous and shifting social position: acting was not considered a wholly
legitimate profession, and yet acting companies came to enjoy the direct
support of the highest elements of society.
The theater thus became a crucial point of contact between elite and
popular culture, and an important vehicle for exploring aesthetic, moral,
and religious questions facing society as a whole. The growing popularity
of the theater also created a great deal of anxiety among the more mor-
alistic elements of the population, which gave rise to a vigorous tradition
of anti-theatrical writing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Writers such as Stephen Gosson, Anthony Munday, Philip Stubbes, and

© The Author(s) 2017 79

J.E. Slotkin, Sinister Aesthetics,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52797-0_3

John Northbrooke accused dramatists of being Satan-worshipping liber-

tines bent on destroying the moral fabric of society.1 This anti-theatrical
sentiment would culminate in the closing of the public theaters by
Parliamentary edict on the eve of the English Civil War in 1642.
Several factors enabled Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights to
explore the artistic potential of representations of evil in ways not readily
available to writers of Christian epic. Because of its cultural status in the
early modern period, as well as its inherent length and difficulty, epic
poetry spoke to a relatively restricted audience of the elite and educated.
These readers tended to have a greater investment in the didactic impera-
tives articulated by early modern literary theorists. In contrast, the popu-
larity, accessibility, and ambivalent social status of early modern theater
gave it considerably more flexibility in the representation of evil. Early
modern dramatists as a group did not feel as keenly the moral and
theological obligations and dilemmas that absorbed writers such as
Tasso, Spenser, and later Milton. This is not to say that the accusations
of anti-theatrical moralists were true. Most playwrights doubtlessly
believed to some extent in the Horatian model, which emphasized moral
instruction as well as delight, and plays engaged deeply and seriously with
religious ideas.2 Moreover, plays that were too religiously or politically
transgressive risked governmental censorship or punishment. Nonetheless,
a play’s success did not typically rest on its articulation of a comprehensive,
coherent, and orthodox religious doctrine. Rather, it depended on enter-
taining a diverse audience whose interest in evil was often more sensational
than theological.
Early modern dramatists also inherited from their medieval precursors a
well-established and fruitful model for representing engaging villains: the
Vice archetype of the allegorical morality plays. Although morality plays
were ostensibly homiletic, they featured villains who were often the pri-
mary source of entertainment and spoke most directly to the audience.
These villains were known as Vices, because they personified particular
sins. They explicitly self-identified as evil and took a gleeful pleasure in
corrupting and destroying other characters, although their gloating over
the foolishness of their victims could function as a backhanded form of
In defiance of the didactic requirements of Renaissance literary theory,
some playwrights expanded the role of the Vice while moving away from the
explicit articulation of religious doctrine that had originally justified the
Vice’s presence on stage. They avidly adopted and transformed the Vice

archetype, increasing the prominence of Vice-like characters and exploring

evil and villainy in much greater breadth, depth, and sophistication. At the
same time, they blended the characteristics of the Vice into more naturalistic
human characters.3 Compared with sixteenth-century epic poets such as
Tasso and Spenser, who tended to present evil and monstrosity as a spectacle,
dramatists sought to engage audiences more fully in the subjective experi-
ences of villains. They made it possible to identify with evil characters rather
than simply to view them as a kind of sinister pageant, although they made
liberal use of that strategy as well. This emphasis on the psychological
interiority of evil would prove crucial to the development of Milton’s Satan.
Thanks to these factors and to influential early plays by Christopher
Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and others, compelling villains and villai-
nous protagonists became a defining element of Elizabethan and Jacobean
drama. In the mid-1580s, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy featured a
demonic personification of Revenge as well as vivid depictions of the
underworld and its torments. Much of Marlowe’s output during his
brief career (about 1587–1593) also highlighted the appeal of evil: cruelty
and blasphemy in the Tamburlaine plays, demonology in Doctor Faustus,
and innumerable forms of gleeful villainy in The Jew of Malta. In the early
1590s, Shakespeare cemented this trend with Titus Andronicus and
Richard III.4
Richard III, produced early in Shakespeare’s career and in the trajectory
of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, is a foundational play that helped
establish paradigms for how subsequent dramatists would represent evil. It
is unusually focused on developing the appeal of its villainous protagonist as
a spectacle, a psychological subject, and a site of audience identification. The
characters’ fascination—and the audience’s potential fascination—with
Richard’s evil is integral to the play’s construction. According to Antony
Hammond, editor of the 1981 Arden Richard III, no other example of
what he calls the “criminal hero” has enjoyed “the theatrical longevity, nor
the audience appeal of Richard; never have the elements described above
been combined into so persuasive and attractive a consequence as Richard
III” (Hammond 104).5 Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard owes much to
the character of Barabas from The Jew of Malta. Both are simultaneously
villains and protagonists, Machiavellian Vices who glory in their evil
schemes and command the audience’s fascinated attention. However,
Shakespeare develops this archetype in ways that make Richard’s character
essential for understanding the operations of the sinister in early modern

Richard’s own character and the language he inspires in other charac-

ters constitute one of the most varied and comprehensive catalogs of
sinister effects available in a single play. Richard is alternately as monstrous
and repulsive as Spenser’s Errour, as infernally majestic as Tasso’s Pluto,
and as cruelly seductive as the Bower of Bliss. The curses and invective of
Richard’s enemies insistently identify him as a manifestation of the early
modern concept of the prodigious, a dark and ominous species of the
marvelous. The play thus offers subsequent dramatists a repertoire of
ways in which evil could be appealing.
However, the most crucial feature of Richard III for the purposes of
this study is that the play emphasizes its characters’ repeated attempts to
understand and theorize Richard’s appeal. In effect, Shakespeare drama-
tizes the theoretical debates and dilemmas with which Sidney, Tasso, and
Spenser grappled: debates about the relationship between the aesthetics of
poetry and its moral significance, as well as debates about whether and
how the evil and/or ugly might cause pleasure.
Richard III treats the appeal of evil in two ways: as a problem of knowl-
edge and a problem of desire. Richard’s character symbolizes in paradoxical
form Renaissance debates about the epistemological value of appearances for
determining moral truths. In his deformity, which the other characters take
as a sign of his hellish nature, Richard epitomizes the union of outer
appearances and inner truths. At the same time, Richard’s theatrical pretense
of benevolence emblematizes the deceitful disjunction between external
shows and internal nature. The characters who discuss Richard assume that
recognizing Richard’s evil would evoke disgust and horror and a corre-
sponding desire to resist his machinations, an assumption that many
Renaissance theorists would have shared. However, the play undermines
this assumption by surrounding Richard with characters who knowingly
choose the evil and ugly over the good and beautiful. One after another,
the characters assert the impossibility of succumbing to Richard’s transpar-
ent blandishments and misshapen form, yet each in turn submits to him.
Beneath the question of how to recognize evil, then, lies the difficulty
of explaining some of the human responses to it. Shakespeare examines
this issue from different angles throughout his work; for example, his
sonnets to the so-called dark lady explore the speaker’s erotic obsession
with a morally and aesthetically repugnant object. As Joel Fineman
observes in Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye (1986), “Acknowledging the dou-
bly disgusting nature of the lady—that she is black, that she is false—we
therefore ask, along with the poet, what . . . makes the lover . . . ‘love what

others [including the lover himself] do abhor’” (56, my ellipses,

Fineman’s brackets). Richard III demands that we ask such questions
about Richard in his relationship to other characters and the audience.
The play depicts characters, including both Richard and his victims, who
at crucial moments are motivated by a desire for what they recognize as
evil (and ugly). The characters cannot rationally account for this desire;
indeed, their moral and aesthetic theories preclude the possibility of its
But in Lady Anne’s acquiescence to Richard’s seduction, and in Richard’s
own half-mocking narcissism, the play presents an alternative poetics in
which Richard is attractive because he is evil, and even because he is ugly.
The play treats its evil and horrible elements as aesthetic objects capable of
arousing erotic desire. Richard’s seductiveness combines two important sets
of sinister conventions: a poetics of malevolent theatricality and a poetics of
deformity. Richard seduces his most important victims not by successful
deception, as many critics assume, but rather by an artful yet transparent
gesturing at deception: what the play calls a “palpable device” (3.6.11).7 In
this respect, he recalls the more sinister elements of Spenser’s Bower of Bliss.
The responses of various characters within the play to Richard’s sinister
theatricality and deformity provide models for the potential responses
of audiences watching the play.8 Audiences from Shakespeare’s time to
the present have in fact followed these models and taken pleasure in
Richard’s compelling malevolence. But critics from the early modern
period to the present often demonize or pathologize these affective
responses. A.P.Rossiter’s Angel with Horns (1961), while acknowledging
that Richard’s asides make it impossible for him to deceive the audience,
suggests that audiences cooperate in deceiving themselves, by not taking
Richard seriously, with potentially dangerous moral consequences (20).
Hugh Richmond, in his introduction to the 1999 collection Critical
Essays on Shakespeare’s Richard III, sees the “compulsive interest” of
modern audiences in “the megalomaniac delights of Richard’s sadism”
as symptomatic of a pervasive mental pathology, “an epidemic obsession
with violent assertion of the male self” (7–8).9 These critics essentially
reproduce the limitations of early modern theories like Sidney’s, by attri-
buting the appeal of representations of evil either to the deceptiveness of
the representation or to a flaw in the audience’s moral or psychological
Instead of condemning or trying to deny Richard’s appeal, we need
to consider the operative conventions and beliefs that shaped the

aesthetic choices of writers like Shakespeare and the aesthetic responses

of their audiences. I believe that the play encourages audiences to
appreciate Richard because of his evil, not in spite of it, and that this
response to a literary representation is not inherently pathological or
corrupt. Rather, it is shaped by the sinister aesthetics that govern the
play’s representations of evil and ugliness, and that call into question
the moral and psychological boundaries separating us from evil and
self-destructiveness. This approach grounds the analysis in an apprecia-
tion of the full range of moral and aesthetic appeals available to
Shakespeare and his audiences. It also allows us to see more clearly
the complex play of conflicting moral and aesthetic ideas that gives
Richard III its poetic energy.


Richard III dramatizes the theoretical debates we see in Sidney’s The
Defence of Poesy and elsewhere about the appeal of evil and the relationship
between moral and aesthetic elements in poetry, by having the play’s
characters offer competing interpretations of Richard’s symbolic signifi-
cance. Richard embodies with equal force both the connection and the
disjunction of appearance and virtue. His ugliness is an aesthetic attribute
that symbolizes his evil, but at the same time, he artfully crafts false
appearances of goodness.10 He thereby serves as a nexus for conflicting
Renaissance theories about the proper relationship between aesthetic
pleasure and morally didactic power in poetry. In particular, he embodies
anxieties about the epistemological value of aesthetic appearances in
determining the moral content of characters or literary works.11 Does
the honeyed beauty of poetry reflect its essential goodness, or does the
sweetness conceal an inner bitterness—and is that bitterness the taste of
medicinal truth or poisonous vice? Sidney suggests all of these contra-
dictory possibilities at different points in The Defence of Poesy, and char-
acters in Richard III apply all of these theories in their attempts to
understand Richard’s identity and his power.
Some characters in the play assert a Platonic correspondence between
the aesthetic and moral realms, suggesting that Richard’s evil and ugli-
ness are organically linked. However, they disagree on which of these
qualities causes the other. On the one hand, the deposed Queen

Margaret takes Richard’s deformed back and limbs as signs of his evil
nature: “Thou elvish-marked, abortive rooting-hog, /Thou that wast
sealed in thy nativity /The slave of nature and the son of hell”
(1.3.225–227). Hell, having selected Richard at birth for evil, marked
him with the stamp of deformity as an outward expression of his twisted
soul.12 On the other hand, Richard himself suggests the opposite direc-
tion of causality, announcing at the beginning of the play that because
others perceive him as ugly, he cannot be a lover and is therefore
“determinèd to prove a villain” (1.1.30). The idea that Richard’s ugli-
ness is a prior condition that gives rise to his malevolence recalls Titus
Andronicus’s “Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (3.1.205).13
Ultimately, both claims about the causal relationship between ugliness
and evil assert the union of outer appearance and inner, moral nature. But
the play also calls this assumption into question, paradoxically labeling
Richard as the character whose appearance least reflects his true identity.
Just as Margaret makes him a virtual symbol of Platonic correspondences
in act 1, Richard’s mother the Duchess of York sees him as an emblem of
the lack of such correspondences: “O that deceit should steal such gentle
shapes, /And with a virtuous visor hide [deepe vice]!” (2.2.26–27).14 The
figurative visor, like a literal mask, is an artistic construct crafted to
produce a pleasing fiction. The metaphor of the visor presents Richard’s
behavior as the semblance of virtue. He speaks and acts according to
conventions that signify virtue, thereby generating an appearance at odds
with his evil nature. Its aesthetic nature appears most clearly in Richard’s
carefully staged public appearance “between two bishops” (,
which is basically a pretty picture purporting to represent an act of piety.
Richard, of course, glories in his ability to cloak vice with the appearance
of virtue: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy /With old odd ends
stol’n out of holy writ, /And seem a saint when most I play the devil”
(1.3.336–338). Again, the semblance of virtue is treated as clothing, as a
deceptive adornment.15
In short, Richard III presents an intense double perspective on the nature
of seeming, exploring the close ties between evil and the aesthetic by juxta-
posing the deformed appearance that reveals the demonic with the benevo-
lent mask that conceals it. The other characters repeatedly draw attention to
whether or not Richard’s appearance matches his nature. Richard himself
spends a lot of time claiming that he is what he seems (e.g., at 1.3.47–53),
and boasting that he is not, and accusing other characters of such deceits (as in
3.1.9–14). Whether Richard actually is or is not what he seems depends on

which aspect of his seeming a character or an audience member considers.

Seeming, therefore, fluctuates in diagnostic value throughout the play.
Similarly, Richard’s natural ugliness and his artificial virtue are each treated
as the prime characteristic of his evil at different times. Though one is real and
one false, both are varieties of seeming—and the construction and evaluation
of semblances is the domain of aesthetics.

Aesthetic evaluation differs meaningfully from other forms of epistemolo-
gical inquiry, not because of the nature of the objects to which it is
traditionally applied, but because it involves an affective response. In the
discourse of Richard and the other characters, theatricality and deformity
are the subject for epistemological debates; in the development of the
dramatic action, theatricality and deformity become sources of erotic
attraction. Alternately displaying his virtuous visor and his deep vice,
Richard uses these contradictory modes of seeming to generate two
different kinds of appeal.
Many characters in the play, especially Richard’s brothers and the
foolish Lord Hastings, find Richard appealing to the extent that they are
taken in by his “gentle shapes.” For them, his appeal derives from the view
of aesthetics as deceptive covering, and it can usually be explained as a
normative, though shortsighted, response to that covering. When such
characters discover Richard’s vice or pay attention to his physical appear-
ance, they are usually repulsed.
Although the success of Richard’s deceit is thematically important,
critics tend to focus too narrowly on it. Rossiter, for instance, asserts
that Richard achieves “the complete dissimulation of everything that
might betray him”; in effect, he says that Richard has a false saintly outside
that completely covers his true demonic inside (16). Tellingly, Rossiter
takes his two first and strongest pieces of support from Richard’s boasting
soliloquy in 3 Henry VI:

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,

And cry “Content!” to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
... ... ... ... ... ... ... ........
I can add colors to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down. (3.2.182–185, 191–195; see
Rossiter 17)

Rossiter is not alone in viewing Richard III through the lens of this speech.
Two of the most influential adaptations of Richard III also blend material
from this passage into Richard’s first soliloquy: Colley Cibber’s 1700
rewriting and Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film. Subsequent critics have also
looked to these lines. Mark Thornton Burnett’s Constructing ‘Monsters’ in
Shakespearean Drama and Early Modern Culture (2002), for example,
applies Richard’s identification with Proteus in 3 Henry VI to an analysis
of monstrosity in Richard III (84–85).16
This conflation blurs an important shift in emphasis between the
plays, from a Richard who deceives his victims perfectly to a Richard
who makes his evil apparent in the most dramatically significant of his
so-called deceptions, a Richard who attracts his victims through his evil
and thereby implicates them in it.17 Although the characters who see
Richard’s evil and yield to him anyway are not necessarily more numer-
ous, they are presented in far greater detail, because their responses are
far more central to the point of the drama. The play explicitly asserts the
transparency of Richard’s deceptions in a passage that R. Chris Hassel,
in Songs of Death (1987), rightly seeks to rescue from obscurity (80).
The Scrivener, having just copied the indictment of Lord Hastings on a
ludicrously trumped-up charge laments: “Why, who’s so gross /That
cannot see this palpable device? /Yet who’s so bold but says he sees it
not?” (3.6.10–12). The “palpable device,” the deception that adver-
tises its deceptiveness but works anyway, is a primary feature of
Richard’s romantic and political seductiveness in the play, beginning
with his wooing of Anne.18
As part of its emphasis on this baffling acquiescence to a known evil,
Richard III diverges from its prequels to show Richard embracing
villainy for its own sake, not as a means to fulfill a more normative
desire for political power. It is the Richard of 3 Henry VI who says “I’ll
make my heaven to dream upon the crown” (3.2.168). The Richard
of Richard III says instead that “I am determinèd to prove a villain”
(1.1.30) and spends surprisingly little time discussing his royal ambitions.19
He no longer seeks an idealized heaven, not even the figurative

heaven of royal power; he merely wants “the world . . . to bustle in”

(1.1.151). He is happy in the first three acts, when he can simply
“bustle” and scheme, and he becomes unhappy in the last two acts,
when this scheming brings him to the throne, his supposed goal. This
change in demeanor, which is evident from his first royal appearance in
4.2, can be seen as an ironic providential punishment that prevents
Richard from enjoying what he has labored to attain. But it also reflects
a desire for evil qua evil that is a fundamental component of Richard’s
personality and a primary concern of the play.
The two so-called wooing scenes (1.2, in which Richard seduces Lady
Anne Neville after killing her husband and father-in-law, and 4.4, where
Richard asks his brother’s widow Queen Elizabeth for permission to marry
her daughter after having murdered her sons) are therefore centrally impor-
tant, because they show characters who are not themselves villainous enga-
ging directly with this desire for evil. In the first wooing scene, Anne tries
continually, but unconvincingly, to display normative responses. Her initial
rejection of Richard displays appropriate disgust with his evil and ugliness;
and when she is close to succumbing, she evinces a normative attraction to
loving speeches and a concern that they should be sincere: “I would I knew
thy heart” (1.2.178). Later in the play, after she has supposedly realized her
mistake, she still claims that she “Grossly grew captive to his honey words”
(4.1.75), that the normative beauty of Richard’s poetry somehow blinded
her to his heretofore obvious faults. But as Richard gleefully points out in his
“Was ever woman in this humour wooed” speech (1.2.213–223), it strains
credulity to think that, in the brief space of the wooing scene, Anne could
forget the qualities and crimes that initially repulsed her. He therefore
implies that Anne sees his evil and knowingly chooses it.
Like Anne, Elizabeth does not succumb to Richard’s blandishments
out of ignorance. Earlier in the play, Elizabeth notes Richard’s “interior
hatred, /Which in your outward actions shows itself” (1.3.65–66)—and
then, of course, he kills her children. Moreover, in the second wooing
scene itself, Richard provides her with continuous reminders of his crimes.
He makes a veiled threat to kill Elizabeth’s daughter if she will not bolster
his claim to the throne (“Her life is only safest in her birth”), and he refers
to her daughter’s womb as a “nest of spicery” in which he will bury the
corpses of her siblings (4.4.203, 344).
Whether or not Anne and Elizabeth are deceived by Richard’s “dis-
sembling looks” (1.2.222), the audience of the play cannot possibly be

deceived. Richard’s murderous acts surround and interpenetrate the woo-

ing scenes, especially in the more successful first wooing scene, which
leaves no space for a sustained expression of an aesthetic untainted by
evil. Anne’s seduction takes place over Henry’s coffin, Richard continually
refers to his slaying of Henry and Edward in his wooing speeches, and
soliloquies in which Richard states his malevolent intentions bracket the
scene. Moreover, unlike some modern productions, early modern por-
trayals of Richard presumably gave him relatively conspicuous physical
deformities that would have continually reminded audiences of his mon-
strous nature. Any explanation of Richard’s appeal to the audience must
therefore account for the constant visibility of his evil.
Although relatively little information now survives about how
Shakespeare’s audiences reacted to Richard III when it was originally
performed, the title page for the First Quarto (1597) strongly suggests
that the interest of the play for an Elizabethan audience lies in its display
of evil. It describes the play as “The Tragedy of King Richard the third.
Containing, his treacherous Plots against his brother Clarence: the
pittiefull murther of his innocent nephewes: his tyrannicall usurpation:
with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserued death”
(Shakespeare, Richard III, page 113). This description, which would
have been used to advertise the Quarto (see Gurr 115), focuses almost
exclusively on Richard’s malice and makes no attempt to highlight
admirable, conventionally pleasant, or virtuous elements in the play.
Unlike the Mirror for Magistrates, one of Shakespeare’s sources,
Richard III puts no emphasis on the tragic pathos of noble characters
falling from greatness, and the advertisement reflects this.20 The adver-
tisement emphasizes that Richard utterly lacks nobility of character, and
it mentions his fall almost perfunctorily. Furthermore, it presents no
alternative heroes, tragic or otherwise. Although the advertisement is
well seasoned with moralizing adjectives, it does not identify any mean-
ingful moral lessons in the play. Instead, it defines the play as a combi-
nation of treacherous plotting, pitiful murder, tyrannical usurpation, and
the account of a detested life, and these elements were evidently con-
sidered the most effective inducement for people to buy the Quarto. If
the advertisement is designed to point out the enjoyable features of
Richard III, then it is deliberately offering as pleasurable the elements
in Richard that make him evil, not the elements that make him poten-
tially great or that make his defeat morally instructive.


Why does Richard choose villainy seemingly for its own sake? Why does
Anne recognize Richard’s evil and yet succumb to his seduction? Why
would Elizabethan audiences flock to see the account of a “detested life”?
Although Richard III asserts the fundamental mysteriousness of the
impulse toward evil, it also provides many examples of how evil can be
attractive when seen from the perspective of a sinister aesthetic. Richard
artfully constructs appearances that the play encourages other characters
(and the audience) to evaluate aesthetically. Many critics have noted that
Richard’s self-conscious theatricality is central to his character and to his
appeal.21 By comparing himself to “the formal Vice Iniquity” (3.1.82), by
staging his appearance “between two bishops” (, by continually
pretending to be what he is not to other characters, and by speaking
directly to the audience in asides, Richard demonstrates the artful nature
of his character. Richard’s claim that he seems a saint when most he plays
the devil is telling in this regard. Other characters tend to analyze Richard
in terms of a dichotomy between outer aesthetic appearance and inner
moral identity, between seeming and being. In describing himself as
someone who can “seem a saint when most I play the devil” (1.3.338),
Richard revises this expected antithesis so that seeming is instead opposed
to playing, as if he recognizes no essential identity in himself apart from
As this remark suggests, Richard’s language continually highlights the
artificial theatricality of his manipulations. Indeed, he often explicitly
coaches and directs others in order to create particular dramatic situations,
such as his appearance between the bishops. In the first wooing scene, he
instructs Anne “To leave this keen encounter of our wits /And fall some-
what into a slower method” (1.2.113–114). Richard not only identifies
the exchange as a deliberately constructed display of wit—“method” here
suggesting a rhetorical design—but also consciously decides to alter the
method.23 By focusing on the form of their exchange, rather than the
content, Richard demonstrates his concern with the dramatic impact of
their conversation on the audience and his desire to stage a scene with a
particular kind of rhythm and emotional effect. Similarly, when he offers
Anne his sword, he instructs her: “Nay, do not pause,’twas I that killed
your husband” (1.2.165). In effect, Richard places himself in the role of a
senior actor instructing a junior one: he tells Anne to perform a murder
scene and offers an (otherwise superfluous) explanation of her motivation.

Given Anne’s reluctance, Richard may even assist with her blocking,
putting the sword in her hand and positioning it against his chest.24
Richard shapes the scene to produce an ironic effect that only he and the
audience can appreciate: the spectacle of a villain who has mesmerized his
victim so completely that he can safely beg her to destroy him.
Like Barabas, Iago, Volpone, Vindice, and other villains (or hero-villains)
of Renaissance drama, Richard is an artist who designs his malevolent crea-
tions to please the audience as well as to manipulate the other characters.
Thus, Phyllis Rackin’s “History into Tragedy: The Case of Richard III”
(1996) rightly notes that while Richard seduces Anne, he simultaneously
“performs a similar seduction upon the audience” (41). By focusing on the
process of Richard constructing his lies, the play invites the audience to
evaluate the quality of his constructions based on an understanding of the
goals and conventions—the aesthetic—under which he operates. But
Richard’s acting is not merely a case of good or morally neutral art used
for evil purposes; rather, the actor’s art is fundamentally linked to evil in the
world of the play. The play obsessively defines goodness as men being what
they seem and evil as the creation of false appearances. The emphasis on
devils and the Vice as roles that are played rather than as actual beings also
suggests that theatricality and evil help to constitute each other in the world
of the play.
Richard’s wooing of Anne demonstrates the inextricability of his artful-
ness and his evil, or as Rackin puts it, “The association between the
transgressive, the demonic, and the theatrical [that] is consistently used
to characterize Richard” (40). But the analyses of Rackin and other critics
tend to become limiting when they address the nature and consequences
of this link. For example, Rackin argues that “For the audience as for
Anne, the seduction requires the suspension of moral judgment and the
erasure of historical memory” (41–42). In fact, Richard reminds Anne and
the audience of his past crimes at every opportunity.25
Richard’s seduction of Anne is not a beautiful example of courtly love
poetry that just happens to be insincere. Rather, his rhetorical strategy
depends on forcing Anne, and the audience, to confront and embrace his
murderous nature. Richard refers to his crimes so frequently that his
wooing speeches could not be reassigned to a virtuous character. His
seemingly inept declarations of innocence—“Say that I slew them not”
and “I did not kill your husband”—which he makes no attempt to
defend, can only serve to flaunt his guilt and his compulsive dishonesty
(1.2.87, 89). His darker impulses continually break the flow of Petrarchan

phrases: “Your beauty, which did haunt me in my sleep /To undertake the
death of all the world /So I might rest one hour in your sweet bosom”
(1.2.120–122). These lines rely for their effect on the contrast between
Anne’s “sweet bosom” and Richard’s demonic pursuit of universal
destruction. The only passage longer than three or four lines that might
work in purely Petrarchan terms is Richard’s speech at 1.2.149–164,
which begins with his “salt tears” and culminates in his offering Anne
the sword. But even here, one would need to omit the actual climax of
the speech, where he reminds her that he killed Henry and Edward
(1.2.165–168).26 Furthermore, at least from the audience’s perspective,
the reference to Anne’s “revengeful heart” would become a mere cliché, a
rhetorical hyperbole elevating some trivial wrong between lovers to a
grandiose level of importance, rather than what it is: a grotesque species
of understatement, where Richard attempts to fit his truly monstrous
crimes into a rhetoric that is not serious enough to hold them.27
Remembering Richard’s evil, then, is not only unavoidable but it also
allows the audience to experience a much darker and richer poetic effect
than forgetting would.
For Anne, the dissonance between Richard’s brutality and his artificial
veneer of lovesick vulnerability provides the ultimate temptation. Her
resistance begins to weaken exactly when Richard juxtaposes the two in
the most direct fashion possible: “’twas I that killed King Henry;/
But’twas thy heavenly face that set me on” (1.2.167–168). These are the
so-called “honey words” (4.1.75) that prompt Anne to drop the sword he
has given her and refuse the chance to avenge her loss. Lest we miss the
point, a few lines later, Richard makes a similar juxtaposition: “That hand
which for thy love did kill thy love /Shall for thy love kill a far truer love.
/To both their deaths shalt thou be accessary,” eliciting Anne’s “I would I
knew thy heart” (1.2.175–178), which is her real moment of surrender,
the moment when she becomes more interested in a living Richard than a
dead one.
Anne is indeed seduced by Richard’s deceptive language, but not
because she takes his speeches at face value or forgets the crimes of
which Richard takes such pains to remind her. She correctly identifies
him as a “dissembler” (1.2.170), an estimate that she never explicitly
revises. The witty turn where Anne becomes an accessory to murder
should be a significant move in the seduction narrative that Richard’s
persona as lover is constructing. If, as Donna Oestreich-Hart suggests in
“Therefore, Since I Cannot Prove a Lover” (2000), Anne has “bought

into” the fallacious logic of Richard’s courtly love rhetoric (255), we

would expect Anne to take Richard’s conceit seriously in this crucial
moment of surrender. Instead, her response looks past the mock accusa-
tion, treating it as a rhetorical flourish that does not reveal Richard’s heart.
Unfortunately for her, this understanding does not protect her from
Richard’s allure. If anything, her discovery of his capacity for theatrical
deception seems to tantalize her, arousing her desire to uncover the
mystery of Richard’s heart, which is the beginning of her desire for him.
For Anne, erotic attraction is generated by the sinister—in this
case, by the dark, ironic beauty of Richard’s carefully constructed
self-presentation as a creature of deceptive malevolence. The potential
power of the scene for audiences lies partly in those same juxtaposi-
tions that conquer Anne, the glimpse of malice only perfunctorily
veiled with the mask of a lover. It is this paradoxically self-revealing
disguise, this palpable device, that helps to define Richard’s identity
and to produce his appeal.

Richard III, then, presents a sinister version of theatricality as artful, deceit-
ful malice. Inasmuch as Richard’s personality can be said to have a true
inside, it is characterized by this theatricality. However, the play also treats
Richard’s outside, his deformity, as a source of pleasure. The primary
exponent of this idea is, of course, Richard himself. His movement toward
a narcissistic erotics of deformity begins with moral perversity, which then
becomes aestheticized. Furthermore, Richard is not the only one who
enjoys contemplating deformity. Richard’s power to seduce Anne,
Elizabeth, and even the audience suggests that the play develops a more
pervasive erotics of deformity that is enhanced by its association with evil.
Richard III begins to explore an aesthetics of deformity in its opening

Why, I in this weak-piping time of peace

Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity. (1.1.24–27)

Here, Richard proposes to us the possibility of a poetry about ugliness as

the only thing other than villainy that might bring him delight. Because

Richard shows little delight in his deformed appearance at this point, it is

tempting to dismiss this line as a witty but insignificant bit of sarcasm.
However, an aestheticized and eroticized deformity becomes crucially
important as the play progresses. Through Anne’s attraction to the
deformed Richard, Richard’s narcissistic regard of his own deformities,
and the presentation of bodies deformed by Richard’s butchery as artistic
objects, the play explores the moral danger and poetic potential of this
sinister aesthetic.
The connection between deformed limbs and erotic appeal is not a
Shakespearean innovation—in fact, it is literally proverbial in the
Renaissance. Erasmus (1466–1536) lists among his Adages the maxim
“Claudus optime virum agit,” which R. A. B. Mynors translates as “The
lame man makes the best lecher.” Erasmus cites the biological explanation
given in Aristotle’s Problemata that the lame are “salacior” because their
genitals receive some of the nutrition intended for their legs.28 The
proverb and the explanation suggest both that the lame have greater
desires and that they provide greater satisfaction; that is, they are more
desirable as sexual objects. Montaigne (1533–1592) notes the same pro-
verb in his essay “Des boiteux,” but in his characteristic spirit of modern
scientific inquiry, he claims to have tested its validity himself: “For, by the
onely authoritie of the antient and publike use of this word or phrase, I
have heretofore perswaded my selfe, to have received more pleasure of a
Woman, in that she was not straight, and have accompted hir crooked-
nesse in the number of her graces” (288).29 Montaigne here treats erotic
desire as aesthetically mediated: placing a physical characteristic in the
category of “graces” is, in essence, an aesthetic judgment. Before his
experiment, Montaigne proposes a theory based on an aesthetics of
novelty: “the loose or disjoynted motion of a limping or crooke-backt
Woman, might adde some new kinde of pleasure unto that businesse or
sweet sinne” (287). This pleasure in the sensual novelty of ungraceful
motions suggests the possibility of a distinctive aesthetics of deformity.
Although Montaigne rejects the idea that deformity is inherently beautiful,
his revised theory argues for the importance of social conventions—“the
antient and publike use of this word or phrase”—in generating aesthetic
and erotic pleasure. Moreover, he asserts the existence of conventions, and
their corresponding pleasures, that defy normative conventions of the
The presence of deformity brings similar aesthetic alternatives to the
forefront in Richard III, especially in the wooing of Anne and its immediate

aftermath. As Linda Charnes observes in Notorious Identity (1993), modern

critics have been relatively slow to acknowledge these factors: “Either they
find it unbelievable that Anne capitulates, or they see Richard’s ‘genius’ and
his success as a function of rhetorical skill” (38). Although the implausibility
of Anne’s reaction and the rhetorical skill of Richard are crucial features of
the scene, these formulations in themselves misrepresent the seduction,
which is not primarily about the persuasive effects of acting. Nor is it entirely
a scene of proto-modern psychological realism.
Instead, the interplay of moral and aesthetic perversity governs the
development of the drama in 1.2, as Richard demonstrates in his speech
after wooing Anne:

Was ever woman in this humour wooed?

Was ever woman in this humour won?
... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes,
The bleeding witness of her hatred by,
Having God, her conscience, and these bars against me,
And I nothing to back my suit at all
But the plain devil and dissembling looks,
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing? (1.2.213–223)

In this passage, Richard, surprisingly, refrains from boastfully comparing

himself to Proteus or a chameleon, emblems of flawless deception that he
employs in 3 Henry VI (3.2.191–192). For the remainder of 1.2,
Richard’s compulsive acting is simply an attribute that allows him to
condemn (by playing the moralist) and then enact (by playing the fop)
the aesthetic perversity he claims to find in Anne. Apart from the ambig-
uous phrase “dissembling looks,” he makes no reference to his skills at all.
Instead, Richard emphasizes the improbability of his success, mentioning
odds twice—“all the world to nothing” and “My dukedom to a beggarly
denier” (1.2.236)—and enumerating the reasons why his attempt should
have failed, taking pains to demonstrate that his evil should have been
readily apparent to Anne.
The apparent implausibility of Anne’s capitulation strikes many modern
audiences as a flaw in the play, but Richard’s emphasis on its implausibility
strongly suggests that it is the main point of the scene. As Charnes puts it,
“It is precisely its preposterousness that renders the scene dramatically

successful, erotically convincing, and centrally revealing of the rest of the

play’s social and libidinal relations” (38). For Richard, the fact that he has
succeeded in spite of normative expectations is a primary source of the
pleasure he feels in his triumph—and with his rhetorical questions and
conspiratorial manner, he invites the audience to share this sense of
pleasurable wonder at Anne’s willingness to “debase her eyes”
(1.2.231). Since Richard’s dissembling looks are more of a rhetorical
conceit than a functional deception at this point, we must conclude that
Anne falls undeceived, as it were.30
When Anne says “Out of my sight, thou dost infect my eyes,” and Richard
responds “Thine eyes, sweet lady, have infected mine” (1.2.146–147), the
juxtaposition of the two uses of infection refreshes the significance of the
courtly love cliché. Anne uses the term to refer to the visual impression of an
ugly and supposedly despised object, but Richard immediately reverses the
term and applies it to a beautiful and supposedly beloved one. Richard’s
response not only highlights the perversity inherent in ordinary courtly love
rhetoric but it also emphasizes the unhealthiness of Anne’s sensibilities. Her
infected or debased eyes perversely crave deformed objects like Richard.
Anne, therefore, is not a Platonic subject striving after ultimate good as
shadowed in physical beauty. In fact, Richard’s speech reveals Anne’s
attraction to him as a classic example of evil in the Augustinian sense: an
inexplicably perverse choice by someone who should know better.
Augustine locates the origin of evil in “a perversity of will [voluntatis
perversitatem] twisted away from the highest substance, you O God,
towards inferior things” (Confessions 7.16.22). But the evil will itself has
no cause. True evil, in this system, is the logically inexplicable defiance of a
set of self-evident values or truths. Richard’s resistance to the psychological
plausibility of Anne’s reaction—which many critics have shared—actually
furthers the play’s exploration of perverse aesthetics by highlighting the
paradoxical nature of Richard’s appeal.
Like the Vice who preaches against the sins he embodies, Richard both
condemns and gradually enacts Anne’s perversity, emphasizing both its
moral and aesthetic components. He castigates her for choosing his evil
and deformity over Edward’s beauty and virtue. At the same time, he revels
in his own misdeeds, his murder of Edward, and his deception of Anne. His
achievements are all the more impressive, he suggests, because of his undeni-
able ugliness. Richard’s double moral consciousness, which is intelligible
mainly through the tradition of the morality play, is partially stabilized in this
dramatic context by his adherence to normative aesthetic standards.

Richard’s speech progresses from moral perversity (the love of villainy)

to a sinister aesthetic sensibility (the love of deformity) that self-consciously
toys with aesthetic perversity. The gradual nature of this aesthetic shift and
the fact that it occurs well after Richard’s moral self-positioning suggest
that it may be harder for audiences to accept and to share imaginatively
than Richard’s commitment to evil. First, Richard stops marveling that
Anne could love her husband’s murderer and begins to marvel that Anne
could find him handsome despite his deformed physique. Then, he decides
that Anne loves him because of his appearance, although he remains con-
scious of his own ugliness: “Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
/Myself to be a marv’lous proper man” (1.2.238–239). But somewhere in
between calling himself a proper man and, in the next lines, announcing his
intention to buy a “looking-glass /And entertain some score or two of
tailors /To study fashions to adorn my body” (1.2.240–242), Richard
begins to see his body as an aesthetic object, something to admire and to
adorn with clothing. The word “adorn” can suggest a deceptive beauty
covering ugliness, and the context certainly raises that connotation to
prominence. But this implication is an unintentional or quickly abandoned
irony on Richard’s part. Richard, by the end of the passage, finds himself
aesthetically appealing and therefore wishes the clothing to complement or
enhance his deformed body, not to conceal it. The last lines clearly demon-
strate his eagerness to view himself even in the absence of sartorial adorn-
ments: “Shine out, fair sun—till I have bought a glass— /That I may see
my shadow as I pass” (1.2.247–248). Richard’s sudden vanity could simply
be a sarcastic role that he temporarily assumes. Yet the same thing could be
said of any of the faces that Richard presents to us; the real question is how
persistent and productive is any given mask? In this case, Richard makes a
point of returning to his vanity when he could easily have ended the scene
with the lines: “But first I’ll turn yon fellow in his grave,/And then return
lamenting to my love” (1.2.245–246). Furthermore, the passage as a
whole enacts the descanting on deformity to which Richard refers in his
opening soliloquy.
Anne’s attraction to Richard, and even Richard’s self-love, are merely
extreme versions of a response that the play evokes in its audience, what
Charnes calls the “fascination that always underlies revulsion” (38). That
the character of Richard could have some degree of erotic attraction even
for Elizabethan audiences is supported by John Manningham’s famous
diary entry of 1602, which provides a contemporary acknowledgment of
Richard’s appeal as “a jolly thriving wooer” (Richard III 4.3.43).

Manningham’s anecdote may not be literally true, but it suggests the kind
of responses to Richard that were available in the Renaissance: “Upon a
tyme when Burbidge played Rich. 3. there was a citizen greue soe farr in
liking with him, that before shee went from the play shee appointed him to
come that night unto hir by the name of Ri: the 3” (Hammond 67). The
account is interesting because Manningham gives no hint that he finds the
nameless citizen’s sexual attraction to Richard III particularly strange in
itself. On the contrary, it is merely the setup for a joke whose punch line is
that Shakespeare preempts Burbage under the name of William the
Conqueror. The sex appeal of an actor playing Richard seems therefore
to be a plausible, perhaps even commonplace, element of the Elizabethan
theatrical experience.
Richard’s movement from a consciousness capable of condemning
Anne as perverse to an artfully assumed set of alternate aesthetic standards
provides a model for the audience’s experience of sinister aesthetics. The
play does not require its audience to permanently or totally abandon
normative conceptions of beauty and an awareness of what people are
supposed to like. Instead, it allows the audience to entertain these other
aesthetic values without having to explicitly acknowledge them, much as
Montaigne derives erotic pleasure from the aesthetics of deformity in
practice while debunking it in his subsequent analysis. To descant on
deformity as Richard does runs the risk of sounding grotesque unless we
are clearly being sarcastic; that is, unless it is a palpable device. Our
appreciation for Richard is just like Richard’s narcissism (and akin to
Montaigne’s account of his amorous experiment): self-conscious, playful,
and ostensibly insincere, belying what is in fact a significant and powerful
Richard is not the only hideous object that is offered to the audience’s
view as a fascinating spectacle. The wooing scene also features a corpse
deformed by Richard’s blade that miraculously bleeds in Richard’s

If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,

Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.
O gentlemen, see, see dead Henry’s wounds
Open their congealed mouths and bleed afresh. (1.2.51–54)

Here, Anne accuses Richard of perversity, of the capacity to delight not

only in evil deeds but also, more specifically, to take an aesthetic pleasure in

a vivid image of wounds that represents his evil metonymically. Anne’s

use of the word “pattern” is telling. Although John Jowett, following
Hammond, glosses “pattern” with the relatively neutral phrase “typifying
example” (1.2.52n), the OED suggests that it typically connoted
“Something shaped or designed to serve as a model from which a thing is
to be made” (A.I.1.a). “Pattern” could also mean “A regular or decorative
arrangement” (A.II). Therefore, Anne’s use of “pattern” introduces the
potential of viewing the butchered corpse of Henry VI as something
artfully designed to invite learning or imitation—in short, an artistic
object.31 These connotations, which might otherwise remain dormant,
are subtly engaged by Anne’s suggestion that Richard delights in seeing
the pattern and sustained by her invitation to the other onlookers—and by
extension, the audience of the play—to view it. The corpse, at this moment,
becomes a theatrical spectacle that produces delight, although supposedly
only in Richard, and a kind of moral instruction. Aristotle and Augustine
had already noted the fundamental human interest in painted and real
corpses, respectively. This corpse is, of course, a fictive representation
from the audience’s perspective; but inviting a character, to whom the
corpse is real, to view it as an aesthetic object indicates the play’s self-
conscious concern with this theme. Because the reopening of Henry’s
wounds is a supernatural response to the presence of his murderer, the
corpse also possesses the attraction of the marvelous.
As with Richard’s profession of narcissism, Anne’s proposal to find
pleasure in something hideous is cloaked in sarcasm. Nonetheless, the
corpse is offered as a spectacle for the audience as well as for the
characters, and such hideous spectacles are consistently associated
with artful language in the play. Anne’s sarcasm spares her from having
to construct a sincere rationale for aestheticizing a butchered body. It
provides her and the audience with a kind of plausible deniability,
allowing us to keep looking at the fascinating object without having
to repudiate the normative standards according to which we should
want to avert our gaze. The second wooing scene parallels the first in
this as in other respects; Elizabeth speaks of Richard “revel[ing] in the
entrails of my lambs” (L.8, Folio only, following 4.4.210) and sarcas-
tically suggests that he present her daughter with a pair of engraved
bleeding hearts and a handkerchief soaked in “The purple sap from her
sweet brother’s body” (4.4.253). Purple sap is obviously a poeticized
way of referring to blood, and the engraved hearts are sinister versions
of the art objects traditionally given as love-tokens.32 Like Henry VI’s

corpse, like Richard’s deformed body, and like the play as a whole, these
objects demand to be viewed as sinister spectacles.


Just as Richard’s theatrically evil power begins with a wooing scene, so it is
climaxed by one: his attempt in 4.4 to seduce Queen Elizabeth into letting
him marry her daughter, also named Elizabeth. In both scenes, Richard
convinces a woman whose loved ones he has murdered—in this case, two
of Elizabeth’s other children, the young princes—to agree to a marriage.
Moreover, the second wooing scene echoes structural and rhetorical ele-
ments from the first wooing scene that suggest a pattern for Richard’s
seductions. In both, Richard gently rebukes the woman for having
an “angry soul” toward him (4.4.226) and makes a perfunctory denial of
“those wrongs /Which thou supposest I have done to thee” (4.4.227–228).
In both scenes, the women respond initially with sarcasm and virulent hatred
but ultimately make ambiguous statements of acquiescence.
The second wooing scene has provoked controversy at the most basic
level of interpretation, namely whether or not Elizabeth actually agrees
to marry her daughter to Richard. Richard clearly believes he has won
her over at 4.4.350, but by 4.5.17–18, after Richmond’s army makes
landfall in Wales, Elizabeth has consented to let Richmond marry
her daughter instead. The question, then, is whether Elizabeth was
temporarily persuaded by Richard or intended from the start to deceive
him. Jowett’s note to 4.4.348–349 calls Elizabeth’s response in the play
“inscrutable”; Robert C. Jones’s Engagement with Knavery (1986) calls
it “perplexing” (55). Colley Cibber’s version of Richard III gives
Elizabeth an aside in which she announces her intent to “seemingly
comply” in order to “gain some time,” and many critics have followed
the spirit, if not the letter, of this interpolation (Cibber 43). Phyllis
Rackin views Elizabeth’s vacillation and acquiescence as a stinging
rejection of Richard (38), although Rackin describes Elizabeth’s
response as a matter “of so little consequence that it is never clearly
specified in Shakespeare’s script” (39). Stephen Tanner (1973) exclaims:
“What a pitiful, blind, inhuman creature he is to suppose she could
consider for one moment winning her daughter for him” (472). The
idea that Richard could win over Elizabeth, even temporarily, provokes
visceral discomfort from many readers, presumably because it violates a
normative sense of how Elizabeth should respond.

Yet a genuine (albeit short-lived) acquiescence by Elizabeth dovetails best

with the historical sources, the text of the scene itself, and the larger thematic
concerns of the play. Raphael Holinshed’s account insists that the historical
Elizabeth sincerely favored Richard’s proposal and did all of the things that
critics claim her fictional counterpart could not have done: “And so she
putting in oblivion the murther of hir innocent children, . . . blinded by
avaricious affection, & seduced by flattering words, first delivered into king
Richards hands hir five daughters, as lambs once againe committed to the
custodie of the ravenous woolfe” (750). Within the play, Elizabeth’s inde-
cisive weighing of options at 4.4.338–346 is indistinguishable from sincerity
and from the process of rationalization described in Holinshed.33 The play
does not seek to deny the possibility of such a response; indeed, the moral
and psychological problems it raises are precisely the point of the scene.
Elizabeth’s disputed surrender is implausible in exactly the same way as
Anne’s undisputed one, and this kind of implausibility is central to the
play. By continually re-staging analogous scenes of seduction, Richard III
explores possible ways of understanding why people choose evil.
Although acknowledging Elizabeth’s surrender is central to a proper
understanding of the play, Richard’s difficulties in this scene are equally
significant, both dramatically and thematically. The incongruous earnest-
ness that proved so effective with Anne often makes Richard appear impa-
tient and obtuse, both too hasty and too slow to match Elizabeth. Richard
has an uncharacteristically poor understanding of his victim. When
Elizabeth laments her children’s deaths, Richard responds with an irritated,
utterly tone-deaf impatience that cannot help his cause: “Harp not on that
string, madam; that is past” (4.4.285). He responds to Elizabeth’s sarcastic
and sinister proposal to send bleeding hearts and bloody handkerchiefs as
love-tokens by lamely stating the obvious: “Come, come, you mock me;
this is not the way to win your daughter” (4.4.260–261). Despite his
masterful control of conversational timing elsewhere (e.g., at 1.2.113–
114 and 1.3.230), Richard is too slow to prevent Elizabeth from turning
his repeated attempts to swear into an effective tirade against him
(4.4.287–316). Richard even becomes irresolute as a director. In contrast
to his confident direction of Anne and Buckingham, his advice to Elizabeth
on how to perform when convincing her daughter is both passive and
contradictory. He tells Elizabeth to “Be eloquent,” but when she retorts
that “An honest tale speeds best being plainly told,” he capitulates and tells
her to use “plain terms” (4.4.278–280), an instruction that she also
immediately rejects.

In dramatizing the challenge of seducing a prospective bride through

an intermediary, Shakespeare provides another window on the disjunction
between theoretical models for responding to evil and how people or
characters react in practice. Specifically, the tactics Richard employs effec-
tively on Anne become nonsensical when he tries to get Elizabeth to use
them on her daughter. As Richard asks Elizabeth how to persuade her
daughter, she ridicules his proposals as incapable of success unless he could
“not be Richard” (4.4.263). The Folio version highlights this issue by
having Richard repeat in compressed form the argument that defeats
Anne—“Say that I did all this for love of her” (M.1, after 4.4.263)—
only to receive an immediate rejection from Elizabeth: “Nay then indeed
she cannot choose but hate thee” (M.2). This gambit succeeds with Anne,
when Richard actually performs it, but when he describes it hypothetically
to Elizabeth, she cannot conceive of any response besides antipathy.
Elizabeth can and will duplicate Anne’s surrender, but she cannot
acknowledge it or incorporate it into a theory of human action. Indeed,
no character in the play, not even Richard, can explain how Richard
succeeds. His triumphant speech in 1.2 only poses troubling questions
about the reason for Anne’s response: “Hath she forgot already that brave
prince /Edward[?]” (1.2.224–225). His much briefer commentary on
Elizabeth—“Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman” (4.4.350)—
notes her fickleness but provides no cause for it. By seeing the choice to
love Richard as perverse, the characters accept a conceptual framework
within which the choice cannot be explained, a conceptual framework that
they share not only with Renaissance poetic theorists but also with many
modern critics.
One theory advanced by Holinshed, and by some modern Shakespeare
scholars, is that Anne and Elizabeth are seduced by the promise of political
power. Charnes speaks for a large body of critics in arguing that 1.2
demonstrates “the discursive and libidinal identities between . . . political
obsession and sexual fixation” (38), a compelling insight that dovetails
well with modern psychological theory. Both wooing scenes do indeed
entangle the erotic and political spheres, the second scene even more
explicitly than the first. Although Elizabeth mère is not the actual object
of Richard’s marriage proposal, his discourse of love and sex adds an
incongruously erotic element to the scene, which is heightened by the
parallels to the previous wooing, and Jowett observes that “in some
productions the eroticized intensity of Richard’s language at last mes-
merizes and subdues her” (Shakespeare, Richard III, page 65). Yet the

differences between the wooing scenes suggest that the appeal of Richard
is more than simply the erotic pull of political power. The temptation he
offers Elizabeth is more purely political, his political power is much
greater, and he asserts it much more explicitly: “the King, which may
command, entreats” (4.4.266). Nonetheless, his erotic hold on Elizabeth
is much weaker than it is on Anne. He cannot generate a sufficient erotic
charge through political power alone.
In fact, Richard succeeds in the second wooing scene only when he
abandons the attempt to theorize his own method and returns to its
practice, recapitulating his triumph over Anne with an even more virtuosic
display of sinister poetics. As with Anne, the most blatant juxtaposition of
Richard’s past crimes and his supposed future goodwill is precisely the
rhetorical move that finally convinces the target of his wooing. When
Elizabeth reminds Richard (and herself, for she is wavering) that “thou
didst kill my children,” Richard responds with some of the most wonder-
fully disturbing lines in all of Shakespeare: “But in your daughter’s womb I
bury them, /Where in that nest of spicery they shall breed /Selves of
themselves, to your recomforture” (4.4.342–345). This conceit is followed
immediately by Elizabeth’s capitulatory line: “Shall I go win my daughter to
thy will?” (4.4.346). Richard describes the womb of the young and inno-
cent Elizabeth in vividly sensual terms, with the visually evocative “nest”
and the osmically evocative “spicery.”34 Even audiences who might applaud
the frank eroticism of this phrase in another context (for instance, a John
Donne love poem) would find it jarring here. The sexual implications are
particularly disturbing because they suggest Richard’s predatory and quasi-
incestuous desire for Elizabeth—and, of course, because he is expressing
this desire to her mother. This would be adequate to demonstrate
Shakespeare’s point about the hideousness of Richard’s attitude and his
proposition. But excess is one of the fundamental tools of Richard’s sinister
poetics. Therefore, Richard also describes the young Elizabeth’s womb as
the grave of her brothers, whom he has murdered. Then, he equates their
corpses with his own seed, mingling images of death with the already
unsavory thought of Richard having sex with his young niece. Finally, he
suggests that this impossible and revolting process is designed to comfort
the mother of the girl who must endure it—at which point, ironically, she
agrees to the plan, and the audience must assume that it will be carried out.
The dizzying shifts of logical and metaphorical significance in this sequence
call attention to Richard’s conceit as a conceit, and its fascinating poetic
intricacy is inextricable from its vileness.

Richard’s inability to theorize his own skills, and his increasing difficulty
with characters such as Elizabeth and Buckingham (who balks at Richard’s
command to murder the young princes), suggest the limitations of his
perspective. These problems could provide the play with an opportunity to
reassert a normative moral and aesthetic framework, by presenting a
virtuous character who unifies theoretical and actual dramatic effects.
But the play consistently avoids this opportunity, instead ceding the
stage to the sinister and leaving the exercise of goodness mostly in the
realm of abstraction. Apart from Richmond, the limited opposition that
does appear on stage mainly consists of curses that are themselves sinister
and Buckingham’s hypocritical, Machiavellian attempts to cut his ties with
Richard. This strategy appears most clearly in the play’s failure to depict
Elizabeth’s eventual decision to give her daughter to Richmond instead of
Richard. Her change of heart should be essential to any redemptive
narrative that the play might establish, because it structurally counter-
balances Anne’s failure to resist Richard and politically enables
Richmond’s successful reign. Yet the play minimizes the impact of this
reversal by revealing it only through another character’s brief, almost off-
hand report (4.5.17–18). Because the play displays the poetic power of
Richard’s seduction, but avoids the poetic potential of Elizabeth’s
redemption, the audience misses an opportunity to experience a moral
and aesthetic resistance to Richard.35


The play does offer voices that more directly oppose Richard; however,
these voices derive much of their force from the sinister. Thus, in the
world of the play, the sinister proves to be the only reliable source of poetic
and rhetorical power, used both by Richard and by those who ultimately
defeat him. Before Richmond enters the play in 5.2, the verbal opposition
to Richard consists largely of the curses of the various women he has
wronged. The play treats curses as potent forms of verbal art.36 They are
among the only speeches whose poetic power compares to that of Richard,
and they fundamentally structure the action and significance of the play.
The characters themselves regard cursing as an art: in act 4, Elizabeth
addresses Margaret as “thou well-skilled in curses” and asks her to “teach
me how to curse mine enemies” (4.4.110–111). Elizabeth treats cursing
as a teachable skill, a matter of sharpening dull words (4.4.118), and
indeed curses in Richard III are a highly patterned and poetic form of

language. They are by nature apostrophes, addresses to a supernatural

entity not physically present. In addition, they are rich in simile, anaphora,
and other tools of literary art, and they contain patterns of repetition and
antithesis that distinguish them from other kinds of speech.37 Elizabeth
also notes that the benefits of cursing are affective and not discursive:
“Though what they do impart /Help not at all, yet do they ease the heart”
(4.4.124–125).38 For all these reasons, curses are among the most self-
consciously aesthetic constructions in the play.
There are two important elements that structure the rhetoric of curses.
First, the traditions of magic require a precise identification or naming of
the cursed object. This belief is the motive for Richard’s interruption of
Margaret’s curse at 1.3.231. As Elizabeth explains, by replacing Richard’s
name with Margaret’s, Richard seeks to avert the curse from himself and
deflect it back onto its speaker. In Shakespeare, at least, curses not only
name their targets, but poetically elaborate the nature of those targets
through the use of simile and metaphor. Often, especially in Margaret’s
case, this targeting process shades off into insults, like “Thou elvish-
marked, abortive rooting-hog” (1.3.225). The second important struc-
tural element is the wish for disasters to be visited on the target of the
curse. In Richard III, such catalogs of calamities tend to be marked by
vivid imagery. Sometimes, they rely instead on a particularly strong rheto-
rical pattern, like the chiasmus in Margaret’s curse on Richard: “Thy
friends suspect for traitors while thou livest, /And take deep traitors for
thy dearest friends” (1.3.220–221). But in general, the curse’s payload
tends to be concrete and visually evocative.
Although the aural and rhetorical techniques of the curses can be
analyzed in terms of normative ideas about how poetry gives pleasure,
the images evoked in the curses—the sugar-dusted spider (1.3.243), the
deformed hog (1.3.225), the cockatrice emerging from the womb
(4.1.50), the crown of red-hot steel (4.1.56)—cannot. Certainly, there is
a deep satisfaction in the sonorities, sentiments, and imagery of phrases
like “poisonous bunch-backed toad” (1.3.246). But these images achieve
their effects through sinister aesthetics, through a poetics of excess, mon-
strosity, cruelty, and destruction. The characters describe the “bitter
words” (4.4.127) of curses as opposite in flavor to the “honey words”
(4.1.75) of love poetry, but their distinctive taste proves no less appetizing
to the play’s characters and, I would argue, its audience. Margaret’s curses
evoke terror and contempt from some characters in 1.3, but by 4.4, they
have come to crave curses. Margaret loves her own invective so much that

she begs her despised enemy to let her continue the curse he has inter-
rupted: “O let me make the period to my curse” (1.3.238).39
In Richard III, the appeal of curses derives in part from their invocation
of prodigies, including both Richard himself and the calamities that the
characters wish to see him suffer.40 The term “prodigy” could refer to a
variety of omens, monsters, and marvels (OED), and as such the prodi-
gious could inspire a range of emotions from fear and disgust to wonder
and fascination. Things which are prodigious are generally horrible, mal-
icious, ugly, or demonic marvels—in short, they are sinister marvels. Anne
specifically invokes the concept of the prodigy in her very first attempt to
curse Richard:

If ever he have child, abortive be it,

Prodigious, and untimely brought to light,
Whose ugly and unnatural aspect
May fright the hopeful mother at the view. (1.2.20–23)

Physically abnormal (or what the Renaissance called “monstrous”) births

were prodigious because they supposedly resulted from supernatural influ-
ence, and they were frequently considered portents. Margaret’s term
“elvish-marked” and her accusation that Richard “wast sealed in thy
nativity . . . the son of hell” (1.3.226–227) suggest that she shares these
beliefs. Considering Anne’s curse from a normative perspective, the
description might seem poetically and dramatically unnecessary and exces-
sive: after all, Anne is not merely cursing Richard here, but an entirely
hypothetical (and innocent) mother and child.
Acknowledging the capacity of the monstrous to fascinate, however,
leads us to view this as part of the play’s pervasive descanting on deformity
and other ostensibly horrible things. Curses express the characters’ wish to
encounter prodigies; they thereby help make such an interest more avail-
able to the play’s audience. The play’s curses (including the ghosts who
curse Richard) allow Shakespeare to season an otherwise mostly naturalis-
tic historical account with marvels, as theorists like Tasso would recom-
mend. The desire to witness terrible wonders appears most clearly in some
of the less concrete curses, as when Margaret asks “If heaven have any
grievous plague in store /Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee”
(1.3.214–215). Here, Margaret wishes for a calamity that is more inter-
esting than any she could imagine herself. Similarly, Anne asks for “More
direful hap [to] betide that hated wretch . . . Than I can wish to adders,

spiders, toads, /Or any creeping venomed thing that lives” (1.2.16–19).
Besides allowing Anne to compare Richard to vile animals, and besides
creating the images of such animals in the audience’s mind, these lines also
indicate Anne’s desire to see something terrible happen that she cannot
herself imagine or predict—something terrible and novel. This impulse is
closely related to Augustine’s concept of curiositas.
The desire for marvels can also be seen in the often spectacular nature of
the punishments requested: “Either heav’n with lightning strike the murd’rer
dead, /Or earth gape open wide and eat him quick” (1.2.62–63). The
symmetry of the antithesis in this curse recalls Tasso’s insistence that both
Heaven and Hell are equally marvelous, despite their opposing moral
valences. In addition to images of direct celestial or infernal intervention,
curses also often feature chimerical monsters, as in the Duchess of York’s
curse: “O my accursèd womb, the bed of death, /A cockatrice hast thou
hatched to the world” (4.1.49–50). This cockatrice image is an extension of
the interest in monstrous births evident throughout the play. Creative forms
of torture are also popular, as when Anne asks her crown to be transformed
into “red-hot steel, to sear me to the brain” (4.1.56). The mythological
resonance, supernatural agency, and baroque nature of these tortures places
them within the realm of the prodigious. For a play audience, these speeches
would provide a safe way to imaginatively experience such sinister marvels.
Richard III’s curses do more than poetically enrich the play; they also
have important dramatic and thematic consequences. Because curses must
clearly specify the person to be cursed, the often elaborate descriptions of
Richard in the curses (and in the other insults and invective that accom-
pany them) become central to the play’s representation of his identity.
Critics have noted the importance of curses to the play’s presentation and
development of Richard’s character, but they tend to treat the curses solely
as a force opposing Richard; for example, Hugh Richmond argues that
“The curses of these women neutralize the charm of Richard’s wit by
driving home its costliness in terms of human suffering” (6). In this
common view, Richard’s wit appeals to us only while we can isolate it
from his evil, and the curses diminish his power by providing a moral
framework that reveals his wit as deceptive and superficial.41
I have already argued that Richard’s wit and charisma, his poetic and
rhetorical power, are inextricable from his evil. By presenting Richard as an
unstoppable demonic force, the curses actually feed this power even as they
wish for his destruction.42 Although Richard describes his own villainy in
ominous terms at 1.1.30–40, much of his self-presentation before being cursed

is relatively unostentatious. When deceiving other characters, of course, he

attempts to appear mild-mannered, but even in his opening soliloquy, he
describes himself in self-deprecating terms, as “so . . . unfashionable /That
dogs bark at me as I halt by them” (1.1.22–23). Terrifying supernatural forces
do inspire such reactions in animals, but Richard here sounds more like a
hapless mailman than a vampire.43
Richard thus accrues demonic characteristics in the early part of the play
as much through the curses and invective of Anne and Margaret as
through boastful soliloquies, and these characteristics are the source of
his power to intimidate and fascinate his victims and the audience. In 1.2,
the images that Anne’s curses associate with Richard gradually increase in
power. Anne’s curses first link Richard to “adders, spiders, toads”
(1.2.18), making him seem venomous and inhuman, but at the same
time small and contemptible. Next, she wishes that he father an infant as
prodigious as himself. Though only a little larger than a toad and less
physically threatening than an adder, the child has a greater power to
terrify and to destroy the hopes of its mother: “Whose ugly and unnatural
aspect /May fright the hopeful mother at the view” (1.2.22–23).
Anne further develops Richard’s prodigious power through the invec-
tive between her curses, now describing him directly as a “dreadful min-
ister of hell” (1.2.44) capable of making “the happy earth thy hell”
(1.2.49). She prefaces her second and most sustained period of cursing
with the claim that Richard has provoked the unnatural bleeding of Henry
VI’s corpse, and the curse itself calls for supernatural lightning and earth-
quakes to destroy Richard. By being counterposed to these destructive
elemental forces, Richard takes on a corresponding dark grandeur, which
is confirmed by the reference to his “hell-governed arm” (1.2.65) that
closes the curse. Having established Richard as a minister of hell, Anne’s
speeches become shorter, allowing the now-demonic Richard to take
rhetorical control of their dialogue.
The next scene, in which Margaret curses the assembled nobility,
reinforces and elaborates the image of Richard created by Anne’s curses.
Margaret emphasizes Richard’s significance by cursing him last and spend-
ing as much time cursing him (1.3.214–230) as she does cursing everyone
else put together (1.3.194–211). Margaret’s curse on Richard is actually
two curses back to back, each with its own targeting and payload sections.
The first identifies Richard as “the troubler of the poor world’s peace”
(1.3.218), that is, an agent of chaos on a more than local scale, and calls
for an unspeakable divine punishment, implying that Richard’s crimes

transcend the ability of language to describe. But Margaret’s curse reverses

the typical order of elements. Her previous curses follow the expected
pattern of first identifying their target and then delivering their payload,
for example: “Thyself a queen, for me that was a queen, /Outlive thy glory
like my wretched self” (1.3.199–200). The climax of this curse is the
punishment that ironically mirrors Margaret’s own woes. But the inverted
structure of Margaret’s curse on Richard emphasizes the part of the curse
that defines Richard’s identity. Her second curse elaborates on this
reversed pattern and makes the emphasis even clearer. She wishes several
related calamities on Richard in this curse rather than just one, but the
identification section is also significantly larger. In fact, the curse has six
lines of identification to six lines of punishment, and the naming of
Richard stops only because Richard interrupts (1.3.230). The fact that
Richard feels compelled to interrupt suggests the importance of
Margaret’s naming.44 Her descriptions of Richard combine most of the
elements previously associated with him: the “abortive rooting-hog” is a
deformed and monstrous birth, and the epithets “elvish-marked” and
“son of hell” suggest Richard’s supernatural, demonic origins.
The curses in 1.2 and 1.3 thus help to generate Richard’s identity for
the remainder of the play. Rather than degrading and belittling him, the
curses invest Richard with sinister power, transforming him into a prodi-
gious marvel in much the same way that Anne’s rhetoric transforms Henry
VI’s bleeding corpse into a spectacle. Richard accumulates metaphorical
strength and authority through the invective directed at him. His gradual
promotion can be seen in the difference between Anne’s “thou dreadful
minister of hell” (1.2.44) and Margaret’s later claim that “Sin, death, and
hell have set their marks on him, /And all their ministers attend on him”
(1.3.293–294). With Anne’s help, Margaret grants Richard an infernal
pomp that his often down-to-earth, joking manner could not create alone.
The process is, to an extent, reciprocal: by calling Margaret a witch and
hag, Richard encourages the audience to believe that her curses may have
prophetic power. In contrast to this empowering exchange of hatred, King
Edward’s request for an “interchange of love” (2.1.26) between the
opposing factions of his court appears so “feeble and futile” that it under-
mines his authority and “sets off by contrast the ease with which Richard
disrupts it when he enters to usurp the scene” (Jones 44).
Richard’s prodigious power is fundamentally poetic and dramatic in
nature. Although Richard is literally a monstrous birth by Renaissance
standards, his demonic identity and his cosmic significance are products of

the metaphors and rhetoric of curses. Like a sinister Muse, Richard inspires
the other characters to speak marvelous poetry. Perhaps Anne falls in love
with this Richard, one she herself helps to construct.



Characters’ use of the sinister in curses has moral and even religious
implications that complicate their opposition to Richard. Those who
speak curses implicitly take satisfaction from the prospect of torture,
death, and other evils. Although Margaret is hostile to Richard and pre-
sents herself in some ways as a redemptive force in the play, her bottomless
appetite for imagining the suffering of her enemies makes her at times hard
to distinguish from her Vice-like enemy. As Richard Wheeler observes in
“History, Character and Conscience in Richard III” (1971–1972),
“Margaret finds the same cruel delight in her bloodthirsty success that
Richard does” (306).
From the audience’s perspective, the curses in Richard III help to give
a satisfying dramatic form to the action of the play. As would-be prophe-
cies, curses offer a standard by which to judge the subsequent action:
events will either conform to or diverge from the narrative path laid out in
the curse. Tanner cites widespread critical support for this idea (at least as
of 1973): “Structurally, therefore, Richard III is quite universally seen as a
play tracing out in consistent detail the effects of curses” (469).45
But critics do not always acknowledge that the structuring effect of curses,
like their imagery, relies on the aesthetic use of malevolence.46 By offering
expressions of hatred as a standard to judge the plot, the play encourages the
audience’s expectations of what should happen to follow the sadistic logic of
the curse, rather than the benevolent narrative of redemption that many
critics see operating in the play. Through the expectations set up by the
curses, the play can produce a sense of dramatic fulfillment by having bad
things happen to (more or less) good people. Anne’s curse on Richard’s
future wife makes an artfully constructed irony out of her grief, her hatred,
and her future misery and death.47 Similarly, the deaths of the young princes
in the Tower complete a poetic structure begun in 1.3.196–198 by
Margaret’s curse, as she reminds us at 4.459–461.
The most fundamental generator of dramatic action in the play remains
Richard himself. Richard’s evil plots drive the plot of the play; without
them, the drama could not exist. In the speeches where he announces his

future plans to the audience, Richard produces sinister expectations ana-

logous to those generated by the prophetic curses. Richard savors the
fulfillment of those expectations in his asides, and by the nature of asides
invites the audience to do the same, for example at 1.3.324–338 and
4.3.36–43. There are, of course, important differences between Richard
ordering a murder, Margaret wishing for the murder to occur, and a
playgoing audience enjoying a dramatization of these occurrences.
Nonetheless, the play suggests the potentially problematic nature of the
audience’s appetites while simultaneously indulging them.
This dynamic calls into question the religious sensibilities underlying
the characters’ conceptions of divine justice. Curses are not simply poetry,
they are also, in an important sense, prayers—requests that God or some
other supernatural being take action to rectify a wrong. Curses in Richard
III frequently invoke God, and they sometimes identify themselves expli-
citly as prayers. Margaret, for example, says “God I pray him /That none
of you may live your natural age, /But by some unlooked accident cut off”
(1.3.209–211). She also repeatedly asserts that her curses are manifesta-
tions of divine justice. When Margaret learns of the deaths of the young
princes, in answer to her curse, she exclaims:

O upright, just, and true-disposing God,

How do I thank thee that this charnel-cur
Preys on the issue of his mother’s body,
And makes her pew-fellow with others’ moan. (4.4.50–53)

Although Margaret is particularly savage, her views of God are not unique
but shared to varying degrees by many other characters. When Richard
describes his father’s curses fallen on Margaret and concludes that “God,
not we, hath plagued thy bloody deed,” Queen Elizabeth concurs: “So
just is God to right the innocent” (1.3.178–179). In 4.4, both Elizabeth
and the Duchess of York announce their conversion to Margaret’s point of
view and ask her aid in cursing their enemies.
Indeed, this vision of suffering and death as manifestations of God’s
justice reflects views widely held in the early modern period. Prodigies
such as those described in the play’s curses—monstrous births, earth-
quakes, and so forth—were also generally attributed to divine providence,
either as warnings or punishments. Even the prodigious Richard himself
could be regarded as a “scourge of God,” evil in himself but serving as a
form of divine punishment for England’s collective sins.48

The play takes a somewhat ambivalent view of these beliefs. On the

one hand, Shakespeare shows the arbitrariness of assumptions that God
might support one particular side of a political conflict by providing
symmetrical but opposed prayer-curses in 1.3 and 4.4. In the latter
scene, Elizabeth asks when God ever ignored the deaths of innocents
like the young princes, and Margaret responds “When holy Harry died,
and my sweet son” (4.4.20). This exchange highlights the interchange-
ability and the one-sided nature of the women’s perspectives. On the
other hand, the procession of ghosts blessing Richmond and cursing
Richard suggests that God has taken sides and that he does operate
through sinister prodigies.
Regardless of the extent to which divine providence governs the play’s
reciprocal violence, Richmond offers the best hope of an escape from that
cycle of retribution. Yet he too asks to be made an instrument of divine
wrath, a scourge of God:

O thou whose captain I account myself,

Look on my forces with a gracious eye.
Put in their hands thy bruising irons of wrath,
That they may crush down with a heavy fall
Th’usurping helmets of our adversaries.
Make us thy ministers of chastisement,
That we may praise thee in the victory. (5.4.87–93)

This prayer demonstrates significantly greater humility than the curses of

Anne, Elizabeth, and Margaret. Nonetheless, it fails to offer a clear alter-
native to the sinister invocations of divine punishment that pervade the
rest of the play.49
As we have seen, Richard III is not only a moral conflict but also an
exploration of conflicting aesthetics. Moreover, as the play’s curses
demonstrate, the poetry of the sinister is not confined to Richard, nor
does its presence and poetic power rise and fall precisely with Richard’s
success at any given moment in the plot.50 Richmond redeems England
by defeating Richard, but he fails to restore the dominance of a nor-
mative aesthetic in the play. Richmond’s speeches consistently alternate
images of England at peace, grateful wives, and mingled red and white
roses with gory descriptions of Richard, sons butchering their fathers,
and rivers of bloody tears. Rather than eliminating the sinister,
Richmond seems to be trying to subordinate it to the beautiful in the

service of a moral goal, to perform the reverse of Richard’s grotesque

juxtapositions of simpering love and murderous hatred.
This admirable effort to achieve aesthetic balance could represent a
poetic solution to the problem of the sinister if it were more successful,
but critics differ widely on the effectiveness of Richmond’s speeches.51
Many of his most powerful moments rely primarily on the same sinister
imagery that gives Richard’s speeches their poetic force. Hassel, who
condemns Richard’s rhetoric at the end of the play, makes a point of
praising these lines from Richmond:

The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,

That spoils your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your inbowelled bosoms. (5.2.7–10; see Hassel 44)

Here, the images of England’s prosperity are subordinated to the gory

description of the monstrous boar, rather than the other way around.
Richmond’s rhetoric, which encourages listeners to imagine the pleasures
of bathing in human blood, may be insulting to Richard, but it is itself
fundamentally sinister.52 Moreover, the play does not allow Richmond to
verbally confront Richard in person, and it reverses the order given in
Holinshed for their parallel orations before the battle, so that Richard and
not Richmond gets the last word (5.4.216–249, 5.5.43–70; cf. Holinshed
755–758). By having Richmond kill Richard, Shakespeare dramatizes
Richmond’s superior physical, political, and perhaps even moral force.
But by preventing Richmond from speaking directly to Richard,
Shakespeare leaves Richard’s poetic power largely intact. This choice
allows the redemptive narrative of the play to conclude without negating
the play’s sinister aesthetics.

Richard III owes its enduring popularity to its creation of a world in
which foul is fair, and fair is largely absent. Richard’s appeal goes beyond
mere wit: the play invests him with a demonic power and fascination, and
presents his deformities as objects of aesthetic contemplation, poetic
descanting, and sexual desire. The play represents a formative moment
in the development of the Vice-like protagonist, who seduces other

characters into evil and tries to seduce audience members into enjoying
the spectacle of the characters’ corruption.
The theoretical concerns and dramatic techniques developed in
Richard III proved highly influential on Shakespeare’s subsequent plays
and the work of other dramatists. Shakespeare never again wrote a play
with such a thoroughly and uncompromisingly evil protagonist. However,
he staged spectacles of cruelty in King Lear, such as the sadistically
detailed and prolonged removal of Gloucester’s eyes, and the Vice-like
Edmund owes much to Richard. Macbeth indulges throughout in dark and
demonic aesthetics, through the spells and visions of the witches, the
speeches of the Macbeths, and various prodigious omens. Despite achiev-
ing an apex of villainy, Macbeth himself is more Everyman than Vice, torn
between light and dark. Othello presents one of early modern drama’s most
fascinating and terrifying villains: Iago. Like Richard, Iago belongs firmly
to the Vice tradition, but unlike Richard he presents other characters with
a perfectly seamless mask of benevolence that conceals a hatred even
stronger and more mysterious than Richard’s. These plays helped to
inspire some of the darker elements of Jacobean tragedies, including the
elaborate psychological cruelty of Ferdinand in John Webster’s The
Duchess of Malfi and the pervasive corruption and obsession with death
of The Revenger’s Tragedy. Moreover, the sinister often animates crucial
moments of plays that are not dominated by the macabre and characters
that are not primarily villainous. In The Tempest, Prospero stages an
elaborate simulation of divine punishment, directing Ariel to play the
part of a foul and terrifying harpy (3.3), and the play is liberally seasoned
with curses, both Caliban’s impotent ones and Prospero’s potent ones.
Ben Jonson’s work leans more toward grotesque satire than the sinister per
se, but he explores perverse aesthetics in Volpone through Mosca’s poetic
praise of social parasites (3.1), and through Volpone’s outrageous
attempted seduction of Celia, enforced by Corvino’s baroque threats of
torture (3.7).
Unlike its most notable predecessor, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta,
Richard III stages both the theory and practice of the appeal of evil. By
having the characters treat Richard as an aesthetic object and argue about
what kind of representation he is, Richard III calls attention to the contra-
dictions in Renaissance theories about the relationship between aesthetic
appearance and moral value, seeming and identity. The play demonstrates
the extreme difficulty of choosing the good when outer appearances some-
times symbolize inner truths and sometimes deceptively conceal them.

The play also dramatizes the knowing choice of evil. Indeed, it presents
this apparently perverse choice as a virtually universal element of human
nature. In Richard III, characters repeatedly make decisions that defy both
morality and logic, responding instead to the aesthetic power of the sinister.
While the characters in the play articulate theories that assert Richard’s
ineffectiveness, his successes continually undermine those theories. The
wooing of Anne, far from being the play’s weak point, is essential for
establishing this theme, because it makes sense only as a sinister seduction,
not as a normative deception. As the play progresses, the entire political
realm follows the example of Anne’s erotic perversity, succumbing to the
appeal of deceptions whose theatrical artistry is visible even to their targets.
By depicting characters who serve as appreciative audiences to Richard’s
evil art, the play encourages a similar appreciation in the theater audience.
Indeed, its focus on these spectacles leaves audiences with few alternative
sources of poetic pleasure. Even when the play destroys Richard, it makes
no serious attempt to repress or refute the sinister poetics that make him
such a powerful figure in the first place. Rather, the curses of Richard’s
enemies and Richmond’s gory depictions of Richard’s rule allow the
sinister to persist beyond his death. Thus, although its primary embodi-
ment is defeated in the stage action, the sinister itself proves the dominant
aesthetic in the world of the play, suggesting that the seemingly moral
conclusion of the play might itself be a kind of “palpable device.”53 On a
larger scale, the play explores the potential cruelty in both dramatic irony
and divine providence itself. Although one concept is literary and the
other theological, both create expectations about what is supposed to
happen in a narrative. In Richard III, the audience’s knowledge of
Richard’s plans and of the curses’ destructive prophecies encourages an
anticipatory desire for disastrous, prodigious, and cruel events to take
place—an appetite the play satisfies. The narrative structure of the play
suggests that this seemingly perverse audience response is in fact a natural
human reaction.
Richard III aestheticizes various forms of cruelty and monstrosity for the
potential enjoyment of its audience. Richard’s sinister aesthetic of theatri-
cality relies on the artful manipulation of semi-knowing victims with “palp-
able devices” that coyly juxtapose malevolence with a patently false veneer of
benevolence. The curses and invective surrounding Richard evoke grotesque
spectacles or “prodigies,” including both contemptible deformity and terri-
fying monsters or disasters. The characters’ repeated invocations of prodigies
highlight the Renaissance fascination with manifestations of divine wrath.

In so doing, Richard III speaks to important religious debates in early

modern culture. The play’s association of sinister prodigies with divine
punishment raises central questions about God’s justice: how evil and
suffering were compatible with a benevolent providence, whether particular
evils were the result of divine justice or neglect, and how and why God
would speak through monstrous manifestations. The play also asks whether
the satisfaction characters and audience members might derive from the
fulfillment of divine punishments is the most appropriate reaction.54
Plays helped to bring such questions to a popular audience, but there
were other popular forms that treated these issues even more explicitly. In
order to better understand the religious significance of the sinister and its
connection to divine punishment in the culture of early modern England,
we need to consider some of the religious texts that were circulating
widely during this period. Accordingly, the next chapter will examine
not only explicitly theological material, such as printed sermons dealing
with divine punishment, but also popular ballads and pamphlets that offer
a religious explanation for manifestations of the deformed and monstrous.

1. See Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (1981), esp. chapter 4.
2. Although early modern anti-theatrical writers viewed drama as diametrically
opposed to religion, “scholars such as Huston Diehl, Donna Hamilton,
Jeffrey Knapp, Lawrence Clopper, and Michael O’Connell have argued for
an ongoing, intimate relationship between the drama and the religious
culture(s) of the age” (Jackson and Marotti 172).
3. The seminal study of the Vice tradition is Bernard Spivack’s Shakespeare and
the Allegory of Evil (1958). Spivack discusses the development of “hybrid”
characters in Renaissance drama, such as Iago, who combine the Vice arche-
type with “the rapidly evolving naturalism of the English drama after 1550”
(33). In his Vice aspect, Iago is “an artist” of evil, “eager to demonstrate his
skill by achieving a masterpiece of his craft” (30). Spivack’s other
Shakespearean examples include “Aaron the Moor of Titus Andronicus,
Richard III in the play of the same name, and the bastard Don John of Much
Ado” (35). For Spivack’s discussion of Richard III, see 386–407.
4. For Shakespeare plays other than Richard III, see The Complete Works,
edited by Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller (Penguin, 2002). For
Tamburlaine, see David Fuller’s edition (Oxford, 1998). For other non-
Shakespearean plays, see David Bevington, English Renaissance Drama
(Norton, 2002).

5. Similarly, in Hamlet in Purgatory (2001), Greenblatt describes Richard as “a

twisted, perverse, and utterly ruthless monster who nonetheless exercises a weird
charisma.” In Greenblatt’s account, Richard has “a perverted charm, an almost
pornographic and vividly theatrical allure conjoining eros and disgust” (167).
6. Critics have also had difficulties in explaining these kinds of responses.
Discussing Shakespeare’s sonnets, Joel Fineman (1986) observes that the
speaker’s attraction to the dark lady is “in the tradition of erotic praise,
essentially inexplicable . . . we cannot understand why the poet desires what
he says is not desirable” (59).
7. By default, citations of Richard III are by act, scene, and line number and
refer to John Jowett’s edition (Oxford, 2000), which is based on the First
Quarto (hereafter Q1). Folio-only passages, printed in an appendix, are
indicated by a letter and separate lineation.
8. On the link between theatricality and deformity, see Mark Thornton
Burnett’s Constructing ‘Monsters’ in Shakespearean Drama and Early
Modern Culture (2002), which asserts a widespread early modern “belief
in the inherent ‘monstrosity’ of the actor’s profession” (9).
9. Marguerite Waller (1986) also employs the language of psychopathology to
suggest that Richard is (or should be) unattractive; see especially 162. Lisa S.
Starks (2002) uses Kristeva’s concept of the abject to theorize audiences’
ambivalent fascination with the hideous and deformed elements in Titus
Andronicus and in modern horror films. Nonetheless, Starks frames the
abject as “that from which the subject must detach itself in order to form
a separate identity” (122).
10. Michael Torrey (2000) notes this paradox, which he places in the context of
Renaissance theories of physiognomy: “his body alternately does and does not
seem to give him away” (126). Burnett suggests that Richard fashions himself
into “a dramatic concatenation of prevailing views about ‘monstrosity’ in its
inner and outer manifestations” (66).
11. This disjunction between aesthetic pleasure and moral significance has
shaped the critical debate over Richard in the twentieth century, as it has
the debates over Spenser’s Bower of Bliss and Milton’s Satan. Robert C.
Jones (1986) notes that “Studies of Richard III . . . openly reflect the divi-
sive pull between theatrical attraction and moral judgment,” and that
Richard “provok[es] critics to assume extreme stances,” from the “romantic
enthusiasm” of Charles Lamb to the “moral orthodoxy” of E. M. W.
Tillyard (20–21). Other critics have reinforced this opposition, as well as
the belief that Richard appeals to us despite, rather than because of, his evil.
See Antony Hammond (1981) 104–105, R. Chris Hassel (1987) 4–5,
Phyllis Rackin (1996) 42, and Elmer Edgar Stoll (1944) 122–123.
12. Similarly, the murdered princes’ “innocent, alabaster arms” and lips like
“four red roses on a stalk” (4.3.11–12) reflect their moral purity.

13. Many scholars have observed a parallel between Richard and Francis Bacon’s
essay “Of Deformity” (first published in 1612): “Therefore it is good to
consider of deformity, not as a sign, which is more deceivable; but as a cause,
which seldom faileth of the effect. Whosoever hath anything fixed in his
person that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself to
rescue and deliver himself from scorn” (426). While Bacon essentially
endorses Richard’s theory over Margaret’s, the play itself does not provide
clear enough information about Richard’s supernatural status to definitively
refute (or validate) Margaret’s accusations. The disdain Richard has received
from his mother since birth could support the Baconian model, but
Richard’s successful seduction of Anne in 1.2 seriously undermines his
initially plausible assertion that he becomes evil because he “cannot prove
a lover” (1.1.28).
14. I borrow the Folio reading, which I prefer to Q1’s “foul guile.” Unlike “foul,”
“deepe” emphasizes the contrast of outer surface and inner nature which the
passage thematizes. In addition to its alliteration and assonance with “virtuous
visor,” “vice” alludes more clearly to the morality play tradition. Most impor-
tantly, it makes more sense for deceit to hide vice than guile.
15. The play depicts a pervasive anxiety about this kind of deception. The
characters (including, ironically, Richard) continually warn each other
about the danger of enemies masquerading as friends—and conversely,
they tend to curse each other with the inability to judge inward character
by outward signs (see 1.3.220–221 and 2.1.34–39).
16. The impulse to conflate Richard III with the Henry VI plays is not universal,
however. Rackin argues that Richard III, unlike its prequels, is more tragedy
than history play, and as such produces a distinctly different audience
response from the other plays in the tetralogy (32–33). Jowett suggests
that “The play is far more likely to have grown towards greater indepen-
dence of the events in the Henry VI plays,” and he sees the Quarto of
Richard III as “breaking free from the Henry VI trilogy” (Shakespeare,
Richard III, pages 121, 132).
17. The Shakespearean villain who most perfectly conceals his true nature from
other characters is not Richard, but Iago. Contrast Othello’s insistence on
Iago’s honesty in his temptation scene (Othello 3.3) with Anne’s insistence
on Richard’s mendacity in her wooing scene (Richard III 1.2).
18. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning makes a similar claim
about Thomas More’s History of Richard III, a source for Shakespeare’s
play: “Richard III cast his ruthless seizure of the throne in the guise of an
elaborate process of offer, refusal, renewed offer, and reluctant acceptance.
The point is not that anyone is deceived by the charade, but that everyone is
forced either to participate in it or to watch it silently.” Greenblatt calls this
transparently false performance of political authority a “sinister farce” (13).

19. This distinctive feature of Richard III is obscured by the adaptations of

Colley Cibber (1700) and Laurence Olivier (1955), which borrow material
from 3 Henry VI to establish Richard’s obsession with the crown. Cibber’s
Richard declares in his first monologue that “to me this restless World’s but
Hell,/Till this mishapen trunks aspiring head/‘Be circled in a glorious
Diadem” (7–8), a paraphrase of 3 Henry VI 3.2.169–171. Olivier borrows
even more liberally from the same scene for Richard’s opening monologue,
interpolating lines 153–162 and 165–195, and his delivery emphasizes the
repeated word “crown.” He also inserts a silent coronation scene with the
visual emblem of a giant golden crown suspended above the throne room.
20. On The Mirror for Magistrates as a source for Richard III, see Jowett’s
introduction to Richard III, pages 22–23. The Mirror itself has Richard
express regret for his fatal ambition, particularly in the final three stanzas of
his account (Campbell, Mirror, page 370, lines 288–308).
21. Rossiter, for example, identifies “the appeal of the actor” as an important
“aspect of Richard’s appeal” (16). Although Rossiter believed this point had
been “relatively unexamined” as of 1953, it has since become a
22. Janet Adelman (1992) highlights this element of Richard’s character:
“Richard himself empties himself out in Richard III, doing away with
selfhood and its nightmare origins and remaking himself in the shape of
the perfect actor who has no being except in the roles he plays” (8–9).
23. See OED, “method” definition II.7.a, which cites this passage.
24. For a detailed account of the instruction of Elizabethan actors, see Tiffany
Stern, Rehearsal from Shakespeare to Sheridan (2000; esp. 66–70). If, as
Stephen Orgel (1996; 70–71) and Scott McMillin (2004; 232–233) have
argued, the relationship between a master actor and a boy actor frequently
involved a sexual component, then Richard’s evocation of this relationship
might aid his seduction by placing Anne (who would in fact be played by a
boy actor) in an erotically submissive position.
25. According to Rackin, Richard III exemplifies the Renaissance view of tragedy
as engaging the audience’s “feminine sympathies, softening hard hearts, pier-
cing guilty souls with remorse, ravishing the entire audience with the feminine
passions of pity and fear, and forcing them to weep” (35). Similarly, Waller
argues that Richard’s character is fundamentally “sentimental” (162). Richard
III certainly indulges in sentimentality, particularly through the lamentations
of the women and the reactions to the deaths of the young princes. But it is not
what Richard offers Anne—and the audience—in the first wooing scene.
26. The Folio has twelve additional lines about Anne’s ability to make Richard
weep in spite of his “manly” restraint at the deaths of his father and Rutland
(A.10). Overall, the lines contribute more strongly to an impression of
Richard’s sincerity than his lines in Q1, although they do recall Richard’s

habitual lack of remorse and his involvement in the violence of the civil war.
If Jowett is correct that the Q1 manuscript is a later version of the Folio
manuscript, cut for performance (Shakespeare, Richard III, pages 120–121,
125, 130), then the revisions do not seem to prioritize establishing
Richard’s normative plausibility as a wooer.
27. Waller argues that Richard’s “unselfconscious use of a Petrarchan conceit”
to seduce Anne “labels him as at once a show-off and a dupe,” who makes a
false “unironic assumption of mastery over his own (and Petrarch’s) dis-
course” (173). In my reading, however, Richard’s insistent juxtaposition of
Petrarchan conceits with reminders of his own ruthlessness is the height of
self-consciousness and produces a deliberately (and deliciously) complex
rhetorical effect.
28. Erasmus, Collected Works, volume 34, Adages book 2, century 9, adage 49.
For the Latin, see Heinimann and Kienzle’s edition, Opera Omnia Desiderii
Erasmi Roterodami (North-Holland 1987).
29. English translations are by John Florio (1553–1625), who titles this essay
“Of the Lame or Crippel.” Page numbers are from the E. P. Dutton edition
(1910). For the French originals of the quoted passages, see André
Tournon’s edition (Imprimerie nationale, 1998), pages 380–381.
30. 1 Timothy 2:14 makes this claim about Adam (in contrast to Eve), which
Milton picks up in Paradise Lost 9.998.
31. Burnett argues that “Anne encodes the deceased Henry VI as a spectacle of
‘monstrous’ potential” (78). Anne’s treatment of the corpse of Henry,
whom she seeks to “invocate” at 1.2.8 and calls a “saint” at 4.1.65, also
recalls the tradition of treating Christ’s crucified corpse as an object of
beauty. See Chapter 4 on the popularity of monsters as spectacles and the
relationship between Christian piety and the aesthetics of tortured bodies.
32. These bleeding hearts bear a significant resemblance to Amoret’s heart in
book 3 of The Faerie Queene. In both instances, a standard trope of
Renaissance love poetry is unpleasantly literalized to reveal the cruelty
underlying the Petrarchan relationship.
33. Tanner claims that Elizabeth’s final remarks to Richard are derisive sarcasm, like
her earlier barbs at 4.4.247–259 and M.50–55 (Tanner 471–472). But this
argument ignores the distinct shift in tone between her elaborate and witty vision
of bleeding hearts as love-tokens and the simplicity of lines like “Shall I be
tempted of the devil thus?” (4.4.338). Tanner also ignores Elizabeth’s rhetori-
cally feeble “But thou didst kill my children” (4.4.342), which would be incon-
gruously lame as part of a series of devastatingly sarcastic rhetorical questions, but
poignant as the final, weak protest of a wavering conscience. As Jones observes,
“if we were to enjoy the full ironic effect of Richard as the smug duper duped in
his exchange with Elizabeth, we would need some more open pointers than the
dialogue gives us” (55). Indeed, if Elizabeth is feigning, she does so much more

convincingly than Richard, a man whose own mother calls him deceit personi-
fied. In general, Richard’s own devices more closely resemble the clarity of
Cibber than the proposed inscrutability of Elizabeth: they are always palpable
to the audience, and often to his intended dupes as well. This theory, therefore,
would require the play to employ a mode of representing deceit that it uses
nowhere else.
34. In theory, Richard is making a not unflattering comparison between
Elizabeth’s offspring and the phoenix, a mythical bird that dies and is reborn
from a nest of spices. But in practice, the horrifying sexual implications
eclipse the primary metaphor.
35. Contrast the elaborately dramatized repentance of Gratiana in The
Revenger’s Tragedy 4.4, which serves as a significant turning point in, or
counterbalance to, that play’s representation of pervasive moral decay. Like
Elizabeth, Gratiana is seduced into knowingly offering her daughter to a
powerful and vicious nobleman but then changes her mind.
36. The play does not clearly specify whether the characters’ curses actually have
supernatural force. Margaret believes that curses aid divine justice because God
hears and is moved to action by them (1.3.287–288). Other characters claim
that curses have no power to harm (e.g., Buckingham at 1.3.285–286), or that
they can harm the one who utters them (1.3.240). Most of the curses come
true, but not all: Elizabeth does not die; Anne and Richard do not have a
deformed child. The tendency for curses to recoil on those who speak them is
an important source of dramatic irony, but the irony would function with or
without supernatural agency.
37. Anne’s curse over the body of Henry VI demonstrates the verbal repetition
and antithesis characteristic of curses: “Cursed be the hand that made these
fatal holes,/Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it” (1.2.14–15).
This technique reaches its climax in the final act, where Richard is cursed by
no less than eleven ghosts in sequence, each employing the alliterative
refrain, “despair and die,” and alternating their curses with blessings of
Richmond (5.4.97–155).
38. Kate Brown and Howard Kushner, in “Eruptive Voices: Coprolalia,
Malediction, and the Poetics of Cursing” (2001), have made the similar argu-
ment that “cursing lends force to the aspects of language that exceed message,
including, for example, volume, timing, tone, rhythm, emphasis, and patterns of
sound repetition. For this reason, cursing can enter the realm of play and the
nonreferential, which is also the realm of poetry, nonsense, and comedy” (550).
In Richard III, curses are poetic but not comical or nonsensical.
39. Elizabeth’s claim that curses “ease the heart” implies they are cathartic. Like
an audience at a tragedy, the speaker of a curse can purge negative emotions
by imagining dire things happening to somebody else. However, Margaret’s
cursing does not appear to reduce her store of venom, suggesting that the

pleasure of curses may result as much from the indulgence of malice as from
any kind of purgation.
40. Burnett also links prodigies to the curses in Richard III and sees Margaret as
a “prodigious embodiment of vengeance” (77).
41. Hugh Richmond laments that “from the time of Colley Cibber, this inhibit-
ing framework was dismantled, the female roles diminished or suppressed,
so that the megalomaniac delights of Richard’s sadism flourished uncon-
strainedly, to the self-indulgent satisfaction of actors and audiences, creating
the prototype for modern horror movies” (7). Jowett claims that “The anti-
Richard play has its origin here in 1.3 with Margaret’s curses” (Shakespeare,
Richard III, page 47). See also Tanner, who cites E. M. W. Tillyard and Lily
Campbell (468–469). For Burnett, Anne’s “‘prodigious’ curses” represent
“an unsettling threat to Richard’s construction of a strategic self” (77).
Linda Charnes argues that Richard’s power within the play, and his “fasci-
nation” for audiences, derives from his “attempts to resist and escape the
deformed and deforming signification the play insists upon—his attempts to
counteract the Richard of Tudor legend,” which imposes itself on him
largely through the women’s “language of dehumanization” (32).
42. Jones recognizes that Anne’s curse serves to “amplify our sense of his
dynamic force,” but he argues that it operates merely “by setting up the
absolute odds” against his success with Anne (33). Brown and Kushner
intriguingly suggest that “Richard’s fiendish power to seduce and corrupt
might itself be seen as a consequence of Anne’s curse, which defines him
as a curse, the very materialization and agent of the maledictory effect”
43. Olivier’s film makes Richard’s initial self-presentation more terrifying by
adding material from 3 Henry VI (3.2.153–162 and 165–195) to
Richard’s opening soliloquy. It is the borrowed lines (in which he sets the
murderous Machiavel to school, changes shape like Proteus, and hews his
way with a bloody axe) that establish Olivier’s Richard as merciless, relent-
less, elemental, and possessed of quasi-supernatural power to do evil.
Strikingly, these are the only lines in which Olivier raises his voice, except
for a slight increase in intensity at around 1.1.19.
44. According to Rackin, Richard “appropriates the demonic power of a
woman’s voice” when he turns Margaret’s own curse against her (39), but
in my reading, Richard’s “demonic power” owes at least as much to the
curses that successfully strike him.
45. Jowett agrees: “The play, in particular the action that Richard orchestrates,
is an almost comprehensive enactment of Margaret’s prophecy, as was made
particularly clear in Sam Mendes’s production of 1992, in which Cherry
Morris as Margaret was allowed to reappear hauntingly as each of Richard’s
victims went off to his death” (Shakespeare, Richard III, page 48).

46. One exception is Adelman, who argues that Margaret’s “hunger for revenge
becomes the play’s aesthetic principle as her curses determine its action” (9).
47. Jones refers to the structure defined by Anne’s curses as an “ironic arch”
which Anne “rounds off” by her retrospection in act 4. The curses as a whole
announce a system of “neatly shaped and firmly emphasized retributions”
(33). This language emphasizes the sense of aesthetic form that the curses
48. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine famously describes himself as the scourge of God, e.
g., in 1 Tamburlaine 3.3.44. In Shakespeare’s “Histories” (1947), Lily
Campbell observes that “God may and often does make use of an evil instru-
ment in the execution of his divine vengeance, and Richard, like Tamburlaine,
functions as the scourge of God” (313). Rossiter likewise identifies Richard as
a “scourge of God,” saying that “in the pattern of the justice of divine
retribution on the wicked, he functions as an avenging angel” (20). See also
Wheeler 304 and Robert G. Hunter’s 1976 book Shakespeare and the Mystery
of God’s Judgments 80. For a survey of early modern providential readings of
Richard III and Henry VII, including Shakespeare’s Richard III, see Henry
Ansgar Kelly’s Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare’s Histories
49. Hunter argues that, in Richard III, Richmond invokes a “purely
beneficent . . . God in whom it would be pleasant to believe.” However,
Elizabeth and Margaret emphasize God’s potential responsibility for “the
evil which results in human suffering,” and “their visions have an intensity
and a conceptual validity for the plays that Richmond’s lacks” (73–74).
Margaret, in particular, presents “Richard as the human agent of divinely
willed suffering” (80). Hunter also notes that “If the Tudor myth is to claim
for Richmond the role of God’s providential instrument, then it must
confront the complementary possibility that Richard has previously served
the same function” (80).
50. As Burnett suggests, “an ability to authorize ‘monstrous’ events is cele-
brated” in the play and belongs as much to Anne and Margaret as it does to
Richard (77). A 1982 BBC production of Richard III demonstrated this
point in a possibly heavy-handed way, with what Hassel describes as a
“closing tableau of a cackling Margaret embracing a deposed Richard,
both placed in the pose of a ghastly pietà upon a hideous pyramid of
corpses” (4).
51. Adelman suggests that after 5.1 “aesthetic control of the play passes into the
hands of the benevolent God who works through Richmond” (9). Hassel
also takes a pro-Richmond stance, but in summarizing the critical consensus
as of 1987, he notes that “only a few twentieth-century critics” find
Richmond’s personality and speeches compelling, and he cites at least six
critics (including Rossiter) who are “unimpressed” with Richmond’s oratory

or find it “aesthetically unattractive next to Richard’s” (35). For example,

Hunter considers Richmond “a dramatic nonentity, a vacuum in shining
armor” (73).
52. Burnett praises Richmond for “a discursive facility of ‘monstrosity’, which
he both manipulates and reinstates” (88), but he ultimately argues that
Richmond is the antidote to Richard’s “processes of ‘monsterization’” (93).
53. According to Starks, horror movies restore order by repudiating the abject:
“Through the proliferation of images that evoke repulsion and transgressive
viewing pleasure, horror films elicit masochistic thrills and exploit the audi-
ence’s fascination with the abject. Inducing a cathartic effect, horror films
exploit the abject in order to vanquish its power” (124). Yet the persistence
of the sinister in Richmond’s discourse, as well as Richmond’s inability to
fully eclipse Richard’s dramatic power, suggests that the play only pretends
to eradicate the “transgressive viewing pleasure” of the sinister.
54. The Spanish Tragedy poses a similar question by having a demonic personi-
fication of Revenge and the equally bloodthirsty ghost of Andrea serve as
gleeful spectators to the destruction of the main characters.

Monsters and the Pleasures of Divine Justice

in English Popular Print, 1560–1675


Shakespeare’s history plays focus in large part on the experience of civil
war. During his lifetime, the conflicts preceding Elizabeth’s rule were still
fresh in the national consciousness, and England faced old and new inter-
nal divisions that would lead to civil war again in 1642. Unlike the Wars of
the Roses, the dynastic struggles in the wake of Henry VIII’s death were
partly religious in nature. From the 1530s to the 1550s, England’s official
state religion was first Catholic, then Protestant, then Catholic, and finally
Protestant again. In the seventeenth century, the political disagreements
between king and parliament that animated the English Civil War were
complicated by the clash between opposing visions of Protestantism.1 The
late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries thus saw major changes and
deepening fissures in English theology and religious practice.
Nonetheless, there were certain religious beliefs and questions that
remained important across the sectarian spectrum. Even radically diver-
gent groups of believers generally shared a basic commitment to the
concept of divine providence: the idea that earthly events formed part of
God’s divine plan. From this perspective, significant occurrences of all
kinds were potentially communications from God, signs of his pleasure or
displeasure that demanded proper interpretation.
Traumatic events and unexpected violations of the natural or social
order were more likely to evoke providential explanations, because in
these cases other explanatory frameworks seemed particularly inadequate.

© The Author(s) 2017 125

J.E. Slotkin, Sinister Aesthetics,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52797-0_4

Conversely, God’s presumed role in such disasters was the aspect of his
providence most in need of justification. These calamities could include
events on a national scale such as plagues and civil war, or misfortunes
befalling individuals, families, and smaller communities, such as crop fail-
ure. In particular, any event considered a prodigy, including astronomical
anomalies such as comets and biological anomalies such as so-called
monstrous births, would likely be attributed to divine agency.
The religious and political controversies leading up to the English Civil
War exacerbated the tendency to focus on earthly manifestations of divine
wrath. Many, if not most, believers would have felt that large segments of
the country had strayed from the true Christian faith. In the providential
world view, the rising disorder, disagreement, and conflict in England were
almost certainly signs of God’s displeasure, and the accurate interpretation
of these signs was essential for restoring the country to its proper path. The
lack or breakdown of religious consensus before, during, and after the war
made providential readings of current events in England more imperative
and more contested. As Christopher Hill observes in Milton and the English
Revolution (1977), “God was becoming a problem for many mid-seven-
teenth-century Englishmen. . . . The difficulty of reconciling God’s justice
with his mercy, legalism with love, was age-old. But the unique freedom of
the forties and fifties allowed such problems to be discussed, verbally and in
print” (351). Increasingly, then, a concern with divine punishment became
central to the early modern English religious experience. But different
groups naturally had very different ideas about which beliefs were heretical
and which events represented progress or disaster. Consequently, they also
differed on which events constituted a divine punishment and what beha-
vior was being punished.2
Anxiety that England was descending into sin and courting ever more
destructive expressions of divine wrath increased interest in the age-old
theological problem of evil: why would an omnipotent and benevolent
God not only permit evil to exist but inflict terrible punishments on his
creations, both on earth and eternally in the afterlife? In Destabilizing
Milton (2005), Peter Herman, building on Hill’s work, documents a
“renewed interest in the problem of God in the mid-seventeenth century,”
(111) manifested in part through a number of texts that wrestle with the
“critique of God’s justice” found in the Book of Job (113). Herman
associates these concerns with “the conflict between Calvinism and
Arminianism” (111), which centered in part on whether the doctrine of
predestination makes God responsible for evil.

God’s providential plan was supposed to be supremely good in its

ultimate aims, but it was not always easy to explain why certain occur-
rences were truly for the best. Concerns that God’s goodness and omni-
potence might be incompatible with the existence both of human sin and
divinely ordained suffering predated not only the early modern period but
arguably Christianity itself. Seventeenth-century theologians of various
persuasions tried to resolve the apparent paradox by appealing to a
moral logic whose essential premises had been laid down by the earliest
Church fathers, including Tertullian (c. 160-c. 230) and Augustine
However, in the real world inhabited by believers, the problem of evil is
not merely logical but affective—and therefore aesthetic. Theology offers
abstract, theoretical justifications for the existence of human suffering, but
these rationalizations, however finely honed, are inherently incomplete
because accepting God’s relationship to evil is a matter not just of doctrine
but also of piety. How believers understand the actual or vicarious experi-
ence of evil affects how they imaginatively conceive of God and how they
respond affectively to him. Even if God is not morally culpable, he still
oversees and determines the forms taken by evil and its punishments.
Thus, what is at issue is not so much God’s morality as his aesthetic
sensibility. Does God have a taste for destruction, torture, and the mon-
strous, and how might one learn to love such a being?
These concerns manifested not only in literature and drama but in a
variety of popular texts that circulated in the burgeoning print markets of
the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Ballads, pamphlets, and
sermons offered various prodigious occurrences—including comets, pla-
gues, earthquakes, and monsters—as instances of divine judgment.
Sermons in particular also detailed the torments that sinners would face
in hell. All of these texts blend doctrinal content and sensationalism, albeit
in different proportions.
In order to provide a more aesthetically and emotionally satisfying
justification for God’s use of these dark and horrific instruments, many
of these writers employed sinister aesthetics. This allowed them to present
God’s dark, destructive aspect as simultaneously terrifying and fascinating,
even pleasurable. They thereby offered their audiences the possibility of
coping with the horrific presence of evil in the world by learning to see
God’s cruelty as a non-normative form of beauty, and in some cases by
identifying with God as a punisher and a creator of monstrous things.
Authors employing variations of this strategy can be found across the

spectrum of English Protestant beliefs, from committed royalists like

Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667), to moderate Calvinists like Thomas Adams
(1583–1653), to nonconformists like John Bunyan (1628–1688).


Elizabethan and Jacobean theater was remarkable for its ability to reach all
levels of the highly stratified society of early modern London. However, it
was not the only avenue by which authors could share their ideas with a
broad segment of the population. The rise of the theater in the late
sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries coincided with a tremendous
expansion of the market for shorter printed texts, including ballads,
pamphlets, and chapbooks. Modern scholars have used various terms for
this body of texts, notably “popular print” and “cheap print.” Although
these designations could imply an exclusively lower-class readership in
opposition to an elite literary culture, Tessa Watt’s comprehensive study
Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550–1640 (1991) observes that “The
audience presupposed within the cheap print itself appears to be inclusive
rather than exclusive,” ranging from the “gentry” to the “labouring poor”
(3). Ballads, and perhaps other works as well, were performed orally and as
such were potentially accessible even to illiterate audiences (8). The print
market therefore serves as an especially useful reflection of the concerns
and preoccupations of early modern English society.
Broadside ballads were sold as single printed sheets, and a typical ballad
might include a title, a woodcut image, a one-paragraph prose description
of the ballad’s subject matter, and finally the verse ballad itself, with
instructions to sing it to a well-known tune. Ballads did not include
musical notation, nor did they typically identify their authors. Their visual
and performative components made them accessible even to uneducated
audiences. Ballad-mongers sang the ballads in order to attract customers,
who would buy the printed ballads in order to sing them.
The subject matter of ballads often tended toward the kind of material
that now appears in supermarket tabloids: recent, supposedly true events
of a scandalous or fantastical nature. Many ballads featured prodigies of
various kinds—monsters, omens, apparitions, and other unnatural or
supernatural occurrences—and a surprisingly large segment of the ballad
market during the time of Shakespeare and Milton was devoted to
accounts of monstrous births.3 These monstrous births could be human
or animal. Some ballads seem to be more or less accurate accounts of real

congenital disorders, while others represent their subjects more as chi-

meras and/or emblems, making them harder to square with modern
standards of biological plausibility.4 Moralists often criticized ballads for
catering to the more sensational appetites of early modern audiences; Watt
notes that “By 1624 it was a commonplace to situate the ballads in cultural
opposition to the Bible; to portray them as an alternative sort of religion”
(39). However, these ballads almost invariably explained monstrous births
and other prodigies as a warning or punishment from God, in response to
the sins of individuals, communities, or England as a whole. In the
process, ballads often presented themselves or their subjects as analogous
to a sermon.
Popular accounts of monsters also circulated as pamphlets. These short
but multiple-page prose texts frequently served as an arena for heated
political and other debates that sometimes escalated into so-called pamph-
let wars. Pamphlets about monsters typically shared the sensationalist
appeal of monster ballads, advertising themselves in tabloid fashion as
strange but true news. As such, they were nominally secular texts.
However, the pamphlet form provided authors with a greater scope for
moral commentary on monstrous phenomena, and they could easily shade
into a more explicit form of preaching.
Sermons, in contrast, ostensibly took the promulgation of religious
doctrine as their primary goal. Orally delivered sermons were a regular
feature of life in early modern England, especially since church attendance
was compulsory. But attending public sermons at venues such as Paul’s
Cross was also a form of popular entertainment, and there was a consider-
able market for printed sermons.5 A true sermon had certain formal
characteristics, including the opening statement of a short Biblical text, a
justification of the relevance of the text to the occasion of the sermon, and
a detailed analysis of the text that involved breaking it down into small
parts.6 Although sermons about monstrous births represent a relatively
small fraction of the huge number of sermons preached, many more
sermons share the monster ballads’ interest in God’s wrath and its mani-
festations. Sermons dealing with divine punishment in general, or with
monstrous births in particular, help elucidate the thinking behind the
ballads’ treatment of monsters and its religious implications.
At first glance, broadside ballads, which were basically cheap popular
entertainment, seem a very different kind of expression from sermons,
which purported to articulate the official theology of a church or sect.
Alexandra Walsham’s Providence in Early Modern England (1999) notes

that many early modern moralists and modern scholars alike have asserted
a “stark opposition” between sensational, secular texts and pious ones.
In practice, however, as Walsham’s study demonstrates, “preaching and
cheap print were . . . symbiotically linked, caught in a complex and
mutually enriching equilibrium” (327).7 Monster ballads and sermons
shared important rhetorical challenges and strategies for meeting those
challenges. Both existed as printed texts derived from live performances.
The bodies of living and dead monsters were exhibited at fairgrounds and
elsewhere, while their descriptions were made into ballads and sold.8
Similarly, sermons delivered from the pulpit were also disseminated in
printed form. Ballads and sermons both competed for the attention (and
money) of audiences in the public sphere; both sought to imaginatively
engage audiences through vivid imagery and compelling rhetoric; and
both undertook to sell a potentially unappetizing product. Monster
ballads needed to turn an account of a horrifying prodigy into a desirable
commodity, and sermons needed to promulgate a theological doctrine
that called for much of their audience to suffer eternal torture. Each, in its
own way, needed to obey the Horatian dictum to blend edification with
entertainment. The likeness between sermons and pamphlets is even
stronger. Particularly in the longer monster pamphlets, any distinction
between the “worldly” monster texts and the “godly” sermons becomes
increasingly nominal and arbitrary (Watt 46).9 Indeed, the preacher
William Leigh (1550–1639) was involved in the production of a monster
pamphlet while also publishing sermons, including a sermon about a
Popular print thus provides a crucial point of intersection between
entertainment and religious expression in the public sphere.11 This entan-
glement of religious and secular concerns and motives makes popular print
texts a particularly fruitful region in which to examine the aesthetic appeal
and religious implications of the sinister. I will focus my investigation on
ballads and pamphlets that deal with monstrous births and, in the case of
the sermons, divine punishment more broadly. A comprehensive, chron-
ological survey of such a vast and heterogeneous corpus is beyond the
scope of this chapter. Rather, I wish to outline some of the persistent
religious concerns and poetic resources in early modern print culture
relating to the monstrous and the infernal. The treatment of these subjects
in early modern popular print reflects larger cultural conversations that
dramatic and literary works such as Richard III and Paradise Lost also
participated in. This chapter will examine monster ballads and pamphlets

from 1560–1675, that is to say, roughly during the lifetimes of

Shakespeare and Milton. Throughout the period, these kinds of texts
remained popular and shared common interests and strategies. Because
many ballads have not survived to the present day, looking back to
monster ballads of the 1560s, where there happen to be a number of
texts still extant, helps flesh out our understanding of the form. The much
larger quantity of available sermons calls for a different approach. I will
focus primarily on those from the early to mid-seventeenth century: a
period of heightened religious anxiety and political conflict culminating
in the English Civil War, and the milieu in which Milton produced
Paradise Lost.
Despite the wide diversity of ballads, pamphlets, and sermons, and their
supposed division into the opposing categories of secular and religious, we
can productively view them as a coherent group of texts depicting divine
punishment in similar ways and for similar purposes. In these works, the
calamities that human beings experience are attributed to the wrath of
God, and they are presented as didactic spectacles meant to encourage
Christian piety and virtue.12 Moreover, these ballads, pamphlets, and
sermons all present themselves as interpreting a text written by God.
Sermons by definition interpret a Biblical text, and sermons could also
read post-Biblical events in a similar way as divine communications. For
descriptions of monstrous births, the text is the body of the monster itself,
upon or through which God has written a message to humanity. By
glossing these messages, the ballad authors themselves become practi-
tioners of what Helaine Razovsky, in the title of her 1996 article on the
subject, calls “Popular Hermeneutics.” As with many sermons, the ballads
evoke vivid instances of God’s wrath and punishments in order to teach a
moral and religious lesson. The 1562 ballad called A discription of a
monstrous Chylde, borne at Chychester in Sussex has this to say about the
woodcut of the monster printed at the top of the broadsheet:

No Carver can, nor Paynter maye

The same so ougly make
As doeth it self shewe at this daye
A sight to make the[e] quake.
But here thou haste by Printing arts
A sign thereof to se
Let eche man saye within his harte
It preacheth now, to me. (lines 57–64)13

The printing press translates God’s monstrous message into a form that
can be disseminated more widely, presenting these divinely created texts
through the medium of a human-created text. In short, just as sermons
were partly a form of entertainment, ballads were frequently a form of
Collectively, ballads and pamphlets about monsters and sermons on
divine punishment reveal the Renaissance fascination with divine wrath as
an imaginative construct and a doctrinal concept. They also raise several
related and significant questions. Can or should manifestations or repre-
sentations of divine punishment be sources of pleasure? If so, how would
this appreciation of divine punishment affect our understanding of early
modern English theology and piety?


As Julie Crawford observes in Marvelous Protestantism: Monstrous Births in
Post-Reformation England (2005), “printed and illustrated stories about
monstrous births” were “one of the most recognizable and popular genres
of the early modern period” (2–3).14 These texts existed in symbiosis with
the well-documented market for viewing living and dead monstrous or
exotic creatures. For example, the prose account accompanying the 1664
ballad Natures Wonder? states that “This Monster lived two dayes and then
dyed, and is Imbalmed, and to be brought to London to be seen. There
hath been both Lords, Ladys, and much Gentry to see it; The Father
(being a poore man) had twenty pound given him the first day, by persons
of Quality.”15 Although the account frames these aristocratic gifts more as
charity than as the price of admission, it is clearly the presence of the
“strange Monster” that enables the family to receive such largesse.
Moreover, the transfer of the embalmed monster to London for further
display suggests its value as a spectacle.
The demand for monsters and ballads about monsters was sufficiently
widespread by the early part of the seventeenth century that Shakespeare
satirizes the appetite for such prodigies, and those who profit from them,
in multiple plays. In The Winter’s Tale (c. 1610), the rogue Autolycus sells
ballads featuring such tabloid-worthy items as a usurer’s wife who gives
birth to moneybags, and a levitating singing fish. Autolycus’s pastoral
customers are eager to consume these tales, but the scene appears to
mock them for credulously assuming these fantastic stories must be
“true” because they are “in print” (4.4.259–260).16 In The Tempest

(c. 1611), Trinculo encounters the monstrous Caliban, whom he mistakes

for a fish, and one of his first thoughts is that people would pay to see such
a creature:

Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a
holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster
make a man: any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a
doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.

Through Trinculo, Shakespeare condemns this early modern English

interest in viewing monsters, but he also exploits it by providing the
Tempest’s audience with the spectacle of Caliban. This treatment is con-
sistent with Richard III, which portrays Richard as a fascinating mon-
strous birth while at the same time condemning him and offering
providential explanations for his monstrous nature and political fortunes.
As the Shakespearean examples show, broadside ballads and other
popular print materials dealing with the monstrous rely for their success
on presenting monsters as objects of wonder and fascination.17 They
typically highlight the unusual nature of the monsters they depict and
recommend admiration as the most appropriate response. For example, a
mid-seventeenth-century ballad attributed to Martin Parker called The two
inseparable brothers describes a young man with an “imperfect” conjoined
twin as the “strangest and most rare” piece of news to reach England, and
the final stanzas tell readers how they should react to this and similar

In seeing this or such strange things,

Let us admire the King of Kings,
and of his power conceave.
That just opinion which is due,
To him who is all good all true,
whose works we can’t find out,
Let admiration then suffice.

The ballad thus advocates a state of pleasurable amazement that it links to

a similar admiration of God, whose power produces the monster. Like the
marvels described in Autolycus’s ballads, the inseparable brothers seem to
be amusing and harmless curiosities.

In tension with the idea of monsters as pleasurable spectacles, early

modern ballads and pamphlets also insist that monsters are instances of
divine judgment, intended to terrify people into abandoning their sinful
behavior. Versions of these claims are the norm in popular print accounts
of monsters well into the seventeenth century, whereas ballads treating
monstrous births as harmless are significantly rarer. The ballad of the
“inseparable brothers” alludes to God’s power, and perhaps by implication
to the dangers of angering him, but cheap print accounts of monsters were
usually much more explicit. The Chychester ballad offers a woodcut
illustration of the child which it calls “A sight to make the[e] quake,”
not merely because it is “ougly,” but also because “God’s wrath it did
declare” (A discription lines 60, 58, 76). Such ballads offer themselves
partly as aversion therapy, to help their audience avoid sin by associating it
with the monstrous. For example, The forme and shape of a Monstrous
Child, borne at Maydstone in Kent (1568) contains a woodcut with the
following caption:

As ye this shape abhorre

In body for to have:
So flee such Vices farre
As might the soule deprave.

As a 1613 pamphlet called Strange Newes of a prodigious Monster, borne in

the Towneship of Adlington and “Testified by” the preacher William Leigh
explains, God produces “Monsters of ougly and most horrid shapes, to
signifie unto us the ouglinesse of sinne in the eyes of that pure essence”
(A2v-A3).18 According to this logic, the monster is a message from God
whose hideous form should inspire detestation in right-thinking observers
and thereby encourage them to shun evil.
Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park’s seminal study Wonders and the
Order of Nature (1998) argues that the early modern affective response to
monsters depended on which of two explanatory frameworks audience
members applied to a particular monster. In the “prodigy complex . . . mon-
sters functioned as signs of divine wrath and evoked the emotion of horror or
terror” (176). Viewing monsters could cause pleasure, however, if they were
“treated as the sports of a benign nature and ornaments of a benevolent
creator” (177). Although they acknowledge the “lability of the meanings
that early modern writers assigned to monsters” (191), for Daston and
Park, seeing monsters as a pleasurable commodity requires a perspective

antithetical to the one in which monsters function as a warning of God’s

displeasure. This critical paradigm finds some support in early modern texts.
For example, the Chychester ballad insists that its audience treat monsters as
“tokens” from God and not as a “nyne dayes wonder”: something that is
pleasurable because it is unusual and becomes dull as soon as its novelty wears
off (A description lines 3, 78). Thomas Bedford’s monster sermon, quoted
below, makes a similar distinction.
On closer investigation, however, the firm antithesis between the hor-
rifying prodigy and the pleasurable sport of nature (or lusus naturae)
begins to break down.19 First of all, accounts of monsters often combined
naturalistic and theological explanations for their origins. The French
surgeon Ambroise Paré’s highly influential work Des monstres et prodiges
(1573) freely and directly juxtaposes scientific and religious causes of

There are many causes of monsters. The first is the glory of God. The
second, his wrath. The third, too great a quantity of semen. The forth,
too small a quantity. The fifth, imagination. The sixth, the narrowness or
smallness of the womb. . . . The thirteenth, by demons or devils.20

This list is strikingly paratactic, placing innocent quirks of biology on the

same level as the dire influences of evil spirits or a warning from an
incensed God, and moving freely back and forth between naturalistic
and supernatural explanations.
In England through the middle of the seventeenth century, religious
explanations predominated. Paré’s Des monstres appeared in English as
“Of Monsters and Prodigies,” book 25 of The Workes of that famous
Chirurgion Ambrose Parey Translated out of Latine and compared with
the French (1634) by Thomas Johnson.21 This edition diverges signifi-
cantly from the structure of the 1573 French edition; in particular, it
breaks up and more clearly prioritizes Paré’s original list of causes.
Johnson’s version argues that “the glory and majesty of God” and God’s
punishment of “mens wickednesse” are the “truely finall causes of mon-
sters,” whereas the others are the “matereall, corporeall, and efficient
causes” (chapters 1–2, pages 962–963). The vast majority of English
monster ballads and pamphlets share this emphasis, describing their sub-
jects as prodigies that express divine anger.
Nonetheless, even when they treat monsters primarily as manifestations
of divine wrath, these ballads and pamphlets inextricably combine horror

and pleasure, a seemingly paradoxical mixture that is a hallmark of the

sinister. Some of the evidence for this affective response comes from the
economic and material circumstances in which ballads were published. By
all accounts, ballads were purchased as entertainment. They were fre-
quently sung in taverns. No moral, social, or legal codes mandated their
consumption. Monster ballads competed for the money and attention of
consumers with many other diversions, both of a textual and non-textual
nature. Despite these constraints, ballads that purport to horrify and even
disgust their audiences remained popular and lucrative. It seems logical to
suppose that they were a source of pleasure and that people bought them
for fun and out of curiosity.22
The cheap print texts themselves often simultaneously seek to sell the
monster as a curiosity and to justify its description as a religious lesson,
while evoking the ostensibly contrary emotions of pleasure and terror that
those disparate goals imply. The English ballad Natures Wonder? opens
with a juxtaposition of the lusus naturae and prodigy paradigms:

Come take a view good People all,

observe it well with heed,
A stranger Wonder Nature did
ne’re frame of Humane Seed;
A Monster of mishapen Forme
I here to you present,
By this Example you may learn
to feare Gods Punishment. (lines 1–8)

The first four lines cheerfully invite a pleasurable scrutiny of an unusual

sport of a personified Nature, while the second four lines describe it as a
hideous monster designed to terrify mortals into avoiding the wrath of
God. The latter sentiment ultimately prevails in the ballad, which con-
cludes with a truly horrifying warning (quoted below) to those who fail to
“seek the Lord” (line 90).
Although the ballad form provides some of the more striking juxtaposi-
tions of pleasurable curiosity and religious terror, the pamphlets, which are
by nature more discursive, also pursue these twin goals. Leigh’s 1613
pamphlet Strange Newes of a prodigious Monster begins with an elaborate
discussion of monsters as hideous manifestations of God’s wrath that “have
brought horror to the looker on” (A3) and then makes the following
transition to its primary subject: “But I stay too long in matters, though

extravagant yet not impertinent to our present discourse, where I am to

deliver as strange a producement of a prodigious birth, as was ever knowne
in this part of the world . . . where there was a childe borne of a strange and
wonderfull shape” (A4v). This rhetorical turn presumes that the author’s
initial preaching has been a diversion (pleasurable for him if not the reader)
from his primary obligation, which is to satisfy the curiosity of his audience
with a report of a “strange and wonderfull” monster. Like most works of
Renaissance literature, monster texts usually make some sort of rhetorical
gesture, however perfunctory, to subordinate the sensational interest of
their subject matter to a productive moral lesson. This passage is somewhat
unusual in its tolerant acceptance of readers who might see its moral
message as a tedious distraction from the main point.
Such an attitude represents an inversion of the priorities we see in
sermons (including of course Leigh’s own sermons), but the twin
elements of wonder and preaching nonetheless coexist in both genres.
The pamphlet’s subsequent account of the people who saw the monster
suggests that the experience combines two seemingly contradictory
social functions and their corresponding affects:

Certaine Gentlemen, and many of the common people, that were then at
Cockepit, when the newes came of this prodigious birth, left their sports and
went to behold it with wonder and amazement. . . . The most impious of all
could not but confesse, that it was a notable example of Gods fearefull
wrath, which God for his mercy sake turne from us. (B1)

On the one hand, the spectacle of the monster is a pleasurable wonder that
entices crowds to see it, even when they are already taking part in a highly
engaging form of entertainment. It is also, on some level, an activity that is
interchangeable with the morally dubious sport of cockfighting.23 On the
other hand, the monster serves as a form of religious instruction that
provokes even the most “impious” and worldly to a morally productive
fear of God and a desire to avoid his wrath.
The mixture of attraction and aversion is similarly evident in the
pamphlet Two Most remarkable and true Histories (1620). It describes
how people crowd to see a deformed calf: “to which wonderfull and
fearefull spectacle the whole Citie, both young and old, rich and poore,
came to behold” (10). Nonetheless, the author concludes that the sight is
abhorrent and should produce an aversion to earthly things: “these terri-
ble spectacles . . . may be sufficient to drive us away from the love of this

earthly and transitory pilgrimage: and hee give us grace to abhorre mon-
strous sinnes, which procure these monstrous spectacles, and will bring
upon us more fearefull judgments, unlesse we repent betimes” (11). The
worldly curiosity—or, to give it its Augustinian name, curiositas—that
draws crowds to the spectacle of the monster seems opposed to the
contemptus mundi that the author wishes the monster to inspire.
Yet curiosity and pleasure remain a component of the experience of
viewing the monster even when it is presented as a product of divine
wrath. Crawford aptly characterizes these texts, which early modern audi-
ences found so “fascinating,” as “Protestant fables of marvelous punish-
ment” (9). Looking at the corpus of monster ballads and pamphlets
produced during the lifetimes of Shakespeare and Milton, we see that
the vast majority of them explain the monster primarily or entirely as a
prodigious sign of divine wrath, and the lusus naturae theory is typically
subordinate or absent. Nonetheless, the popularity of these texts, the
reported behavior of spectators within the texts, and in many cases the
authors’ own rhetorical framing of the monstrous spectacle all suggest
that these monsters are expected to provoke curiosity and pleasure.
Furthermore, there is no demonstrable positive correlation between the
relative predominance of the lusus naturae model in a given text and its
potential appeal. Appreciating the monster does not require believing that
it is the playful product of a benevolent God or an innocent scientific or
natural wonder. The prodigy complex and the manifest wrath of an angry
God are themselves powerful sources of pleasurable imaginative engage-
ment. This is the same kind of appeal that Shakespeare’s Richard III
exploits through Richard’s fascinating, monstrous deformity and the
destructive divine power invoked by Margaret’s curses.


Sermon writers had the ability and the responsibility to engage with the
theology of divine punishment in ways that ballads could not.
Nonetheless, sermons shared important needs and concerns with monster
ballads. Most fundamentally, both had to appeal to their audiences. A live
sermon is a performance, and a printed sermon is a commodity, and both
contexts demand that the sermon engage an audience with verbal artistry.
Claudia Richter (2007) observes that “Preachers had to compete with
players and were forced to fully exploit the performative possibilities of the
sermon” (55). Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique (1553) asserts that

sermons are not exempt from the Horatian requirement to mingle delight
with their instruction: “excepte menne finde delight, thei will not long
abide. . . . And that is the reason, that menne commonly tary the ende of a
merie plaie, and cannot abide the halfe hearyng of a sower checkyng
Sermon” (A2v).24
Wilson pointedly implies that preachers should emulate actors and
dramatists, and apparently many succeeded in doing so. Walsham
describes the audience for early modern sermons as large, diverse, and
enthusiastic, including not only members of the “religious elite” but also
“restive and wayward youth” (62) and “pleasure-loving and scandalmon-
gering crowds” (63). Peter McCullough (2005) notes the common early
modern practice of “attending sermons as a form of entertainment” (xxii),
and he documents some of the ways in which sermon audiences could
behave like theater fans: “The court Lent sermons attracted thousands and
were followed by Londoners as well as courtiers with the keen interest
reserved at other times of the year for theatergoing and blood sports
(pastimes outlawed during Lent)” (xxi). He also quotes a letter by John
Chamberlain on the response to Lancelot Andrewes’s 1609 Christmas
sermon, which was “preached on Christmas day last with great applause:
the King with much importunitie had the copie delivered him on Tewsday
last . . . and sayes he will lay yt still under his pillow” (xxv).
Successful sermons had not only to convey theological arguments; they
also had to engage and educate the affective and aesthetic sensibilities of
their audiences.25 Indeed, because of their didactic obligations, preachers
arguably had to be more aware of audience response than ballad-makers. A
ballad could be considered successful if it sold well, regardless of what
buyers did with it, but sermons aspired to persuade and move their
audiences in very particular ways. Preachers needed to generate an affec-
tive response in order to condition their audiences to properly understand
the sermon’s religious message. The nature of their affective appeal varies,
but many sermons sought “to fascinate, entertain and frighten their
audiences” (Richter 55), evoking the same combination of pleasure and
terror as the monster ballads. More precisely, many early modern sermons
employ sinister aesthetics to make the artistic representation of divine
punishment pleasurably terrifying.
Although sermon writers deliberately generate and exploit sinister aes-
thetics, they find them troubling to theorize. Sermons, even more than
other forms of early modern literature, had to encourage virtue and
discourage vice. The primary theoretical model for accomplishing this

didactic project rested on the normative, Platonic assumption that good-

ness is naturally beautiful and evil is naturally ugly. Consequently, sermon
writers often present their images of evil and monstrosity as a form of
aversion therapy, terrifying or disgusting audiences so that they will shun
certain behaviors. In the third sermon of The Devills Banket. Described in
foure Sermons (1614), Thomas Adams (1583–1653) derides the idea that
sinful things could cause pleasure, suggesting it is a nonsensical paradox:
“It is a strangely-affected soule, that can finde Sweetnesse in sinne. Sinne is
the depravation of goodnesse: the same that rottennesse in the Apple,
sowrenesse in the Wine, putrefaction in the flesh, is sinne in the con-
science. Can that be sweet which is the depraving and depriving of all
sweetnesse?” (96).26 Adams’s term “strangely-affected” refers to someone
capable of experiencing a positive affective response to a representation
that violates normative standards—in other words, a sinister aesthetic
sensibility. Adams condemns this “strangely-affected soule” pursuing
worldly pleasures as perverse and sinful, and he figures Christian virtue
as the normative, “sweet” position. This assertion of the Platonic para-
digm occurs fairly often in early modern sermons. Jeremy Taylor’s “Apples
of Sodom” (discussed below) relies on the conviction that the true face of
evil is unattractive, as does Leigh’s monster pamphlet (discussed above).
These moralists’ claims to be mystified by the appeal of sin are at least
partly disingenuous. Sermon writers such as Adams presumably had some
idea of why people enjoyed certain sinful behaviors. Indeed, so many
secular pastimes had been labeled as sinful in one sermon or another
that preachers could hardly have avoided some familiarity with them.
Moreover, preachers and ballad-makers must also have been aware that
their own verbal depictions of sin, and the punishment of sin, were poetic
constructions that could be pleasurable despite violating normative sensi-
bilities. Adams’s description of the “Charnell-house” of hell (quoted
below), which occurs in the very next sermon of The Devills Banket,
would be a prime example. Even Adams’s denial of the pleasures of sin
evokes a variety of fermented flavors that could produce a more aestheti-
cally complex and interesting effect than simple sweetness, at least while
they remain verbal descriptions and not actual foods.
Indeed, despite their own condemnations, many religious writers relied
on monstrous births or other prodigious events of the sort commonly
described in ballads, not only for their didactic potential but because they
were seen as popular, attractive topics. As A. W. Bates (2005) suggests,
“Writers such as Luther realized that they could use monsters as emblems

to convey religious or moral arguments to people who would not read a

theological tract but who might read an account of a monster” (28). A
homily by the Swiss preacher Rudolf Gwalther (1519–1586), originally in
Latin but published in an English translation in 1572, provides a good
example of how sermon writers capitalized on the appetite for prodigies.27
Gwalther says that “The Prophet proponeth divers kinds of woonders, to
make us the more attent,” including:

blasing starres, firebrands, flashings of light, flying Dragons, long starres like
swordes and dartes . . . earthquakes . . . straunge inundations and overflow-
ings of waters, monstrous births of children, the uncouth voice of beasts,
springs of waters running with bloude, the straunge fruites of trees and
plantes. . . . The meaning of all which, is, that . . . whither soever wee turne
our eyes, there shall appeare the horrible signes of Gods wrath and his
judgements. (chapter 2, homily 13, page 99)

All of the calamities Gwalther describes, not only the monstrous births, were
popular ballad subjects, and this list gives a sense of the range of fantastical
elements that both ballad and sermon writers could draw upon in order to
attract audiences and keep them engaged. Each individual wonder is described
briefly but vividly, and the rapid concatenation of prodigies produces a passage
that is rich with sinister imagery. Like the ballad writers, Gwalther highlights
their simultaneously wondrous and “horrible” nature. He also emphasizes that
they are “signes of Gods wrath” and not, as “Astrologers” might claim, “things
proceeding of natural causes.”
A few published English sermons take a specific, local instance of a
monstrous birth as one of their primary subjects, much as a monster ballad
would. William Leigh, who wrote or at least contributed to the 1613
pamphlet on a monstrous birth in his parish, also published in the same
year a pair of sermons called The drumme of devotion striking out an
allarum to prayer, by signes in heaven, and prodigies on earth, which
describe and comment on the same monster:

To wit, a dead childe, base borne, of lewd parents, having foure leggs, and
foure armes, all out of the bulke of one bodie, with fingers and toes
proportionable: which bodie had two bellies and two navels forward, with
one plaine backe, without seame or division, it had but one head, and that of
a reasonable proportion, with two faces, the one looking forward, and the
other backward. (42)

Leigh’s experience and involvement with the cheap print literature on

monsters is evident here. His description of the child is essentially indis-
tinguishable from the prose accompaniments to monster ballads. In both
cases, the writer establishes the witnesses for the monstrous birth and
describes the form of the child with a quasi-clinical detachment and
attention to anatomical details.
In a broadside, this relatively neutral description would be followed by
the verse ballad itself, which would offer a more melodramatic and didactic
presentation of the monster as a prodigy. Leigh’s sermon similarly pro-
ceeds to a more emotionally weighted moralization of the monster he has
just described:

The many legges and armes may tax our untollerable pride, and averise,
reaching heere, and treading there yea in robbing well nere all Gods crea-
tures, to fil the belly & cloath the backe, with costly and garish sutes,
madding the minde, and making bodies monstrous. . . . Two mouthes tak-
ing in, & two bellies casting out, taxe our insatiable desire of belly cheere &
drunkenness. . . . Lastly, two faces may taxe the world of palpable hypocrisie,
divellish deceit, & damned equivocation. (43–44)

This blazon, in which Leigh provides allegorical interpretations of the

monster’s individual body parts, is also typical of early modern treatments
of monsters. For example, the seventeenth-century ballad Prides fall: Or,
A Warning for all English Women describes a similarly two-faced mon-
strous birth in Geneva:

It had two faces strange,

and two heads painted fair,
On the brows curled locks,
such as our wantons ware.
One hand held right the shape
of a fair Looking-glasse,
In which I took delight
how my vain beauty was:
Right the shape of a Rod,
scourging me for my sin:
The other seem’d to have,
perfectly seen therein. (part 2, lines 5–16)

In both cases, the monster’s individual limbs take on a symbolic signifi-

cance that reproaches the habits of contemporary English society.28 While
this itemization of limbs is indebted to the Petrarchan blazon, it also belongs
to the tradition of the chimera, the monster formed from diverse parts.
An even closer point of intersection between the genres of the sermon
and the monster ballad is the pamphlet by the Calvinist preacher Thomas
Bedford (d. 1653), entitled A True and Certaine Relation Of a Strange-
Birth which was borne at Stone-house in the Parish of Plimmouth, the 20. of
October. 1635. Together with the Notes of a Sermon, preached Octob. 23.
1635. in the Church of Plimmouth, at the interring of the sayd Birth.29 The
two-part title accurately reflects the structure of the work and conditions
the expectations of prospective readers. The first half would be a conven-
tional title for a monster ballad or pamphlet, whereas the second part of
the title promises a transcript of a sermon. The pamphlet itself begins with
all of the ingredients of a commercial broadside ballad except the verse
ballad itself. The first page is a full-page woodcut image of the monster,
which is followed by a prose description designed to evoke the curiosity
and allay the skepticism of readers interested in monsters. As in many
broadside ballads, this description is neutral in tone and refrains from overt
moralizing or identifying the monster as a terrifying prodigy. Instead of
the verse ballad that would ordinarily follow, the core of the pamphlet is
Bedford’s sermon on the monstrous birth, which does of course moralize.
Bedford’s sermon is notable for its explicit engagement with the pro-
blematic popularity of monsters. He acknowledges but criticizes the use of
monsters for pleasure and financial profit, condemning people who carry
“Monsters and mishapen births . . . up and downe the country for sights to
make a gaine by them.” These living and dead bodies are, in effect,
“prostituted to the covetousnesse” of those who display them in exchange
for money (B3v-B4). Bedford also opposes the “Philosophers” and “phy-
sicians” who credit purely scientific theories about the natural origins of
monstrous births (B4v). He argues instead for seeing the monsters as the
“speciall handyworke of God” (B3v) that should instruct us to “see and
bewaile the iniquity and irreligion of this our Age” (C3v).
The idea that monsters are a form of divine punishment that represents
and rebukes human “iniquity” would be equally familiar to ballad and
sermon audiences, and Bedford’s own pamphlet is deeply implicated in the
monster ballad tradition. Its title and structure advertise the monster as a
fascinating wonder, and Bedford thereby appears to encourage or at least

to capitalize on the very sentiments he preaches against. Bedford derides

“The common sort” who “make no further use of these Prodigies and
Strange-births, than as a matter of wonder and table-talk: looke upon
them with none other eyes, than with which they would behold an
African monster, a mishapen beast” (C3v). However, he also describes
monsters as examples of the “wonderfull workes of God” (B2) that are
“presented to the world to be seene and to be admired” (A3). In other
words, Bedford cannot seem to decide whether in this context the emo-
tion of wonder is forbidden or mandatory.
Bedford’s text thus displays a deep ambivalence about the proper
affective response to monsters, reflecting larger cultural concerns about
artistic representations that violate normative standards. On the one hand,
he claims that a delight in monsters would be unnatural: “Our delight is to
be measured by our desires, nor doe I see it lawfull to delight in what may
not be desired. And who would desire a mishapen Birth, to be the issue of
his owne body?” (B4v). This assertion is congruent with normative stan-
dards and mirrors the ballads’ frequent insistence on the ugly and abhor-
rent nature of their subject matter. On the other hand, Bedford
subsequently acknowledges that people like to look at monsters:

Consider wee this birth, thus double-membred, to have seene them lying
upon the table, to see them deciphered upon the paper might happily be
thought a sight not much unpleasant: But let your imagination give them
life, and tell mee how uncomfortable, yea burthensome must they be to
others, yea and to themselves. (C2, my italics)

Bedford, with surprising frankness (albeit couched in litotes), admits that

pleasure would be the most obvious potential response to viewing the
monster, and implies that the pleasure of seeing it is only belatedly
counteracted by contemplating the human suffering it implies. He pre-
sents the monster here as an aesthetic object with its own inherent visual
appeal that needs to be defused by invoking a more socially appropriate
moral and affective framework. In other words, the monster offers a
sensual temptation analogous to but distinct from the beautiful. This is,
once again, that species of the sinister Augustine calls curiositas, and it is
something Bedford finds deeply troubling even as he uses it to engage
with his audience. Bedford’s sermon provides one of the clearest examples
of this inconsistent attitude about whether pleasurable wonder is the right
or wrong response to prodigies, but it reflects a much broader tendency

for early modern writers to exploit the appetite for monsters and hideous
wonders while condemning it as unnatural.
Even if they do not specifically discuss monstrous births, a large portion
of the sermons from the late 1500s and early 1600s similarly exploit the
power of the sinister to create vivid, engaging descriptions of other forms
of divine punishment. Their authors explored the poetics of the infernal
using techniques partly inspired by the literary and theatrical traditions.
The same Thomas Adams who railed against the appeal of evil demon-
strated his attention to Jacobean revenge tragedy by delivering a sermon
called “The White Devil” on March 7, 1612 at the popular venue of Paul’s
Cross—at most two months after the debut of John Webster’s play of the
same name.30 Moreover, Moira P. Baker (1995) notes thematic and
stylistic connections between Adams’s sermons and the morbid and gro-
tesque imagery of plays such as The Revengers Tragedy and Webster’s The
Duchess of Malfi (6).31 Adams’s The Devills Banket describes hell as

a vast Charnell-house, hung round with lamps burning blew and dimme, set
in hollow corners; whose glimmering serves to discover the hideous tor-
ments: all the ground in stead of greene rushes, strewed with funerall
rosemary and dead mens bones: some corpses standing upright in their
knotted winding-sheetes; others rotted in their Coffins, which yawne wide
to vent their stench: there the bare ribs of a Father that begat him, heere the
hollow skull of a Mother that bare him. How direfull and amazing are these
things to sense! (193–194)32

As the final sentence indicates, this passage is above all an appeal to

“sense,” and Adams advocates terror and amazement as affective responses
to the rich visual and olfactory stimuli he offers. Adams employs an
aesthetic of the macabre at precisely the same moment when Webster
and his fellow dramatists were drawing crowds to the theater with essen-
tially similar literary techniques. This congruence suggests that the sinister
also serves here to engage audiences and make the sermon more appealing,
even though it is rhetorically framed as an attempt to generate an aversion
to evil in the sermon audience.
Adams also provides vivid depictions of God’s wrath in the first of two
sermons, published in 1652 as God’s Anger, and Man’s Comfort:

But when once God rowzeth him, then have at their throats: then they shal
feel what it is to have lived so long in the anger of a God: When the Almighty

shall put himself into the fearfull formes of vengeance, and the everlasting
gulph of fire shal open to receive them into intolerable burnings; the
mercilesse divels seising on their guilty souls, and afflicting them with
incessant torments. (13–14)

This representation of the destructive, fiery anger of God is closely

related to Milton’s description of God casting Satan from heaven in
Paradise Lost:

Him the almighty power

Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the omnipotent to arms. (1.44–49)

Even the drawn-out syntax, indicating the depth of the fall and the end-
lessness of the ensuing torments, is similar in both passages. More impor-
tantly, in both cases God is associated with sinister elements such as fire,
demons, terrors, and torture. These manifestations of divine wrath are
wondrous in the same way that monsters and the other portents described
in ballads are, and the speakers of both passages seem to express a trium-
phant satisfaction with God’s ability to inflict such spectacular punish-
ments on the wicked.
Another crucial element of the representation of divine punishment in
these sermons is hyperbolic excess, similar to Spenser’s treatment of the
monster Errour. Accounts of the torments of hell repeatedly enjoin audi-
ences to imagine the worst thing they can, and then to imagine something
infinitely worse than that. Accordingly, the language itself becomes over-
loaded with descriptive detail and long syntactic units. John Bunyan’s
Sighs from Hell (1666) provides exemplary demonstrations of this aes-
thetic of excess. First, his list of the Biblical names for hell creates an
overwhelming repetition of the word “fire”: “It is called a never dying
worm, Mark 9. It is called an oven, fire hot, Malach. 4.1. It is called a
furnace, a fiery furnace, Mat. 13. It is called the bottomless pit, the
unquenchable fire, fire and brimstone, hell fire, the lake of fire, devouring
fire, everlasting fire, eternal fire, a stream of fire. Rev. 21” (37).
More importantly, Bunyan’s representation of hell and its sufferings is
fundamentally governed by excess. Bunyan insists on the centrality of the

seemingly innocuous transition phrase “besides all this”—which he

repeats in an incantatory fashion until it becomes terrifying—for a proper
understanding of hell33:

Set case you should take a man, and tye him to a stake, and with red hot
pincers, pinch off his flesh by little pieces for two or three years together, and
at last, when the poor man cryes out for ease and help, the tormentors
answer, Nay, but besides all this, you must be handled worse.
We will serve you thus these 20. years together, and after that we will fill
your mangled body full of scalding lead, or run you through with a red hot
spit, would not this be lamentable? . . . But he that goes to Hell shall suffer
ten thousand times worse torments then these, and yet shall never be quite
dead under them. (78)

Hell, in his account, is as much about the idea of “besides all this” as it is
about scalding lead, red hot pincers, and so forth. It is about the limitless
multiplication of any torment mortals are capable of imagining, the fact
that new eons and forms of pain always lie beyond those already endured.
One of the most important ways that sermon writers generate rhetorical
and affective force is by juxtaposing moral and/or aesthetic opposites such
as good and evil, or celestial and infernal. This practice recalls the principle
of concordia discors articulated by Tasso (and many others), as well as
Augustine’s vision of good and evil as light and dark colors contributing
to the beauty of a chiaroscuro painting. Appreciating this contrast requires
both normative and sinister sensibilities, but the sinister frequently eclipses
or upstages the normative. Thomas Adams’s paired sermons, “God’s
Anger” and “Man’s Comfort,” are typical of this strategy on a large scale,
but it also occurs much more directly within individual passages, often at
climactic points in the sermon. This technique is incredibly common, but
one notable practitioner of it is the royalist preacher Jeremy Taylor (1613–
1667).34 In the first of three sermons collectively titled “Apples of Sodom,”
published in XXV Sermons Preached at Golden-Grove (1653), Taylor con-
trasts the pleasures offered by sin with its actual, hideous consequences:

so it is in sinne, its face is fair and beauteous, . . . Softer then sleep, or the
dreams of wine, tenderer then the curds of milk, . . . but when you come to
handle it, it is filthy, rough as the Porcupine, black as the shadowes of the
night, and having promised a fish it gives a scorpion, and a stone instead of
bread. (sermon 19, page 256)

Aesthetically, this passage profits from the friction or dissonance between

tender curds and spiky porcupines and ultimately between light and dark-
ness. In combining opposites so forcefully and intimately, it oscillates
dizzyingly between normative and sinister frames of reference. The didac-
tic payoff, however, relies on an exclusively normative or Platonic para-
digm: Sin may cover itself in deceptive beauty, but being evil it is
inherently ugly, and therefore unpleasant. Therefore, simply revealing
the true face of sin will naturally lead readers to shun it.
Taylor’s own sermons call this premise into question. In the second of
three sermons collectively titled “Dooms-Day Book: Or, Christ’s Advent
to Judgment” (also published in XXV Sermons), Taylor again juxtaposes
the wages of virtue and sin, while combining the aesthetics of excess and
concordia discors:

As there are treasures of good things; and God hath Crowns and Scepters in
store for his Saints and servants, and Coronets for Martyrs, and Rosaries for
Virgins, and Phials full of Prayers, and bottles full of tears, and a register of
sighs and penitentiall groans: so God hath a treasure of wrath and fury, of
scourges and scorpions, . . . and by this time the monsters and diseases will be
numerous, and intolerable, when Gods heavie hand shall press the sanies and
the intolerablenesse, the obliquity and the unreasonablenesse, the amaze-
ment and the disorder, the smart and the sorrow, the guilt and the punish-
ment out from all our sins, and pour them into one chalice, and mingle them
with an infinite wrath, and make the wicked drink off all the vengeance, and
force it down their unwilling throats with the violence of Devils and
accursed Spirits. (sermon 2, pages 19–20)

Since sanies is “A thin fetid pus mixed with serum or blood, secreted by a
wound or ulcer” (OED 1, which cites this passage), this would indeed be
an unpleasant beverage, even before adding “the intolerablenesse.” The
redundancy is part of the point, of course. While few would wish to drink
from Taylor’s chalice, the passage itself is lush and extravagant in its
representation of hideous excess, and this kind of language presumably
attracted audiences to his sermons, just as similar language ensured the
popularity of Jacobean revenge tragedies. Indeed, while Tasso’s or
Augustine’s aesthetic theories suggest that evil can be beautiful only
when subsumed within a larger whole that is good, the sinister in this
passage is not subordinate to normative beauty, nor even parallel as
in the previous example. Rather, it overwhelms the normative. The

representation of good here is merely a setup, a straight line, as it were, for

the much longer and more compelling representation of evil, which
provides the true rhetorical climax and seeks to engage the imagination
most strongly. Many other sermons of the period reveal similar aesthetic
Thus, monstrous births and other horribly wondrous forms of divine
punishment remain staples not only in the more worldly ballads and
pamphlets, but also in sermons. Although preachers deplore the fascina-
tion with the sinister as perverse and sensationalist, in practice they recog-
nize and appropriate its power. As a consequence, both sermons and cheap
print appear to pursue the seemingly antagonistic goals of moral instruc-
tion and sinister pleasure. This combination has proved paradoxical and
confusing to many modern scholars. Walsham finds it “intractably difficult
to decide” if cheap print accounts of divine punishment “are titillation
under the pretence of religious admonition or homilies camouflaged as
marvellous tales” (50). While sermons present less ambiguity in their
priorities, the genre’s heightened moral responsibility makes even a care-
fully subordinated use of the sinister potentially problematic. This uneasy
combination could be seen as a cynical and somewhat hypocritical market-
ing strategy, by which ballad and sermon authors try to have it both ways.
Ballad-makers sugar-coat their sensationalist texts with a superficial gloss
of sermonizing—what Walsham calls a “pious varnish” (39)—to make
their work seem more socially respectable. Conversely, sermon writers
sugar-coat the moral messages of their sermons with attention-grabbing
sensationalism, in a version of Sidney’s “medicine of cherries” model for
using aesthetic delight to mask unpleasant moral instruction. Of course, as
with Spenser’s poetic depiction of Errour, the cherries in question would
be monstrous ones.
To an extent, the sensationalism of sermons and the piety of ballads
can indeed be seen as ploys to attract and mollify audiences, but this
view is ultimately somewhat reductive. Certainly, all of these texts are
shaped by the exigencies of the marketplace, and in consequence their
authors appropriate techniques developed for other genres and rheto-
rical contexts. However, it is even more important to understand the
ways in which the aesthetic and moral components of these texts are
linked; one is not merely a deceptive shell for the other, as Walsham
suggests. All of these texts, the nominally secular and the explicitly
pious, make significant theological claims, and those claims are inti-
mately bound up with the appeal of monsters and other forms of

divine punishment. These texts reveal the fundamental connection

between aesthetics and religion and the central role of sinister aes-
thetics in early modern Christian theology and piety.


As we have seen, ballads, pamphlets, and sermons spend a great deal of
time describing the horrific punishments God metes out to sinners.
This emphasis on God’s destructive and hellish aspects highlights the
particular urgency for early modern English Protestants of one of the
oldest and most important theological conundrums of Christianity:
the problem of evil. Traditionally attributed (in a pre-Christian formu-
lation) to Epicurus, the problem is, in essence, how to reconcile the
existence of evil with the existence of a God who is omniscient, omni-
potent, and completely benevolent. Tertullian, one of the earliest
Christian theologians writing in Latin, articulates a version of the
problem of evil in Adversus Marcionem that uses the Fall as a synec-
doche for evil more generally: “If God is good, you ask, and has knowl-
edge of the future, and also has power to avert evil, why did he suffer
the man, deceived by the devil, to fall away from obedience to the law,
and so to die?” (book 2, chapter 5, page 97). In the modern era, this
logical conundrum is most often used to question the existence of God.
Early modern religious texts, in contrast, usually shy away from doubt-
ing God’s existence, but they do grapple seriously with the question of
whether God, whom they frequently depict as destructive, torturing,
and teratogenic, is evil. John Donne, for example, acknowledges in one
of his sermons “That that God who is all goodnesse in himselfe, should
yet have his hand in every ill action, this the naturall man cannot digest,
not comprehend” (8.14.618–620).35 This is the core of the problem of
evil for early modern English writers, and the sermon genre provided
them with both the opportunity and the obligation to address it in a
more carefully theorized way than other genres could.
In order to provide a theological account of the proper relationship
between God and evil, early modern preachers distinguished between two
kinds of evil for which God might have different levels of responsibility.
God is innocent of malum culpae, the evil of sin, guilt, or crime; but he is
responsible for malum poenae, the evil of punishment or penalty. These
terms were used, perhaps for the first time, by Tertullian and picked up by
many subsequent theologians, notably Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274).36

Augustine explains the distinction (albeit with different terminology) and

its consequences for our understanding of God’s character in his philoso-
phical dialogue On Free Choice of the Will (De Libero Arbitrio): “we use
the word ‘evil’ in two senses: first, when we say that someone has done evil;
and second, when we say that someone has suffered evil. . . . God is a cause
of the second kind of evil, but in no way causes the first kind” (book 1,
chapter 1, page 1).
A sermon preached on July 23, 1626 by William Hampton (c1600–1677)
and published as A Proclamation of Warre from the Lord of Hosts (1627)
provides a succinct seventeenth-century articulation of the problem and
Tertullian’s solution:

But this may seeme a strange Paradox to some; that that God . . . who is not
onely Bonus, sed ipsa bonitas, good, but goodnesse it selfe, should be Author
mali, the Author of evill. . . . To unloose this knot, the Schoole affords an
olde distinction of malum culpae & malum poenae. . . . Concerning the
former, evill as it is sinne, God is by no meanes the Author of it. . . . But
concerning the latter, evill which is the punishment of sinne, God is the
Author of that: All afflictions & calamities which are the rewards of sinne, are
sent upon man by the mighty hand of God. (5)37

Hampton specifically cites the relevant passages in Tertullian and

Augustine as sources for this argument: “as Tertullian speakes, lib. 2.
cont. Marcionem, pag. 180. Malum delicti, et malum supplicii: or as
Saint Augustine distinguisheth in other words, but to the same effect.
Tomo sexto. Contra Adimantum, cap. 26. Malum quod facit homo, et
malum quod patitur homo. Evill which man doth which is sinne, and
evill which man suffereth, which is the punishment of sinne” (5).
The same terminology appears in theological works written from a
variety of Protestant perspectives, including the sermons of Lancelot
Andrewes, John Donne, and Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana. In a pub-
lished sermon originally preached on June 11, 1592, Andrewes presents
the idea as commonplace among his fellow theologians: “We hold it worse
in Divinitie, to lay upon GOD, that evill which we call malum culpae, then
the other which we terme malum poenae, which hath beene inflicted on
many an innocent good man.”38 Donne translates malum poenae into
English in his assertion of God’s role in doing evil: “all the evill (that is, all
the penall ill, all plagues, all warre, all famine,) that is done in the World,
God doth” (Sermons 7.14.610–612).39

The question of God’s justice in applying punishments produced some

divergence in early modern opinion. As Andrewes notes, the evil that God
inflicts does not only fall upon those who deserve it but also on “many an
innocent good man.” On the other hand, Calvinists and others who
placed a stronger emphasis on the corrupting effects of original sin could
argue that since the Fall, all humans deserve any punishment God sees fit
to mete out. Bedford’s True and Certaine Relation, for example, asks:
“Know wee not that God hath just cause to blast every birth of ours, if he
would be extreme?” (C2v). Bedford encourages his audience to see mon-
strous births as the default product of human conception, and he argues
that “it is a singular Mercie of God, when the Births of the Wombe are not
mis-formed: when they receive their faire and perfect feature” (C2).40
Even at the moment of conception, then, we already merit the most
horrific punishments imaginable.
This argument would seem to justify virtually any action on God’s
part, no matter how apparently cruel, provided it could be classified as a
punishment and not a sin. In practice, even this caveat did not always hold
up, and God’s relationship to sin could become more intimate than the
categorical statements quoted earlier might suggest. For example, Donne
denies that God is “author of any sin, as sin; but as sin is a punishment of
sin, he concurs with it” (Sermons 2.1.685–686). God could thus poten-
tially move humans to commit sin when the sin itself is a punishment for a
prior sin. Many early modern theologians describe God as hardening the
hearts of sinners, so that they will sin further and incur a heavier punish-
ment, an idea inspired by references in Exodus to God hardening the heart
of Pharaoh (e.g., 7:13). Such accounts of God’s relationship to sin risked
blurring the line between malum culpae and malum poenae, thereby
implicating God in precisely the kind of evil from which theologians
sought to exonerate him.
From within these complexities, a persistent strand of early modern
theological argument emerges that ascribes to God a particular kind of
responsibility for evil: a responsibility for the form that it takes. In a
sermon preached on Nov 5, 1616, Andrewes emphasizes God’s ability
to shape the evil actions of men into the forms that best comport with the
divine will: “Domini sunt exitus: The Issues of all attempts are in the hands
of GOD; them He reserves to himselfe, as his owne peculiar; yea, even of
evill attempts. For, howsoever He be not at the beginning of them; at the
end, He must be, or no end will be: Domini sunt exitus.”41 In other words,

God collaborates with mortals in developing the form taken by acts of

malum culpae, and of course he is wholly responsible for the form of the
subsequent malum poenae.
Thus, a number of early modern writers of various Protestant persua-
sions offer a striking answer to the ancient problem of how to reconcile the
presence of evil with an omnipotent and benevolent God. In essence, they
suggest that God’s responsibility for evil is not moral but aesthetic.
Creatures are morally responsible for their own sins, and therefore for
their own punishments. Any punishments that might appear unjust to the
naïve observer can be justified by humanity’s collective responsibility for
original sin, which was the result of a free choice by mortals. God, while
remaining morally good and just, shapes the form and sensual qualities
both of sin and its punishments in order to communicate with humans,
who are expected to read these punishments as one would interpret a
literary text or allegory. As Debora Shuger says of Donne’s theology,
“God’s power is manifest in His ability to make signification; He not
only does everything but ascribes meanings and plots the didactic narrative
of crime and punishment that constitutes national history and individual
biographies” (Habits 201). In this early modern view, God is an author or
an artist, and, as Augustine suggested, evil is one of the essential materials
of his art.
The fact that the distinction between malum culpae and malum
poenae persists from the very beginnings of Christianity through the
early modern period indicates both the strength and the limitations of
its explanatory power. On the one hand, theologians over the centuries
found the idea worth appropriating. On the other, the problem of evil
remained just as urgent for believers in the 1600s (and beyond) as it
was in the 200s. One reason for the persistence of the theological
problem of evil is the failure of theologians to fully address the aes-
thetic and affective elements of the human understanding of God.
Even though theological arguments that appear to exonerate God in
the strictly moral and logical sense have existed since the early begin-
nings of the Christian religion, the problem of evil remains, because
believers also have to love God and feel good about the way he
chooses to organize and run the universe. Yet God’s artistic
responsibility for the horrific forms taken by the evils of crime and
punishment reveals something potentially disturbing about God’s own
aesthetic sensibilities.


As represented by early modern writers, the justice of God has a funda-
mentally aesthetic component. The central religious claim made by the
vast majority of the ballads, pamphlets, and sermons dealing with monsters
during this period is that the monsters are sent by God as a warning and/
or punishment. The widespread belief that “God was the author of mon-
sters” (Bates 28) moves many cheap print and sermon writers to describe
the monster itself as a scriptural text or sermon. At least two ballads, the
Chychester A discription and John Barker’s The true description of a
monsterous chylde, borne in the Ile of Wight (1564), explicitly say that the
monster “preacheth” or should be taken by the audience as a “preaching.”
Bedford’s True and Certaine Relation, echoing the sentiments of these
ballads, asserts that “These Births (as I said) though dead, yet speake and
preach to the world the present hand of God in the wombe of the mother”
(B4v). Indeed, Bedford makes this idea the central conceit of his sermon,
which takes as its Biblical text a passage from Hebrews 11:4 (cited as
11:3): “Being dead, yet speaketh” (B2). As Crawford argues, accounts of
monstrous births are “singularly concerned with reading and interpreta-
tion. In these stories the monsters themselves are texts written by God:
their bodies are transparent to the crimes they punish, and they render the
private beliefs and behaviors of early modern men and women spectacu-
larly legible” (3). Because the monster is frequently imagined as a Biblical
text, Razovsky rightly calls ballad interpretations of the monster a form of
hermeneutics. In figuring the monster as a verbal text, though, these
writers also encourage readers to evaluate monsters according to literary
criteria. As such, they would have two basic functions: to instruct and to
Divine punishment itself thus operates according to poetic principles.
Indeed, ballads and sermons about monsters frequently explain their
moral message in terms of what many critics have called “poetic justice”
(e.g., Crawford 11, Walsham 77). In other words, the physical form of the
monster metaphorically reflects, embodies, or ironically comments on the
sin that the monster is sent to warn against or punish. These sins varied a
great deal in their nature and level of specificity. Monsters could be used to
condemn religious, political, sexual, or sartorial practices. They could
function as retribution for past sins or warnings against future transgres-
sions. They could reflect the sins of an entire nation, the particular faults of
a parish, or the malfeasance of individuals (e.g., the parents). The 1646

pamphlet A Declaration of a strange and Wonderfull Monster: Born in

Kirkham Parish in Lancashire suggests God’s support for the parliamen-
tarian side in the English Civil War: its title page describes a headless child
born “after the mother had wished rather to bear a Childe without a head
then a Roundhead.” Leigh’s sermon The drumme of devotion and the
ballad Prides fall (already quoted), which both treat monsters as blazons,
similarly invoke the concept of poetic justice.42 As Walsham observes,
“God sometimes encoded a particular message in the contorted limbs
and tumorous growths of these unfortunate infants, projecting onto
their diminutive bodies a silhouette of the sins which had infested the
body politic” (195). This strategy was not restricted to monsters. Donne
provides an example of poetic justice in the punishment for a man who
curses: “As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him; as he clothed himself
with cursing, as with a garment, so let it be as a girdle, wherewith he is girded
continually” (Sermons 7.14.660–662). The curses in Richard III often
follow a similar pattern (e.g., 1.3.194–211).
The idea of poetic justice of punishments that are figuratively, allegori-
cally, or aesthetically appropriate to the crime has a long history, but it
occurs most famously in Dante’s Inferno, where it is called “contrapasso”
(canto 28, line 142). As John Freccero describes it in his discussion of
Dante’s “infernal irony” in Dante: The Poetics of Conversion (1986):

The punishments in hell have little to do with moral theology and almost
nothing with the physiology of pain. It is not clear, for example, why even a
fictive body would be any better off being roasted alive than being frozen in
a lake of ice, although the former represents a far less severe punishment in
terms of the scale of culpability than the latter. I would like to suggest rather
that the punishments are a clear example of what was later to be called
“poetical justice,” with all of the irony that the phrase implies. The punish-
ments fit the crimes, provided we understand “fittingness” as an esthetic
category. (105)

Freccero rightly identifies the guiding principles behind this kind of divine
punishment as aesthetic ones, and he suggests the ambivalent response
they might provoke in audiences, calling them “revolting” but also wittily
As ballad, pamphlet and sermon writers represent the matter, God
constructs his messages to humanity using materials such as monsters,
disease, flame, poison, and darkness. Taylor’s “Apples of Sodom” observes

that “Sinne brings in its retinue, fearfull plagues and evill angels, messen-
gers of the displeasure of God,” and a vast repertoire of punishments,
which are virtually ubiquitous and include tortures: “We have done that,
for which God thought flaying alive not to be too big a punishment”
(sermon 21, pages 280–281). Taylor also links the devastating anger of
God to poison and the infernal: “he is angry at us with a destructive fury,
he hath dipt his arrowes in the venome of the serpent, and whets his sword
in the forges of hell; then it is time that a man withdraw his foot, and that
he start back from the preparations of an intolerable ruine” (sermon 21,
page 280). Hell here is not a realm opposed to God, but a resource that
God can draw upon in creating punishments for humanity.
It is precisely God’s aesthetic preference for the macabre and infernal in
his chastisements that is troubling and that no amount of moral reasoning
by theologians can erase, because it is not solely a moral concern.
Consenting to the necessity and rightness of divine punishment is not
the same as accepting God’s apparent desire to make those punishments as
hideous as possible. The ballad Natures Wonder? concludes with a terrify-
ing admonition, albeit rendered somewhat grotesque by the doggerel
verse in which it is expressed:

Then Parents all Example take,

at all times seek the Lord;
Fruit of your bodies he can make
by your own selves abhorr’d:
Your Children which should be a joy
and comfort in the end,
The Lord in fury will destroy,
if you do him Offend. (lines 89–96)

As Bedford says, we do not generally consider someone who seeks out

such spectacles to be healthy. Yet Bedford himself explains God’s respon-
sibility for monstrous births in an equally disturbing way:

If God hath (as it were) spit in the face, and laid the black-finger of
Deformity upon the body, ought it not to bee entertained with sorrow of
Heart, and Humiliation? Hath God written in great Letters the guilt of Sin,
and in a deformed body drawn a resemblance of the Soules deformity; drawn
it (I say) so; that others may see and know, that wee also are defiled in his
sight? (True and Certaine Relation C3)

In this image, God warps the baby in the womb by touching it and spitting
in its face, in order to transform it into a didactic text about original sin (as
the passage’s context makes clear, the baby is guilty only of the sin shared
equally by all humanity). Even if early modern spectators concurred with
God’s moral message about “the guilt of Sin,” as most of them ostensibly
would, the aesthetic and affective component of the problem of evil
remains. What does it mean that God prefers to torture people in creative
ways, that he chooses this particular aesthetic vehicle, rather than some
other, to convey his message?
Spitting in the face of an unborn child may seem gratuitous, and this
sense of gratuitousness is one of the more problematic aspects of many
early modern representations of divine punishment, precisely because it
implies that some of the evil humans experience might be for God’s
pleasure rather than for strict moral necessity. The 1634 English transla-
tion of Paré’s Des Monstres suggests that the primary cause of monsters is
not punishment per se, but rather “the glory of God”:

There are reckoned up many causes of monsters; the first whereof is the
glory of God, that his immense power may be manifested to those which are
ignorant of it, by the sending of those things which happen contrary to
nature: for thus our Saviour Christ answered the Disciples (asking whether
he or his parents had offended, who, being born blind, received his sight
from him) that neither he nor his parents had committed any fault so great,
but this to have happened onely that the glory and majesty of God should be
divulged by that miracle, and such great workes. (book 25, chapter 1, page

Paré alludes here to the Biblical story recounted in John 9, an episode

frequently mentioned in early modern discussions of monstrous births (see
Walsham 198–199). Just as God blinded the man in John 9 from birth to
adulthood so that Jesus might work the miracle of curing him, so God
deforms babies in the womb in order to demonstrate that he is capable of
doing it—essentially, he does it because he can. Only after establishing this
as the chief explanation for monsters does the passage go on to note,
almost as an afterthought, that “Another cause is, that God may either
punish mens wickednesse, or shew signes of punishment at hand” (page
962). The same idea appears in the pamphlet Two Most remarkable and
true Histories (1620). In the pamphlet’s first episode (the second involves
the birth of a monstrous cow), a “Maiden in her infancy was stricken with

lamenesse, that the Lord questionlesse might manifest his power and
goodnesse in her, and continued a criple 25. yeares, so that she could
neyther goe, sit, nor stand, but was carryed hither and thither by the helpe
of others” (4). Again, God is described as crippling a baby and allowing
them to grow to adulthood with a disability, in order to demonstrate his
goodness by subsequently curing them.
In these examples, the monsters are no longer moral punishments; they
have become purely didactic texts. With a literally infinite number of ways
to communicate the same message, unconstrained by any obligation to
visit justice on these particular individuals, God nonetheless chooses
methods that create arbitrary human suffering. As Bedford notes in his
own commentary on John 9, “But why God should take the forfeiture in
this, rather than in his Neighbor, this was meerely Ex Dei bene-placito, the
good pleasure of God, who had in this a purpose to prepare and make way
for the glory of Christ in curing the man” (True and Certaine Relation
C3v-C4). Bedford does note the collective sin of humanity, without which
such punishments would lack moral authority. Nonetheless, Bedford here
presents God’s choice of targets within this equally sinful population as
essentially arbitrary. At issue is not simply the guilt or innocence of God’s
victims, but the nature of God’s “good pleasure.”


All of the moral logic in the world would be insufficient to defend this kind
of behavior in a deity, unless the punishments in question could also be
made aesthetically and emotionally satisfying. It is for this reason that
sinister aesthetics are essential to early modern Christian theodicy. In
sermons no less than in ballads and pamphlets, the evocation of delight
in representations of monsters and infernal punishments proves insepar-
able from the texts’ didactic function. It is permissible to enjoy contem-
plating them provided that they are seen as divinely inspired prodigies and
not as sports of nature, or a crass, worldly spectacle like cockfighting.
However, this justification is not merely a rhetorical excuse for using
the sinister as entertainment. By endorsing this pleasure, moralists are
making significant truth claims about early modern conceptions of God,
about God’s aesthetic sensibilities as a producer of texts, and about the
affective responses that pious humans ought to have to God and his
messages/punishments. Specifically, these texts represent God as someone
who communicates with human beings by twisting some of them into

unnatural shapes, and they suggest that wonder and admiration are part of
the appropriate religious response to this representational strategy.
Reconciling audiences aesthetically and emotionally to a teratogenic
God is the most difficult element of a successful theodicy. In order to
make their vision of God palatable, religious writers must encourage
audiences to cultivate and apply their sinister sensibilities, to take pleasure
in God’s punishments rather than being appalled and repulsed by them as
a normative framework would demand.
From a normative perspective, a taste for the sinister appears aestheti-
cally perverse and therefore morally suspect. Although Christian discourse
routinely demonizes perversity, certain kinds of perversity have always
been central to Christian piety: the rejection of conventional worldly
values, priorities, and pleasures in favor of spiritual ones; the exaltation
of the poor and despised over the rich and powerful; and the glorification
of those who suffer torture, crucifixion, and martyrdom.43 Early modern
preachers adopted conflicting strategies for framing these paradoxical
values. Preachers like Thomas Adams try to normalize the Christian
renunciation of worldly pleasures, condemning the taste for sin as a
perverse, “strangely-affected” love of bitterness and figuring Christian
virtue as the normative, “sweet” position. By doing so, they downplay
the potential for paradoxical strangeness inherent in Christian piety. While
this rhetorical strategy makes it easier to formulate a coherent theoretical
justification of God, it sidesteps the more troublesome affective and
aesthetic challenges of theodicy by suggesting that the proper Christian
sensibility is so obviously normal and correct that everyone ought to have
adopted it already.
In contrast, John Donne’s sermons explicitly embrace an inverted
aesthetic sensibility as the epitome of Christian devotion, using the
same metaphoric language of sweetness and bitterness.44 One of
Donne’s sermons on the Penitential Psalms says of God that “Thy
corrosives are better then others fomentations; Thy bitternesses sweeter
then others honey” (5.15.370–371).45 Donne here figures worldly
values and pleasures as normative, and he presents Christian piety as
an acquired taste that violates normative aesthetics. Donne’s fourth
Prebend sermon (1626) identifies “some actions of a kinde of halfe-
horror and amazement” as central to “the frame and constitution of al
Religions” (7.12.526–529).46 This affect of horror is thus foundational
to the Christian experience as well: “In that very discipline which was
delivered from God, by Moses, the service was full of mysterie, and

horror, and reservation, By terrible things, (Sacrifices of blood in mani-

fold effusions) God answered them, then” (7.12.534–537). God’s mes-
sages are “darke” (7.12.571) not only in the primary early modern
sense of the word—obscure, mysterious, hidden, encoded in parables
or allegories—but also in that they are composed of blood and horror.
This is the medium, according to Donne, in which God prefers to
Donne’s argument highlights the sinister elements of Christian
piety, which allows him to address the real problems of theodicy
more directly. When he talks about God’s “corrosives” and “bitter-
nesses” being sources of delight, these terms encompass the full range
of God’s punishments, including monsters and the torments of hell. As
Shuger puts it in Habits of Thought, “The torturer is also the healer,
or, perhaps more accurately, one must see the torturer as the healer.
Hence faith is largely a matter of being able to appreciate paradoxes”
(199). However, something more than paradox is at work here. Donne
suggests that Christian piety requires training one’s aesthetic sensibil-
ities away from the normative and toward an alternative aesthetic that
stands in opposition to the normative. Where Thomas Adams’s sinners
foolishly choose the bitterness of sin over the sweetness of virtue,
Donne, a connoisseur of unusual pleasures, judiciously chooses the
bitterness of God’s chastisement over the sweetness of worldly joys.47
Donne simultaneously emphasizes God’s responsibility for evil and
tries to teach the audience to love it: “in every tentation, and every
tribulation, there is a Catechisme, and Instruction; nay, there is a
Canticle, a love-song, an Epithalamion, a marriage song of God, to
our souls, wrapped up, if wee would open it, and read it, and learn
that new tune, that musique of God” (2.1.694–701).48 For Donne,
learning to accept divine punishment is like learning an unfamiliar piece
of music. Like Tasso’s “dreadful harmony” of battle, this “musique of
God” may perhaps sound harsh and discordant to human ears, until we
understand its alien harmonic and melodic principles and develop an
aesthetic sensibility that allows us to appreciate it.
Considering the terrifying procession of monsters and other portents in
popular print texts, and the wealth of sermons condemning the sinfulness of
their hearers, it appears that early modern audiences were frequently asked to
envision themselves as the miserable objects of God’s wrath. From that
imaginative position, cultivating a proper appreciation for God’s providence
would require developing a kind of masochistic sensibility, whereby

audiences could find delight in their own abasement. This is the state of
mind that Donne seeks to inculcate when he exhorts his audience to love the
torments that God inflicts on them:

when Rottennesse enters into their Bones, yet they shall rest even in that day of
trouble, of dissolution, of putrefaction. God shall call upon them . . . Thou
whom I have beaten and bruised with my flayls, when I have threshed, and
winnowed, and sifted thee by these afflictions, and by this heavy hand, still
thou shalt fix thy faithfull eyes in heaven, and see a roome reserved there for
thee. (9.12.707–723)49

In building this sinister Christian sensibility, Donne tries to overcome

not only the aversion to pain, but also our normative disgust with
things that are rotten and putrefied. The glorification of suffering is, of
course, central to Christianity because of Christ’s crucifixion, and this
quasi-masochistic stance is a popular early modern solution to the
problem of how to appreciate and thereby justify the way God shapes
evil. Yet, for equally obvious reasons, learning to love one’s own
suffering remained a hard sell for many believers. Thus, this rhetorical
tack was not quite as well suited for use in cheap print or literary texts
that would be purchased and read voluntarily.
There was, however, another option that lent itself more readily to
participation in a competitive market for the attention of audiences, one
that mirrored more closely the function of the sinister in epic and drama.
In addition to asking audiences to focus on their own sufferings and how
well-deserved and salutary they were, religious writers could explicitly or
implicitly encourage audiences to admire the power, malice, and ingenuity
of God’s tortures. Imaginatively identifying with an angry and punishing
God, rather than with his abject victims, offered a greater potential for the
kind of genuine pleasure in God’s actions necessary to a successful affective
theodicy.50 Moreover, this perspective created the possibility for a better
understanding of the part of God’s nature most in need of justification: his
aesthetic sensibility.
As we have seen, many early modern ballads, pamphlets, and sermons
display just such an interest in teaching readers to take pleasure in God’s
creation of monsters by admiring the artistry of the deformities he creates.
A 1562 ballad, The true reporte of the forme and shape of a monstrous childe,
borne at Muche Horkesleye, contains a picture with the verse caption: “O,
prayse ye God and blesse his name/His mightye hande hath wrought the

same.” The audience’s responsibility in the face of these kinds of mon-

strous representations is to offer joyful praise and blessings. Similarly,
Barker’s 1564 ballad The true description of a monsterous chylde, which is
accompanied by a hideous woodcut larger than the ballad itself, praises
God for the monster: “Gods wonderous workes marke and beholde: the
which on earth hath sowen,/His noble actes are manifolde: his secretes are
unknowen” (lines 1–2). Here, the vivid details of the broadside ballad
seem to engage with a pleasurable aesthetics of the monstrous, while
presenting the monster itself as a noble act and wondrous work of God.
These assertions about God and the worship appropriate to him provide a
theological justification for writers to exploit the aesthetic appeal of mon-
strosity and evade what moralists recognize as its potentially unwholesome
aspect. The ballads suggest that God is the original artist who has designed
the shape of the child, and the human creators of the woodcut and the
ballad verses are simply imitating him. Therefore they are engaged in a
pious project and not merely pandering to prurient interest.
Bedford’s True and Certaine Relation expresses similar views: while at
times criticizing the sensational appeal of monsters, he repeatedly refers to
monsters as “wonderfull workes of God” (B2). However, as in the ballads,
this praise of God’s work becomes more disturbing as Bedford provides
more detail about the nature of God’s involvement in the production of
monsters. In one passage, for example, Bedford emphasizes with apparent
pride the direct—indeed, surprisingly intimate—attention that God gives
to the baby and mother:

The wombe is by the hand of God, sometimes closed up, that it receiveth
not, . . . sometimes opened or rather loosened, that it retayneth not, as in the
case of Abortive and untimely births. . . . And all these doe teach us the
presence of Gods Providence. Well may wee say, The hand of God hath
beene there. It is hee that thus hath hindered the worke of the wombe, and
withheld the blessing of a good Conception. (B2v)

There are several troubling elements in this account. First of all, the
insertion of the hand of God into the womb of the mother is presented
so concretely that it potentially evokes the idea of sexual violation.
Secondly, Bedford describes God exerting dispassionate, meticulous care
in producing an outcome that, as Bedford elsewhere acknowledges, will
ruin the life of a child and the happiness of a family. Yet Bedford also insists
that this is a praiseworthy activity. God shapes, or rather deforms, monsters

in the womb to show his “speciall handyworke” (B3v). In other words,

there is an artfulness to the creation of deformity that we are supposed to
appreciate. For Bedford and other writers who represent monsters as divine
punishment, enjoying the spectacle of monstrosity—an appetite that
Shakespeare’s Richard III exploits but that Shakespeare’s Trinculo con-
demns as hypocritical and heartless—becomes a Christian obligation. As
Shuger says of Donne’s theology in his sermons: “Sin is the refusal to
interpret, to admit that the event is a sign. And it becomes ‘desperate and
irrecoverable’ precisely when the offender refuses to see God’s punish-
ments as punishments rather than bad luck” (Habits 201). The monster
must be viewed as the work of God, and in that capacity it must be praised
and appreciated.51
The fact that ballads were intended to be sung by their purchasers could
have encouraged such a pleasurable identification with the punishing God.
The Chychester ballad (A discription) begins with an account of God
smiting various enemies from the Bible, including Pharaoh and Sodom
and Gomorrah, and one could argue that performing this text would be
empowering rather than terrifying for the singer, who could see himself or
herself more as the executor of God’s judgment than as its victim.
In the case of sermons, the effect of performance would be more
complex. The preachers themselves may have felt empowered by deliver-
ing the word of God and calling down hellfire upon sinners, but this same
rhetoric would tend to place audiences in an abject position. Nonetheless,
early modern English sermons also encouraged audiences to exult in
God’s destructive capacity. For example, Thomas Adams’s “God’s
Anger” (1652) invites his audience to take pride in a sinister depiction
of God devouring his enemies:

What are all the Armies and Forces of Tyrants, to oppose the omnipotent
God? He will make a feast of them, for the fowles of the Aire, whom he
invites to the flesh of Captains, and to the flesh of Kings. [ . . . ] Our God is a
consuming fire; and he will consume them not only in anger, but in laugh-
ter. The Catastrophe of all rebellion is but the Sarcasmos or bitter scorn of
God. (7–8)

Adams depicts God not as a dutiful father regretfully punishing his errant
children, but as a being who annihilates his foes amid peals of derisive
laughter. The "Sarcasmos" of God literally adds insult to injury and again
demonstrates a gratuitous enjoyment of the forms of punishment that

goes beyond the strict demands of justice. The passage even implies that
God shares the carrion birds’ taste for human flesh: he prepares the corpses
as a feast for the birds and also consumes them himself as a fire. Adams
deliberately positions the audience with God and not his victims, by saying
“Our” God and by directing God’s anger at “Tyrants.” Taking ownership
of God’s wrath in this manner is empowering. Moreover, it provides a
religious justification for exulting in imaginative experiences that would
normally be considered transgressive, savage, and evil: the pleasures of
destruction by fire, eating human flesh, and mocking an utterly defeated
enemy. Cultivating this sinister sensibility allows the audience to feast
vicariously on the corpses of their enemies. At the same time, encouraging
the audience to empathize with the divine wrath fosters a closer relation-
ship between the audience and God, and an understanding of the opera-
tions of providence that goes beyond the theoretical to the visceral.

The pleasures offered by preachers like Adams are precisely the kinds of
pleasure that villains offer in early modern literature and drama. The bitter
scorn of Adams’s God destroying his enemies through the inexorable
operations of providence is poetically indistinguishable from the gleeful
laughter of the Vice, of Richard III as he savors the elaborately planned
destruction of his own enemies. But here it is morally justifiable—indeed,
pious—for the audience to take pleasure in it, because in doing so they are
simply reflecting on the divine sarcasm. Adams is not unusual in this
respect; on the contrary, his depictions of the wrath of God are quite
typical of what we see in a range of early modern religious texts, from
ballads to pamphlets to sermons.
From a normative perspective, living in a universe run by this kind of
God would be horrifying, but as the popularity of figures like Richard
suggests, early modern audiences also had well-developed sinister sensi-
bilities to which authors could appeal. In their depictions of divine punish-
ment, early modern ballads, pamphlets, and sermons attempt to apply that
pleasure to God, in order to make God’s own involvement with evil not
merely morally excusable, but emotionally satisfying.
The sermons of John Donne call attention to this process more explicitly
than most other contemporary sermons. Donne emphasizes the importance
of “mysterie, and horror” to the proper religious sensibility. He discusses
the necessity of learning to appreciate what appears to be evil as an aspect of

divine providence. Donne’s fellow religious writers were already borrowing

sinister representational strategies liberally from literature and drama, but
Donne’s sermons offer a clearer theoretical rationale for doing so. Donne
understands that a truly satisfying theodicy, whether in poetic or in sermon
form, must justify the existence of evil and the horrors of divine punishment
aesthetically and affectively, as well as logically.
For early modern ballad, pamphlet, and sermon writers, sinister aes-
thetics are essential to the project of theodicy because they allow writers to
make what would otherwise be intolerable seem fascinating. These authors
suggest that God himself possesses sinister sensibilities, which govern the
punitive aspects of divine providence. They encourage audiences to
develop their own sinister sensibilities, not only as a way to cope with
the evil of punishment, but also as an act of pious identification with divine
values. It is precisely this strategy that Milton adopts in Paradise Lost, in a
more sustained and sophisticated fashion than his literary and non-literary
predecessors, although the poem remains deeply indebted to and
embedded in these larger cultural conversations. Milton’s epic renders
the wrath of God as sinister poetry, and Milton uses that poetic technique
to offer an answer to the problem of evil that transcends moral logic and
speaks to the sensibilities of its readers. He understands, as Donne does,
that in order to truly “justify the ways of God to men” (1.26), he must get
readers to love and admire the full scope of divine punishment—from the
creation of monsters to the destruction of nations to the eternal torments
of hell—not merely accept it.

1. A full analysis of the causes of the English Civil War is beyond the scope of this
chapter. J. P. Sommerville’s Royalists & Patriots: Politics and Ideology in
England 1603–1640 (1999) identifies certain “royal policies” as particular
bones of contention: “taxation without consent, imprisonment without
cause shown, and the government of the church without Parliamentary advice”
(4). See also Christopher Hill’s The Century of Revolution: 1603–1714 (1980),
Glenn Burgess’s British Political Thought, 1500–1660 (2009), and Michael
Braddick’s God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil
Wars (2009). Braddick highlights the connections between the political
upheavals of the civil war and a perceived “chaos of religious opinion” in
England (xxii).
2. Historian Alexandra Walsham’s Providence in Early Modern England (1999)
argues that “Providentialism became a dangerously politicized discourse in

the decades preceding the outbreak of the Civil War, not in the sense that it
became the exclusive property of one party or faction, but because it operated
as a catalyst for criticism and as a weapon and tool wielded with increasing
aggression and crudity” (5–6). Moreover, Walsham essentially equates the
operations of providence (as it was understood in the period) with horrific
prodigies and disasters.
3. Julie Crawford (2005) identifies “thirty broadsheets and pamphlets”
describing monstrous births (187n4), and presumably many more have
not survived to the present day. On the popularity of monsters, see also
Mark Thornton Burnett’s Constructing ‘Monsters’ in Shakespearean Drama
and Early Modern Culture (2002), whose introduction and first chapter
provide a useful overview of where and how monsters were displayed and
written about in early modern England. On the persistence of the idea of the
monster as a portent, see Stephen Pender’s “‘No Monsters at the
Resurrection’: Inside Some Conjoined Twins,” published in Jeffrey J.
Cohen’s Monster Theory (1996; e.g., page 145).
4. For explanations of early modern births in modern medical terms, see A. W.
Bates’s Emblematic Monsters: Unnatural Conceptions and Deformed Births
in Early Modern Europe (2005), which provides a list of “Human
Monstrous Births, 1500–1700” (215).
5. See Rosamund Oates’s review article, “Sermons and Sermon-going in Early
Modern England” (2012) for a concise overview.
6. For a helpful description of the sermon form, see Peter McCullough’s
introduction to his 2005 edition of Andrewes (McCullough xxxi–xxxiii).
7. Walsham’s book, like this chapter, is “Based on an integrated analysis of
sermons and tracts by Protestant ministers and ballads and pamphlets
reporting ‘strange and wonderful newes’” (6), but she is engaged in a
much broader survey of English providentialism. One additional major
category of texts that Walsham identifies is the “English judgment book.”
She describes these books as “encyclopedias of providential punishments”
and collections of “grisly stories of supernatural justice,” and she cites
Thomas Beard’s The theatre of Gods judgements, published in 1597, as a
seminal example (65).
8. See Burnett on the connection between the fairground exhibition of mon-
sters and the theatrical stage (10). Burnett also suggests that Shakespeare’s
Richard III has some of the appeal of a fairground monster (66).
9. Watt classifies texts as either “worldly” or “godly” (46) in an effort to
“separate the religious element” from “the public interest in macabre stor-
ies” (108), although she rightly acknowledges that “it is almost impossible
to find a straight ‘news’ ballad in the sixteenth century which does not refer
to the greater ‘religious’ significance of the individual ‘secular’ event”

10. The Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee
(hereafter DNB, cited by volume and page number) notes that “After the
accession of James I he [Leigh] preached at the court, and the king appointed
him tutor to his eldest son, Prince Henry, over whom Leigh had great influence”
(11.879). Despite this evidence of James’s approval, Crawford characterizes
Leigh as having a “Puritan agenda” (98; see also 110).
11. For more on the relationship between pamphlets, plays, and sermons,
including their competition for audiences, their reciprocal appropriation of
each others’ tropes, and their strategies for combining sensationalism and
providentialism, see Peter Lake and Michael Questier, The Antichrist’s Lewd
Hat (2002).
12. As Walsham argues, “Notwithstanding the tirades of the clergy, sermons
and ephemeral literature . . . both were saturated with references to divine
providence; both shared a preoccupation with the blessings and punish-
ments God showered down upon mankind to reward virtue and correct
vice; both cried in unison for repentance and amendment” (32–33).
13. A similar formulation occurs in a ballad by John Barker, The true description
of a monsterous chylde, borne in the Ile of Wight (1564).
14. Crawford also observes how these accounts combine entertainment and
religious instruction, arguing that monsters functioned as “adverti-
sing . . . attracting readers to the texts’ godly content through the appeal of
marvelous images.” Compared to this chapter, however, her study takes a
more “micropolitical” approach (9).
15. For a variety of reasons, it is not always practical to offer line numbers or
other numerical locators for quotations from broadside ballads.
16. For Shakespeare plays other than Richard III, see The Complete Works,
edited by Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller (Penguin, 2002).
17. Art historian Sandra Cheng’s “The Cult of the Monstrous: Caricature,
Physiognomy, and Monsters in Early Modern Italy” (2012) notes that
“monsters made frequent appearances in Renaissance art in which pleasure
was their primary function” (202). She also discusses the popularity of
monster texts (see esp. 200–203, 220–222).
18. Multipage early modern texts from Early English Books Online are cited by
signature number when no page numbers are available.
19. On the lusus naturae, Daston and Park cite Fortunio Liceti’s 1616 treatise
De monstrorum natura, caussis et differentiis libri duo and other “medical
writers” (200). Sandra Cheng cites Liceti but notes that “the source of
Liceti’s opinion is Pliny’s Natural History” (211, 228). See also Paula
Findlen’s “Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of
Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe” (1990).
20. The translation is mine, from Jean Céard’s French edition (Librarie Droz,
1971, page 4).

21. Johnson was a botanist and apothecary who fought on the royalist side in
the English Civil War and died in 1644 (DNB 10.935).
22. A.W. Bates (2005) similarly argues that early modern society’s significant
investment in monsters—they were “routinely exhibited,” and “people were
prepared to travel and pay to see monsters, and then to buy and keep images
of them”—had to be motivated by something more than the “Horror and
repugnance” they supposedly inspired. He suggests a value placed on trans-
gressive hybridity: “human-animal intermediates, hermaphrodites and phy-
sical deformities have all been revered as well as tabooed” (21).
23. Crawford discusses the Puritan disapproval of cockfighting in her analysis of
this passage (97).
24. Parts of this passage are quoted in Knapp (118) and Walsham (315).
Thomas Wilson (c. 1525–1581) was a scholar whose political career culmi-
nated in his appointment as secretary of state in 1577 (DNB 21.603–607).
25. Debora Shuger suggests that the sermon teaches an affective position more
than a set of theological principles: “As the preacher shares in the divine
power, so the sermon recapitulates the strategies of sacred absolutism. It
does not teach a doctrine but operates rhetorically, affectively—a sort of
psychagogic warfare” (Habits 208). In contrast, Kevin Sharpe (2000) cate-
gorizes the “polemical sermon” as a genre that excludes the “visual, sensual
and emotional experience” of religion (390). Within the early modern period,
Spenser’s “Letter to Raleigh” also seems to contrast ideas that are "sermoned"
from those expressed poetically and allegorically (see Chapter 2).
26. Moira P. Baker (1995) notes that Thomas Adams was “Vilified by John
Vicars in a 1647 Puritan tract” as a lover of ceremonious religion and an
enemy of Parliament, but “acclaimed in the nineteenth century as . . . an
eminent Puritan divine” (4). According to Baker, Adams “maintained a
moderate position within the Church of England” but “could appease
neither High Church Laudians nor Puritans,” because he combined
“strongly Calvinist doctrines” with “His loyalty to the king, his tolerance
of ceremony, and his support of an Episcopalian form of church govern-
ment” (7).
27. Gwalther was a protégé of Heinrich Bullinger, a son-in-law of Huldrych
Zwingli, and he followed them as the third bishop of the Reformed Church of
Zurich. According to J. Wayne Baker, Gwalther “was very influential” in
England, “particularly as an advocate of the Zurich model of the state
church. . . . and Gwalther regularly corresponded with English bishops and
others” (Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation [1996] volume 2, page 203).
28. A surprisingly large percentage of the moralized monsters in ballads and
other texts were examples of what Crawford calls “fashion monsters” (33),
that is to say, “monsters whose deformities resembled human fashion
excesses” (28).

29. According to Baird Tipson (1984), “While a student at Queens College,

Cambridge, Bedford had come under the influence of the Calvinist Master
of Queens, John Davenant” (316). In the late 1640s, Bedford “received the
rectorship of St. Martin Outwich in the city of London” (DNB 2.112).
Crawford characterizes Bedford’s monster pamphlet as “popular casuistry”
and notes that Bedford defends the consideration of monsters as “a religious
duty,” not a blasphemous form of curiosity (22). Bedford’s other writings
include The Sinne unto Death (1621), Luthers Predecessours (1624), an
attack on antinomianism (1647), and two works on the sacraments (1638,
1649). Despite Bedford’s repeated recourse to the authority of Calvin, The
Sinne unto Death and the monster pamphlet make somewhat anti-Calvinist
claims about the legibility of God’s displeasure to mortals.
30. According to David Bevington’s introduction to Webster’s play in
English Renaissance Drama, it was “first performed in early 1612”
(page 1659). Thomas Adams published his sermon in 1613 as The
White Devil, or the Hypocrite Uncased: In a Sermon Preached at Pauls
Crosse, March 7, 1612.
31. For example, Moira Baker cites Thomas Adams’s sermon Mystical Bedlam
(1615) as employing “grotesque images of death and bodily decay with as
chilling an effect as the bitter musings of Vindice on his dead mistress’s
beauty in Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1608). . . . The macabre
array of dancing madmen in the same sermon evokes . . . the morris of bed-
lamites cavorting in the lurid half-light of John Webster’s The Duchess of
Malfi, which was performed sometime before December 1614” (6).
32. Moira Baker quotes excerpts from this passage and notes that “Adams
exploits the affective force of lurid images to initiate a process of meditation
in his auditors” (6).
33. The phrase “besides all this” is from Luke 16:26, the Biblical verse that
Bunyan is explicating. Including the epigraph, it appears eleven times in the
section (76–82) and once in the next section (83).
34. Edmund Miller (1995) describes Taylor as an Episcopalian royalist who
preached toleration during the Interregnum and was well-positioned to return
to the church hierarchy during the Restoration (294–305). In chapter 3 of
Milton and the Idea of the Fall (2005), William Poole discusses Taylor’s
“extremely heterodox” ideas about original sin (50).
35. Donne sermons are cited by volume number, sermon number, and line
number in The Sermons of John Donne, edited by George Potter and
Evelyn Simpson. I want to credit “Absolutist Theology,” the fifth chapter
of Debora Shuger’s Habits of Thought in the English Renaissance (1994) for
bringing to my attention this and other relevant passages from Donne’s vast
corpus of sermons. For this passage, see Shuger 170. Shuger argues that
“Divine power fascinates Donne largely in its destructive and catastrophic

aspect” (171), but she examines this fascination to elucidate issues such as
the politics of absolute monarchy and the psychology of guilt.
36. See Tertullian book 2, chapter 14, which contrasts “malis delicti et malis
supplicii, malis culpae et malis poenae” (page 126), that is to say “evils of sin
and evils of punishment . . . evils of guilt and evils of penalty” (page 127).
Tertullian also attempts to address some of the subsidiary moral questions
that result from this paradigm, such as whether God’s punishments are
always just, and why he allows the evil of crime in the first place. For
Aquinas’s use of malum culpae and malum poenae, see Brian Davies’s The
Thought of Thomas Aquinas (1993; 92) and Thomas Aquinas’s De Malo,
question 1 article 4.
37. The title of Hampton’s sermon suggests a certain radicalism, and the sermon
itself expresses concern that the king might not sufficiently repress English
Catholics (22). But Hampton’s “Epistle Dedicatory” makes a point of
wishing for the king’s "safetie" (A3), and after the Restoration, Hampton
published Lacrymae Ecclesiae (1661), a pair of sermons praising Charles I as
a martyr.
38. Andrewes, XCVI. Sermons (1629), “Certaine Sermons Preached At sundry
times, upon severall occasions,” “One of the Sermons upon the III.
Commandement Preached in the Parish Church of St. Giles Cripplegate,
Jun. XI. An. Dom. MDXCII,” page 44, Early English Books Online image
39. Shuger quotes this passage and contrasts it with “the mythic dualism of
Andrewes’s Christus Victor theology, in which responsibility for ‘ill action’
devolves onto Satan and the powers of darkness, thus eliminating the para-
dox of a good God who directly causes evil” (Habits 170). Whatever
theological differences Donne and Andrewes may have, however, they
share the distinction between malum culpae, of which God is innocent,
and malum poenae, for which God is responsible.
40. Or, as The forme and shape of a monstrous child (1568) puts it: “In Gods
power/all flesh stands,/As the clay in the/Potters hands./To fashion even/
as he wyll,/In good shape/or in yll.”
41. Andrewes, XCVI. Sermons (1629), “A Sermon Preached Before the King’s
Majestie at White-Hall, on the V. of November, Anno Domini, MDCXVI,”
page 976, Early English Books Online image 497.
42. Crawford notes that early modern legal punishments were often “meant not
only to punish a crime but to illustrate it,” for example, by mutilating or
branding criminals in a manner that reflected their crimes (22).
43. In discussing Spenser, Joseph Campana (2009) describes a similar virtuous
perversity that he sees as a consequence of Platonic and Aristotelian con-
ceptions of goodness and pleasure: “True virtue, acquired through educa-
tion and maintained through action, requires that pain and pleasure be

experienced counterintuitively (pain as pleasure and pleasure as pain) or in

some circumstances not at all” (468).
44. Donne’s Holy Sonnet 13 (“What if this present were the world’s last
night?”) also engages in complex ways with the normativity (or lack thereof)
of Christian devotional aesthetics. The spiritual reassurance the speaker
offers is contingent on two assertions that the poem itself calls into question:
first, that the visual spectacle of Christ’s tortured, weeping, and frowning
body is inherently and unambiguously beautiful; and second, that outer
beauty is always proof of inner goodness.
45. Shuger quotes this passage in the context of a psychological analysis of guilt
(Habits 190).
46. On this quote, see Shuger (Habits 200). She argues that “fear and love are
inextricable rather than antithetical responses to the holy” (194). See
Michael Lieb’s Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the
Miltonic Canon (2006) for more on the early modern “theology of dread”
47. As we have seen in Sidney, bitterness and sweetness are central to early
modern conceptions of the relationship between morality and aesthetics in
literature, but they are deployed inconsistently: bitterness can be toxic or
medicinal, and sweetness can be nourishing or deceptive and corrupting.
Indeed, Donne’s model for learning how to appreciate God’s sinister aes-
thetics resembles other preachers’ accounts of how the taste for sin develops.
A sermon by the royalist preacher Richard Allestree (1619–1681), published
in a 1669 collection, describes—and condemns—wine connoisseurship as an
acquired taste, developed through training, that ultimately produces “unna-
tural and monstrous satisfactions and appetites” (38). Like Thomas Adams,
who rejects the claim that sin is sweet, Allestree figures virtuous temperance
as the normative source of pleasure. Donne proposes an essentially similar
procedure for the inculcation of a sinister Christian sensibility that learns to
appreciate and take pleasure in whipping, putrescence, and other such
horrors. Both strategies presume that Christian aesthetics are at odds with
conventional secular ones.
48. Shuger quotes a portion of this passage (Habits 199).
49. Shuger provides a detailed account of this seemingly perverse response in
Donne; see Habits 195 for her reading of this passage. Donne’s most
famous embrace of divine violence is not a sermon but a poem: his Holy
Sonnet 14, “Batter my heart three-personed God,” in which the speaker
asks God to “break,” “imprison,” and “ravish” him (lines 4, 12, 14).
50. Bruce R. Smith’s Phenomenal Shakespeare (2010) discusses the complex
ways in which early modern representations of torture might encourage
readers to see themselves as punishers and/or victims. For example,
Macbeth’s comparison of himself to a baited bear (5.7.1–2) creates “the

possibility of the spectator/listener’s feeling one of two things: the punish-

er’s ardor and the victim’s suffering” (154). Smith makes a similar claim
about Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), which highlights “the
exhilaration of experiencing such violence from multiple points of view”
51. In The Renaissance Bible (1994), Shuger provides other examples of early
modern English Protestant writers who encourage a triumphant identification
with the malice of a vengeful God. For example, Joseph Hall’s (1574–1656)
account of God’s destruction of Jerusalem presents Christ as a figure of “horror”;
it is a “fantasy of retribution” that “betrays its exultant cruelty” (Shuger 94).
Similarly, Claudia Richter cites “aesthetic manifestations of violence” by “a
wrathful God” as central to a “Calvinist rhetoric and theology of terror” (52).

Satanic Sensibilities in Paradise Lost



As we have seen, the problem of evil—justifying the suffering, violence,

and horror that humans experience in a world governed by divine
providence—is the fundamental challenge of Christian theodicy and
played a central role in seventeenth-century religious discourse. Yet the
period’s most powerful and comprehensive theodicy was not a sermon or
a theological treatise, but an epic poem: John Milton’s Paradise Lost
(1674). Milton could have published a theological treatise rather than an
epic; indeed, most scholars agree that he was working on De Doctrina
Christiana at roughly the same time as Paradise Lost.1 Instead, Milton
chose the epic form as a superior vehicle for disseminating his theodicy,
and while the epic instantiates many of the theological principles in the
treatise, it also diverges from them in certain significant respects.
Moreover, the religious content of the epic cannot be reduced to a set
of abstract theological principles. As Jeffrey Shoulson argues in Milton
and the Rabbis (2001), Paradise Lost is not “a vessel to be discarded
once its contents have been drained. The meaning of the theodical epic
does not exist without the form and phenomenological experience of the
poem” (103).
For centuries, critics have perceived a conflict between Milton’s theolo-
gical and poetic impulses in Paradise Lost, what G. Rostrevor Hamilton
(1969) has called an “opposition” between “Milton the poet” and “Milton

© The Author(s) 2017 173

J.E. Slotkin, Sinister Aesthetics,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52797-0_5

the moralist” (38–39). Attempts to resolve this conflict in favor of one side
or the other have constituted one of the central debates of Milton studies.
Stanley Fish is perhaps the most influential of those critics who argue
that theological doctrine should take precedence over poetic experience
when the two appear to conflict, a position labelled “orthodox” by its oppo-
nents.2 In Surprised by Sin (1967), Fish suggests that Paradise Lost creates

a ‘split reader’, one who is continually responding to two distinct sets of

stimuli—the experience of individual poetic moments and the ever present
pressure of the Christian doctrine—and who attaches these responses to
warring forces within him. (42)

According to Fish, a proper reading of Paradise Lost requires the a priori

acceptance of certain “doctrinal assumptions,” which ideally should always
override “The immediate experience of the poetry” (10), and any difficulty
readers may have in doing so functions pedagogically as a measure of their
own moral weakness. Fish claims that Milton and seventeenth-century
preachers treat “metaphorical and affective language” as Satanic and associ-
ate God and godly speech with pure, abstract logic: “Rhetoric is the verbal
equivalent of the fleshly lures that seek to enthral us and divert our
thoughts from Heaven, . . . while logic comes from God” (61).3
In contrast, Romantic poets like William Blake (1757–1827), along
with modern scholars such as William Empson in Milton’s God (1961),
present the poetry of Paradise Lost as a more authentic or relevant expres-
sion of Milton’s sensibilities than his professed religious beliefs.4 Blake’s
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) famously asserts that Milton was
“a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it” (35), thereby
prioritizing poetic creativity and linking it to the demonic. While these
approaches more effectively capture the actual experience of reading
Milton, they tend to marginalize the epic’s religious goals and ideas.
According to the paradigm shared by Fish and Blake, the poem’s
theology makes God attractive and Satan unattractive, while the poem’s
poetry does the opposite. Critics must then negotiate the relative impor-
tance of these elements in a zero-sum game where validating one side of
Milton’s work requires discrediting the other side.5 Like the fate versus
free will debate staged by the rebel angels in hell, which “found no end, in
wandering mazes lost” (2.561), this debate can never be resolved, and for
similar reasons: it posits two contradictory propositions, neither of which
can be fully disproved.6

If we read Paradise Lost in the context of the literary, dramatic, and

religious writings examined in previous chapters, we can see how and
why poetry would be compatible with Milton’s religious agenda,
and how the sinister would be an essential component of his attempts
to address the theological problem of evil. The evidence of seven-
teenth-century ballad, pamphlet, and sermon literature suggests that
poetics could not only work in concert with religious doctrine but even
help to shape religious ideas. The sermons of Milton’s contemporaries
frequently rely on rhetorical, affective, and essentially poetic appeals to
the sensibilities of their audiences. For many of these preachers,
enjoying infernal imagery and the poetics of divine violence is a vital
element of Christian piety.7
Throughout his life, Milton was passionately committed to his own
distinctive brands of neoclassical poetics and non-conformist Protestantism,
and this combination rendered him particularly well-equipped to understand
that the problem of evil needed a poetic justification much more than it
needed yet another logical, discursive one. Paradise Lost’s logical exoneration
of God is the free will defense: humanity must have free will in order for our
existence to have any meaning, and true free will necessarily implies the ability
to make decisions with seriously bad consequences (3.96–128). It occurs early
in the poem and takes just over thirty lines to explain, partly because it is a
simple concept, and partly because Milton might have expected his readers to
be familiar with it already. It is one of the oldest theological arguments in the
history of Christianity, having been fully articulated by Tertullian around two
centuries after the birth of Christ (Tertullian book 2, chapters 5–8). While the
free will defense is certainly vital to Paradise Lost and to Milton’s thought, this
discursive argument is not what makes the poem unique, and rehearsing it is
the least of the challenges facing the poem’s theodicy.
Milton saw poetry as a crucial element of religious expression, even in
that most doctrinal of texts, the Bible. In the famous autobiographical
passage in The Reason of Church-Government (1642), Milton insists that
“those frequent songs throughout the law and prophets . . . not in their
divine argument alone, but in the very critical art of composition may be
easily made appear over all the kinds of Lyrick poesy, to be incomparable”
(CPW 1.816).8 For the purposes of Milton’s argument here, the Bible’s
poetic features are actually more significant than its message, and Milton’s
syntax, particularly the “not . . . alone,” reflects this. This poetry would
have intrinsic worth as poetry, even if it did not advance a “divine

For Milton, though, the poetic and the religious are interdependent.
Not only does the Bible convey its ideas more effectively through poetry
but also Christian piety demands a poetic sensibility from its adherents.9
De Doctrina Christiana consistently advocates a literary and aesthetic
relationship between humans and God. According to the treatise’s
account of divine accommodation in book 1, chapter 2 (that is, the ways
in which God translates his ineffable nature into terms comprehensible by

It is safest for us to form an image of God in our minds which corresponds to

his representation and description of himself in the sacred writings.
Admittedly, God is always described or outlined not as he really is but in
such a way as will make him conceivable to us. Nevertheless, we ought to
form just such a mental image of him as he, in bringing himself within the
limits of our understanding, wishes us to form. (CPW 6.133)

In other words, God should and must be seen through similes: concrete
images that are not literally true but that offer revealing analogues or
symbols of the truth.10 The Bible’s images of God are, in a sense, alle-
gories for religious truth. But these allegorical images cannot be discarded
like shells to reveal an underlying core meaning, because the imaginative
conceptions of God that they create are an inextricable part of the religious
piety the Bible seeks to inculcate.
De Doctrina also emphasizes the affective component of religious piety.
Holding the appropriate images of God in the imagination should pro-
duce certain emotions, and these emotions are part of what God asks from
believers. Book 2, chapter 3 discusses “Internal worship” (cultus internus),
which includes not only “acknowledgment of the one true God” but also
“devout affection for him” (CPW 6.656). The chapter outlines the atti-
tudes and emotions that humans should hold with respect to God, such as
love, hope, gratitude, and—in regards to God’s darker aspects—fear. In
short, De Doctrina systematically lays out a worship of God that includes
all of the elements of an aesthetic: criteria for the evaluation of artistic and
literary images, and a set of appropriate affective responses to those
Milton’s piety requires an aesthetic view of God’s creation that includes
its evil elements. Perry Miller’s seminal study of the English roots of
American Puritanism, The New England Mind (1954), identifies this
form of piety as Augustinian and argues that Augustine “exerted the

greatest single influence on Puritan thought next to that of the Bible itself,
and in reality a greater one than did John Calvin” (4).11 According to
Miller, “Augustine depends on the moment of aesthetic vision; he, and the
Puritans after him, seek for those perspectives of vision in which evil
becomes resolved into the design of the whole, like shadows in a picture”
(18).12 The presence of evil is one of the chief barriers to achieving the
proper appreciation for God’s creation, yet it is precisely in the context of
evil that Augustine emphasizes his aesthetic response to the universe. The
Augustinian universe is like a chiaroscuro painting, containing the light of
good and the shadow of evil, and evil is beautiful when considered as part
of this artistic whole. Similarly, Milton sees God’s universe as an allegorical
text designed to delight and instruct, a text that comprises an Augustinian
chiaroscuro of normative and sinister elements.13
In Paradise Lost, therefore, Milton seeks to bring readers to the proper
internal worship of a God whose creation includes the darkness of evil: the
evil will to transgression that exists in angelic and human creatures, and the
evils of suffering and destruction that God’s punishments produce. Milton’s
poetic theodicy works not only by logical argument but also by trying to
develop in readers a sensibility that will allow them to see these two evils as
aesthetically appealing. The poem encourages this development by immer-
sing the reader in the perspective and consciousness of characters whose own
sensibilities demonstrate an increasing attraction to the morally and aesthe-
tically transgressive: primarily Satan, Adam, and Eve. As in Richard III, the
way these fictive audiences respond to evil provides real readers or audiences
with models for appreciating the sinister.
On the largest scale, Paradise Lost presents a chiastic pattern in which
the gradual degeneration of the fallen perspective is complemented by the
education to a proper aesthetic and affective response to divine providence
and particularly to God’s punishments. The beginning of the poem pre-
sents Satan as a figure who is admirable in both normative and sinister
terms: he displays the courage and resolve of an epic hero, coupled with
the dark majesty of an infernal potentate. Moreover, as a fallen angel, his
physical appearance produces a powerful and fascinating chiaroscuro effect
that mixes light and dark, normative beauty and the sinister. However,
Milton takes pains to gradually dissociate the character of Satan from the
sinister. Satan’s own sensibility is normative at first, and as he diverges
from that perspective, the poem makes it clear that Satan is heading
toward an aesthetic perversity that rejects beauty and embraces ugliness,
rather than the sinister sensibilities cultivated by Renaissance authors and

dramatists. Satan himself becomes ugly, losing his angelic good looks as
well as his infernal majesty. Satan’s degeneration thus culminates in a
divorce from normative forms of beauty on the one hand and the fascinat-
ing power of the sinister on the other.
Milton separates Satan from the sinister not to reject it, but rather to
justify and redeem sinister aesthetics as a poetic technique—and an element
of the divine nature. As the poem moves the fallen angels (and Sin and
Death) away from the sinister, and their sensibilities degenerate to a per-
verse and limiting embrace of the ugly in place of the beautiful, it also tries
to develop readers’ appreciation of the aesthetic power of the infernal into
more redemptive forms. From the very beginning of the poem, and increas-
ingly as it progresses, Paradise Lost depicts manifestations of the infernal,
monstrous, and destructive not primarily as Satanic productions, but rather
as things done to Satan and the other rebels by God. In an extension of
practices we have seen in the previous chapter, Milton borrows the sinister
poetic techniques used in literature and drama to describe villains, and
applies them to God in order to make divine punishment appealing.
As Satan loses the aesthetic of chiaroscuro, God proves to be its
epitome: he is all-encompassing, incorporating normative and sinister,
light and dark, celestial and infernal elements. The demonic perspective
thus prepares readers to comprehend and appreciate God’s complex rela-
tionship to evil. An aesthetic sensibility that can embrace normative and
sinister is essential to the proper understanding and worship of God as
both a creator and a punisher. Ultimately, the normative and the sinister,
God’s light and dark sides, cannot be disentangled. The beauty of God’s
unfallen creation is constructed from the sinister elements of chaos, just as
Milton’s poem begins with hell and chaos. And, as Milton declares in De
Doctrina and Areopagitica (1644), humans in a fallen universe can only
come to know good through a deep affective engagement with evil.


From its opening lines, Paradise Lost identifies God’s relationship to
evil as the subject that must be explained in order to “justify the ways
of God to men” (1.26). The problem of evil encompasses the primal
crime of humanity and its dire consequences: “man’s first disobedience,
and the fruit /Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste /Brought

death into the world, and all our woe” (1.1–3). The combination of
“disobedience” and “woe” reflects the poem’s pervasive division of evil
into two distinct categories: evil as a transgression committed (what
Milton and his contemporaries called malum culpae) and evil as harm
suffered (malum poenae). The problem of evil’s presence in a Christian
universe thus becomes two interdependent problems: why does a good
God harm his creations and why do his creations desire to transgress his
Milton’s Satan is essential to understanding these questions because he
epitomizes both kinds of evil: he originates sin by rebelling against God
and tempting humans to do the same, and he also suffers God’s utmost
punishments. Milton foregrounds these issues, particularly the experience
of divine punishment, by beginning the epic in medias res, with the fall of
Satan and the rebel angels and their arrival in hell. However, Satan also
proves to be the most problematic critical crux of the epic. Countless
readers of Paradise Lost over the centuries have found Satan admirable
and likeable, in some cases to the point of considering him the hero of the
poem.14 Compared with Satan, the poem’s portrayal of God has proved
unattractive to many readers, a reaction that threatens the effectiveness of
the poem’s theodicy.15
Traditionally, critics have attributed Satan’s attractiveness to his pos-
session of heroic virtues suitable to an epic protagonist.16 The most
impressive and most clearly genuine of these virtues is what Satan calls
his “courage never to submit or yield” (1.108), the strength of will that
enables him to challenge God and to rouse his defeated troops from the
fiery lake of hell, no matter what hideous tortures he might face.17
Satan also shows an affinity for some other virtues, even if he does
not fully embody or act on them. He presents himself as an advocate
for “liberty,” which he certainly wants for himself if not for his followers
(5.793). Despite his egocentrism, Satan displays some touches of com-
passion for his defeated troops on the fiery lake (1.605–621) and, albeit
fleetingly, for Adam and Eve when he contemplates their destruction
(4.374–392). In his soliloquy on Niphates (4.32–113), he remembers
with sincere though fruitless longing his greatest virtue, now aban-
doned: loyalty to God. Although this remorse does not lead to repen-
tance, it does make him significantly more sympathetic. Even the epic
narrator insists on Satan’s capacity for genuine (if limited) goodness:
“for neither do the spirits damned /Lose all their virtue; lest bad men
should boast” (2.482–483).

Conversely, Satan’s unattractiveness has generally been framed in terms

of the absence, diminution, or intrinsic inadequacy of his heroic virtues.
These concerns become more acute as the epic progresses. As C.S. Lewis
memorably puts it in his foundational work A Preface to Paradise Lost
(1942), “From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician
to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or
bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake—such is
the progress of Satan” (99).18 In a 2013 article, Ethan Smilie (93) links
Satan’s degeneration to De Doctrina’s account of the effects of sin on the
soul in book 1, chapter 12, which involves the progressive degradation of
various qualities: “the majesty of the human countenance,” “that right
reason, whose function it was to discern the chief good,” and eventually
the “will” or “liberty to do good” itself (CPW 6.394–395). Fish offers an
even more fundamental critique of Satanic virtue: that the poem discredits
the very idea of “epic heroism” and the “martial valour” of the classical
warrior in favor of a “Christian heroism” of “Faith, discipline, obedience”
embodied in characters like Abdiel and the Son (Surprised 162, 159, see
also 195–196).19 In this view, even when Satan is heroic, his heroism is
not praiseworthy. As Raphael warns Adam, “strength from truth divided
and from just, /Illaudible, naught merits but dispraise /And ignominy”
However, the debate over Satan’s heroism neglects the most impor-
tant factor determining whether or not Satan is sympathetic at a given
point in the poem: Satan’s own aesthetic sensibilities. Attending to
Satan’s perceptions of beauty and ugliness yields a very different narra-
tive of his degeneration from those more commonly advanced by
critics. It more accurately explains when and why readers have found
Satan attractive, and it demonstrates the interdependence of morality
and aesthetics for Milton. Milton’s model for the degeneration of fallen
creatures begins with a moral lapse, but it culminates in a vitiated
aesthetic sensibility. More precisely, Satan descends from a rebellion
rationalized according to normative moral and aesthetic principles, to a
morally perverse embrace of evil over good, to an aesthetically perverse
embrace of hideousness at the expense of beauty. Milton’s portrayal of
Adam and Eve, from their decision to eat the fruit up to the point when
Adam’s sensibilities are corrected by Michael, repeats this pattern in
miniature. It also occurs elsewhere in Renaissance literature; for exam-
ple, Shakespeare’s Richard III presents himself first as a justifiably bitter
victim of mistreatment (1.1.14–29), then as a proudly self-identified

villain (1.1.30–31), and lastly as an admirer of the deformities that he

despised in the previous scene (1.2.236–244).
All of these examples show that, from the perspective of audiences’
imaginative engagement with a character, choosing ugliness over beauty
proves a more serious and alienating lapse than choosing evil over good.
Satan becomes harder to sympathize with as he shows signs of losing his
ability to appreciate beauty and begins to find ugliness beautiful. It is this
degradation of aesthetic sensibility that transforms Satan and his compa-
triots from misguided but magnificent fallen angels to grotesque, con-
temptible devils.
For much of the poem, Satan views his surroundings with a normative
aesthetic sensibility. He finds heaven and earth beautiful, and hell ugly and
horrifying, in exactly the same way that a normative reader would be
expected to. Satan initially rebels in order “To set himself in glory above
his peers” (1.39), to rule heaven in the place of God or the Son. He does
not wish to destroy or transform heaven to suit some darker vision; on the
contrary, he expresses his opposition to the Son’s exaltation in terms of an
anxiety about “New laws” (5.679) that might disrupt the status quo.20
His first words in the poem refer with longing to the “happy realms of
light” he has just departed (1.85). Like Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure
for Measure (2.2.173–174), Satan foully desires things that are in them-
selves fair and good: at 9.99–130, he praises the beauty of the earth even
though he believes he can only “find ease” in destroying it. Perhaps most
winningly, Satan is deeply moved by the quasi-celestial beauty of Adam
and Eve:

. . . to heavenly spirits bright

Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue
With wonder, and could love, so lively shines
In them divine resemblance . . . (4.361–364)

He loves them specifically because they look like God, and this response
makes Satan himself much more likeable because it reflects a normative
aesthetic sensibility.
Conversely, Satan is repelled by ugliness, even though he often forces
himself to pretend otherwise. He is appalled by his first view of hell, which
he calls “The seat of desolation” (1.181), although he puts on a brave face
for his troops. Similarly, he expresses sincere revulsion with the hideous
Sin and Death before he realizes the need to make them allies. He calls

Death an “execrable shape” (2.681) and tells Sin that he never “saw till
now /Sight more detestable than him and thee” (2.744–745). His sub-
sequent flattery of Sin and their “fair son” (2.818) is comically insincere.
Milton presents Satan in this way to make him more accessible and
sympathetic to a wider range of readers, and to provide a baseline against
which to measure the various other sensibilities displayed by Satan and
other characters in the epic. Ultimately, Satan’s distaste for the infernal
and monstrous also highlights the fact that it is Milton’s God, not Satan,
who is master of the sinister.
Satan’s normative aesthetic sensibility and his heroism, while admirable
and sympathetic in themselves, are potentially dangerous in that they
could lead readers to appreciate less wholesome aspects of Satan’s char-
acter by association. Of the two qualities, however, Satan’s perception of
beauty is a much more subtle and thus effective avenue to the sympathies
of the discerning reader than his heroism. Indeed, Satan’s morality by itself
could not account for his notorious attractiveness to readers. Almost from
the beginning, Milton counterbalances Satan’s displays of virtue with
evidence of his evil. Early in the poem, Satan dedicates himself to the
destruction of humanity, a project unlikely to appeal to Milton’s readers.
Many of Satan’s potentially admirable moments are undercut by condem-
natory asides from the epic narrator, a distinctive feature of Paradise Lost
that pro- and anti-Satan critics alike have used to argue that the epic’s
religious and poetic impulses are at odds.21 As the poem progresses,
Satan’s heroism is circumscribed by mounting evidence of behavior that
directly contradicts heroic ideals, such as his cowardly “dread” of the
angels guarding Paradise (9.158).
In contrast, Satan’s sense of beauty proves more sincere and somewhat
more durable than his virtues. Satan’s aesthetic responses pervade his
speeches and actions in ways that preclude the kind of disingenuousness
or deception we expect from his moral arguments. The lines in which
Satan expresses his appreciation for beauty, such as his poetic praise of
the earth at 9.101–118, prove by their own beauty that he understands
normative aesthetics in a way that he does not understand virtue. He may
be confused by Abdiel’s selfless loyalty to God or the Son’s sacrifice, but
he understands and approves of God’s decision to make Eden look the
way it does. Even during the execution of his malice on humanity, he is
overwhelmed and made “Stupidly good” (9.465) by the pleasure he
takes in observing Eve’s beauty. His stupefaction is morally valueless

but demonstrates the intensity of his normative aesthetic sensibilities.

Finally, at his triumph in Pandaemonium, he calls the prelapsarian Earth
“a fabric wonderful /Of absolute perfection” (10.482–483), indicating
that he maintains at least some of this sense of beauty through the end of
the poem.
Moreover, while readers can judge the morality of Satan’s represented
words and actions from a reasonably objective position, Satan’s sensibil-
ities are themselves a lens for perceiving and judging rhetoric and actions,
and one that cannot be discarded so easily. At certain points in the
narrative, it is not clear how much the poem is filtering its descriptions
through Satan’s sensibilities. Nor is it always clear in these cases that a
superior perspective exists, when, for example, Satan’s evaluation of the
relative beauty of heaven and hell matches that of his unfallen brethren.
Despite the notorious moralizing interjections of the epic narrator, the
narrator’s perspective and Satan’s frequently blend together. The descrip-
tion of Satan’s newly fallen “followers,” who remain “faithful” despite
having been let into eternal damnation, simultaneously expresses the
narrator’s condemnation of Satan’s great “crime” and Satan’s own feelings
of guilt and “remorse” (1.605–611).22
Although Paradise Lost uses Satan’s aesthetic sensibilities to draw readers
into his perspective, the poem does also highlight the dangers of normative
aesthetic appearances substituting for virtue or concealing evil. Satan is the
preeminent “Artificer of fraud; and was the first /That practiced falsehood
under saintly show” (4.121–122). Abdiel highlights this disjunction
between aesthetics and ethics as one of the most lamentable things about
Satan: “O heaven! That such resemblance of the highest /Should yet
remain, where faith and realty /Remain not” (6.114–116), modeling the
capacity to be moved by Satan’s physical beauty without succumbing to
Satanic temptation.
Because human understanding is more limited than angelic, humans are
particularly vulnerable to the appeal of deceptive beauty. Adam outlines
this danger when he warns Eve not to separate from him:

Reason, is free, and reason he [God] made right,

But bid her well beware, and still erect,
Lest by some fair appearing good surprised
She dictate false, and misinform the will
To do what God expressly hath forbid. (9.352–356)

Reason here is “right” because, in proper Platonic fashion, it is naturally

drawn to beauty as a material sign and manifestation of spiritual virtues.
Hence, evil is only tempting if it appears “fair.” In keeping with Adam’s
theory, Milton emphasizes the beauty of the forbidden fruit, and its appeal
to the senses of sight, smell, and taste: “A bough of fairest fruit that downy
smiled, /New gathered, and ambrosial smell diffused” (9.851–852).
When Eve is tempted by the beauty of the fruit, which suggests a virtue
that it does not possess, she experiences the appeal of evil on a normative
aesthetic level.
This limitation of human understanding is exacerbated by the
Fall, which involves subjection “To sensual appetite, who from
beneath /Usurping over sovereign reason claimed /Superior sway”
(9.1129–1131). Eating the fruit renders Adam and Eve more suscep-
tible to deception by inverting the proper hierarchy of aesthetics and
ethics within them. As a result, in the last two books Adam misreads
Michael’s visions of the future, responding to their sensual elements
rather than their moral implications. He sees the ugliness of the sick in
the “lazar-house” (11.479) as inappropriate when it is actually an
example of God’s justice, and he is fooled by beauty concealing evil
when he sees the “tents /Of wickedness” (11.607–608), which appear
pleasant to his eye.23
Adam’s inability to understand what he sees without Michael’s glosses
can seem naïve to an informed postlapsarian audience, but his responses
reflect a serious and persistent epistemological difficulty: that appearances
can either obscure or reveal the truth. Embracing beauty uncritically as
good is dangerous, but categorically rejecting beauty as evil would be
equally misguided. The character of Sin, like Shakespeare’s Richard III,
emblematizes this interpretive problem: her ophidian lower half symboli-
cally displays her evil, but her beautiful torso symbolizes concealment of
that evil (though, like Richard or the Bower of Bliss, without actually
concealing anything).
However, while Paradise Lost acknowledges the perils of evil hidden
beneath beauty, it carefully establishes that no major character succumbs
to evil primarily through deception (like Richard III but unlike Edmund
Spenser’s The Faerie Queene). This counterintuitive insistence on charac-
ters who fall without being deceived calls attention to the other, less easily
explained, ways that people can turn to evil. Satan’s first sin, which pre-
sumably occurs when he rejects the exaltation of the Son (5.658–672), is
certainly not colored by any sensual temptation or deception. If anything,

the exaltation, with its magnificent choreographed display of gorgeously

attired angels (5.6.584–599) and its singing, dancing, feasting, and drink-
ing (5.6.619–657) is a panoply of sensual pleasures whose beauty Satan
resists in order to act on (the wrong) principle.24 The fall of Adam and Eve
involves deception and sensual temptation, but these elements are periph-
eral and not determinative. Following the Biblical precedent of 1 Timothy
2:14, Milton specifies that Adam is “not deceived” (9.998) by “some fair
appearing good” (9.354). Eve is fooled by Satan’s ophidian disguise, but
the crux of the matter—the tree of knowledge with its prohibition—is not
disguised. Nor does sensual appetite usurp the sovereign reason of the
unfallen Adam and Eve, even if it colors that reason somewhat. Again, Eve
seems more vulnerable to the attractive sight and smell of the fruit than
Adam, but both Adam and Eve pause before eating to reason out their
decision. Indeed, denying Adam and Eve the ability to see their moral
choice for what it is would invalidate the entire logical argument of
Milton’s theodicy, which hinges on free will.
While dangerous, the appeal of beauty and the more serious problem
of competing moral values—for example, freedom and courage versus
obedience to God—are still normative. They do not threaten estab-
lished, Platonic theories about how and why evil is appealing or about
what can be aesthetically pleasurable. Indeed, they are not even
instances of the appeal of evil as such; they are simply instances of
liking the right thing in the wrong context. To the extent that Eve is
moved by the aesthetic beauty of the fruit, or by Satan’s moral argu-
ment that eating it would be an act of “dauntless virtue” (9.694)
outweighing the “petty trespass” (9.693) against God’s law, her mis-
takes are comprehensible in terms of the moral system that condemns
them, as errors of judgment and priority within a set of values largely
shared by the innocent and the guilty. Similarly, while Satan’s heroism
makes him appear less evil (in a significant degree to Romantics like
Blake and Percy Shelley; in a meaningless or deceptive way to moralistic
critics like Lewis and Fish), it does not challenge normative models for
how we read and respond to evil. The vast majority of Milton criticism
has focused on these normative appeals when discussing readers’
engagement with evil or with Satan, but they are not the primary
focus or endpoint of Paradise Lost’s account of sinful, fallen natures.
Nor do they reflect the aesthetic perspective that God demands, as
Michael’s corrections of Adam’s Platonic responses to his visions and
prophecies make clear.


Satan’s heroism and the beauty of the forbidden fruit are not evil in
themselves. Rather, the actual malum culpae committed alike by Satan,
Adam, and Eve is the act of disobeying God. Paradise Lost’s account of
their sin and ensuing fall highlights the knowing appreciation of evil,
and this capacity, in humans or angels, proves to be a more profoundly
significant and unsettling problem than either the allure of normative
sensual pleasures or the possibility of finding redeeming moral qualities
in transgressive characters or actions. In the normative theoretical
frameworks available to Milton and his contemporaries, choosing or
enjoying something specifically because one recognizes it as evil appears
inexplicably perverse, a manifestation of what Sidney calls the “infected
will” in The Defence of Poesy (217). But unlike other works that feature
perversity without fully theorizing it, such as Richard III, Paradise Lost
advertises itself precisely as a narrative of how the human will first
becomes infected by original sin. As such, it must attempt a satisfying
explanation of why otherwise rational agents would knowingly choose
evil over good.
When he is writing theology, Milton theorizes sin as an act of will
perversely choosing a lesser good over the supreme good. De Doctrina
book 1, chapter 11 says that “sin . . . has two subdivisions . . . evil desire, or
the will to do evil, and the evil deed itself. . . . It was evil desire that our first
parents were originally guilty of” (CPW 6.388). Milton credits “Augustine,
in his writings against Pelagius” with first calling this evil desire
“ORIGINAL SIN” (CPW 6.389). Throughout his writings, Augustine
similarly locates the origin of evil in the will: “it is the defection of the will
itself which is evil, because against the order of nature. It is a turning away
from that which has supreme being and towards that which has less” (City of
God book 12, chapter 8, page 508). In Augustine’s theoretical model, the
perverse will turns toward lesser goods, rather than evil as such, because
“evil has no existence except as a privation of good” (Confessions book 3,
chapter 7, paragraph 12).
De Doctrina also agrees with Augustine’s claims about evil lacking
any true substance of its own when it says that sin is not “really an
action, on the contrary it is a deficiency,” or a “misdirection or devia-
tion” (1.11, CPW 6.391). This theory is intended to highlight God’s
omnipotence by reducing the metaphysical importance or ontological
status of evil, in contrast to a Manichaean view of evil as one of two

great cosmic forces. However, it creates an intractable mystery at the

heart of Augustine’s concept of sin. In The City of God, Augustine
supposes that two identical men

are subjected to the same temptation, and that the one succumbs and
consents to it whereas the other remains the same as he was. What else
appears here than that the one is willing, and the other unwilling, to lapse
from chastity? And what causes this but their own wills, given that the
temperament of the body and soul of each person is the same? . . . No matter
how thoroughly we examine the matter, therefore, we can discover nothing
which caused the particular will of one of them to be evil. (12.6, page 507)

Augustine’s theory makes the origins of evil radically unknowable. Because

evil is not truly substantial, the will to evil can have no substantive cause:
“Let no one, then, seek an efficient cause of the evil will. For its cause is
not efficient, but deficient” (City of God 12.7, page 507). But since God
created Augustine’s two tempted men to be the same, the deficiency of the
man who sins has no clear origin either. This account suggests that evil
might have the unique and alarming ability to generate itself indepen-
dently from God, to function as a kind of causeless cause. Such an
implication risks granting evil precisely the sort of autonomous agency
and ontological importance that the theory seems intended to preclude.
Milton’s poetic account of the primal origin of evil incorporates the idea
of evil as the overvaluing of lesser goods as well as the idea that the cause of
evil is inherently unknowable. The first manifestation of evil in the universe
of Paradise Lost is Satan’s opposition to the Son’s exaltation:

. . . he of the first,
If not the first archangel, great in power,
In favour and pre-eminence, yet fraught
With envy against the Son of God, that day
Honoured by his great Father, and proclaimed
Messiah king anointed, could not bear
Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired. (5.659–665)

Satan’s pride is, in effect, an overvaluing of a lesser good (himself) in place

of a greater good (the Son of God). But Satan’s pride and envy have no
cause other than his own will. Satan’s preeminence does distinguish him
from most other angels, but even he admits that “other powers as great
/Fell not, but stand unshaken” (4.63–64). Raphael’s observation that

Satan was powerful “yet” envious implies that, from an unfallen angelic
perspective, Satan’s stature should have inhibited envy, not fostered it.
Satan himself seems mystified at times by his own choice. In his soliloquy
on Mount Niphates, he contemplates his actions and asks “Ah wherefore!”
(4.42). He then proceeds to explain how, by all normative standards, he
should have been happy to remain loyal to God, but somehow he rebelled
anyway: “Yet all his good proved ill in me” (4.48). This formulation is, of
course, partly an attempt to deny his own responsibility for his actions, and
in the subsequent lines he actually sketches a more substantive psychological
explanation: a desire not only to be the “highest” but also to “quit /The
debt immense of endless gratitude” (4.51–52). Nonetheless, Satan’s persis-
tent confusion in the speech about the sources of his own pride and
resentment reflects the difficulty of constructing a theory to explain the
origins of sin in a universe created by a supremely good God.25
During the war in heaven, Satan’s rationalizations for his rebellion
develop the Augustinian idea that his evil is really the decision to place a
lesser good above a greater:

The strife which thou callst evil, but we style

The strife of glory: which we mean to win,
Or turn this heaven itself into the hell
Thou fablest . . . (6.289–292)

At this stage, Satan is perverse in the sense of having turned away from
God, but he has not turned away from virtue per se. Instead, he has
adopted a system of moral values and priorities in conflict with those
promulgated by God. Satan thus does not believe himself to be evil, but
rather what one might call differently good. In asserting the virtuousness
of his own actions while acknowledging that others would label them evil,
Satan posits a kind of moral relativism. Nonetheless, at this point Satan’s
moral system and God’s still have a lot in common. Like God, for example,
Satan simultaneously values liberty and an ordered hierarchy that places
him at the top (5.791–793).
As Milton develops the narrative of Satan’s fall, however, the
exigencies of rendering fallen experience in poetic form demand
that he go beyond the theological paradigm of evil as choosing the
lesser good. Satan’s arrival in hell (which is narrated before the war in
heaven but occurs chronologically afterwards) signals the beginning
of his shift to a much more serious form of moral perversity: the

desire to pursue a course of action precisely because it is regarded as

evil. Lying on the burning lake, Satan vows that

To do aught good never will be our task,

But ever to do ill our sole delight,
As being the contrary to his high will
Whom we resist . . . (1.159–162)

This speech represents moral perversity in its clearest form. Satan here
deliberately chooses to seek pleasure in evil itself, which he now (in
contrast to 6.289–292, quoted above) agrees is defined by opposition to
the will of God. It is important to note that Milton presents this kind of
evil as a consequence of Satan’s fall, not a cause. It also constitutes a
debasement of his original goals: Satan begins the war in heaven because
he wants to seize the “empire” (1.114) from God, to perform his own will
without feeling “impaired” (5.665). Here, he confines himself to doing
the opposite of God’s will, reducing his own autonomy.
Milton’s sources and contemporaries acknowledged the prevalence of
moral perversity, even when their theoretical models failed to account
for it. In the Confessions, Augustine describes his theft of pears as a form
of moral perversity, but he introduces this concept while narrating his
personal experience rather than presenting his systematic theology of
evil. His pleasure in the theft does not result from attaining a lesser
good at the expense of a greater one, as his theory would suggest, but
from a pleasure in transgression, a sensualized joy in evil as such. The
seventeenth-century preacher Thomas Adams (1583–1653) also
describes, without fully theorizing, a pleasure inherent in violating
moral rules in terms of aesthetic taste. In the third sermon of The
Devills Banket (1614), Adams notes that “the Commaund makes things
burdensome, and Prohibition desirable” (99). He employs the example
of an orchard, which echoes Augustine’s pear-snatching episode, and
alludes to the garden of Eden:

The fruites of a wicked mans owne Orchyard, are not so pleasant-tasted as

his neighbours: neither doe they reserve their due sweetnesse, if they be
freely granted. But as the Proverbe hath it: Dulcia sunt poma, cùm abest
custos. Apples are sweet, when they are plucked in the Gardiners absence. Eve
liked no Apple in the Garden so well as the forbidden. (98)

For Adams, this behavior is typical and natural: “It is the perversenesse of
our natures, till sanctification hath put a new nature into us” (99). But
Adams does not quite explain the reason for this perversity. His phrasing
suggests that it results from original sin, but this explanation cannot apply
to his example, Eve, because her disobedience is what creates original sin
in the first place.
Even if original sin adequately explains mankind’s postlapsarian pre-
ference for stolen fruit, Paradise Lost must explain the sins of previously
unfallen beings, both human and angelic. Milton cannot attribute the
fall of Adam and Eve—much less Satan and his rebel angels—to the
perversity ingrained in human beings by original sin. Instead, their
movement toward moral perversity resembles the process of rationali-
zation associated with cognitive dissonance. In modern psychological
theory, cognitive dissonance occurs when individuals feel an uncomfor-
table contradiction between two beliefs, or between their beliefs about
themselves and their actual behavior. While it might seem logical to
resolve this dissonance by altering behavior, the difficulty of such
changes frequently leads people to alter their beliefs instead. In the
Miltonic context, the initial evil action that caused Satan, Adam, or Eve
to fall cannot be undone, nor can it be understood in terms of their
unfallen values. This dilemma leads them to try to develop new systems
of value that can explain and justify their prior actions. Once Satan
recognizes his rebellion as evil, he must either renounce it and repent
(which he seems unable or unwilling to do) or decide that being evil
was part of the point all along.
Accordingly, Satan makes it clear that his initial embrace of moral
perversity is a self-conscious performance, a reaction to his circumstances
and not an essential part of his identity. He strives to become morally
perverse, even though it partly violates his natural instincts, because he
feels his past actions have left him no choice. In his soliloquy on Mount
Niphates, he laments “Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost; /Evil be
thou my good; by thee at least /Divided empire with heaven’s king I
hold” (4.109–111). Unlike Richard III, who delivers the strikingly similar
assertion that he is “determinèd to prove a villain” (1.1.30) with complete
conviction, Satan insists here that evil is a second-best substitute and that,
for now at least, his moral perversity is an unnatural pose that requires
effort to maintain. He performs this violence on himself because perversity
ameliorates the horrors of eternal damnation by redefining them as

In humans, the development of moral perversity follows the same

general pattern, but their fall is more thoroughly rationalized and their
degeneration less extreme. Because Satan has already brought evil into the
world, Milton can provide more explanation for the sin of Adam and Eve
without having to pierce the primal mystery of evil’s origin. In addition,
because Adam and Eve are human, it is particularly important to Milton’s
theodicy that their decision be comprehensible in human terms. The
crucial moment of choice for Adam and Eve, as for Satan, involves placing
some normative but lesser moral value above their duty to God. Adam’s
primal sin is the decision to honor his bond with Eve over the prohibition
on the fruit: “I with thee have fixed my lot /Certain to undergo like
doom” (9.952). Determining Eve’s motives is trickier, because it is not
clear how many of Satan’s arguments she has tacitly assented to, but the
chief goal that she articulates is a desire to shed her “ignorance” (9.774).
Like Satan, Adam develops a morally perverse stance only after his
initial decision to transgress. Once he has determined “to undergo like
doom,” Adam asserts that “if death /Consort with thee, death is to me as
life” (9.953–954). Both Satan and Adam hit on perversity as a way to
withstand punishments that they believe they cannot avoid. In each case,
the statement has the force of an act of will, not a description of a natural
and prior sensibility. Adam’s moment of moral perversity before the fall,
spoken in ignorance of what death actually means, is part of his tragic
error. But it is soon followed by a parodic, less innocent version after he
eats the fruit and remarks that “if such pleasure be /In things to us
forbidden, it might be wished, /For this one tree had been forbidden
ten” (9.1024–1026). Adam here slips from observing the irony that the
fruit is pleasurable despite being forbidden to suggesting that the apple is
pleasurable because it is forbidden, which is exactly the sensibility of the
pear-stealing Augustine. Adam may be self-consciously joking here, but
doing so would itself be perverse, because it would mean taking pleasure in
a deliberately faulty argument and mocking an event of the utmost moral
significance. Adam’s quickly abandoned witticism is a pale shadow of
Satan’s vowing himself to evil, but it does provide a disturbing hint of
the potential for perversity in humanity’s future.
Eve also fails to match Satan’s moral perversity, although Satan
encourages her in that direction by praising the virtues of rule-breaking
and the transcendence (that is, the violation) of accepted moral bound-
aries. He begins by claiming to have attained “life more perfect . . . than
fate /Meant me, by venturing higher than my lot” (9.689–670). These

lines delicately suggest the potential rewards of transgression. Next, Satan

presents transgression itself as a virtue that God himself would appreciate:

. . . will God incense his ire

For such a petty trespass, and not praise
Rather your dauntless virtue, whom the pain
Of death denounced, whatever thing death be,
Deterred not from achieving what might lead
To happier life . . . (9.692–697)

Satan makes rebellion more palatable by suggesting that disobeying God’s

explicit command could actually be what God secretly wants. Finally,
Satan argues that the prohibition is intended “to keep ye low and ignor-
ant” (9.704); it is an unjust constraint that deserves to be broken. Eve’s
response only hints at the idea that breaking God’s law might be inher-
ently pleasurable or valuable. She says to the fruit that God’s “forbidding
/Commends thee more, while it infers the good /By thee communi-
cated” (9.753–755). While this sounds morally perverse, her main point
is simply that protected objects tend to be valuable. Upon eating the fruit,
Eve attributes virtue to the tree and prays idolatrously to it, while speaking
of God disparagingly as “Our great forbidder” (9.815), but unlike the
devils, she does not abandon beauty, virtue, or even grateful worship as


In Milton’s narrative account of the falls of Satan, Adam, and Eve, an
initial wrong choice produces a cascade of deleterious physical, mental,
and spiritual effects. Fallen beings develop the morally perverse desire
to violate the principles of virtue or piety for the sake of transgressing,
rather than to attain some other laudable (if inferior) goal. The
culmination of this degeneration to a fallen sensibility, however, is
not moral but aesthetic. In Paradise Lost, as in Richard III, moral
perversity leads to aesthetic perversity. Unlike the sinful indulgence in
sensual pleasures (which requires only a normative sensibility), or an
appreciation of the sinister (which can coexist with the normative, and
indeed derives some of its energy from tension with the normative),
aesthetic perversity rejects beauty to take pleasure solely in the ugly or

Within a normative, Platonic paradigm, aesthetic perversity is even

more unnatural and harder to rationalize than sinful behavior, and
Milton uses it to signal the nadir of the fallen, demonic perspective.
Aesthetic perversity is the main difference between the rebel angels freshly
fallen from heaven, who seem relatively admirable or pitiable, and the
contemptible and horrifying devils that they become. It is remarkable how
little Satan’s stated commitment to evil and to the ruin of humanity has
affected the opinions of readers who admire him. The moment when
Beelzebub reveals Satan’s plan “to confound the race /Of mankind . . . and
earth with hell /To mingle and involve” (2.382–384) ought to be the
moment when even sympathetic readers abandon Satan. Instead, the
critical responses suggest that readers who find Satan engaging generally
continue to do so until significantly later in the poem—in no small part, I
would argue, because he retains the ability to appreciate beauty. The end
of the poem, when Satan seems least admirable, is also the point when
Satan’s sense of taste becomes demonstrably vitiated. Within the scope of
the poem’s narrative, Satan displays relatively little aesthetic perversity.
However, the poem makes it clear that he is headed in that direction, and
it prefigures the endpoint of this descent through the character of Death
and the description of the devils’ future behavior as idols (1.364–521). By
making the corruption of aesthetic sensibilities the ultimate symptom of
the fallen condition, Milton suggests their importance within his theolo-
gical system.
The demonic council in book 2 reveals the early stages of aesthetic
perversity in the devils, and it represents some of the poem’s most sus-
tained theorization on the subject. The council’s debate raises questions
about what it means to be demonic and what kind of satisfactions are
available to angels who have rejected God and have been consigned to
hell. Should the rebels retain their angelic perspective or develop new
sensibilities to suit their infernal environs? Does the choice lie within
their power, or will it be determined by their natures and the nature of
their new home? Will they be aesthetically perverse as well as morally
The idea of taking sensual delight in things that angels find hideous is
first explicitly discussed by Belial. He introduces it slyly, beginning with
what sounds not unlike Raphael’s benign theory of spiritual ascension
through the digestion of grosser materials (see 5.414–443, 5.496–497).
If God but slacks the flames of hell a little, Belial says, “Our purer essence
then will overcome /Their noxious vapour” (2.215–216). But the

suggestion that their spirits might transcend or even ennoble the grosser
nature of hell quickly becomes an inversion of that process. Being “chan-
ged at length, and to the place conformed” (2.217), the devils’ sensibil-
ities will evolve until hell seems beautiful and pleasant: “This horror will
grow mild, this darkness light” (2.220). At stake is not merely a physical
adaptation to the infernal environment. Belial suggests that hell will
pervert their aesthetic perceptions so that they take pleasure in the things
that now pain them. Like Satan, Belial hopes to achieve perversity as a
psychological defense mechanism against the horror of damnation.
While Mammon primarily argues for emulating the beauties of heaven,
he too insinuates the possibility of a new demonic aesthetic. His contempt
for imposed servitude in heaven begins to extend, by association, to the
sensual beauties of heaven:

. . . with what eyes could we

Stand in his presence humble, and receive
Strict laws imposed, to celebrate his throne
With warbled hymns, and to his Godhead sing
Forced alleluias; while he lordly sits
Our envied sovereign, and his altar breathes
Ambrosial odours and ambrosial flowers,
Our servile offerings? . . . (2.239–246)

Mammon’s distaste for submission to divine authority infects his descrip-

tion of the music and the scents of heaven, making the warbled hymns and
ambrosial odors aesthetically repugnant to him. The rhetorical question
“with what eyes” suggests a shift to a demonic way of seeing—his eyes can
no longer perceive heaven as the standard of aesthetic perfection. Like
Belial, Mammon also follows an initial hope that they can make hell more
heavenly “Through labor and endurance” (2.262) with a speculation that
their sensibilities might become more hellish instead:

Our torments also may in length of time

Become our elements, these piercing fires
As soft as now severe, our temper changed
Into their temper . . . (2.274–277)

Mammon and Belial try to downplay the negative implications of this

theory, but what it means is that they will cease to be angels and become

devils, beings that would have been hateful to them when they were in
Beelzebub’s successful conclusion to the debate rejects these sugges-
tions of aesthetic degeneration in favor of the pure moral perversity
espoused by Satan, who conceived Beelzebub’s proposal in the first
place. Beelzebub’s argument hinges on the impossibility, as well as the
undesirability, of ever taking pleasure in an infernal aesthetic. He opposes
the notion of “changing style” (2.312), of taking infernal rather than
heavenly titles, and he argues that hell will always be “our dungeon, not
our safe retreat” (2.317). He emphasizes the horrors of hell and the
sensual delights associated with heaven, in his hope that the devils
may “in some mild zone /Dwell not unvisited of heaven’s fair light”
(2.397–398), where “the soft delicious air, /To heal the scar of these
corrosive fires /Shall breathe her balm” (2.400–402).
Counterintuitively, Beelzebub places moral and aesthetic perversity in
an antagonistic relationship, advocating a firm commitment both to
opposing God and to maintaining celestial aesthetics. The plan that dis-
sociates the rebels from hell and asserts their angelic identity most strongly
is also the one that will hurt God the most. Framing the debate in these
terms makes Mammon and Belial seem contemptible because they are
open to aesthetic perversity but, to paraphrase Lady Macbeth, they lack
the malice that should attend it. Satan, on the other hand, seems more
impressive and even admirable because he resists aesthetic perversity, even
though his plan is by any reasonable standard the most evil. Even the
narrator who so regularly undermines Satan’s magnificence seems to
marvel at his conception of “So deep a malice” (2.382). Here and
throughout the poem, the characters’ appeal correlates more strongly
with their aesthetic sensibilities than it does with their moral positions.
But although moral perversity wins in the council and aesthetic perver-
sity remains merely an undercurrent, the poem presents aesthetic perversity
as a later development of demonic—and human—nature. It takes time, as
Belial and Mammon note. But there are clear hints that the devils will
eventually develop aesthetic sensibilities that value the infernal and despise
the heavenly.
The first indications occur before the debate, in the foreshadowing of
the idols that the rebel angels will become. The poem describes the forms
of worship that the devils promulgate as “gay religions full of pomp and
gold” (1.372). As this line emphasizes, in what is presumably a barb
directed at Catholicism, devilish religion is founded on aesthetic spectacle

and pleasure. However, when Milton goes on to more specific examples of

idolatry, this pleasant (though morally bankrupt) image is replaced by
hideous ones. In practice, what happens when the devils implement
Mammon’s advice to “Compose our present evils” (2.281) is a kind of
theater of pain. For example, “Moloch, horrid king besmeared with
blood” (1.392) demands the sacrifice of children to the accompanying
“noise of drums and timbrels loud” (1.394). This ritual is not merely a
principled opposition to God, but an aesthetic experience that engages the
senses of sight, hearing, and taste in ways that violate normative standards.
Moreover, it produces pleasure, since Moloch presumably enjoys being
decorated with blood, devouring the children sacrificed to him, and
listening to cacophonous musical performances. Rimmon receives simi-
larly “odious offerings” (1.475).
The catalog also emphasizes the many devils who present themselves in
chimerical rather than celestial forms: the Philistine god Dagon, “upward
man /And downward fish” (1.462–463), and the “monstrous shapes” of
the animal-headed Egyptian gods (1.479). The grotesque shapes of these
deities are in aesthetic opposition to heavenly standards of beauty; they are
not essential to the devils’ (im)moral project of competing with God for
worshippers. Furthermore, the fact that human worshippers willingly serve
as spectators and actors in the rites of Moloch suggests that humans are
capable of the same aesthetic perversity as the demons.
The asymptote toward which this aesthetic degeneration tends is repre-
sented by the character of Death. Death’s aesthetic sensibility is unique in
the universe of Paradise Lost, because it is absolutely perverse and because
it never evolves or changes. Consequently, Death is also the only character
whose subjectivity seems completely incapable of exciting sympathy from
readers of the poem (although he has proved demonstrably engaging as a
poetic object). This inaccessibility is not a product of Death’s evil. Indeed,
to the extent that one can compare such things, he is arguably less evil than
Satan. Death cannot be morally perverse, as Satan is, because he has no
sense of good and evil, only of appetite—of taste.26
As befits her chimerical shape, half monstrous and half a female
version of Satan’s angelic beauty, Sin’s own aesthetic sensibilities are
ambivalent. On the normative side, Sin appears horrified by her own
transformation, she wishes to return to “light and bliss” (2.867), and
she calls Death “odious” (2.781). By the end of her interaction with
Satan in book 2, however, the sinister side of Sin’s tastes becomes
more evident. The sincerity of her ardent paraphrase of the Nicene

creed suggests that she sees no poetic (or other) infelicity in the
incestuous, alliterative self-description “Thy daughter and thy darling”
The latter part of the poem treats Sin and Death more as a unit, with
Sin conforming more closely to Death’s appetites. God calls them “My
hell-hounds, to lick up the draff and filth” (10.630), suggesting they share
a perverted sense of taste. Death speaks of his own preference for the
“scent of living carcasses” (10.277):

. . . such a scent I draw

Of carnage, prey innumerable, and taste
The savour of death from all things there that live:
... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...
So saying, with delight he snuffed the smell
Of mortal change on earth. (10.267–273)

Similarly, though perhaps with a more subtle and delicate palate, Sin
describes infection as a delicious seasoning:

Till I in man residing through the race,

His thoughts, his looks, words, actions all infect,
And season him thy last and sweetest prey. (10.607–609)

Death, and eventually Sin, represent a complete reversal of the normative

aesthetic sensibility. Because they are allegories, their aesthetic perversity is
not something that they develop in the course of a fall from goodness, as
other characters do. Rather, it serves to highlight and foreshadow the
ultimate consequences of rejecting God.
Satan only begins to achieve this perversion of taste during the action of
the poem. Compared to his compatriots and progeny, Satan is relatively
free from aesthetic perversity. His cry of “hail horrors” (1.250) upon
arriving in hell is an attempt in this direction, but it is belied by his lament,
immediately beforehand, that he must exchange “celestial light” for
“mournful gloom” (1.244–245). At this point, Satan’s aesthetic perversity
remains a self-conscious performance, a brave and even somewhat heroic
attempt to make lemonade out of the lemons of eternal damnation.
Through God’s punishment and his own practice, however, Satan’s
aesthetic sensibilities do become more corrupt. In book 9, Satan still
recognizes the beauties of Eden, but these “pleasures” produce only

“Torment within me, as from the hateful siege /Of contraries; all good to
me becomes /Bane” (9.120–123).
This change makes Satan seem significantly more contemptible. When
he greets Sin and Death after the Fall, the epic narrator describes them as
Satan’s “offspring dear” and says that

Great joy was at their meeting, and at sight

Of that stupendous bridge his joy increased.
Long he admiring stood, till Sin, his fair
Enchanting daughter, thus the silence broke. (10.349–353)

The epic narrator’s compliment to Sin is unlikely to be sincere. Partly, the

sarcasm helps to lighten what is otherwise a rather discouraging portion of
the narrative. But Satan himself echoes this sentiment later in the episode,
calling Sin his “Fair daughter” (10.384) without any evidence of the
poorly concealed disgust he felt at their first meeting. Like her original
form, her monstrous form comes to please Satan once it has “familiar
grown” (2.761). By describing Sin as fair, then, the narrator is partly
reflecting Satan’s own perceptions. As we have seen, the poem’s tendency
to blend Satan’s perspectives with the narrator’s can make Satan appear
more sympathetic. Here, however, thinking Sin is fair is perhaps the most
degenerate thing Satan does voluntarily, and the most unlike the heroic
apostate angel of book 1. His final speech praising the beauty of the earth
is yet to come, so this is only a hint of his future potential for aesthetic
perversity. But it is delayed until near the end of his presence in the poem,
as if seeing beauty in a chimera is a much more mature consequence of
fallenness than rebelling against God or plotting the destruction of


While Paradise Lost presents aesthetic perversity as the final and most
contemptible stage of the degeneration caused by sin, the poem also
slyly seeks to engage the reader with sinister spectacles, including some
of the very same episodes that establish the aesthetic degeneracy of its
fallen characters. Indeed, the first two books practically demand the
exercise of sinister sensibilities in order to be read at all. This combination
is not as self-contradictory as it might appear. An aesthetic sensibility
capable of appreciating the sinister differs significantly from an

aesthetically perverse sensibility, although they can engage with similar

objects. Aesthetic perversity is hostile to beauty and embraces the ugly
precisely because it violates normative standards. A sinister aesthetic sen-
sibility, by contrast, appreciates certain non-beautiful things according to
their own, alternative aesthetic standards. As such, it can coexist (albeit in
tension) with the capacity to appreciate normative beauty. Therefore, a
sinister sensibility represents an expansion of the aesthetic palate, and the
artist’s palette, while aesthetic perversity is a diminution of possibilities.
Critical responses to Paradise Lost suggest that the poem succeeds in
distinguishing between these two perspectives. Although few readers
would embrace or empathize with Death’s perverse subjectivity and appe-
tites, critics like Edmund Burke (1757) have praised the description of
Death as a magnificent example of a sublime poetic object: “dark, uncer-
tain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree” (55).27 Within
Paradise Lost itself, Satan’s reaction to encountering Death includes not
only disgust but also wonder: “The undaunted fiend what this might be
admired, /Admired, not feared” (2.677–678). Satan’s utter confidence in
his own strength allows him to react as a safe spectator rather than a
vulnerable actor. For this reason, and because Satan’s aesthetic sensibilities
are not very corrupted at this point in the narrative, Satan’s admiration can
serve as a model for the reaction of the reader of the poem to the
prodigious figure of Death. The redundant insistence of the phrase
“admired, not feared” highlights the difference between an ordinary
mortal’s reaction to a genuine apparition of Death and a poetic represen-
tation of one.
Paradise Lost relies on the distinction between aesthetic perversity and
the sinister to achieve its poetic and theodicial goals. It condemns the
aesthetic perversity of Satan and his associates, while redeeming the sinis-
ter as a sensibility shared by God, the poet, and potentially the reader. The
poem gives Satan some degree of sinister appeal and then strips him of it as
part of an elaborate sleight of hand that ultimately serves to assimilate the
sinister into Miltonic theology. As the devils embrace the un-beautiful as
beautiful, they appear to lose sight of what true beauty is. In contrast, as
the next chapter will discuss, Milton and the God of Paradise Lost demon-
strate their expansiveness by masterfully encompassing both the beautiful
and the sinister.
In order to support this rather tricky maneuver, Milton reorders the
poem’s events to create two distinct timelines: the chronological sequence
of the epic’s fictional universe and the narrative sequence that the poem

presents to the reader. Satan’s physical degeneration follows the chronol-

ogy of the poem’s world, not the order of the narrative. The Satan of book
5 is closest to his “original brightness” (1.592). He first feels pain at
6.327; he is scarred and his brightness partially eclipsed by the time he
rises from the burning lake in book 1; by 4.840 Zephon can plausibly
describe him as “obscure and foul”; and he makes his final appearance in
the monstrous form of a “dragon” (10.529). The other demonic entities
follow the same pattern; Moloch, for instance, reaches his most debased
form as a “horrid king besmeared with blood” in the time period of the
Old Testament, although this endpoint is the first thing the poem tells us
about him (1.392).
Whereas the chronological sequence of Paradise Lost shows the process of
demonic degeneration, the poem’s narrative sequence is designed to shape
the sensibilities of the reader toward a proper appreciation of God.
Inculcating readers with the sinister aesthetics necessary to accept God’s
dark side is the core of the poem’s theodicial strategy. The first two books
present evil characters that are engaging, both as subjects with whom readers
can identify and as impressive poetic objects. But, over narrative time, as they
become less easy to identify with and less impressive, God’s responsibility for
the sinister elements associated with them becomes clearer, and God himself
engages in more sinister displays. The war in heaven is a crucial turning point
in this process, and it is no coincidence that this episode is the largest break in
the poem’s chronological sequence—Milton shifts it to the midpoint of the
epic in part to do this job. The conflict has a significant aesthetic component,
in which both sides present competing aesthetic visions that connect the
beautiful and the sinister. God’s victory over Satan demonstrates not only his
greater force and his moral authority but also, as I will discuss in the next
chapter, his ability to use sinister spectacle in a superior way and to integrate
it with the normative. Satan produces a kind of brief manifesto of the sinister
and its relation to the normative: his speech about the “materials dark and
crude” that produce the beauties of heaven (6.478). But he retreats from his
own aesthetic insight, and the war proves to be a poetic victory for God as
well as a military and moral one. However, God cannot achieve this poetic
victory, which is essential to Milton’s theodicy, without employing the
The poem’s reliance on the sinister does have certain dangers.
Renaissance writers as diverse in their views of poetry as Gosson and
Sidney agree that appealing representations of evil, if handled improperly,
could encourage evil behavior in audiences. However, Milton’s discussion

of evil in Areopagitica (1644) suggests that he understood the risks

inherent in this strategy and was not unwilling to run them.
Areopagitica acknowledges that books can be “malefactors” (CPW
2.492), but it also emphasizes that “To the pure all things are pure, not
only meats and drinks, but all kinde of knowledge whether of good or
evill; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will
and conscience be not defil’d” (CPW 2.512). Areopagitica’s defense of
reading “bad books” implies a strong distinction between imaginatively
experiencing a book and performing actions in the real world, and it
strongly encourages the engagement with evil while reading, as long as
one’s will (the faculty that chooses to perform good or evil actions) and
one’s conscience (the faculty that distinguishes between good and evil) are
not defiled. In Paradise Lost itself, Adam tells Eve that “Evil into the mind
of god or man /May come and go, so unapproved, and leave /No spot or
blame behind” (5.117–119).
For the fit reader, vicariously experiencing evil through books will not
encourage evil action but strengthen virtue. The ideal Christian reader
described in Areopagitica should “apprehend and consider vice with all
her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain” (CPW 2.514). In order
to understand the kind of engagement with evil that Milton is advocating,
we need to consider the meaning of the term “apprehend.” According to
the OED, “apprehend” possessed a wide range of meanings in the
Renaissance, all ultimately derived from the root meaning “to seize.”
One set of definitions relates to understanding something intellectually
(II.5, 8, 9), and in this sense apprehending evil could mean using examples
of vice to refine the rational faculty that discerns right from wrong. This
rational scrutiny and judgment is certainly part of what Milton intends,
since it is also implied by the word “consider.”
However, “apprehend” could also mean “To feel emotionally, be
sensible of, feel the force of” (OED II.7), and apprehending the sinister
in this way would mean adopting, at least provisionally, a sinister sensi-
bility. I would like to suggest that Paradise Lost asks readers to adopt this
level of affective engagement with representations of evil, and that Milton
considers it necessary in order to properly “consider” evil and make a
meaningful decision to “abstain.” In the most extreme case, “apprehend”
can mean “To seize or embrace (an offer or opportunity)” (I.4), and two
of the OED’s three citations use the term to refer to the way in which men
should accept God’s grace, a very powerful form of engagement indeed.
Milton would presumably not endorse this relationship to sin, but his

theology demands this level of apprehension of God’s responsibility for

the sinister forms of divine punishment.
Milton uses the potentially dangerous appreciation of the sinister as it
manifests in evil beings to lead readers to this redemptive acceptance of God’s
dark side. Because God’s punishments are so terrible, Milton uses demonic
examples to test or stretch the limits of readers’ abilities to take pleasure in
extremely horrific things. One of the first such instances is the sacrifice of
children to Moloch (1.392–396). As my analysis of Duessa in The Faerie
Queene has suggested, the line between engagement and disgust must always
be partly subjective. Nonetheless, Milton’s text seems to encourage an
aesthetic engagement with the rites of Moloch (while, of course, condemn-
ing Moloch himself in the strongest possible terms). The narrator demon-
strates and models an interest in the ceremonies of human sacrifice, first
simply by choosing to describe events superfluous to the primary narrative,
and second, by lavishing more evocative poetic detail on the hideous and
“brutish” deities than on the beautiful ones, like Astoreth and most of the
“Ionian gods” (1.481, 508). For the reader, apprehending the evils of the
rites of Moloch requires some imaginative engagement with the sensual
aspects of the scene: the music, the screams, the blood-decorated idol.
The dangers here are aesthetic and not moral. Because human sacrifice is
so far beyond the pale of acceptable behavior, it is hard to imagine even early
modern moralists like Stephen Gosson worrying that readers of Paradise Lost
would imitate this passage by feeding their children to demons. Rather, what
the episode encourages readers to imitate is an aesthetic sensibility capable of
appreciating the fictional spectacle. If developed improperly, this sensibility
could become dangerously perverse (as it has for Moloch and his worship-
pers), but the rest of the poem is intended to shape it and direct it into
productive channels. Engaging representations of children being consumed
are useful, then, because they can stretch readers’ aesthetic sensibilities with-
out the risk of promoting, or even appearing to endorse, immoral action.
The description of Sin in the next book insists even more firmly on the
possibility of aesthetic engagement with baby-eating. Sin’s wolves, the
poem says, are worse than those that vexed Scylla:

Nor uglier follow the Night-hag, when called

In secret, riding through the air she comes
Lured with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland witches, while the labouring moon
Eclipses at their charms . . . (2.662–666)

On one level the passage denigrates Sin by associating her with an

atrocity, but on another level it demonstrates her attractive power. The
simile is about getting carried away, in every sense, by evil. It places
the reader in the perspective of the Night-hag, and the images of flying
and dancing evoke an ecstatic experience in the context of which infant
blood can act as a savory enticement. Like the encounter with Errour
in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the “nest of spicery” passage in
Shakespeare’s Richard III (4.4.343–345), and some of the work of
early modern sermon writers, this passage indulges in supposedly
unpleasant imagery with a pleasurable sense of gratuitous excess. It is
even more superfluous than the account of sacrifices to Moloch, since
Sin is not directly involved in the exploits of the Night-hag, and also
since it is the second epic simile in a row describing the hideousness of
the wolves that torment Sin. Unlike the Moloch passage, this exuber-
antly sinister midnight flight appears without moral commentary,
further emphasizing that it is primarily addressed to the aesthetic
sensibilities of potential readers.
Milton assimilates these demonic pleasures into his vision of Christian
piety primarily through the aesthetics of chiaroscuro and concordia discors
developed by Augustine, Torquato Tasso, and others. The forceful con-
junction of opposites—light and dark, celestial and infernal, normative and
sinister—to create an aesthetically satisfying whole is central to the poetics
of Paradise Lost and to Milton’s vision of the universe. It informs the
poem’s representations of evil characters like Sin and Satan, but above all
Milton’s depiction of God.
This strategy necessarily produces ambivalent figures, and the poem
unsurprisingly reveals some ambivalence about the combination of oppo-
sites as a principle. Michael condemns it when describing the giants in the
earth to Adam:

. . . These are the product

Of those ill-mated marriages thou sawst;
Where good with bad were matched, who of themselves
Abhor to join; and by imprudence mixed,
Produce prodigious births of body or mind. (11.683–687)

Here, good and bad resist mixing and when forced produce “prodigious
births.” But Milton’s own poetic practice, whether imprudently or not,
tends to follow his own assertion from Areopagitica that good and evil are

“two twins cleaving together” (CPW 2.514). Indeed, he achieves some of

his most powerful images precisely when he combines normative and
sinister to produce prodigious births like Sin.
The allegorical figure of Sin combines the aesthetics of concordia
discors with the aesthetics of the chimera. In creating Sin, Milton filters
Horace’s emblem of bad poetry, which is a chaotic patchwork of several
animals, through the dualistic paradigm of concordia discors. The result-
ing Miltonic chimera is more ordered than the Horatian chimera but
embodies an even more powerful internal conflict. Sin’s combination of
normative and sinister is her most striking and engaging feature, as a
subject and as a poetic object. As an object, Sin is at once beautiful
and ugly; as a subject, she combines the innocent and the corrupt.28
Sin is introduced as both “fair” and “foul,” and these terms, opposite in
meaning but joined by the poetic device of alliteration, are a
microcosm of the Miltonic chimera. Sin’s two halves literally “abhor
to join”: her upper half despises, and is tormented by, her lower half.
This dualistic tension is characteristic of Milton’s poetry, as well as his
theology and cosmology.
The differences between Sin and one of her most direct literary ante-
cedents, Spenser’s Errour, reveal Milton’s efforts to emphasize the forceful
conflation of opposites. Rather than giving free rein to a Spenserian
aesthetics of filth and excess, Milton exploits the ironic contrast between
Sin’s two halves. As the texts make clear, Sin is a woman with a bestial
lower half: “one seemed woman to the waist, and fair, /But ended foul in
many a scaly fold” (Paradise Lost 2.650–651), whereas Errour is a serpent
with a woman’s upper half: “the vgly monster . . . Halfe like a serpent
horribly displaide, /But th’other halfe did womans shape retaine, /Most
lothsom” (Faerie Queene 1.1.14). Errour is completely ugly; Sin is half
ugly. The order in which the parts appear suggest their relative dangers.
Errour displays her serpent parts first; her human part is almost an after-
thought. Spenser refers to it dismissively as the “other halfe” (although it
presumably includes her head and vital organs), and indeed treats her
upper half as monstrous in shape, with a mouth large enough to nearly
drown Redcrosse in vomit, and enough breasts to nourish a thousand of
her young. Sin, on the other hand, presents the seeming of a beautiful
woman first but ends as a serpent, the narrator’s pan down her body
figuring the path taken by those who succumb to her. Sin, therefore,
allegorically represents deception more forcefully than Errour. But Sin is
no more deceptive than Errour to any actual observers within or outside of

the text, since neither Satan nor the reader can ignore what lies below her
beautiful torso. Like her fellow seducer Richard III, her obvious decep-
tiveness is a palpable device and also the core of her appeal.
As a subject, the Sin of Paradise Lost book 2 mixes the appearance of
innocence with a sly consciousness of her nature to produce an intri-
guing and grotesque duplicity. At the beginning of her encounter with
Satan, she playfully feigns ignorance of her monstrous condition: “Hast
thou forgot me then, and do I seem /Now in thine eye so foul, once
deemed so fair” (2.747–748). Here, Sin assumes the tone of a jilted
lover gently rebuking Satan for an inexplicable change of tastes. Satan,
for his part, reacts like an embarrassed ex-boyfriend when discussing the
“joys /Then sweet, now sad to mention, through dire change /Befallen
us unforeseen”: he insists that the relationship had been wonderful,
that its end was nobody’s fault, and that it would be best to forget it
ever happened (2.819–821). Sin’s references to her own past attrac-
tiveness seem shyly flirtatious, but they coexist uneasily with her insis-
tence on calling Satan her father, as well as with her current appearance
and situation. Her description of her rape by Death makes her sound
like a damsel in distress, horrified by the thought of incest: “Me over-
took his mother all dismayed” (2.792). But in the conclusion of her
speech, she glories in her incestuous relationship to Satan, calling
herself “Thy daughter and thy darling” (2.870). The character revealed
by her speech powerfully combines ingenuousness, sexuality, and
Satan initially appears to be the epitome of the chiaroscuro aesthetic in
his appearance and character. One of the poem’s most magnificent
descriptions of Satan, as he assembles his new-fallen troops in hell, is
dominated by the interplay of light and shadow:

. . . his form had yet not lost

All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than archangel ruined, and the excess
Of glory obscured: as when the sun new-ris’n
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs. Darkened so, yet shone
Above them all the archangel: but his face
Deep scars of thunder had intrenched, and care

Sat on his faded cheek, but under brows

Of dauntless courage, and considerate pride
Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
Signs of remorse and passion . . . (1.591–605)

Satan here represents the conjunction of opposites on multiple levels.

Visually, he is “glory obscured,” twilight embodied. Emotionally and
morally, he mingles pride and remorse, cruelty and care. The repetition
of “but” and “yet”—four times in the last seven lines of the passage—marks
the continual reversals necessary to describe him. The poetic power of this
effect is recorded by the Romantics. William Hazlitt (1818), for example,
praises the representation of Satan as “gigantic, irregular, portentous,
uneasy, and disturbed—but dazzling in its faded splendour, clouded
ruins of a god” (T. Miller 141). In the same year, Coleridge calls Satan’s
“ruined splendor . . . the very height of poetic sublimity” (T. Miller 135).
The passage aestheticizes the combination of light and dark, beauty and
destruction. More broadly, Satan’s identity after his damnation is based on
“the hateful siege /Of contraries” (Paradise Lost 9.121–122). His solilo-
quy expressing this inner conflict on Niphates encourages readers to
engage with his complex subjectivity while also betraying his fallen nature
to the watching Uriel (4.114–130).29
The war in heaven, however, represents a turning point in this depic-
tion of Satan. Chronologically prior to the vision of Satan as an eclipsed
sun, it depicts a physically brighter and less blemished Lucifer, who is
theoretically closer to a state of angelic innocence. But coming in the
middle of the epic’s narrative arc, the episode represents the apex of
Satan’s heroic and poetic power and the beginning of his decline.
Satan’s rhetoric, particularly in his “materials dark and crude” speech
(6.472–483), shows hints of a Miltonic sensibility, an aesthetic vision
that integrates normative and sinister. However, Satan cannot sustain
either his moral rationale for rebellion or his aesthetic insight, and he
begins to slide toward a perverse rejection of goodness and beauty instead.
Meanwhile, Messiah’s defeat of the rebel army inescapably demonstrates
his (and by extension, God’s) superior command of the poetic power of
This shifting representation of Satan in book 6 has understandably
prompted contradictory reactions from critics, with early modern critics
emphasizing Satan’s heroism and many modern critics taking a more jaun-
diced view of his performance in the war. The earliest responses to Paradise

Lost cite book 6 as one of the poem’s most impressive sections and Satan as
one of its most impressive elements. This emphasis is most striking in the
verse responses: three of the five seventeenth-century examples in Timothy
Miller’s collection, The Critical Response to John Milton’s Paradise Lost
(1997), follow this pattern.30 Samuel Barrow’s commendatory Latin verses,
published with the 1674 Paradise Lost, spend most of their time describing
the war in heaven, and heaping praise impartially on Satan and Michael:
“How great Lucifer showed himself in ethereal war! And he walks scarcely
less tall than Michael himself. With how great and how fatal a rage they
meet, while the one fierce champion defends the stars, and the other pulls
them down! . . . Olympus waits, doubtful to which side it must yield”
(Paradise Lost 52). Similarly, the Earl of Roscommon’s “Essay on blanc
Verse” (1685) focuses on book 6 as the center of the epic’s interest, and
describes Satan—and even his cannon, which some modern critics have
treated with disdain—in magnificent terms:

Satan with vast and haughty Strides advanc’d,

Came tow’ring arm’d in Adamant and Gold.
There Bellowing Engines, with their fiery Tubes,
Dispers’d Aethereal forms . . . (T. Miller 30)

Joseph Addison, in his “Account of the Greatest English Poets” (1694),

also praises the “Majesty, /Bold, and sublime” of the war in heaven,
“When Angel with Arch-Angel Cope’s in Fight!” (T. Miller 33). This
formulation totally conflates the “majesty” of the loyal and rebel angels,
suggesting that they seem equally admirable in battle.
Modern critics, more scrupulous than their seventeenth-century fore-
bears, often feel that Satan appears less admirable and more ridiculous
during the war than he does at the beginning of the poem. Moralistic critics
like Lewis and Fish obviously find little to like about Satan at any point in
the narrative, but even scholars who find Satan engaging elsewhere often
find him less so during the war. Stella Revard (1980), for example, com-
pares previous treatments of the war in heaven and concludes that “Only in
Hell does Milton permit Satan to seem heroic” (234). The reactions of
Milton’s contemporaries and near-contemporaries suggest that modern
critical assessments of Satan in book 6 may be anachronistically harsh.
Nonetheless, Revard rightly observes that “At the conclusion of the war,
Milton’s attention is on the Son rather than on Satan” (228). By the end of
book 6, it is clear that Satan’s poetic power has waned.

Before that happens, however, Satan compellingly articulates a natural

philosophy and an aesthetic that marry the celestial and infernal, and
thereby the normative and the sinister. This manifesto represents Satan’s
greatest insight into the workings of Milton’s cosmos, although he almost
immediately falls away from it and begins his descent into a much less
engaging subjectivity. While explaining the origins of gunpowder, he asks,

Which of us who beholds the bright surfáce

Of this ethereous mould whereon we stand,
This continent of spacious heav’n, adorned
With plant, fruit, flower ambrosial, gems and gold,
Whose eye so superficially surveys
These things, as not to mind from whence they grow
Deep under ground, materials dark and crude,
Of spiritous and fiery spume, till touched
With heaven’s ray, and tempered they shoot forth
So beauteous, op’ning to the ambient light.
These in their dark nativity the deep
Shall yield us, pregnant with infernal flame. (6.472–483)

This is a surprisingly profound and beautiful statement for Satan, especially

in a part of the epic where he fails to impress so many twentieth-century
critics. In its exploration of the creative potential of the infernal, the
speech recalls Mammon’s plan to “Compose our present evils” (2.281),
to build an imitation of heaven using hellish raw materials, and it fore-
shadows the poetry of Blake. However, while Mammon perceives the
importance of the “majesty of darkness” to God (2.266), Mammon’s
understanding of heavenly beauty is fundamentally stunted. He is primar-
ily interested in beautiful things with an economic value, “gems and gold”
(2.271), not fruit and flowers, and he has no ear for celestial music. It
seems clear that his proposed facsimile of heaven would be superficial if
not tasteless. Satan’s account demonstrates a much more compelling
engagement with both sinister and normative aesthetics.
More importantly, Satan’s speech makes a much more radical philoso-
phical claim than Mammon’s. Where Mammon argues that ingredients
found in hell can mimic the beauty of heaven, Satan claims that God’s
actual heaven grows from a substrate with explicitly infernal qualities. The
“materials dark and crude” contrast with the bright delicacies above the
“ethereous mould,” but they also help to produce them. God’s design

cannot be understood solely in terms of the normative, because the eye

that surveys only heavenly beauty sees only “superficially.” A discerning
eye, that is to say a discerning aesthetic sensibility, will look favorably on
the “infernal flame” and crude darkness of the deep. Satan even suggests
the primacy of this aesthetic, which merely needs to be “tempered” by a
heavenly influence to generate beauty.
Although this argument smacks of a perverse cosmogony where hell
creates heaven, and although it leads Satan only to the contemptible
invention of artillery, the passage is not merely another example of
Satanic theological error. Satan’s speech also expresses key elements of
Milton’s poetic and religious sensibility.31 The simple fact that Satan does
find explosive materials in the foundations of heaven, as his theory pre-
dicts, suggests that his claims at least partly reflect God’s actual process of
creation. When the rebels dig up the “celestial soil,” they discover “The
originals of nature in their crude /Conception; sulphurous and nitrous
foam” (6.510–523). Satan’s idea echoes Raphael’s observation that “of
elements /The grosser feeds the purer” (5.415–416). Moreover, as the
next chapter will show, God makes extensive use of “dark materials”
(2.916) in the process of divine creation, just as Milton makes use of
them in his poetic creation. Paradise Lost begins with infernal materials
in books 1 and 2, and flowers to the beauties of heaven and Paradise
starting in book 3. From the perspective of the poem’s unfolding narra-
tive, the hellish is indeed the source of heavenly beauty.

In Paradise Lost, Milton deliberately rearranges the chronological sequence
of events to begin the narrative with Satan’s fall and his first impressions of
hell, so that not only Milton’s vision of heaven but also his whole theodicy
develops from the “materials dark and crude” of Satan and his demonic
compatriots and progeny. This strategy reflects Milton’s belief that in a
fallen universe, evil is the medium through which we must understand
good. As he explains in Areopagitica, “It was from out the rinde of one
apple tasted, that the knowledge of good and evill as two twins cleaving
together leapt forth into the World. And perhaps this is that doom which
Adam fell into of knowing good and evill, that is to say of knowing good by
evill” (CPW 2.514). The same argument appears in De Doctrina 1.10: “It
was called the tree of knowledge of good and evil because of what happened
afterwards: for since it was tasted, not only do we know evil, but also we do

not even know good except through evil” (CPW 6.352). The narrator of
Paradise Lost echoes the theory when he laments that the knowledge
granted by the apple is a “Knowledge of good bought dear by knowing
ill” (4.222). Once Adam has eaten the fruit, he can no longer directly view
“the face . . . of God or angel” because “Those heavenly shapes /Will dazzle
now this earthly” (9.1080–1083). Evil is a medium by which good expresses
itself, and in a postlapsarian universe it is often the only available medium.
Thus, Milton uses Satan and the other demonic characters as evil
versions of the sinister aesthetics—and, more profoundly, of the chiaros-
curo fusion of normative and sinister—with which the poem justifies the
ways of God to man. Paradise Lost makes Satan initially appealing on both
moral and aesthetic grounds, as a heroic figure with sinister elements but a
largely normative approach to beauty. The poem thereby encourages
readers to assume the demonic perspective temporarily as preparation for
a proper appreciation of God’s own dark side. The epic’s turn away from
Satan is not a turn away from the sinister, but from the demons’ limited
understanding and misuse of it. From his own insight about the power of
the sinister and its interdependence with the normative, Satan produces
gunpowder. From the same insight, Milton produces Paradise Lost, in
which the sinister is a danger, but also an essential tool for inspiring
readers to love a God who produces not only the beauties of heaven and
Paradise but also the horrors and monstrosities of hell.

1. De Doctrina Christiana is a two-volume Latin work of systematic theology,
discovered in manuscript in 1823. Despite some authorship disputes, most
current scholarship accepts that Milton is significantly responsible for its
content, whether or not “he wrote every word” (Stanley Fish, How Milton
Works [2001] 17). See the introduction to De Doctrina in the Complete
Prose Works of John Milton, edited by Don M. Wolfe et al. (Yale University
Press, 1953–1982) volume 6, page 109, as well as Milton and the
Manuscript of De Doctrina Christiana (2007) by Gordon Campbell et al.
Nonetheless, Michael Lieb (2006) rightly cautions that we should “allow
the God of the theological treatise and the God of the poetry . . . to enjoy
distinct identities without being hemmed in or manacled by a determination
to view them as one and the same” (128).
2. Other seminal works in this tradition include C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to
Paradise Lost (1942), Dennis Burden’s The Logical Epic: A Study of the
Argument of Paradise Lost (1967), and Dennis Richard Danielson’s Milton’s

Good God (1982). Russell Hillier’s Milton’s Messiah (2011) is a more recent
3. Although Fish uses Perry Miller’s The New England Mind (1954) to support
this anti-aesthetic argument (Surprised 6-7n1), Miller actually asserts the
centrality of aesthetics to seventeenth-century Puritan piety (see below).
4. Many Romantic poets were of this mind; in particular, Percy Shelley con-
sidered “Milton’s devil as a moral being . . . far superior to his God”
(A Defense of Poetry [1821], T. Miller 149). Scholarly precursors of
Empson include Elmer Edgar Stoll’s “Give the Devil His Due” (1944)
and A. J. A. Waldock’s Paradise Lost and Its Critics (1947). Since the
1990s, a wave of scholarship has questioned the coherence of Milton’s
theodicy. John Rumrich’s Milton Unbound (1996) sees Milton criticism as
laboring under an oppressive “orthodoxy” (1) inaugurated by Fish, in which
“no one could seriously think that Milton would really question the ways of
God to men” (xii). See also Neil Forsyth’s The Satanic Epic (2003), Peter
Herman’s Destabilizing Milton (2005), Joseph Wittreich’s Why Milton
Matters (2006), Michael Bryson’s The Tyranny of Heaven (2004) and The
Atheist Milton (2012), as well as The New Milton Criticism (2012), edited
by Herman and Elizabeth Sauer.
5. Even now, critics wishing to avoid the debate must still take account of it;
see, for example, Satan’s Poetry (2012) by Danielle A. St. Hilaire (esp. 2)
and Samuel Fallon’s “Milton’s Strange God: Theology and Narrative Form
in Paradise Lost” (2012; esp. 47, 51–52).
6. Paradise Lost is cited by book and line number, from Alastair Fowler’s
edition (Longman, 1998).
7. Feisal G. Mohamed’s chapter on Samson Agonistes in Milton and the Post-
Secular Present: Ethics, Politics, Terrorism (2011) also suggests the impor-
tance of “Providential slaughter” to Milton (103).
8. Citations of Milton’s prose refer to the Complete Prose Works of John Milton,
edited by Don M. Wolfe et al. (Yale, 1953–1982), hereafter CPW, cited by
volume and page number. References to De Doctrina Christiana also
include book and chapter numbers, and the original Latin text is cited by
volume and page number from The Works of John Milton, edited by James
Holly Hanford and Waldo Hilary Dunn (Columbia, 1931–1938), hereafter
9. According to The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704), by Milton’s near
contemporary John Dennis (1658–1734), “the Design of the Christian
Religion is the very same with that of Poetry . . . to delight and reform
Mankind, by exciting the Passions in such a manner, as to reconcile them
to Reason” (1.365). Michael Lieb’s Theological Milton (2006) asserts the
link between poetry and theology in Paradise Lost and claims that the
language of De Doctrina Christiana can productively be considered poetic

(1–4). Barbara Lewalski’s 2011 article “How Poetry Moves Readers” argues
that “Milton’s theodicy persuades less by theological argument than by
poetic vision” (767). Fallon (2012) observes that “Narrative, for Milton,
offers itself as a uniquely powerful way to tackle some of the most difficult
metaphysical challenges posed by God, as a viable and perhaps preferable
alternative to the methodical systematic theology of De Doctrina” (35).
10. In Paradise Lost itself, Raphael repeatedly supports this view (see 5.571–576
and 7.112–117). In contrast to Raphael’s relatively sanguine account,
Bryson’s analysis of De Doctrina’s theory of accommodation in The Atheist
Milton (2012) highlights the difficulties involved in using limited human
representations to understand God (89–91). See also Shoulson’s (2001)
chapter on “The Poetics of Accommodation” (93–134), which argues that
Paradise Lost “interrogates divine passibility in a way that would have been
out of place in the poet’s theological treatise” (102).
11. Perry Miller (1954) uses the term “piety” to refer to “the inner core of
Puritan sensibility apart from the dialectic and the doctrine” but notes that
“In Puritan life the two were never so separated; they were indeed insepar-
able, for systematic theology, now become wearisome to the majority of
men, provided Puritans with completely satisfying symbols; it dramatized
the needs of the soul exactly as does some great poem or work of art” (6). In
applying this formulation to Milton’s piety, I do not seek to pigeonhole
Milton as a Puritan; for the problems with such a claim, see Catherine
Gimelli Martin’s Milton Among the Puritans (2010).
12. Perry Miller’s comparison of evil to “shadows in a picture” paraphrases the
passage in Augustine’s City of God (11.23) that I discuss in Chapter 2. Even
Fish, who ordinarily downplays the importance of the aesthetic, acknowl-
edges Milton’s connection with this Augustinian view in How Milton Works
(2001; 11–12).
13. Milton’s work engages deeply with Augustinian thought. The title of his De
Doctrina Christiana echoes Augustine’s, and as John Savoie’s “Justifying the
Ways of God and Man: Theodicy in Augustine and Milton” (2006) notes,
“In his prose Milton refers to Augustine dozens of times by name, quota-
tion, and allusion, along with innumerable echoes” (140). See also C.S.
Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942), Peter Fiore’s Milton and
Augustine: Patterns of Augustinian Thought in Paradise Lost (1981), and
Thomas Ramey Watson’s Perversions, Originals, and Redemptions in
Paradise Lost (2007). Nonetheless, Danielson and Bryson, otherwise
opposed on Milton’s theology, both caution against forcing it into an overly
Augustinian framework (see Danielson 177 and Bryson, Atheist 3). My
argument is restricted to particular Augustinian ideas that have not always
been central to these scholarly debates: the importance of appreciating the

beauty of the universe, the way evil functions as part of that beauty, and the
treatment of evil as a species of perversity.
14. Dryden (1697; 276) and John Dennis (1704; 1.334) called Satan the hero
of the poem but without moral approval. Satan elicited more fervent admira-
tion in the Romantic period: apart from Blake and Shelley, the critic William
Hazlitt (1818) praises Satan for showing a “decided superiority of charac-
ter” (T. Miller 141). E. E. Stoll (1944) considers Satan in book 2 “a figure
still more intrepid and sublime than the Son” in book 3 (116). Waldock
(1947) and Empson (1961) treat Satan very sympathetically even while
acknowledging his eventual “degradation” (Empson 71, Waldock 64).
G. Rostrevor Hamilton’s Hero or Fool? A Study of Milton’s Satan (1969)
admires Satan’s “greatness” and “real inward splendour of person” and
suggests that “the association of evil with elements of heroic virtue” makes
him “a tragic and a formidable figure” (13, 17). Forsyth (2003) echoes the
“Romantic admiration” for Satan, citing his “overwhelming power” and
“attractiveness”; he also compares Satan to a “tragic hero” and considers
him productively “subversive” (4, 6). Bryson (2004) feels that “Milton’s
Satan, until the temporary transformation into a serpent in book 10, retains
grandeur of form and purpose that even defeat in Heaven and the fall into
Hell does not entirely remove from him” (Tyranny 182-3n1).
15. For Shelley’s and Empson’s critiques of Milton’s God, see Chapter 6.
William Kerrigan’s The Sacred Complex (1983) argues that the poetry of
Paradise Lost suggests God’s capacity for evil: “If we give our instantaneous
response to the dark God time to achieve a conclusion, we will inevitably
find ourselves thinking with Blake and other heresiarchs that . . . this God,
Milton’s God, is the source of evil as well as good. What the discursive
argument of the poem denies, the symbol tacitly concedes” (99). Michael
Bryson’s The Tyranny of Heaven (2004) goes further, suggesting that the
character of God in Paradise Lost is essentially the opposite of Milton’s
actual conception of God (11–12).
16. See above for the relevant critics. In Milton and the Literary Satan (1974),
Frank Kastor productively traces a “trimorphic” tradition of literary repre-
sentations of Satan as glorious rebel angel in Heaven (Lucifer), terrifying
monarch in Hell (Satan), and contemptible quasi-comic tempter on Earth
(The Devil) (see 15, 71). In these terms, one might say that most critics
attribute Satan’s appeal to his Lucifer aspect.
17. Fish (1967) calls this phrase “Satan’s finest moment,” but he also identifies
it as a paraphrase from a description of bees in Virgil’s Georgics, and he
therefore argues that the phrase “mocks” Satan (Surprised 8).
18. Miltonists have understood Satan’s evolution in a variety of ways. Waldock
(1947) argues that “The changes do not generate themselves from within:

they are imposed from without. Satan, in short, does not degenerate: he is
degraded” by an overly moralistic narrator (83). Fish (1967) counters that
“between Books I and VI Satan does not change at all. His degradation is a
critical myth.” Instead, “It is the reader who moves, or advances, until his
cleansed eye can see what has always been there” (Surprised 345).
19. See also John Steadman’s “The Idea of Satan as the Hero of Paradise Lost”
(1976; 255) and Judith Kates, Tasso and Milton: The Problem of Christian
Epic (1983; 71, 126–127). Milton’s invocation to Paradise Lost book 9 does
contrast the “tedious havoc” of “battles feigned” with “the better forti-
tude/Of patience and heroic martyrdom” (9.30–32). However, the invoca-
tion also specifically identifies its “argument . . . more heroic” (9.13–14) as
an account of divine punishment that emphasizes God’s role in unleashing
Sin and Death (9.10–12).
20. Satan’s speech here—like his overall depiction in the poem—clearly has
political implications, but critics have disagreed about exactly how to read
the poem politically, seeing Satan as an allegory for such diverse figures as
Oliver Cromwell, Charles I, and Milton himself. See Sharon Achinstein’s
Milton and the Revolutionary Reader (1994; 180–181).
21. On the corrective voice of the epic narrator, see Waldock 77–81 and Fish’s
response (Surprised 5–9). See also Forsyth, who surveys some of the extant
scholarship as of 2003 (90–91).
22. See also the first appearance of Adam and Eve, where the narrator describes
their beauty and nobility in terms of what Satan “Saw” (4.286).
23. The last two books specifically emphasize the weakness of Adam’s sight:
Michael has to give him special eye drops in order to see the visions of book
11 (11.412–418), and even with this aid, Adam’s vision becomes exhausted
at 12.8–10, prompting Michael to narrate the remainder of human history.
24. Satan succumbs to sensuality over principle only later, when he sleeps with
his daughter Sin. Similarly, Satan’s followers first correctly identify Sin as an
ill omen, a “sign/Portentous,” even though their better judgment is even-
tually swayed by her “attractive graces” (2.760–762).
25. William Poole’s (2005) analysis of this Augustinian problem in Paradise Lost
concludes that “evil is so astonishing that its origin is equally bewildering,
and is rendered so” (155; see also 149–150).
26. The one exception to Death’s amorality actually makes him seem less evil,
not more. In his first speech, he condemns Satan as the one “Who first broke
peace in heaven and faith” (2.690). However, Death abandons any pretense
of loyalty to God the moment Satan offers to feed him.
27. For more on Burke’s sublime as a variety of the sinister, see the introduction
and epilogue.
28. For this distinction, see Louis Schwartz’s (1995) careful reading of the
interplay between engagement and disgust with Sin (esp. 64–65).

29. For a political reading of the eclipse imagery, see Achinstein (1994)
30. The exceptions are Marvell’s “On Paradise Lost” (1674) and Dryden’s six-
line “Epigram” (1688), but neither treats any section of the poem in detail
(T. Miller 28–29, 31).
31. Eric Song’s analysis of the “materials dark and crude” speech in Dominion
Undeserved: Milton and the Perils of Creation (2013) concurs that “Satan’s
impure motives still lead to genuine insights, for the poem as a whole
confirms the indispensable nature of the unbridled and dangerous potential
of chaos” (35).

Milton’s Sinister God: Poetic Justice

and Chiaroscuro in Paradise Lost


The narrative arc of Satan’s degeneration in Paradise Lost (1674), along
with the falls of Adam and Eve, allows John Milton to address certain
important aspects of the problem of evil. These accounts offer a taxonomy
of the various normative and sinister means by which evil can be appealing.
The poem’s thorough treatment of these options provides at least a partial
explanation for how free-willed creatures can make wrong choices,
although the ultimate origins of the perverse will remain mysterious.
Having demonstrated the tempting powers of evil, Paradise Lost strips
Satan of his engaging qualities, thereby bringing the poem’s representa-
tion of his character belatedly into conformity with early modern theories
about how didactic literature ought to make evil unattractive.
In itself, Milton’s depiction of the flaws and limitations of Satan and
other fallen creatures does not achieve the primary goal of theodicy: to
justify God’s own relationship to evil. Indeed, by relying on the poetic
power of representations of the infernal and demonic, the poem risks
creating a contradiction between its sinister methods and its pious message.
Even Sir Philip Sidney, who defends the poetic imagination against more
moralistic critics, nonetheless insists that “evil men” should depart the
stage “so manacled as they little animate folks to follow them” (Defence
of Poesy 225). And as we have seen, the debate in Milton studies between
Fishean and Empsonian critics is animated by their shared belief that the
Satanic poetry of Paradise Lost conflicts with its Christian theology.

© The Author(s) 2017 217

J.E. Slotkin, Sinister Aesthetics,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52797-0_6

Although Paradise Lost literally demonizes the perverse sensibilities of Sin

and Death, Milton uses the power of poetic language and the reactions of
characters within the poem to represent horrible things as potential sources
of aesthetic pleasure. By encouraging a fascination with evil that the poem
must then successfully neutralize, Milton appears to be adding a gratuitous
challenge to the already intractable task of theodicy.
In fact, however, Milton’s belief in the importance of imagination and
emotion to Christian piety requires him to approach theology through the
poetic, and consequently to approach the problem of evil through sinister
aesthetics. Moving believers to love God requires addressing their aes-
thetic sensibilities. Therefore, to the extent that God appears responsible
for evil, that evil must also be treated aesthetically in order to produce a
fully satisfying theodicy. Accordingly, Paradise Lost takes the sinister
power initially attributed to Satan and reveals that it belongs more funda-
mentally to God. In this way, Milton creates a poetic universe that
encourages readers to respond to God’s punishments with approval and
pleasure rather than merely reluctant acceptance.
Elaborating on a strategy employed by seventeenth-century sermon
writers such as Thomas Adams, Milton imbues his representation of God
with the sinister appeal of an early modern stage villain like Shakespeare’s
Richard III. The God of Paradise Lost, like Richard, is placed in a narrative
role that contrasts with his moral character: Richard is an evil protagonist,
and God is initially presented as the poem’s antagonist. Like Richard, God
is smarter and more powerful than his enemies. He is a monarch who is
described as having all of the forces of hell at his command. He takes
pleasure in mocking, manipulating, and tormenting his naïve, helpless
foes. Satan, of course, also resembles Richard in several important
respects.1 But in Milton’s larger narrative, Satan functions more like
Richard III’s Lady Anne: a victim much less devious than her hated
opponent, one who is manipulated to her own destruction without even
fully understanding how she was manipulated.
Percy Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry (1821) includes a famous condem-
nation of Milton’s God that perceptively captures some of his Vice-like

Implacable hate, patient cunning, and a sleepless refinement of device to

inflict the extremest anguish on an enemy, these things are evil; and,
although venial in a slave, are not to be forgiven in a tyrant . . . one who in
the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge

upon his enemy, not from any mistaken notion of inducing him to
repent . . . but with the alleged design of exasperating him to deserve new
torments. (T. Miller 148)2

There are two major problems with Shelley’s analysis. First, he says all of
these things about God as if they are inherently unattractive. The pre-
valence of such villains in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and of similar
portrayals of God himself in sermons, suggests rather that this kind of
sadistic deviousness was a selling point for early modern audiences. They
make Milton’s portrayal of God awesome, in both the early modern and
modern slang senses of the word. Second, Shelley’s characterization is
incomplete, because Milton’s God is also just, merciful, loving, and a
creator of supernally beautiful things. This duality, this concordia discors,
is in fact what defines the God of Paradise Lost.
As my analysis of the sermon literature has shown, any attempt to
apply the appeal of the sinister to God has serious theological conse-
quences. Foremost among these is a theodicy that paradoxically denies
and acknowledges God’s relationship to evil: although God may not be
morally responsible for human crimes, he is aesthetically responsible for
the forms of those crimes and their corresponding punishments.
Sermon writers such as Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne seek to
morally exonerate God while insisting that his providence shapes the
expressions and manifestations of sin. The aesthetics of poetic justice
governing these crimes and punishments are sinister, and Donne in
particular suggests that if the sinister belongs to God, then appreciating
it is not a sign of Satanic corruption but an obligatory part of Christian
piety. Similarly, in Paradise Lost, God makes the sinister an integral part
of the operations of his divine providence. Milton’s God shapes the evil
of his creations (malum culpae) into manifestations of divine punish-
ment (malum poenae). These displays of divine action are a form of
sinister allegory, meant to instruct and delight those who observe them.
The human attraction to evil, which was part of the problem Milton
needed to address, thereby becomes part of his poetic answer to the
more serious problem of divine evil.3
This vision is fraught with potential difficulties for both the theologian
and the pious believer. Because the poem shows aesthetics and morality
to be inextricably intertwined, it risks representing God as having a
greater responsibility for evil than early modern theology would counte-
nance. Moreover, depicting the visceral horror of divine punishment,

even mediated by sinister aesthetics, calls attention to the aspect of God

that is hardest to justify.
But for Milton, making God the source of sinister pleasure is an attempt
to reconcile the obligation to love God with the fact that his creation is a
chiaroscuro mix of light and dark, good and evil. In addition, by repre-
senting God as a sinister allegorist, Milton seeks to justify his own poetic
interest in hellish subjects, which early modern moralists might otherwise
view as dangerous. If he renders the horrors of transgression and punish-
ment in aesthetically appealing ways, he does no more—and no less—than
imitate God’s own symbolizing practices. Thus, Milton uses sinister alle-
gory in an effort to harmonize his work as poet with his theological
understanding of God’s nature and of the ways in which God signifies
his will to men.


Understanding the portrayal of God in Paradise Lost requires taking
seriously Milton’s (and his contemporaries’) explicit statements of reli-
gious principle, while adopting capacious and historically sensitive models
of “what belief itself looks like,” as Kenneth Gross (1987) puts it (319).4
Early modern religion was not restricted to the narrow arena of abstract
theology or walled off from the secular world. Rather, it permeated all
aspects of early modern culture, including the aesthetic and affective
realms. As we have seen, early modern ballads, broadsides, and sermons
offered every conceivable combination of theological doctrine, popular
piety, and sensationalist entertainment. Precisely because of its ubiquity,
Christian piety was not pure, rigid, monolithic, and utterly self-consistent,
as some Miltonists have implied.5 Rather, early modern belief involved
doubt, ambivalence, and internal contradictions even within individual
believers and congregations, to say nothing of England’s numerous and
violent sectarian divisions. In particular, scholars such as Christopher Hill
and Peter Herman have shown that seventeenth-century writers frequently
posed profound questions about God’s justice.6
Approaching Milton’s theological treatise, De Doctrina Christiana, with
these premises in mind allows a nuanced reading of God’s relationship to evil
that expands, rather than limits, our understanding of the theological options
available to Milton. Paradise Lost is by no means obligated to conform to the
theological dictates of De Doctrina, but ideas that are conceivable in
De Doctrina are certainly available for Milton’s use in Paradise Lost.

Although the treatise, unsurprisingly, affirms that “God, who is supremely

good, cannot be the source of wickedness” (1.8, CPW 6.331), it does not
treat God’s goodness as a tautology or the concept of divine evil as a mean-
ingless oxymoron, as Stanley Fish’s reading of Milton implies.7 In Fish’s
Surprised by Sin (1967), Milton’s God is “a good whose value cannot be
measured because it is the measure (or norm) of value” (352), and therefore
the possibility of divine evil should be inconceivable to right-thinking believ-
ers. De Doctrina, however, carefully examines God’s hypothetical and actual
capacity for various kinds of evil.
The theological arguments in De Doctrina assume and require the
existence of moral standards separate from God. Although God is both
supremely good and omnipotent, Milton does not believe that God’s
omnipotence allows him to define goodness in any way he chooses. As
Dennis Richard Danielson (1982) notes, Milton rejects the idea that
“what God wills is good merely by definition” (151). Indeed, Paradise
Lost puts a similar argument in Satan’s mouth, presumably to discredit it:
“he /Who now is sovereign can dispose and bid /What shall be right”
(1.245–247). In De Doctrina 1.2 (“Of God”), God’s virtue is indepen-
dent of his power: his omnipotence is part of his nature (CPW 6.145),
whereas his kindness, faithfulness, and justice are aspects of his will (CPW
6.150–151). Moreover, the treatise repeatedly entertains the possibility of
an evil deity. Its argument for the existence of God rests on the premise
that “either God or some supreme evil power of unknown name presides
over the affairs of men. But it is intolerable and incredible that evil should
be stronger than good and should prove the true supreme power” (CPW
6.131).8 By admitting even the theoretical possibility of an evil God,
Milton implies a definition of goodness that transcends simple obedience
to God’s will. Mankind is, in principle, capable of passing judgment on
God and finding him wanting, since a supreme being who acted in certain
ways would be “intolerable.”
Paradise Lost equally supports the idea that human beings must be able
to judge God’s providential decrees by some standard independent of the
decrees themselves. The very concept of a theodicy presumes that God can
be justified to man, that God stands in need of justification, and that this
justification must be according to some human standard. As the Chorus of
Samson Agonistes (1671) insists, “Just are the ways of God, /And justifi-
able to men” (lines 293–294). Like the treatise, the epic is full of moments
where a character says that God would be unjust or evil if he were to act a
certain way. Even the Son entertains the hypothetical possibility of an evil

God, and asserts a moral standard accessible to humans and independent

of God’s will, in his speech at 3.150–166, which concludes that if God
were not to save mankind, “So should thy goodness and thy greatness
both /Be questioned and blasphemed without defence.”
Most importantly, the ability to judge God is an essential part of the
free will that Milton insists is God’s greatest gift to his creations. By
definition, free agents have the power and the responsibility to make
decisions about what is right and what is wrong; they cannot mindlessly
obey orders. Accordingly, the God of Paradise Lost praises Adam for
disagreeing with him about what sort of companionship Adam should
have. Adam argues for an equal partner, while God pretends to take
contrary positions (8.364–433). Afterwards, God says that he wanted to
see how Adam could “judge of fit and meet” (8.448), but what he has
really asked Adam to do is to judge him—to articulate a moral standard
independent from what Adam thinks the will of God is.
Of course, De Doctrina rejects a priori any hypotheses that would make
God wicked or sinful, and the God of Paradise Lost does not deny Adam a
companion or irredeemably damn the human race. Nonetheless, De
Doctrina’s account of God’s providence in 1.8 does argue that God
bears a certain kind of responsibility for certain kinds of evil. First, God’s
providence governs “evil occurrences just as much as good ones” (CPW
6.330). These evil occurrences fall into two categories: the “evil of crime”
or “malum culpæ,” and the “evil of punishment” or “malum pœnæ”
(CPW 6.331, 330; WJM 15.68, 66). This taxonomy of evil parallels the
dichotomy of “disobedience” and “woe” with which Paradise Lost begins.
The analysis of seventeenth-century sermons in Chapter 4 shows that it
was a commonplace of early modern theology, deriving from the work of
ancient and medieval theologians such as Tertullian, Augustine, and
Thomas Aquinas. However, modern scholars have not always applied
this paradigm to considerations of evil in Milton. Dennis Richard
Danielson’s influential study Milton’s Good God (1982), for example,
offers a tripartite scheme that reflects his analysis of the Western philoso-
phical and theological tradition. Metaphysical evil is, in Danielson’s
Augustinian view, “the essential dependency, finitude, imperfection, and
limitation of all created things” (5). Natural evil is any harm not caused by
rational agents. Finally, moral evil is the product of wrong choices by
rational agents. Malum culpae is basically analogous to moral evil, but
Danielson’s model tends to obscure the concept of malum poenae and the
divine agency behind it.

Although De Doctrina 1.8 states that God “cannot be the source

of wickedness or of the evil of crime” (CPW 6.331), he “allows evil to
happen, by not impeding natural causes and free agents” (CPW
6.330)—what Danielson would call natural evil and moral evil. Even
simply permitting evil might give God some responsibility for it, but
in fact, God’s providence takes a more active role in the evil of crime:
“Even in sin, then, we see God’s providence at work, not only in
permitting it or withdrawing his grace, but often in inciting sinners to
commit sin, hardening their hearts and blinding them” (CPW 6.331).
God thus encourages evil people to commit more and greater evil
Like John Donne, Lancelot Andrewes, and other seventeenth-century
writers across the Protestant spectrum, Milton downplays God’s moral
responsibility for evil but emphasizes God’s aesthetic responsibility for
evil. As De Doctrina Christiana explains,

God does not drive the human heart to sinfulness and deceit when it is
innocent and pure and shrinks from sin. But when it has conceived sin, when
it is heavy with it, and already giving birth to it, then God as the supreme
arbiter of all things turns and points it [flectit atque dirigit] in this or that
direction or towards this or that object. (CPW 6.332, WJM 15.72)

In other words, God does not produce the evil impulse of the will that is
the core of malum culpae. But he bends it (flectit) and directs or arranges
it (dirigit) according to his purposes. He designs the shape that the evil
action takes, causing it “to show in this particular way rather than any
other,” and he chooses the target that it will strike. God does not cause
“the wickedness and pride” of the sinner, but he is “the instigator of the
deed itself” (CPW 6.333).9
God is wholly responsible for the second major form of evil, which
is malum poenae. De Doctrina unambiguously states that God “causes
evil by administering chastisement, and this is called the evil of punish-
ment” (CPW 6.330–331). As with malum culpae, though, the most
troubling aspect of God’s responsibility for this form of evil is aes-
thetic. We can presume that those whom God punishes are guilty, of
original sin if nothing else, and therefore the evil of punishment could
be thought of as an ultimately good manifestation of justice.10 The
problem—which is, as I have argued, as much an aesthetic or affective
problem as it is a strictly moral one—is that God also chooses the

forms of the torments that sinners endure in this life and the next, and
these torments are frequently hideous in nature.
Paradise Lost presents God’s responsibility somewhat inconsistently, in
a way that suggests uneasiness with this problem. As John Rogers
demonstrates in The Matter of Revolution (1996), Milton’s epic is
ambivalent about whether the consequences of sin result from natural
processes or explicit divine fiat (see 147–161). The opening of Paradise
Lost seems to remove responsibility from God by blaming humanity’s
suffering on the “mortal taste” (1.2) of the fruit. This ambiguous phrase
suggests either a natural efficacy in the fruit itself or man’s action of tasting
it. Overall, though, the poem acknowledges God’s responsibility for both
the moral framework that necessitates the punishment and the execution
of that punishment.
In both Paradise Lost and De Doctrina, Milton insists that the
malum culpae of eating the fruit deserved the malum poenae of the
Fall. This argument is necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure the
success of Milton’s poetic theodicy. The justification of God’s ways in
Paradise Lost requires an account of divine punishment, or malum
poenae, that is not merely logical but that also aims to be aesthetically
satisfying, and this latter task is the biggest challenge to the poem’s
theodicial goals.
To make these punishments palatable, Milton applies sinister aesthetics
to them and to God, in effect giving God some of the same dark
fascination ordinarily reserved for theatrical villains like the prodigious
Richard III. As counterintuitive as this idea may appear, it is attested to
by both early modern and modern readers. Empson describes this appeal
in the first chapter of Milton’s God (1961), calling the depiction of God in
Paradise Lost “horrible and wonderful” and comparing it to “Aztec or
Benin sculpture, or to come nearer home the novels of Kafka” (13). He
even describes God’s self-justification in book 3 as “the stage-villain’s hiss
of ‘Die he or Justice must’” (120). Empson’s characterization might seem
like an artifact of his avowed anti-Christian sentiments (9–10), but in fact
his disgust with Christianity is what prevents him from consistently
enjoying Milton’s deliberate juxtaposition of wonder and horror.
Empson’s mistake is not that he compares God to a stage villain, it is
that—like Shelley—he assumes stage villains are unappealing. As a result,
he ends up arguing that Milton’s portrayal of God tries not to indulge the
potential for a “Horror-Comic or drug-like thrill” or an “interest in
torture” (272, 273).11

Despite Empson’s obvious ambivalence, I find his comparison to Aztec

religious art so productive for an understanding of the poem’s aesthetics that
I will venture a brief description of an Aztec sculpture that Empson pre-
sumably knew about: the monolithic sculpture of the goddess Coatlicue at
the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.12 The goddess is
carved from a massive block of stone 3.5 meters high and wears a skirt of
serpents from which she takes her name. She bears monstrous claws and a
necklace of human skulls. She has been decapitated, and two gouts of blood
spurt from her neck, but the streams of blood are represented metaphorically
as serpents. The serpents curve so that their heads point toward each other
with their noses touching, and their features visible in profile (one eye and
one side of a mouth each) combine to form a single face that is the visage of
the goddess. The statue of Coatlicue represents a complex interplay of
sacrifice, fertility, destruction, and rebirth. She expresses the beauty of divine
brutality—and self-sacrifice—in a spiritualization of horror that is akin to
Milton’s treatment of one aspect of the divine.
Although Empson flinches from his own insight, this perception of the
mingled horror and wonder at the core of Paradise Lost pervades early
responses to the poem. The earliest version of Empson’s “horrible and
wonderful” formulation appears in Andrew Marvell’s “On Paradise Lost,”
printed with the 1674 edition of the epic, which says that when reading
Paradise Lost, “At once delight and horror on us seize” (Paradise Lost,
page 54, line 35). The other companion poem, Samuel Barrow’s, does not
explicitly juxtapose the two terms, but Barrow’s delight in Paradise Lost is
evident, and his evidence for the epic’s greatness consists in large part of
terrible things, like the wheels of Messiah’s chariot, which Barrow
describes as “Horrendum” (Paradise Lost, page 52, line 31). Joseph
Addison’s “An Account of the Greatest English Poets” (1694) describes
the “Terrour and Delight” that the war in heaven induces (T. Miller 33).
Similarly, Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the English Poets (1781) refers to
“Pleasure and terrour” in connection with the epic (T. Miller 109). John
Dennis’s The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704), one of the most
detailed early prose expositions of the subject, argues that “Admiration
and Terror . . . give the principal Greatness and Elevation to Poetry” and
that the arousal of these passions characterizes Paradise Lost, except for the
disappointing “latter end of his Poem” (1.351).13
The delight and terror (or the delight in terror) in these responses comes
more from God than from Satan. Barrow’s description of Satan in arms is
heroic; it is the Son’s chariot that he calls horrendous. Dennis is particularly

clear about attributing the greatness of Paradise Lost to its representation of

divine violence. In fact, he goes so far as to call divine wrath the most
admirable and powerful subject for any poem: “no Passion is attended with
greater Joy than Enthusiastick Terror, which proceeds from our reflecting
that we are out of danger at the very time that we see it before us.” He
presents “the several Ideas which are capable of producing this enthusiastick
Terror” and concludes that “of all these Ideas none are so terrible as those
which shew the Wrath and Vengeance of an angry God; for nothing is so
wonderful in its Effects” (1.361).14 As an example of how Christianity
enables better poetry than pagan authors are capable of, Dennis compares
passages from book 20 of the Iliad and the Bible’s psalm 18, in which
Neptune and God, respectively, smite the Earth. Dennis specifically praises
the psalm’s representation of God for wreaking more havoc with less effort:
“the true God, actually demolishing and overturning the Machine of the
World, only with a Word and with a Look” (1.367). As I discussed in
Chapter 2, Tasso makes a very similar argument about Christianity produ-
cing more impressive special effects in his Discorsi. In Theological Milton:
Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon (2006), Michael Lieb
argues that the terrifying aspects of Milton’s God are characteristic of the
theology of his time: “The seventeenth century, in particular, is replete with
sermons and treatises that address the specific concept of dread as a divine
attribute as well as a psychological response to that attribute” (191). Both
Dennis and Lieb suggest that the appropriate response to this divine
destructive power includes a kind of pleasure derived from fear.15
In short, centuries of documented responses to Paradise Lost suggest
that the poem emphasizes the horrors of divine wrath and punishment,
while also making them poetically engaging. Moreover, De Doctrina
Christiana demonstrates Milton’s willingness to consider God’s potential
capacity for evil and, in particular, to make God responsible for the forms
that evil takes. Milton’s task in Paradise Lost is to marry the sinister
aesthetics of malum poenae with a coherent account of God’s role in
shaping human suffering, such that readers can find God’s punishments
not only tolerable or technically just but also genuinely admirable.


The early books of Paradise Lost are dominated by the lavish imagery of hell,
which critics have generally associated with Satan. While scholars have con-
vincingly articulated numerous ways in which the landscape and qualities of

hell reflect Satan’s evils, it would be misleading to think of hell or the poetics
of the hellish as Satanic in the strict sense. In Milton’s poem, the infernal
aesthetic governing hell’s construction is not in itself morally corrupt or
sinful, nor does it spring directly from Satan’s imagination. In fact, as the epic
narrator makes clear, hell is a manifestation of the divine will and a product of
God’s creative design. More precisely, hell is a reified allegory that God
constructs to represent Satan’s tormented psyche, as Satan eventually realizes
at 4.75, when he says “myself am hell.” Although Satan does not create this
infernal aesthetic, it shapes his presentation significantly, making him sym-
pathetic as a victim of “Infinite wrath” (4.74) and impressive as the focus of
magnificently destructive energies, much as the curses do for Shakespeare’s
Richard III.
While the first books of Paradise Lost focus on Satan, they also carefully
establish God’s intimate connection to the infernal aesthetic, which trans-
cends the cosmological region of hell. God uses it as a tool of punishment,
a medium of creation, and even a representation of his own divine nature.
As Mammon observes during the demonic council, God frequently opts to
shroud his celestial throne in hellish darkness:

. . . How oft amidst

Thick clouds and dark doth heaven’s all-ruling sire
Choose to reside, his glory unobscured,
And with the majesty of darkness round
Covers his throne; from whence deep thunders roar
Mustering their rage, and heaven resembles hell? (2.263–268)

This “majesty of darkness” is not, of course, morally evil. It is essentially an

aesthetic covering, a means by which God represents his otherwise inef-
fable self, and Mammon claims that it reveals God’s glory just as effectively
as his brighter masks. Although Mammon is by no means a reliable source
for information about God, the poem provides many other examples that
reinforce this particular observation. Furthermore, this basic method of
representing God has ample precedent in the Christian tradition, stretch-
ing all the way back to the Old Testament (Alastair Fowler’s note to this
passage cites, among other things, psalms 18 and 97, which illustrate the
point rather vividly). God’s use of a darkness that “resembles hell” is
important, because as we have seen in the previous chapter, De Doctrina
argues that God’s creatures cannot conceive of him except through the
metaphors that he chooses to employ. Moreover, Christian piety obligates

believers to imagine God according to the images of himself that he

presents. By choosing to represent himself through an aesthetic of infernal
grandeur, God authors a spectacle of sinister art with a didactic message.16
Part of that message has to do with the integral relationship between
sinister aesthetics and the processes of creation. Milton endows the realm
of chaos, source of the matter from which God creates the universe, with
distinctly infernal characteristics. It is the habitation of chthonic pagan
gods like “Orcus and Ades, and the dreaded name /Of Demogorgon”
(2.964–965). Milton repeatedly calls it “the nethermost abyss” (2.956,
969, see also 7.234), and it is full of “tumultuous cloud /Instinct with fire
and nitre” (2.937). The raw materials of creation themselves are charac-
terized by darkness and violence:

. . . neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,

But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds. (2.910–916)

These dark materials of the nethermost abyss, pregnant with earth, water,
air, and fire, are remarkably similar to the “materials dark and cru-
de . . . pregnant with infernal flame” that Satan describes lying beneath
the surface of heaven and serving as the origin of heavenly beauty
(6.478, 483). This consistency suggests that the idea is not a Satanic
error, that Milton truly sees the dark and infernal as an essential ingredient
of the creative process.
The similarities between chaos and hell have encouraged a long-running
debate among Milton critics about whether the poem represents chaos as
evil, a possibility that many scholars have seen as a serious theological
problem. In “Milton’s Hostile Chaos” (1985), for example, Regina
Schwartz argues that although Milton’s theology demands “a good
chaos” (339), the poem conflates chaos and hell (352). Rogers (1996)
concurs that “the apparent evil of chaos” is utterly incompatible with
Milton’s “rigorously monistic” beliefs, and he sees this theological inco-
herence as a “relic” of Milton’s “political anxieties” (137). Other
Miltonists, however, have asserted a close relationship between God’s
creative power and chaos. John Rumrich’s Milton Unbound (1996) argues
that “God is the confused and dark matter of chaos even as he is the creative
virtue of light” (141–142). Catherine Gimelli Martin, in “‘Pregnant

Causes Mixt’” (1997), describes the organic connection between the light
and dark elements of creation in Paradise Lost: “As a primordial ‘Womb’
and source of matter, Chaos thus provides the source of the seamless path
winding from the divine skirts, ‘dark with excessive bright’ (3.380), to their
earthly expression: the ‘bright consummate flowr’ (5.581) whose ‘root’
(479) lies in the ‘dark materials’ of matter waiting ‘to create more Worlds’
(2.916)” (162).
There are potential moral or metaphysical problems with chaos. Most
notably, its “anarch” appears to resent God’s creation and to approve of
Satan’s assault upon it, a stance that could be considered morally evil
(2.989). Yet, as Rumrich points out, Chaos similarly resents the bridge
that Death constructs across his realm, even though the bridge is part of an
attempt to oppose God and to ruin his creation (10.415–418, Rumrich
126). Moreover, the incompatibility of an actual god of chaos with
Christian cosmogony suggests that he is at least partly allegorical, like
Sin, Death, or “The Paradise of Fools” (3.496) and should perhaps not
be evaluated as a moral agent in the same way as characters like Satan,
Adam, and Eve.
Indeed, as Rogers’s reference to “the apparent evil of chaos” suggests,
much of the evidence for the evil of chaos actually has more to do with its
aesthetic qualities than its moral character. Danielson (1982), who sees
“both evil and good possibilities” in chaos, associates its evil potential with
“the menacing appearance of its ‘inhabitants’” (51, 49). Regina Schwartz
calls chaos “infernal” in part because it looks and feels like hell (353).
Although the imagery of a dark abyss filled with fire and sulfur is con-
ventionally associated with evil, there is nothing inherently immoral about
such an environment. Chaos is not necessarily evil, but it is definitely
sinister, and the distinction between the two is essential for understanding
Milton’s representation of God.
By ascribing sinister qualities to chaos, Milton suggests that the sinister is
older and more primal than malum culpae. In Paradise Lost, the allegorical
figure of Sin is born from Satan’s head as he plots rebellion against God
(2.749–758), and Satan’s rebellion finds its ultimate origin in his resentment
of the Son’s exaltation (5.661–671). Chaos and his realm predate all created
things, not only Satan but heaven itself. Although the “anarch” of chaos
seems to oppose God (2.988), God’s own use of the “majesty of darkness”
to represent himself reinforces the idea that the sinister is a divine attribute
that is distinct from evil and predates it. Furthermore, the nature of chaos
reinforces Satan’s suggestion that creation requires the sinister. To the extent

that chaos is “vital” (Rogers 141), that is, imbued with its own energy, that
energy appears to come in large part from its infernal qualities. Rogers and
Eric Song (2013), who is responding directly to Rogers, emphasize that in
Milton’s account of creation, God “downward purged /The black tartar-
eous cold infernal dregs /Adverse to life” (7.237–239; see Rogers 134 and
Song 17). These infernal dregs appear to lack creative potential, and for
Rogers they represent an intractable contradiction of Milton’s theology.
However, Rogers makes it clear that they represent only “a portion” of the
matter of chaos (134), and Song carefully distinguishes between these
“inert” dregs and the “productive” dark materials that Satan mines for
gunpowder (35). For purposes of this study, it is enough to say that some
of the infernal materials of chaos are linked to creative power. But it is
possible that even the dregs of chaos may form part of the material of
God’s creation, depending on whether they are “purged” out of the universe
entirely, or merely sorted out and distributed to their proper places in
creation when God “conglobed /Like things to like, the rest to several
place /Disparted” (7.239–241).
Although some of the scholarly concerns about God’s links to evil
in the poem are the result of confusing genuine evil with the sinister
aesthetics of the infernal, God does also use morally evil actions them-
selves, malum culpae, as raw materials for working out his providential
design. Paradise Lost first introduces this principle in Satan’s attempt to
combat it: “If then his providence /Out of our evil seek to bring forth
good, /Our labour must be to pervert that end” (1.162–164). Satan’s
plan presumes that God’s providence routinely uses sinful actions to
produce good, and he articulates this idea in a way that suggests it is
well-known and requires little explanation. This impression is backed up
by more reliable voices, especially in book 7, where the angels offer God
“Glory and praise, whose wisdom had ordained /Good out of evil to
create” (7.186–187) and warn that

. . . Who seeks
To lessen thee, against his purpose serves
To manifest the more thy might: his evil
Thou usest, and from thence creat’st more good. (7.613–616)

God truly possesses the power Mammon aspires to have, the ability to
compose evils, to use evil as a medium of creation. Milton’s prose similarly

asserts that bringing forth good from evil is one of God’s primary creative
strategies. De Doctrina 1.8 repeatedly insists that “The sinner, then, is
nearly always evil or unjust in his aims, but God always produces some-
thing good and just out of these and creates, as it were, light out of
darkness” (CPW 6.333; see also 331, 332, 335, 338–339).
Areopagitica’s argument that pure readers can exercise and develop their
virtue by reading “bad books,” which I discussed in Chapter 5, suggests
that human beings can emulate this strategy of God’s, at least in the
literary arena: “the knowledge and survay of vice is in this world so
necessary to the constituting of human vertue” (CPW 2.516).
Since Milton’s Augustinian conception of internal worship requires the
ability to see the universe as a work of divine art, Milton’s insistence on
God’s majesty of darkness and reliance on dark materials reflects Milton’s
ideas about poesis of both the cosmological and literary varieties.
Understanding the aesthetic qualities of God’s majesty of darkness, and
the materials dark and crude that appear necessary to produce beauty and
goodness, is an important part of Milton’s program for perceiving and
appreciating the universe as a created thing. It also explains the structure
and approach of Milton’s own poem, which begins in hell and offers the
infernal realms and their inhabitants as the sources of the poem’s action.
In addition to shedding light on the nature of God’s creative aspect, God’s
use of the sinister also elucidates his destructive and punitive aspect. By
starting his epic narrative in hell, Milton focuses his theodicy on the central
problem of malum poenae. Indeed, the first two books of Paradise Lost
represent God mainly through his punishment of Satan. This part of the
poem features examples of malum poenae that uncomfortably combine sad-
ism and infernal sublimity in a way reminiscent of Richard’s cruelty and dark
grandeur. But these putatively Satanic qualities turn out to originate in God.
In fact, much of the magnificently sinister poetic atmosphere that sur-
rounds Satan actually comes from descriptions of the punishments that God
inflicts on him, as in the opening of the poem’s narrative:

. . . Him the almighty power

Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the omnipotent to arms. (1.44–49)

This gorgeously violent poetry is linked to Satan because he inspires it and

serves as the focal point of its imagery. Although it depicts Satan’s defeat,
the very power expended in that defeat makes Satan a more powerful and
compelling poetic object. It is a humiliation of sorts, but a terribly grand
one. God’s treatment of Satan here is analogous to the curses visited upon
Shakespeare’s Richard III, which actually make him seem more impressive
and more hellish. Of course, many of the indignities visited on Satan later
in the poem have the opposite effect. Even Raphael’s account of this very
same descent belittles the rebels by comparing them to “a herd /Of goats
or timorous flock” (6.856–857).
In any case, while he possesses it, this particular appeal accrues to Satan
primarily as an aesthetic object, not as a dangerously engaging and morally
subversive agent. In these lines, Satan as a character is essentially invisible
behind his trailing clouds of ignominious glory. When Milton does repre-
sent Satan’s subjectivity in the early books, Satan is actually a kind of
ingenuous straight man for God’s baroque and terrible punishments, as
Adam is a straight man for Michael’s visions and prophecies at the end of
the poem. Satan’s sensibilities are less attuned to the sinister than those of
the epic voice, who rhapsodizes about the horrors of hell, or God, who
designs it. Overall, Satan is not so much a sinister artist in the mold of
Richard III as he is the canvas for one.
The most consistently sinister element in Paradise Lost is its depiction
of hell, a world created by God for the sole purpose of manifesting and
executing malum poenae. It is all too easy to call Milton’s hell Satanic, as if
it is the product of Satan’s creative vision. Alastair Fowler, for instance,
refers to hell as “Satan’s disobedient ‘universe of death’” (9.404-5n), even
though he acknowledges earlier, in his note to 2.622–623, that hell is an
instance of “God’s creation of evil.” Similarly, Thomas Ramey Watson’s
Perversions, Originals, and Redemptions in Paradise Lost (2007) creates a
diametric opposition between the beauty of “God’s creation” and the
ugliness of hell, which he attributes to “its perverse anti-creators”
(64).17 These critical responses suggest the strength of the temptation to
give Satan the credit and the blame for hell. To help the reader accept
God, rather than Satan, as the author of the evils of hell, Milton employs a
corrective voice similar to that which reminds the reader that the devils are
bad. But this voice implicitly approves of the infernal world, where

. . . torture without end

Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed

With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed:

Such place eternal justice had prepared
For those rebellious . . . (1.67–71)

Hell is conceived and created by God to be both malign (fashioned

to inflict pain) and malodorous (decidedly lacking in normative aesthetic
appeal). Far from being “disobedient,” it executes God’s “eternal justice.”
The personification of Chaos reinforces this idea when he complains to
Satan that “hell /Your dungeon stretching far and wide beneath; /Now
lately heaven and earth” all represent incursions of God’s creation upon
his realm; they are in fact the reasons why he allows Satan to pass
By contrast, Satan’s own idea of an appropriate habitation is “the high
capital” of Pandaemonium (1.756), the only part of hell that the rebel
angels actually design. Its basic structure is neoclassical, overlaid with rich
(and perhaps gaudy) ornamentation that invites comparisons to
“Babylon” and “Alcairo,” cities associated with impiety and hubris
(2.717–718). While Pandaemonium may be architecturally flawed or
signal the flaws of its builders in a variety of ways, it is nonetheless infinitely
more pleasant and aesthetically normative than the landscape of hell that
God creates. Indeed, the fallen angels produce few sinister creations of
their own during the main action of the poem. Moloch’s suggestion in
book 2 that the devils attack heaven with “Tartarean sulphur, and strange
fire” specifically notes that they would be borrowing God’s “own invented
torments” (2.69–70).18 Although the poem frames artillery as a Satanic
invention, Satan makes gunpowder out of materials that were already part
of heaven and already pregnant with infernal flame. Moloch’s sacrificial
rites are a rare example of an original demonic creation that is sinister, but
they occur well after the main action of the poem, chronologically speak-
ing, once the process of aesthetic degeneration that I described in
Chapter 5 is complete.
Beyond serving as a place of punishment, hell is also designed to be a
sinister allegory: that is to say, it is God’s conception of a symbolically
appropriate dwelling place for Satan. To the divine sensibility, there is a
poetic decorum between Satan and his prison. Contemplating hell there-
fore teaches us not only about Satan but also about the nature of the God
capable of constructing it. The poem’s clearest statement on the nature of
hell occurs in book 2, after the devils’ exploration attempts have provided
an excuse for Milton to indulge in a vivid description of the infernal

landscape. Milton describes hell as a curse spoken by God, the creative

product of an ultimate malice expanded to a cosmic scale:

A universe of death, which God by curse

Created evil, for evil only good,
Where all life dies, death lives, and nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable, and worse
Than fables yet have feigned, or fear conceived,
Gorgons and Hydras, and Chimeras dire. (2.622–628)

This passage is striking in its unqualified attribution of “evil” and “mon-

strous” creative power to God.19 It illustrates, among other things, the
difference between De Doctrina and Paradise Lost. In his theological
treatise, Milton tries to defuse the disturbing implications of Biblical
references to God “creating evil” by interpreting “evil” to mean “what
afterwards became and is now evil, for whatever God created was originally
good” (1.8, CPW 6.330). In other words, humans or devils appropriate
elements of the good creation and make them evil. In contrast, Milton’s
poetic theodicy charges headfirst into the problematic notion of God
creating evil without qualifications or caveats, asserting the point with all
of the considerable rhetorical intensity that Milton can muster.
These lines demand a definition of evil with real teeth in it, even if
we presume that Milton is referring exclusively to malum poenae.
This hell is not, as per the euphemistic gloss from De Doctrina, an
originally good creation perverted by morally free creatures; it is
“created evil” from its inception. Nor can this evil be defined in
Fish’s terms as disobeying the will of God. God creates hell with
evil as its purpose, so the evil of hell is God’s will. The workings of
this universe are “Perverse” in every possible sense. Hell is “for evil
only good,” that is to say, it can only be used for torment and the
breeding of monsters. It is a place “Where all life dies,” destructive to
anything potentially good or beautiful. Elsewhere in Paradise Lost,
and in some of his prose writings, Milton does try to moderate the
malum part of the malum poenae and emphasize the goodness of
God’s justice. But here, he tries to make readers truly feel the evil of
punishment as evil. Milton takes the risk of making God seem evil
because this sense of horror at the operations of divine providence is
the intractable problem not addressed by the logic of systematic

theology. It is the problem that any poetic theodicy must solve and
that only a poetic theodicy can solve.
Milton thus highlights the most problematic elements of God’s
providence while adorning them with sinister poetry in order to make
them fascinating rather than simply repugnant. He employs the aesthetics
of excess that we have seen in early modern sermons like Bunyan’s Sighs
from Hell (1666). Like Tasso, he invokes the monstrous and the chime-
rical, and he refers specifically to the prodigious births that were such a
popular subject for early modern ballads and that informed Shakespeare’s
depiction of Richard III.
The “universe of death” passage also emphasizes the poetic aspect of
hell through its account of hell’s creation. Milton has God create hell
verbally, paralleling God’s creation of the earth at 7.174–175 as well as the
means by which poets create imaginary worlds. But here, the creating logos
is a “curse” (2.622), recalling the artfully shaped yet malevolent poetic
language that appears so powerfully in Richard III. The second half of the
passage highlights the collaboration between Milton and God as creators
of prodigies and evil universes. God’s curse is represented not in its
original words but in its effects, which the poetic narrator must then find
his own words to describe. Since God produces hell but the narrator
decides how to depict it, they share responsibility for the artistry of these
representations of the infernal realms. The passage seems to assert that the
reality of God’s creation surpasses all “fables.” But the “yet” potentially
exempts Milton’s own fable from the charge of being too limited, and
reveals Milton’s ambition to rival Dante and other poets of hell. He
thereby acknowledges his involvement in an artistic project to represent
this horrific landscape and its inhabitants through descriptions that are
supposedly “inutterable” by anyone but God (2.626–627). Milton’s claim
that the perversity of nature and the conception of chimeras are part of the
machinery of divine providence helps to rationalize their depiction in a
poem with significantly greater theological obligations than Shakespeare’s
play. If Milton can justify God’s inclusion of hell in his creation, then
Milton can also justify his own poem’s use of infernal aesthetics.
As a sinister artist, Milton’s God possesses some of the fascinating,
aesthetically transgressive characteristics of a villain like Richard III, but
expanded to a cosmic scale. Whereas the deformed Richard can only aspire
to have “the world . . . to bustle in” (Richard III 1.1.151), the God of
Paradise Lost actually creates and then deforms the world. He orchestrates
Satan’s “hideous ruin and combustion” and produces the fabulous landscape

of hell and its prodigious, chimerical inhabitants. In books 1 and 2, God

shows himself to be the master of an artful, ironic cruelty and an infernal
grandeur that Richard would envy. Because Satan’s own sensibility appears
more normative than God’s, and Satan claims the narrative role of the
protagonist, God effectively functions as the villain of the story for the first
two books. Paradise Lost makes Satan the reader’s gateway into the poem
partly in order to enable God’s malum poenae to appeal to readers in the way
that Renaissance literary villains did.
Although this means of representing God risks undermining Milton’s
denial that “some supreme evil power” rules the universe, it serves to
crystallize the problems that Milton’s poem needs to address in order to
thoroughly justify the ways of God to man. Milton presents logical argu-
ments to support God’s punishments in book 3, and elsewhere in Paradise
Lost, and at great length in De Doctrina. But the poem’s unique task is to
provide an aesthetic justification. This is necessary because the objections
to God that Paradise Lost raises, but does not invent, are aesthetic as well
as moral. To take an utterly transparent analogy, suppose that I design a
trap to inflict an elaborate and horrible torture on anyone who steals a
certain item. Suppose that I conscientiously warn a potential thief about
this trap, but they commit the crime anyway. I can plausibly argue that the
thief is morally responsible for choosing to be tortured, but I am none-
theless responsible for imagining and engineering that torture—artistically
responsible. What is at issue are the aesthetic sensibilities of the torturer.
Even if Empson were convinced that Adam, Eve, and Satan deserved their
punishments, he would still be uncomfortable with a God whose taste for
blood reminded him of an Aztec deity. In short, even if creatures are
morally responsible for their own sins, and therefore for their own punish-
ments, God’s artistic responsibility for the form of those punishments
reveals something potentially disturbing about the divine sensibility,
about the nature of God. Thus, the aesthetics of punishment cannot be
separated from the theological problem of evil.
Paradise Lost creates sympathy between the sinister sensibilities of fallen
readers and God’s sense of poetic justice in order to facilitate an
Augustinian appreciation of divine punishment. If, as Fish suggests, the
poem invites readers to feel complicit in the malum culpae of Satan’s
rebellion, it also invites readers to share imaginatively in the malum poenae
of God’s punishment of Satan. In the latter case, the fact that the purveyor
of sinister imagery is God provides some moral grounds for readers to
approve of the punishments he inflicts. Milton also makes the engagement

with the evil of punishment seem less sadistic by selecting Satan as the first
object of divine wrath. Most of Milton’s readership would have agreed
that Satan deserved considerable punishment, even though they were
capable of sympathizing with him as a literary character. Furthermore,
the punishments do not destroy Satan, but rather give him a chance to
demonstrate his fortitude, at least in the early books of the poem.



After presenting God’s infernal materials and creations in some detail, the
poem counterbalances this hellish aesthetic with the “holy light” of book
3. In the poetic structure of Paradise Lost, the vision of heaven in book 3
provides a welcome contrast to Milton’s descriptions of hell and chaos.
This contrast is welcome not because the first two books are unpleasant,
but because heaven and hell together provide the balance of light and dark
that is the core of the aesthetic ideal offered by Paradise Lost. As we have
seen, Milton uses the related paradigms of chiaroscuro and concordia
discors to structure his poetic and religious vision of the universe as an
interplay between diametric opposites.20 The extreme disjunction
between the first two books and the third contributes to the temptation
to associate God with heavenly light and Satan with infernal darkness. But
the war in heaven forcefully demonstrates that both qualities are essential
attributes of God. The episode also provides more trustworthy audiences
than the devils, in order to model more appropriate—that is, approving—
responses to God’s sinister punishments.
Before book 6, chiaroscuro seems to be a defining characteristic of the
demonic. The striking image of Satan as an eclipsed sun (1.591–605)
visually manifests the inner conflict that tortures him, a conflict he
expresses verbally in his soliloquy on Niphates (4.32–113). This “hateful
siege /Of contraries” (9.121–122) also appears in the more generalized
torments that God institutes in hell:

. . . the bitter change

Of fierce extremes, extremes by change more fierce,
From beds of raging fire to starve in ice
Their soft ethereal warmth, and there to pine
Immovable, infixed, and frozen round,
Periods of time, thence hurried back to fire. (2.598–603)

It is no coincidence that this process is supervised by “harpy-footed

Furies” (2.596). As discussed in the previous chapter, the juxtaposition
of opposing extremes represented by the demonic chiaroscuro is inti-
mately connected to the concept of the chimera, a monster constructed
from seemingly incompatible parts of different creatures.
During Raphael’s narration of the war in heaven, however, God
demonstrates the tremendous range of his use of chiaroscuro, from celes-
tial to infernal and from benign to destructive. In heaven, the “bitter
change /Of fierce extremes” with which God punishes the damned is
moderated into a pleasant alteration:

. . . There is a cave
Within the mount of God, fast by his throne,
Where light and darkness in perpetual round
Lodge and dislodge by turns, which makes through heaven
Grateful vicissitude, like day and night. (6.4–8)

Despite Fish’s claim that Milton’s “style admits variety only in order to
either banish or condemn it” (How 478), Raphael’s description makes it
clear that God alternates light and dark in heaven in order to fulfill an
aesthetic of variety.21 The change from day to night is “grateful,” meaning
that the inhabitants of heaven are grateful for it, because it gives pleasure,
not because it serves a practical purpose. Raphael alludes to versions of this
“grateful vicissitude” repeatedly in his descriptions of heaven, often in
parentheses: “(For we have also our evening and our morn, /We ours for
change delectable, not need)” (5.628–629). Here the lack of practical
value in the change from light to dark is even more explicit. The aesthetic
of variety also extends to opposites other than light and dark: “(For earth
hath this variety from heav’n /Of pleasure situate in hill and dale)”
(6.640–641). All of these examples are entirely normative; in that sense,
they are as far as possible from the entirely sinister “bitter change” of hell.
But they are mirror images of that terrible alternation between ice and fire,
and they are part of the same divine design.
In the center of this design lies the victorious Messiah, who is at once
normative and sinister, savior and punisher, and one of the clearest repre-
sentations of Milton’s chiaroscuro vision of God.22 The Son himself
explains God’s dual aspect and his own relationship to it: “whom thou
hat’st, I hate, and can put on /Thy terrors, as I put thy mildness on,
/Image of thee in all things” (6.734–736). The Son’s war chariot is

scintillatingly beautiful: “Over their heads a crystal firmament, /Whereon

a sapphire throne, inlaid with pure /Amber, and colours of the showery
arch” (6.757–759). But when the Son charges the devils, the wings of his
attendant cherubim form a “dreadful shade contiguous” (6.828) and he
himself is “gloomy as night” (6.832).23 As Lieb (2006) observes, Milton’s
God “is the consummate embodiment not only of the light with which he
is so often associated but of a darkness in which he is said to reside” (5),
and he refers to the chariot as “the sublime expression of the odium Dei,”
or divine hatred (178).
God, or his “Image” the Son, even chooses to link his own self-
representation in heaven to the chimerical and monstrous. The chariot
in battle displays not only destructive, infernal fire and lightning but also
chimerical cherubim with extra faces and eyes:

. . . the fourfold-visaged four

Distinct with eyes, and . . . living wheels,
Distinct alike with multitude of eyes,
One spirit in them ruled, and every eye
Glared lightning, and shot forth pernicious fire. (6.845–849)

Any winged angel is, of course, a chimerical fusion of bird and human, but
one arguably naturalized by Christian tradition so that it no longer evokes
monstrosity the way that it might in classical mythology. Milton’s descrip-
tion of Messiah’s chariot, however, draws on some of the most strikingly
exotic and complex chimeras in the Bible, from the first chapter of Ezekiel.
The prophet describes four creatures with four heads each (man, lion, ox,
and eagle), four wings, and men’s bodies and arms, and each accompanied
by a living wheel covered with eyes. Milton does not specify whether his
cherubim have animal faces, but they do still receive four apiece, and
he spices up the Biblical version slightly by covering the cherubim with
eyes as well as the wheels.24 He also preserves Ezekiel’s ambiguous sug-
gestion that the wheels and the cherubim are parts of the same creature
and animated by the same spirit. The principle behind the design of the
cherubim and the wheels is the principle of the chimera: they represent
a fusion of the pieces of many different creatures and objects. They
embody the paradoxical duality of divine power, and they reveal the
close links between the divine and the monstrous aesthetics of Milton’s
Sin, Gorgons, and Furies.

The monstrous elements of the chariot reflect God’s habitual use of

sinister materials to represent himself, for the education of human and
angelic audiences. As the narrator explains earlier, God shapes the
actions of the devils into an artistic expression of God’s greatness:
“their spite still serves /His glory to augment” (2.385–386). The
word “glory” is centrally involved in connecting the ethical and the
aesthetic in Christian piety. The OED entry for “glory” offers two
relevant definitions for the phrase “the glory of God.” The first is
moral: “the honour of God, considered as the final cause of creation,
and as the highest moral aim of intelligent creatures” (2.b). The second
is aesthetic: “the majesty and splendour attendant upon a manifestation
of God” (5). Similarly, De Doctrina 1.2 treats “glory” as both the
inherent “excellence” of God and a visible display in which he can be
“clothed” (CPW 6.151–152). In Paradise Lost, God tells the Son that
he has allowed the loyal and rebel angels to engage in fruitless battle
for two days so “that the glory may be thine /Of ending this great
war . . . And this perverse commotion governed thus, /To manifest thee
worthiest” (6.701–702, 706–707). God orchestrates the “perverse”
disorder of war in order to manifest Messiah’s worth to the loyal
angels, who in this final phase of the war become spectators,
“Eyewitnesses of his almighty acts” (6.883). Based on what they have
witnessed, the angels rejoice and offer songs of praise that declare
Messiah “Son, heir, and Lord . . . Worthiest to reign” (6.887–888),
thereby indicating that they have learned and been made happy by
their lesson.
God also uses sinister and what Milton refers to as evil materials in his
punishments, which are designed in part to educate his creations on the
nature of sin. De Doctrina 1.8 says that when God incites creatures to sin,
he does so in order to instruct either them or their fellows, as well as for
punishment: “In other words, he makes a man see clearly the evil which
lies hidden in his own heart, so that he may reform or become thoroughly
inexcusable in the eyes of the world; or alternatively, so that both the
malefactor and his victim may pay the penalty for some previous offence”
(CPW 6.334). The evil of punishment, then, is a medium for a didactic
message, an indirect way of understanding good. Paradise Lost puts this
principle into practice by making God’s justice a poetic justice. It dispenses
punishments that are appropriate to the crimes committed. Satan, for
instance, is “punished in the shape he sinned” and his fellow devils are
“like in punishment, /As in their crime” (10.516, 544–545).

But divine justice is not merely appropriate because God dispenses

equal amounts of punishment for equal crimes, what he calls “The rigid
satisfaction, death for death” (3.212). Rather, the punishments are appro-
priate—and poetic—because they tend to render invisible moral signifi-
cance in a concrete, sensible form, just like the punishments in Dante’s
Inferno.25 For example, Sin’s monstrous and unruly lower parts represent,
among other things, the perverted and uncontrolled sexuality in which she
participates both willingly (in her desire for Satan) and unwillingly (in her
rape by Death). In the realm of human affairs, God uses Nimrod as an
allegorical punishment:

. . . Therefore since he permits

Within himself unworthy powers to reign
Over free reason, God in judgment just
Subjects him from without to violent lords;
Who oft as undeservedly enthral
His outward freedom . . . (12.90–95)

God takes what is within and translates it to an exterior metaphor for the
sin committed.26 As Michael glosses this similitude, the tyrants represent
the psychological tyranny of bestial desires over reason, which is figured as
the legitimate ruler. In this respect God’s punishments turn their victims
into allegories of their own crimes. Of course, the poetic qualities of these
punishments cannot be appreciated without a sinister sensibility, and as we
will see, in extreme cases even that may not be sufficient.
As the poem assimilates the chiaroscuro aesthetic into its presenta-
tion of God, it also begins to present reactions to God’s dark side from
creatures that are more reliable than Satan and his followers. In chaos
and hell, there are no audiences other than the reader who can learn
the proper lessons from God’s sinister creations, but the epic’s repre-
sentation of heaven offers real and implied audiences of loyal angels.
Just as the poem has been suggesting the artfulness of malum poenae
by stressing the constructed and specifically poetic nature of hell, so
these new audiences demonstrate that the goals of God’s sinister repre-
sentations, including his punishments, are also the goals of art: to
instruct and to delight.
As a central element of divine providence, and a manifestation of divine
power and justice, God’s punishments are intended to be appreciated by
those who view them. Deriving the proper lesson from the symbolic message

of malum poenae entails some level of appreciation for the decorum between
the crime and the punishment. Furthermore, as Empson notes—with horror
—the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) provides a
venerable theological precedent for the idea that the saints in heaven will
enjoy the suffering of the damned as a manifestation of divine justice
(Empson 248).27 Empson’s response is that “The whole case illustrates
how you may reach a point of ecstasy by teaching yourself to enjoy what
your unspoiled taste thought loathsome” (249). As we have seen in
Chapter 4, early modern Christian belief required not only accepting certain
theological principles but also shaping the aesthetic sensibilities of the
believer, a process not unlike what Empson castigates here. Although
Empson resists applying this kind of religious sensibility to Milton, it is really
an extension of the “horrible and wonderful” nature of Paradise Lost that
Empson praises at the outset. After God explains the war’s role in revealing
the Son’s true nature, the Son responds by showing how it will please and
instruct angelic audiences in moral behavior. Once the devils are

To their prepared ill mansion driven down

To chains of darkness, and the undying worm,
That from thy just obedience could revolt,
Whom to obey is happiness entire.
Then shall thy Saints unmixed, and from the impure
Far separate, circling thy holy mount,
Unfeigned alleluias to thee sing. (6.738–744)

Put simply, when the rebels are eliminated, the worshippers remaining in
heaven will all be genuinely loyal. But the Son expects more than mere
“obedience” from the loyal angels; he also expects the obedience to
produce “happiness.” The “unfeigned alleluias” are an improvement on
the antebellum angelic choirs because they are not adulterated by traitors.
But the rhetorical structure of the passage also implies that the spectacle of
divine punishment might prompt the joyful singing of the loyalists.



The kind of divine sadism rejected by Empson, which angels and

humans would be expected to learn and imitate, is in fact a disturb-
ingly real possibility in the universe of Paradise Lost. The latter portion

of the epic has proved particularly difficult for many readers to assim-
ilate because it presents with increasing starkness the potentially sadis-
tic aspects of malum poenae. Books 1 and 2 do offer the hellish
torments instituted by God as pleasurable to an outside observer, but
these punishments also possess an infernal grandeur that as often as
not ennobles their victims, just as Richard becomes more magnificently
demonic through the curses that depict him as a “dreadful minister of
hell” (1.2.44). The middle part of the poem balances the terrifying
dark side of God against his light side, and presents the interplay
between the two as an aesthetic ideal in its own right, a grateful
vicissitude. In the end of the poem, though, Milton addresses the
more ignominious manifestations of malum poenae, along with their
human consequences, and attempts to fit them into his poetic theo-
dicy. As the poem moves from the aesthetic representation of the
magnificent to the contemptible and disgusting, it emphasizes God’s
responsibility for the forms of punishment ever more strongly. Milton
pursues the tough consequences of his premises—that God shapes evil
and that God is worthy of adoration—with deadly seriousness, pre-
senting the forms of malum poenae that are most difficult to assimilate
even into the sinister half of the chiaroscuro aesthetic.
This final stage of Milton’s poetic theodicy begins by depicting Satan
being punished in ways that do not permit him to borrow the majesty of
darkness, and then emphasizing that the heavenly response to Satan’s
degradation remains approving. Satan appears to degrade in part because
God chooses less impressive, more demeaning punishments for him, as
when God turns the devils into snakes:

. . . dreadful was the din

Of hissing through the hall, thick swarming now
With complicated monsters, head and tail,
Scorpion and asp, and amphisbaena dire,
Cerastes horned, hydrus, and ellops drear,
And dipsas (not so thick swarmed once the soil
Bedropped with blood of Gorgon, or the isle
Ophiusa) but still greatest he the midst,
Now dragon grown, larger than whom the sun
Engendered in the Pythian vale on slime,
Huge Python, and his power no less he seemed
Above the rest still to retain . . . (10.521–532)

Satan remains greater than his fellows, but the contrast does him little
credit here. Despite Satan’s initial association with magnificent sinister
poetry, he ultimately has no control over it. Satan does not even have
the power to pervert his own sensibilities to tolerate God’s punishments
and “make a heaven of hell” (1.255), although he and his confederates
have been trying to do so since their landing on the lake of fire. He cannot
teach himself to enjoy the taste of “bitter ashes” in the illusory apples he is
compelled to eat (10.566).
God, however, can enjoy watching Satan eat them. God produces this
public humiliation as a theatrical spectacle, as the comparison of the devils
to a hissing audience ironically emphasizes. Although the devils are not
appreciative, treating them as an audience implies a corresponding hea-
venly audience that does approve of the “complicated monsters”: the same
audience that appears explicitly in other instances of divine punishment,
such as 6.738–744 (quoted above) and 10.640–643 (quoted below). The
temporary nature of the transformation also suggests that its purpose is to
be observed, since it lasts just long enough for its poetic justice to be
legible, not long enough to function like a prison sentence.
As always, God designs his punishments to be poetically appropriate
and suggestive of the crimes committed. However, there does appear to be
a shift in the aesthetic sensibilities governing those punishments, from the
infernal magnificence of the early books to a more contemptuous, parodic,
and discordant mode. In book 2, Milton depicts chimerical monsters as
products of hell designed to appall the rebel angels, and he presents Sin as
a simultaneously fascinating and repulsive chimerical figure. Here in book
10, Satan and his followers themselves take on chimerical qualities and
associations. The epic simile compares them to the serpents produced
from the blood of a Gorgon, and later they resemble the “snaky locks”
of the Fury “Megaera” (10.559–560). Collectively they are a mass of
“complicated monsters,” a tangled conglomeration of many different
kinds of beasts. Some of the particular serpents mentioned are also chi-
merical in their own right, notably the two-headed amphisbaena.
However, these monsters are mainly figures of scorn. The transformation
of the devils into serpents is a grotesquely comic, distorted echo of the
drama of the fall. The sensibility behind this manifestation of poetic justice
is less sublime and closer to what Northrop Frye in The Return of Eden
(1965) calls “demonic parody” (52): the sensibility that animates Sin’s
parody of the Nicene creed at 2.869–870, or the ironic contrast between
Satan’s supposedly self-sacrificing decision to visit earth to seek humanity’s

destruction (2.430–466) and the Son’s genuinely self-sacrificing offer to

redeem humanity by descending to earth (3.227–265).
In the wake of the Fall, God transforms the universe in ways that echo
his creation of the evil universe of hell, but that emphasize discord and
awkwardness over terrifying monstrosity. As in the case of hell, the new
fallen universe is created by a logos that is also a “curse” (10.640). God
alters the path of the sun to “affect the earth with cold and heat /Scarce
tolerable” (10.653–654), that is, to transform the “grateful vicissitude” of
the seasons into a climate reminiscent of hell’s “bitter change /Of fierce
extremes.” The narrator also suggests that God may have “his angels turn
askance /The poles of earth” (10.668–669), along with other similar
The effect of these changes is to disrupt symmetry and harmony, the
normative aesthetic principles by which God created the universe and
pronounced it good. However, Milton carefully specifies that God’s post-
lapsarian edits to his creation follow their own sinister aesthetic principles:
he commands his angels to make changes “As sorted best with present
things” (10.651). In other words, although book 10 personifies
“Discord” as a “Daughter of Sin” (10.707–708), there is in fact a dec-
orum of discord in God’s curse on his fallen creation.
These displays of malum poenae have not proved as attractive to mod-
ern readers of Paradise Lost, but they clearly please the angelic audience
within the poem. It is specifically in response to God’s curse on “heaven
and earth” (10.638) that the reaction of the heavenly audience becomes

Till then the curse pronounced on both precedes.

He ended, and the heavenly audience loud
Sung alleluia, as the sound of seas,
Through multitude that sung: Just are thy ways. (10.640–643)

Even more clearly than in book 6, angelic joy is the product of observing
punishment from a safe distance. Similarly, in Michael’s account of the
tower of Babel, God acts as a kind of atonal composer, producing a
“jangling noise” and “hideous gabble” (12.55, 56) as part of a heavenly
spectacle: “great laughter was in heaven /And looking down, to see the
hubbub strange” (12.59–60). The ugly and discordant sounds resemble
the liturgical music of Moloch’s devotees at 1.394, but they nonetheless
provoke a positive response from the heavenly audience. As with the devils

transformed into serpents, the aesthetic pleasure here owes more to low
comedy than to the fascination of the demonic.
The laughter in heaven may include God himself, and his flashes of
humor often resemble what Thomas Adams (1652) calls “the Sarcasmos or
bitter scorn of God” (“God’s Anger” 8). As the war in heaven begins, God
sarcastically pretends to be concerned about the approach of Satan’s rebel
army (5.719–732), and the Son approves of his “derision” (5.736). When
God unleashes Sin and Death, he calls them his “hell-hounds” (10.630), a
mocking allusion to the literal hell-hounds who continually torment Sin,
the product of her traumatic rape by Death. His omniscience makes it
impossible for him to be unaware of the cruel irony of this pet name.
The poem’s last two books recommend the sensibilities of this heavenly
audience to Adam and Eve, and through them to the poem’s reader.
Michael teaches Adam how to be a good audience by showing him
spectacles (in book 11) or narrating stories (in book 12) and correcting
or approving his reactions to them, bringing him closer to the perspective
that God or the loyal angels have held throughout the poem. One impor-
tant component of this perspective is described by Edward Reynolds in A
Treatise of the Passions (1640): we should feel a “Love of any Evill which
we desire may befall the person or thing which wee hate” (111). Lieb
(2006) quotes this passage (at 172) in the service of his argument that
Milton’s God is “a being who hates, and through whose example we are
encouraged to hate as well” (8).
In the last two books of the epic, Adam learns to see the hideous aspects
of fallen existence as a sinister allegory expressing the moral and aesthetic
standards of God. Nonetheless, Adam has difficulty rejoicing in God’s
sinister artistry as Michael encourages him to do; at first, he merely under-
stands and submits. But Michael’s lesson is also offered to the reader, who
is better equipped to receive it than Adam, through the experience of
living in a postlapsarian world and through the experience of reading
Paradise Lost. The more accessible appeal of hell and the Satanic perspec-
tive in the early books, and the presentation of the angelic perspective in
the middle and later books, seek to promote a gradual shift in the reader’s
sensibilities. The ending of the poem carefully places the reader’s level of
understanding above Adam, who is naïve with respect to humanity’s
future history (and vices), but below Michael, who has more direct access
to heavenly knowledge than any mortal. Adam, who still feels the con-
sequences of his own crime, suffers in sympathy with his children. The
reader, however, is in the jarring position of being the audience of an

audience. As a result, Adam is presented partly a subject for readers to

potentially identify with, and partly a straight man for Michael’s rather
crooked lesson (as the poem’s other transgressing protagonist, Satan, is to
This careful positioning of the reader, which in effect doubles the usual
aesthetic distance between a narrative and its audience, is necessary to
maximize the persuasiveness of Michael’s message, which is perhaps the
most difficult one to swallow in the whole poem. From the beginning of
the poem, horror has served as an element of God’s creative art. But the
last two books present, as audiovisual aids for religious instruction, even
more unpleasant and humiliating punishments than Satan’s transforma-
tion to a serpent. Furthermore, these punishments are inflicted on our
fellow humans rather than unrepentant demons. One of the most striking
examples of this shift is the vision of the lazar-house, which Michael
presents as an almost Spenserian allegorical pageant of illnesses that is
simultaneously heartrending and repulsive:

Diseases dire, of which a monstrous crew

Before thee shall appear; that thou mayst know
What misery the inabstinence of Eve
Shall bring on men. Immediately a place
Before his eyes appeared, sad, noisome, dark,
A lazar-house it seemed, wherein were laid
Numbers of all diseased, all maladies
Of ghastly spasm, or racking torture, qualms
Of heart-sick agony, all feverous kinds,
Convulsions, epilepsies, fierce catarrhs,
Intestine stone and ulcer, colic pangs,
Demoniac frenzy, moping melancholy
And moon-struck madness, pining atrophy,
Marasmus, and wide-wasting pestilence,
Dropsies, and asthmas, and joint-racking rheums. (11.474–488)

As with Spenser’s anti-blazon of the naked Duessa, the accumulation of

maladies is hyperbolic, but each individual element evokes indignity and
suffering on a very human scale. In contrast to Duessa, the inmates of the
lazar-house are less villainous and their torments are much greater: they
literally beg Death to slay them while he tauntingly refuses to strike
(11.491–493). Adam, understandably, weeps and then questions the
justice of these “deformities” (11.513). But the angel insists that it is

just, thereby implying that weeping is an inappropriate response to what

Adam calls “unsightly sufferings” (11.510) and even the narrator calls a
“Sight so deform” (11.494). Michael’s correction of Adam reveals Adam’s
normative sensibilities as superficial, and it suggests that spectacles whose
only perceivable qualities are ugly ought to give pleasure when their moral
significance is positive. The inmates deserve their disgusting ailments:
“they pervert pure nature’s healthful rules /To loathsome sickness, worth-
ily, since they /God’s image did not reverence in themselves”
(11.523–525, my italics). Although the lazars seem to hate their own
ailments, Michael asserts that they have willfully and perversely chosen
to “deform” themselves.
Thus, divine justice, which Adam (and the reader) should approve, is
ugly and loathsome in its manifestation. At first it seems that aesthetics
here are a deceptive outer coating, inferior and irrelevant to the moral
significance inside: these diseases look bad, but they are actually good. In
this model, Adam’s mistake would be presuming that physical appearances
reveal spiritual truths. Ultimately, though, Michael insists that these
appearances are a sign or a reification of the evil committed by the lazars,
and Adam must read their hideous symptoms, not look past them. When
properly viewed, there is a poetic justice to their suffering, a disgusting
decorum between their illnesses and their moral character.
Adam concedes: “I yield it just” (11.526). But the poem suggests
through the angelic audiences that a more enlightened response would
be less grudging and more enthusiastic. When God curses the earth, he
gets a rousing cheer from the heavenly choir. If divine justice is satisfying,
it should be deeply satisfying, as it clearly is to the angels. Adam finally
attains something like this viewpoint in book 12:

Oh goodness infinite, goodness immense!

That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! (12.469–473)

Adam’s exclamation dovetails well with everything the poem has been
saying about creation and providence, and it reflects not only understand-
ing but also pleasure and wonder.
This pleasure represents an evolution from the perverse pleasure in trans-
gression Adam displays in book 9 to what we might call good perversity,

rejoicing that his sin enables God to manifest his power. After eating the fruit,
Adam remarks that “if such pleasure be /In things to us forbidden, it might
be wished, /For this one tree had been forbidden ten” (9.1024–1026).
Adam’s speech in book 12 continues with a parallel, but conceptually quite
different, speculation about the happy consequences of eating the fruit:

. . . Full of doubt I stand,

Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done and occasioned, or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring. (12.473–476)

As scholars routinely note, Adam here articulates the controversial doctrine

of the felix culpa, or Fortunate Fall: the argument that eating the apple was
for the best because it enabled Christ’s redemption of humanity.28 Since
God and Michael emphasize the importance of repentance (e.g., at 3.191–
193, 11.90–91, and 11.255–258), it seems unlikely that Adam should
rejoice at his transgression instead of repenting it. Nor does Michael
explicitly approve or disapprove of this suggestion. It is perhaps a transi-
tional moment in the development of Adam’s piety, where he offers more
deference to divine providence but still valorizes the act of sin itself.
Adam’s final speech to Michael, which does receive the angel’s endor-
sement, abandons his specific claims about the fall being good while
reiterating that God’s providence produces good out of evil and insisting
that Christian piety requires finding a counterintuitive pleasure in the
conventionally unpleasant:

Henceforth I learn that to obey is best,

And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for truth’s sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And to the faithful death the gate of life. (12.561–571)

Adam’s pairing of love and fear reflects the appropriate affective response
to a God who encompasses light and dark, life and death, mercy and

punishment. The final line of this passage echoes Adam’s passionate claim
to Eve that “if death /Consort with thee, death is to me as life” (9.953–
954), but this time he chooses the proper focus, God. The reversed
sensibility Adam expresses in the second half of the passage turns the
otherwise intolerable horror of the evil in the universe into cause for
rejoicing. Of course, technically, perversity in the service of God should
not really be perversity. God’s judgment is an “odious truth” (11.704)
only from the perspective of “a world perverse” (11.701). But the sensi-
bility that Michael seeks to inculcate functions like perversity in its reversal
of the values that most humans take for granted—that is, their normative
values: “by things deemed weak /Subverting worldly strong.” As we have
seen in Chapter 4, these kinds of inversions are central to early modern
Christian thought. They are a product of what Lieb (2006) calls “God’s
paradoxical disclosure of himself to humans sub contrariis” (71). This
Christian perversity is sinister in its appreciation of God’s malum poenae,
although it also includes less sinister elements like the valorization of
poverty and humility. Here, though, building on the work of John
Donne and other early modern religious writers, Milton uses the trope
of God’s inverted value system to morally justify and make aesthetically
palatable God’s torture of powerless mortals.

Paradise Lost highlights the potentially disturbing aspects of God’s rela-
tionship to evil because they constitute the central challenge to a successful
theodicy. Building on theological arguments prevalent among Milton’s
contemporaries, the poem gives humans (and fallen angels) moral respon-
sibility for their own sins, but it suggests God’s aesthetic responsibility for
the ways in which sins and their punishments manifest. Where Satan is
represented as the father and lover of Sin, God’s relationship to evil more
closely resembles the relationship between an artist and his materials. He
shapes the sinful wills of his creations to bring forth particular forms of evil
action, and he also constructs punishments that are poetically appropriate,
according to sinister principles. These punishments serve as allegories,
rendering abstract moral lessons in a concrete, sensual, and symbolic
form. In keeping with Renaissance artistic theory, these allegories are
intended to be not only instructive but also satisfying. Milton’s God
chooses the alternation or fusion of normative and sinister imagery as
one of his primary means of representing himself symbolically in a fashion

comprehensible to his creations. As such, this chiaroscuro is not only a

means for understanding the divine nature, it is also intended as an object
of “devout affection” (De Doctrina 2.3, CPW 6.656). Together, these
uses of the sinister describe the nature of the universe and its creator, as
well as encouraging morally appropriate action.
As a Christian poet in a culture where many of his fellow Protestants
were attacking poetry as a corrupting influence, Milton also needs to justify
his own decision to represent evil in pleasurable ways, to use the resources
that he inherits from previous poets of the infernal and monstrous.
Accordingly, he presents his poetic methods as analogous to God’s meth-
ods for creating and governing the universe. By depicting evil in engaging
forms, Paradise Lost echoes God’s technique of sinister allegory. If God can
be understood as using the majesty of darkness, the monstrosity of the
chimera, and the creative cruelty of divine punishment as representational
techniques, then Milton’s own use of the sinister is not an instance of his
poetic self rebelling against his religious self. Rather, it is the way in which
his poetic self enables his internal worship of God and his theodicy.
Paradise Lost pushes the representation of divine punishment to, and
perhaps beyond, the limits of what the sinister as a poetic technique can
render appealing. Although many readers have found the resulting theo-
dicy problematic, Milton’s strategy is essential to his project. A true
theodicy must acknowledge and justify the universe as it is, with all of
the evils that we know it to contain, or else it merely obfuscates the
problem it purports to solve. Milton is committed to justifying the ways
of God to man, but he is equally committed to doing so without mini-
mizing the human experience of evil. Paradise Lost explores God’s inti-
mate relationship to evil in ways that can be troubling, particularly in its
concluding account of the lazar-house. However, in doing so, the poem
demonstrates Milton’s willingness to risk failure with some or all of his
audience rather than omit any of the evils that demand justification.

1. Neil Forsyth (2003) compares Satan to “those great Shakespearean villains,
Richard III or Iago” (12). Michael Bryson (2004) suggests “Iago, Edgar,
Macbeth, and even Hamlet” (Tyranny 183n1).
2. William Empson (1961), probably alluding to this passage, praises “the
manly and appreciative attitude of Blake and Shelley, who said that the
reason why the poem is so good is that it makes God so bad” (13).

3. Bryson (2004) discusses "divine evil" in the Old Testament and in Milton
(Tyranny 118, 119). Michael Lieb’s Theological Milton (2006) provides a
particularly thoughtful and theologically grounded exploration of God’s
“dark side” (129). See also William Kerrigan’s interest in the “dark God”
(99) in The Sacred Complex (1983).
4. Gross observes an “abysmal separation” between scholarly discourse about
religion and the experience of believers (319).
5. Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin in particular emphasizes the “coherence” of
Milton’s religious views (1997 preface, xxii). See also Burden’s The Logical
Epic (1967), which seeks to demonstrate the poem’s “self-consistent”
theology and “the reasonableness of God’s anger” (12–13). In contrast,
critics such as Peter Herman (2005) object to what they see as “the refusal of
almost all Miltonists to countenance even the slightest possibility that
Milton might put God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and mercy into ques-
tion” (111). See Chapter 5 for more on this critical controversy.
6. Herman (2005) asserts that “suspicions about God, which perforce require
a willingness to question the supposedly unquestionable, were very much
part of Milton’s era” (111). He cites Richard Baxter (1615–1691) and
Lodowick Muggleton (1609–1698) as examples of seventeenth-century
writers more willing to question God’s justice than some twentieth- and
twenty-first century Miltonists have been. Milton’s own Samson Agonistes
suggests that doubts about God’s goodness were not uncommon (line 300).
On Hill and Herman, see also Chapter 4.
7. Citations of Milton’s prose refer to the Complete Prose Works of John Milton,
edited by Don M. Wolfe et al. (Yale, 1953–1982), abbreviated CPW and
cited by volume and page number. References to De Doctrina Christiana
also include book and chapter numbers, and the original Latin text is cited
by volume and page number from The Works of John Milton, edited by James
Holly Hanford and Waldo Hilary Dunn (Columbia, 1931–1938), abbre-
viated WJM.
8. For another example, see the account of predestination in De Doctrina 1.3
(CPW 6.164–165).
9. In wrestling with this thorny issue, De Doctrina is not absolutely consistent,
even within 1.8. At times, the treatise insists that God is the “cause” and
“instigator” of sin in the wicked (6.333), or that God would “direct their
minds” to “commit one crime rather than another” (6.335). At other times,
De Doctrina cautions that “strictly speaking God does not either incite or
hand over someone” and that “really he only omits to prevent” them from
sinning (6.334).
10. Hence, De Doctrina 1.12 suggests divine punishment is only evil to the
punished, “and not always” even to them (CPW 6.396). However, chapter
3 of The Reason of Church-Government (1641) classifies divine punishment

as “an evil,” in contrast with human justice, which can be “a saving med’cin
ordaine’d of God” (CPW 1.835). CPW’s note at 6.396 misleadingly sug-
gests that Milton considered damnation a saving medicine.
11. John Rogers (1996) shares Empson’s discomfort with Milton’s “punitive
God,” particularly the “divine pleasure” he derives from punishing sinners
(163, 165). Bryson (2004) links Paradise Lost’s “morally ambiguous” God
to the Biblical “Yahweh,” but nonetheless finds the character too “pro-
foundly disturbing” to reflect Milton’s actual beliefs (Tyranny 119, 115).
12. See for example Inga Clendinnen’s Aztecs (1993, illustration following page
240). Coatlicue’s statue is famous enough that there is a good chance
Empson knew of it, if he knew any specific works of Aztec sculpture at all.
13. Citations of John Dennis are by volume and page number in The Critical
Works of John Dennis, edited by Edward Niles Hooker (Johns Hopkins,
14. Dennis’s full list of recommended poetic subjects is: “Gods, Dæmons, Hell,
Spirits and Souls of Men, Miracles, Prodigies, Enchantments, Witchcrafts,
Thunder, Tempests, raging Seas, Inundations, Torrents, Earthquakes,
Volcanos, Monsters, Serpents, Lions, Tygers, Fire, War, Pestilence,
Famine, &c.” (1.361)—a rather sinister catalog.
15. Lieb connects this pleasurable and pious fear of God to Rudolf Otto’s
concept of the numinous (from The Idea of the Holy [1917]) and Søren
Kierkegaard’s (1813–1855) paradoxical treatment of dread. According to
Lieb, “If the numinous appears to the mind as an object of horror and
dread, it is nonetheless that which allures its victim with a potent charm.”
Similarly, Lieb says of Kierkegaard’s dread that “The individual is simulta-
neously drawn to it and repelled by it, that is, attracted to that which repels
him and repelled by that which attracts him” (197–198). On the importance
of fear to the internal worship of God in De Doctrina, see Lieb 193–195.
16. William Flesch’s “The Majesty of Darkness” (1986) suggests the sublime
image of “the abyss” as the most appropriate symbol for Milton’s God,
because it represents his fundamental unknowability (309). Moreover,
Flesch links “the apprehension of the abyss” to “poetic power” (310). See
also Lieb 71.
17. Many of Watson’s examples, such as “artificial lighting” and “hollow arab-
esques” do in fact refer to the devil-built Pandaemonium (64). But the
argument appears to conflate these constructions with the rest of hell.
18. Eric Song’s (2013) analysis, in contrast, characterizes the “Tartarean sulphur,
and strange fire” as an “alliance between satanic and chaotic forces” opposed
to God (33).
19. Forsyth (2003), in contrast, considers this passage “very muddy”; he sug-
gests that God creates something “unequivocally evil” but is not “directly
responsible for evil” (205–206).

20. For a different approach to this concept, see Melissa Wanamaker’s Discordia
Concors (1975), esp. 120.
21. See Joseph H. Summers’s chapter on “grateful vicissitude” in The Muse’s
Method (1962).
22. Leslie Moore’s Beautiful Sublime (1990) similarly suggests that the Son
“blends an invisible, incomprehensible sublimity, terrible in its origin, with a
perfect image of the beautiful.” Moore also argues that “Satan represents
sublimity without beauty,” a characterization that I would apply to hell
more than to Satan (144).
23. Fowler’s note to 6.749–761 quotes a 1982 study by Claes Schaar that asserts
the paradoxical nature of the chariot but seeks to downplay its dark side (see
Schaar 333).
24. For a similar description see 11.127–133.
25. See Chapter 4 for a discussion of Dante’s contrapasso as a form of poetic
justice. See also Ethan Smilie, “Satan’s Unconquerable Will and Milton’s
Use of Dantean Contrapasso in Paradise Lost” (2013).
26. See also 1.434–436, which describes the Israelites “bowing lowly down/To
bestial gods; for which their heads as low/Bowed down in battle.” Here, the
parallelism that makes the justice poetic is apparent only through the narra-
tor’s conceit that idolatry and military defeat both involve the bowing of
heads. The passage thus represents another example of the poet collaborat-
ing with God to produce sinister art.
27. See Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Supplement, question 94: “Wherefore in
order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and
that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to
see perfectly the sufferings of the damned” (volume 3, page 2972).
28. On the Fortunate Fall, see Arthur Lovejoy, “Milton and the Paradox of the
Fortunate Fall” (1937) and Danielson (1982) 202–227, 230–233.

Epilogue: The Sinister After Milton

This book began with two interrelated questions, one literary and one
religious. First, how could early modern English authors make such
extensive use of attractive villains and other representations of evil when
the prevalent aesthetic theories suggested that enjoying such representa-
tions was either impossible or immoral? Second, what kind of role did the
aesthetic play in early modern English theodicy—that is to say, the
attempts of early modern writers, theologians, and preachers to reconcile
the existence of evil with a belief in divine providence? The answer to both
questions lies in understanding the role of sinister aesthetic systems, which
enable readers, audiences, and believers to take pleasure in representations
of evil when they are presented in certain ways.
Early modern poetic practice far outstripped the constraints of theory,
allowing attractive representations of evil to permeate literature, drama,
religious writing, and popular print despite a theoretical environment that
was largely hostile to them. As we have seen, early modern authors devel-
oped a variety of methods for negotiating this conflict, many of which
involved appearing to reject the sinister or subordinate it to the normative.
Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Milton all create appeal-
ing villains and then seemingly reduce them to an unattractive form more
compatible with normative standards. These strategies were partly sincere
attempts to assimilate and contextualize the sinister, and partly disingen-
uous sleights of hand, designed to make a fundamental but demonized
aspect of poetic practice socially acceptable.

© The Author(s) 2017 255

J.E. Slotkin, Sinister Aesthetics,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52797-0_7

Nevertheless, in each of these texts or episodes, the destruction or

degradation of the villain—whether it be Acrasia, Richard, or Satan—
does not really kill the sinister, for two reasons. The first is inherent in
the difference between logical argument and aesthetic experience. A
purely logical discourse can eliminate incorrect conclusions as it moves
toward the proper conclusion, and its reader can follow the same proce-
dure. When a poem presents alternatives aesthetically, readers must ima-
ginatively engage with each option before they can judge it. Even if they
ultimately reject one option as evil, their choice can never erase the prior
aesthetic experience. Second, and more significantly, none of these
authors actually abandon the sinister when they throw their respective
villains under the bus. The copia of The Faerie Queene produces an endless
parade of prodigious monsters to be gruesomely slaughtered by virtuous
knights. Richmond and Margaret, the political antagonists of Richard III,
make sinister imagery central to their anti-Richard rhetoric. And, as I have
shown, Milton’s God proves to be far more sinister than his Satan.
The early modern theoretical construct that most explicitly acknowl-
edged the potential aesthetic appeal of evil was the principle of concordia
discors. Strictly speaking, concordia discors implied the subordination of
sinister elements to an overarching normative harmony. In practice, it
allowed for a variety of relationships between the two. As an attempt to
put the dangerous appeal of evil into a safe box, concordia discors could
easily become a polite fiction. Richard III, and other plays in which
representations of beauty and goodness are perfunctory or absent, amply
demonstrate that the sinister needed no significant excuse or counter-
balance to attract readers or audiences in droves. However, a more truly
balanced form of concordia discors could be very powerful in its own right,
especially in the hands of an author like Milton, who juxtaposes the
celestial and infernal to create unparalleled poetic effects and to advance
a profound and difficult religious argument.
Along with the ballad and sermon literature, Paradise Lost demon-
strates that early modern religious sensibilities could not be disentangled
from aesthetic ones. Piety demanded an imaginative engagement with
God, which in turn demanded poetic representations of him. Relatively
secular and relatively pious writers freely swapped imagery to serve their
respective needs.
The political and sectarian strife of the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries exacerbated the concerns about divine providence that had
been inherent in Christian monotheism since its inception. The question

of God’s relationship to evil became more contentious with the fragmen-

tation of Western Christianity, and in particular with the rise of Protestant
denominations, such as Calvinism, that placed a greater emphasis on
God’s providence or predestination at the expense of human moral
agency. In this climate, the conflicts in England and all across Europe, as
well as monstrous births and other disturbing portents, were readily
interpreted as manifestations of God’s wrath against sinful, misbelieving
humanity. Religious writers thus urgently needed to come to terms with
the divine punishment that they believed their society was experiencing.
Sinister aesthetics offered a poetic language that could represent the full
force of God’s punishing aspect while also rendering it potentially appeal-
ing. Audiences who loved the sadistic schemes of Richard III might be
similarly engaged by a hellfire and brimstone sermon, or by Milton’s
account of God’s magnificent punishments of Satan. The sinister thereby
created the possibility of an affectively satisfying theodicy that could
account for God’s tolerance or even promulgation of evil in the world.
When it worked, it could allow believers to exult in the punishments
visited on others and perhaps even on themselves. Although this technique
obviously did not put an end to religious doubt or the problem of evil, it
did significantly enable early modern English religious piety: it is hard to
see how believers could have devoutly worshipped a God who produced
such hideous monsters and infernal punishments without adopting some
kind of sinister sensibility.
Understanding the sinister also enables new perspectives on some of the
more contentious interpretive problems that have plagued scholarly dis-
cussions of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost distills the ideas and
strategies from various realms of early modern writing—religious, literary,
philosophical, theatrical, popular—and follows them to their logical con-
clusions with remarkable audacity, comprehensiveness, and power.
Milton’s piety and poetics are grounded in a conception of the universe
and its creator as an Augustinian chiaroscuro of light and dark. This
forceful conjunction of opposites is both aesthetic and moral, and high-
lights the central dilemmas of early modern belief. In taking God’s dark
side seriously, the epic suggests the creative potential of the infernal and
the importance of evil as means for understanding good, as well as the role
of horrific punishments in God’s providential scheme. Milton’s theodicy
risks failure in order to fully encompass the reality of human suffering.
As far as Milton’s contemporaries were concerned, this gamble appears to
have paid off. The surviving responses to Paradise Lost suggest that the

poem’s portrayal of divine evil was not terribly controversial, even among
people who despised Milton’s political views. Seventeenth-century England
was suffused with destructive representations of God that were promulgated
as entertainment, religious instruction, or some combination of the two, and
Milton’s readers would have recognized the aspects of God that he was
portraying. Moreover, the extant seventeenth-century responses suggest
that Milton’s audience did not generally expect Paradise Lost to function
primarily as a devotional text, much less one with quasi-Biblical authority.
They were therefore less concerned than future generations have been about
potential discrepancies between the God they worshipped and the God in
the poem. In the second edition of Paradise Lost, Milton (or his publisher)
felt it necessary to defend the poem’s lack of rhyming, not its metaphysics.1
As English religious sensibilities changed, the idea of a God with a
sinister aspect became more controversial. In 1704, John Dennis could
still praise the destructive power of the “Wrath and Vengeance of an angry
God” on poetic and religious grounds (1.361). But this punishing God
was less compatible with the latitudinarian tendencies of the Anglican
Communion and the growth of Wesleyan Methodism during the eight-
eenth century. Nor was it consistent with the Deism and rational philoso-
phy of the Enlightenment. When the Romantic poets rebelled against
Enlightenment rationalism and embraced the sublime, they did not restore
this image of God to favor. Indeed, Blake and Shelley were among the most
outspoken critics of what they saw as the sadistic and punitive aspects of the
God of Paradise Lost, even though the poetics and spirituality of Blake’s
own prophetic books are inspired to a great extent by Milton’s use of the
Of course, belief in a God who wields infernal torments to punish
sinners in this life and the next continued through these periods.
Calvinism proved more persistent in America than England, and a reli-
gious sensibility that depended on the poetics of divine wrath flourished
through preachers like Jonathan Edwards, whose “Sinners in the Hands of
an Angry God” (1741) is easily the most famous hellfire and brimstone
sermon ever written. Related forms of providentialism remain important
for many twenty-first-century Christians, but they no longer enjoy the
widespread acceptance they had in the early modern period, and they now
compete with a variety of other religious and scientific explanatory para-
digms. On the whole, readers of Paradise Lost in subsequent centuries
have increasingly found the character of Milton’s God to be in conflict
with their own religious sensibilities.2

While the centuries after Milton saw representations of God becoming

generally less sinister over time, sinister aesthetics themselves followed a
different course. Far from dwindling in popularity, they continued to
thrive in a variety of artistic contexts that became increasingly independent
of religious concerns. The vigorous life of the sinister after the Renaissance
is due in no small part to Milton. For well over a century after its publica-
tion, Paradise Lost served as one of the primary exemplars—if not the
primary exemplar—of the poetic power of the sinister. Milton’s represen-
tations of Satan, Sin, Death, hell, and the wrathful God were so compel-
ling that they obligated literary theorists to finally develop a term that
could encompass these dark poetic pleasures. That term was the sublime,
and early responses to Paradise Lost almost invariably use it to characterize
the poem. Indeed, writers were calling the poem sublime even before the
term was refined by Burke, Kant, and others into an aesthetic theory that
would dominate the Romantic period.3
The association of Paradise Lost with the sublime actually begins with
the second edition of the epic, published in 1674. One of the two
introductory verses included in this edition is Andrew Marvell’s “On
Paradise Lost,” whose final couplet praises “Thy Verse created like thy
Theme sublime” (line 53, Paradise Lost 54). The poem was thus already
labeled as sublime for readers who purchased it. Of the sixteen seven-
teenth-century commentators on Paradise Lost recorded by Timothy
Miller (1997), six (including Marvell) call the epic sublime. Dryden refers
to the epic in 1677 as “one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime
POEMS, which either this Age or Nation has produc’d” (T. Miller 29). John
Dennis calls Milton “one of the most sublime of our English Poets” in 1692,
and in a 1696 commentary, he clarifies that the “most admirable Part of
the sublimest of all our Poets, is that which relates the Rebellion and Fall
of these Evil Angels, and their dismal Condition upon their Fall”
(T. Miller 32, 47)—in other words, the poem’s infernal imagery. Joseph
Addison and Charles Gildon use the term in 1694, and John Toland in
1699 (T. Miller 33–34, 49). The context of these statements suggests
that, overall, Milton’s contemporaries saw Paradise Lost as a pre-eminent
example of sublimity, and they associated the sublime with depictions of
great and powerful things that inspired a combination of delight and fear.
Although the conviction of Milton’s sublimity took hold almost imme-
diately, a fully articulated theory of the sublime had to wait until the eight-
eenth century. As we have seen, Dennis’s account of the sublime in The
Grounds of Criticism in Poetry praised “Enthusiastick Terror” resulting

from “the Wrath and Vengeance of an angry God” as one of the

greatest sources of “Joy” in poetry, and it reinforced the association
between sublimity and the sinister elements of Paradise Lost (1.361).4
Paradise Lost was published in Dennis’s lifetime (he was born in 1658),
and his emphasis on divine punishment as the pinnacle of sublimity
may reflect the attitudes of Milton and his contemporaries more
closely than subsequent theories of the sublime. But it was Edmund
Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the
Sublime and Beautiful (1757) that really established the sublime as a
theoretical term of central importance to eighteenth- and nineteenth-
century culture. Burke’s definition of the sublime appears to be
largely derived from analyzing Milton’s poetic practice in Paradise
Lost. In Part 2 of the Enquiry, where Burke begins to treat the
sublime in detail, and in the conclusion of the entire work, Burke’s
core examples of sublimity are Milton’s depictions of Death (55), Satan
(57), and hell (159). The qualities that Burke associates with the sub-
lime include “Terror . . . Obscurity . . . Power . . . Privation . . . Vastness . . .
Magnificence . . . Bitters and Stenches” and “Pain” (8).
As a means of talking about the appeal of the evil and un-beautiful, the
Burkean sublime had distinct advantages over the terminology available
in the seventeenth century. While the Renaissance term “prodigious”
captured many qualities of the sinister and could sometimes cause “won-
der” and “admiration,” it was not explicitly and unambiguously acknowl-
edged as a source of aesthetic pleasure. Theoretical accounts of concordia
discors did imply that the sinister could be pleasurable, but only when
juxtaposed with or even subordinated to the normative. In contrast,
Burke’s sublime could be appreciated on its own terms, as an independent
aesthetic experience, even though its nature was partly constituted by its
opposition to the beautiful. Finally, the sublime could have religious or
moral connotations but was not inherently tied to them.
The sublime provided a way to talk about the sinister during the
Romantic period, when these overlapping aesthetics were both in vogue.
However, the sublime was never totally synonymous with the sinister,
even in Burke’s formulation. And beginning with the work of Immanuel
Kant, the sublime’s range of meaning began to expand further. Kant’s
initial formulations, in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and
Sublime (1764), have a good deal in common with Burke’s. Like Burke,
Kant argues that the sublime and the beautiful are both “agreeable” but
“in very different ways,” and Kant also specifically mentions “the depiction
of the kingdom of hell by Milton” as a primary example of the sublime

(14).5 Moreover, Kant suggests that “unnatural things” or “grotesque-

ries” can be sublime (21), as well as certain acts of villainy, such as “brazen
revenge” or “Resolute audacity in a rogue” (19–20)—all of which might
fall into the category of the sinister.
However, Kant’s later work, Critique of Judgement (1793), redefines
the sublime in a way that significantly decreases its connection to the
sinister: “The sublime is that, the mere capacity of thinking which evi-
dences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of the senses” (81).
Whereas the Observations divides the sublime into “the terrifying,”
“the noble,” and “the magnificent” (16), the Critique distinguishes
between “the mathematically and the dynamically sublime” (78).
Nicholas Walker’s introduction to the Critique defines “the mathema-
tical and the dynamical sublime” as “sights which excite thoughts of
infinite magnitude and infinite power” (xvi). These more abstract
categories lack a clear connection to that which a culture defines as
evil or ugly. By the Romantic period, the sublime could still refer
to the aesthetics of the monstrous, demonic, and evil, but it also
encompassed very un-sinister poetic figures such as the harmless and
pitiable leech-gatherer in William Wordsworth’s poem “Resolution and
Independence” (1807). Subsequent discourse on the sublime has only
continued to multiply its range of potential meanings and lessen its
usefulness as a critical tool for analyzing the appeal of evil.6
In the modern era, sinister aesthetics can still be found as an element of
religious piety or within critical discussions of the sublime. In general,
though, sinister aesthetics have become more diverse and less firmly tied to
religious or moral issues. Our culture has moved significantly (though by
no means completely, unanimously, or irreversibly) toward physical, bio-
logical, psychological, and sociological explanations for evil and suffering,
and away from a conception of providence that sees wars, earthquakes,
diseases, comets, and birth defects as punishments tailored by God to suit
particular sins that we have committed. In this context, the sinister cannot
have the same significance that it had in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries. Decoupling the sinister from the obligations of early modern
theodicy and literary theory has given artists greater scope to experiment.
One consequence has been the multiplication of artistic genres and cul-
tural practices that unapologetically feature the sinister and at times even
allow it to supersede the normative as the dominant or defining aesthetic.
Such genres existed in the early modern period and were extremely
popular—monster ballads and revenge tragedies would certainly fall into
this category. But the genres themselves were not as numerous as they

later became, and as we have seen, early modern authors frequently

needed to frame, rationalize, or otherwise excuse their use of the sinister.
Beginning in the late eighteenth century with works such as Horace
Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Ann Radcliffe’s
The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), the Gothic novel became a particularly
prominent genre characterized by a sinister aesthetic. Its nineteenth-
century descendants, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818),
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and the work of Edgar Allen Poe
(1809–1849), have had a tremendous impact on the literary and popular
culture of the modern era.7
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the sinister is especially
evident in so-called genre fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, horror,
mysteries, and thrillers. Unlike much of what we now call literary fiction,
these genres are still deeply invested in villains, monsters, demons, and the
concept of evil itself. The same principle applies to the cinematic equiva-
lents of these genres, as well as to comic books and video games.
Contemporary society also includes subcultures, such as Goths or heavy
metal fans, that prioritize macabre or infernal aesthetics over normative
standards of beauty in music, fashion, and the visual and literary arts. As in
the early modern period, these uses of the sinister have been condemned
as blasphemous or psychologically unhealthy. But it is also increasingly
accepted that many people, including those who otherwise conform to
normative social conventions, like to watch horror movies or wear jewelry
and clothing decorated with skulls. Most uses of infernal imagery in
contemporary culture tend not to be expressions of theological beliefs—
heavy metal bands and fans, by and large, do not actually worship Satan.
The modern celebration of Halloween features a particular aesthetics of
the macabre, including costumes and decorations depicting terrifying
monsters and disgusting vermin, but few would now consider
Halloween celebrations blasphemous, immoral, unhealthy, or socially
transgressive in any significant sense.
On the other hand, sinister aesthetics retain the dangerous potential to
make evil actions palatable. Indeed, for many over the centuries who have
objected to early modern conceptions of hell and divine punishment,
Paradise Lost itself could be considered a prime example of this danger.
In the modern era, scholars like Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) have
highlighted the ways in which the Fascist governments of twentieth-
century Europe aestheticized violence in order to build popular support
for their militaristic agendas. Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of

Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) quotes a manifesto by Filippo

Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944) that objects to “the branding of war
as antiaesthetic.” Marinetti advocates for “a new literature and a new
graphic art” based on “an aesthetics of war”:

War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery

orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire,
the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction
into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like
that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals
from burning villages, and many others. (Benjamin 241–242)

In Marinetti’s comparison of war to a symphony, we can still see echoes of

Tasso’s “dreadful harmony,” but turned here to a very different ideologi-
cal purpose. Considered in its historical context, rather than as an isolated
example of powerful and vivid language, Marinetti’s manifesto seems
anything but harmless. Nonetheless, we can also imagine dangerous
forms of propaganda that rely on normative conceptions of beauty to
sway audiences.
The primary danger inheres in the persuasive power of art itself. To the
extent that we believe artists can influence their audiences in meaningful
ways, the sinister is one of many techniques for doing so. Its effects depend
almost entirely on the artistic, cultural, and historical contexts in which it
occurs, as well as on the sensibilities of individual audience members.
In Areopagitica, Milton argues that readers and audiences must ultimately
determine whether to take works of art as “good nourishment” or “occa-
sions of evill”: “knowledge whether of good or evill . . . cannot
defile . . . if the will and conscience be not defil’d” (CPW 2.512). But this
claim was, and remains, controversial. Seventeenth-century preachers and
twenty-first-century psychologists alike have suggested that art influences
us in ways beyond our control, and that representations of evil (or, in
modern debates, violence) breed more evil or violence regardless of the
nominal intentions of artists and audiences. Resolving such controversies is
beyond the explanatory power of the theory of the sinister as this book has
articulated it.
What the theory of sinister aesthetics can do for scholars working in
early modern English literature as well as in other periods, genres, and art
forms is to provide a framework for discussing the ways in which things we
think of as unattractive can actually be attractive. The specific forms and

effects of the sinister vary tremendously depending on their historical and

cultural context. But sinister aesthetics nonetheless remain vital to
(at least) the Western cultural tradition. For too long, we have treated
the enjoyment of representations of the evil and ugly as mysterious,
paradoxical, anomalous, or pathological, even though such elements com-
prise a considerable fraction of our literary, artistic, and cultural output. It
is my hope that with this language available, scholars can spend less time
proving that these representations are potentially enjoyable, and spend
more time thinking about how they function and what effects they

1. The seventeenth-century responses surveyed by Timothy Miller (1997) offer
few complaints about the poem’s theology. Richard Leigh (1673) ridicules
Milton’s reference to light as “Coeternal” with God, but he is even more
upset about Milton’s prosody (26). William Winstanley (1687) admires the
poem despite considering Milton “a notorious Traytor” (31). Charles Leslie
(1698) and John Toland (1699) express concerns about heresy and impiety
that are limited in scope and unrelated to the problem of evil (48–49).
2. Some modern theologians have engaged with God’s relationship to the
horrors of evil; see the introduction’s note on John Hick (1966), Philip
Tallon (2012), and Marilyn Adams (1999). But none of these authors are
prepared to endorse anything like a seventeenth-century conception of
divine punishment; Hick entirely rejects “the grim fantasy of unending
torment inflicted by God” in hell (385).
3. The classical source for theories of the sublime was On the Sublime, attrib-
uted to Longinus. The first section of the treatise describes the sublime as “a
consummate excellence and distinction of language” that serves to “trans-
port” audiences “out of themselves.” The sublime relies on “what inspires
wonder, with its power of amazing us,” rather than “what is merely con-
vincing and pleasing,” and it thereby gains “an irresistible power and
mastery” over audiences. The treatise asserts that “a well-timed flash of
sublimity shatters everything like a bolt of lightning and reveals the full
power of the speaker at a single stroke” (pages 163–165).
4. Dennis presents his account of the sublime as a revision of Longinus and
defines the sublime as “a great Thought, or great Thoughts moving the Soul
from its ordinary Situation by the Enthusiasm which naturally attends
them.” As Dennis elaborates, the sublime’s connection to violence and
terror becomes clearer: it “commits a pleasing Rape upon the very Soul of

the Reader . . . like the Artillery of Jove, it thunders, blazes, and strikes at
once” (1.359).
5. In Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer’s edition of Kant’s Observations, “Bold
type is used for cases in which words appear in spaced type (Sperrdruck) in
the original German. Italics is used for cases in which words in the German
appear in roman type” (xlii).
6. On the sublimity of Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer, see Stephen Hancock’s
The Romantic Sublime and Middle-Class Subjectivity in the Victorian Novel
(2005; 44), which demonstrates how far this definition of the sublime is
from the sinister.
7. Frankenstein explicitly alludes to Paradise Lost. Its epigraph is from Paradise
Lost 10.743–745, and its preface, apparently written by Percy Shelley
(252n3), highlights the novel’s debt to Milton (3). In the novel, the
monster reads Paradise Lost and debates whether he has more in common
with Adam or Satan. Much like Dennis, the monster identifies the “feeling
of wonder and awe, that the picture of an omnipotent God warring with his
creatures was capable of exciting” as central to the experience of reading
Milton’s poem (104).


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A Audience response, See Subjectivity

Abject, the, See Kristeva, Julia Augustine, Saint, 31–39, 48, 68,
Accommodation, theory of, 176, 72n21, 96, 151, 176–177,
212n10 186–187, 189, 212n12
Adams, Thomas, 140, 145–146, 159, Aversion therapy
163–164, 168n26, 169n31, in ballads and pamphlets, 134, 137
189–190, 246 in Faerie Queene, The, 49, 52,
Adorno, Theodor, 9–10 57–60, 66, 75n39, 75n46
Aesthetic in sermons, 140
definition, 4–5 in Sidney, 6, 28–29
See also Normative aesthetic; Sinister
Allegory, 8, 19n8, 45, 66, 69n5, B
77n56, 80, 116n3, 153, 176, Bacon, Francis, 118n13
197, 204, 214n20, 227, 229, Bakhtin, Mikhail, 21n19, 75n42
247, 250 Ballads and pamphlets, 14, 17, 54–55,
See also Blazon; Faerie Queene, The; 127–138, 141–145, 149, 152,
poetic justice 154, 156, 161–163, 167n14,
Allestree, Richard, 171n47 168n28, 169n29, 175, 220, 235,
Andrewes, Lancelot, 139, 151–152, 261
170n39 ballads, definition, 128–129
Anti-blazon, See Blazon Declaration of a strange and
Aquinas, Thomas, 150, 170n36, 242, Wonderfull Monster, A (1646),
254n27 154–155
Areopagitica, See Milton, John Discription of a monstrous Chylde, A
Ariosto, Ludovico, 74n31, 74n34 (1562), 131, 134, 154, 163
Aristotle, 29–31, 35, 68, 70n12, Forme and shape of a monstrous
71n13, 73n27, 94, 99, 170n43 child, The (1568), 134, 170n40

© The Author(s) 2017 281

J.E. Slotkin, Sinister Aesthetics,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-52797-0

Ballads and pamphlets (cont.) C

Natures Wonder? (1664), Calvinism, 14, 126, 128, 143, 152,
132, 136, 156 168n26, 169n29, 172n51, 177,
pamphlets, definition, 129 257–258
Prides fall (1663-1674), 142 Carnivalesque, the, 21n19, 57
Strange Newes of a prodigious Carroll, Noël, 7–8
Monster (Leigh, 1613), 134, Castiglione, Baldassare, 70n7
136–137 Changeling, The, 1
True and Certaine Relation Of a Charnes, Linda, 20n15, 95,
Strange-Birth, A 97, 102
(Bedford, 1635), 143–145, Cheap print, See Ballads and
152, 156–157, 158, pamphlets; Sermons; Sermon
162–163 writers
True description of a monsterous Chiaroscuro, 12
chylde, The (Barker, 1564), 162, in Augustine, 38, 71n20
167n13 in Milton, 16, 177, 203, 205–206,
True reporte of the forme and shape of 210, 220, 228–229, 237–239,
a monstrous childe, The (1562), 241, 243, 250–251, 257
161–162 in sermons, 147
Two inseparable brothers, The in Tasso, 47–48, 68
(Parker, 1637), 133 Chimera
Two Most remarkable and true in ballads and pamphlets, 129, 143
Histories (1620), 137–138, definition, 11, 74n32
157–158 in Faerie Queene, The, 53, 56, 60,
Bedford, Thomas, 143–145, 58–59, 67, 75n44
152, 154, 156, 158, 162, in Horace and Tasso, 43–45
169n29 in Milton, 196, 198,
Blake, William, 174, 208, 213n15, 204–205, 234–236,
251n2, 258 238–239, 244, 251
Blazon, 5, 59, 75n46, 142–143, 155, in Richard III, 107
247 in Sidney, 30
Bryson, Michael E., 211n4, See also Monsters
212n10, 212n13, Cibber, Colley, 87, 100, 119n19,
213n14, 213n15, 122n41
251n1, 252n3, 253n11 Concordia discors, 12, 256, 260
Bunyan, John, 146–147 in Ariosto, 74n34
Burke, Edmund, 10–11, in Horace, 74n35
199, 260 in Milton, 203, 219, 237
Burnett, Mark Thornton, 87, 117n8, in sermons, 147–148
117n10, 120n31, 122n40, in Tasso, 47, 68
122n41, 123n50, 124n52, Condimentum, See Spice
166n3, 166n8 Contrapasso, See Poetic justice

Corpses, 29, 34–35, 98–99, 120n31, See also Evil: malum culpae and
145, 163–164 malum poenae; Infernal, the;
Crawford, Julie, 132, 138, Poetic justice; Prodigious, the
154, 166n3, 167n14, Donne, John, 76n46, 150–153, 155,
168n23, 168n28, 159–165, 169n35, 171n44,
169n29, 170n42 171n47, 171n49
Curiositas, 34–35, 38, 59, 65, 68, Drama, 14, 17, 27, 29, 34–35, 79,
107, 136–138, 144, 169n29 114, 116n1, 116n2,
145, 166n8, 219
D See also Plays and playwrights
Danielson, Dennis Richard, 210n2, Dryden, John, 213n14, 215n30, 259
212n13, 221–223, 229, 254n28 Duchess of Malfi, The, 114,
Dante Alighieri, 24, 30, 43, 155, 145, 169n31
21n19, 254n25
Daston, Lorraine and Katharine E
Park, 134–135 Eco, Umberto, 11, 20n18, 64
De Doctrina Christiana, See Milton, Edwards, Jonathan, 258
John Empson, William, 6–7, 174,
Deformity, 68, 166n4, 168n22 211n4, 213n14, 217, 224–225,
in ballads and pamphlets, 137, 236, 242, 251n2, 253n11,
155–158, 161–163, 168n28 253n12
in Faerie Queene, The, 54, 60 English Civil War, 80, 125, 155,
in Milton, 235, 247–248 165n1, 165n2, 168n21
in Richard III, 82–83, 85, 93–100, Epic, 14, 40, 42–43, 59, 69, 72n22,
109, 113, 115, 117n8, 117n9, 73n27, 73n31, 80–81,
118n13, 122n41 173, 177, 179
See also Monsters; Prodigious, the Erasmus, Desiderius, 73n30, 94
Delight and instruct, See Horatian Evil
binary malum culpae and malum poenae,
Dennis, John, 211n9, 225, 253n14, 150–153, 170n36, 170n39,
258–260, 264n4 179, 219, 222–224, 229–237,
Discordia concors, See Concordia discors 241–250
Discorsi dell’arte poetica, See Tasso, (See also Divine punishment)
Torquato ontology of, 32, 39, 186
Divine punishment, 114,
126, 257, 260
in Augustine, 37 F
in ballads, pamphlets, and Faerie Queene, The, 1, 6, 25–26,
sermons, 17, 125–165 48–69, 82, 120n32, 170n43,
in Milton, 217–251 247, 255–256
in Richard III, 108, 111–112, Bower of Bliss episode, 61–67,
115–116 83, 184

Faerie Queene, The (cont.) in Tasso, 47–48

Duessa episode, 61, 66, 75n44, Gosson, Stephen, 19n8, 27, 29, 31
75n45, 76n48 Greenblatt, Stephen, 20n13, 63,
Errour episode, 7, 53–56, 204–205 76n51, 117n5, 118n18
Geryoneo's monster episode, 56–57 Grotesque, the, 11, 21n19, 52, 57–59,
Letter to Raleigh, 49–50, 168n25 74n32, 75n42, 114, 145,
Felix culpa (Fortunate Fall), 249, 169n31, 181, 196, 244, 261
254n28 Gwalther, Rudolf, 141
in Augustine, 36
in Faerie Queene, The, 49–50,
52–61, 65–67
Hampton, William, 151, 170n37
in Milton, 197
Hassel, R. Chris, 87, 113, 117n11,
in sermons, 147
123n50, 123n51
in Sidney, 28
Hell, See Infernal, the
in Tasso, 44, 48
Herman, Peter, 126, 252n5, 252n6
Fineman, Joel, 20n15, 82–83, 117n6
Hill, Christopher, 126, 165n1, 220
Fish, Stanley, 6–7, 19n5, 52, 174,
Holinshed, Raphael, 101–102, 113
180, 185, 210n1,
Honeyed glass, See Sweetness
211n3, 211n4, 212n12,
Horace, 43–45, 47, 57, 67, 69n2,
213n17, 214n18, 214n21,
74n33, 74n35, 204
217, 221, 234,
Horatian binary, 26, 52, 69n2, 80,
236, 238, 252n5
Forsyth, Neil, 6, 211n4, 213n14,
in ballads, pamphlets, and
214n21, 251n1, 253n19
sermons, 130, 138–139, 149,
Freccero, John, 155
154, 158, 160–161, 163
Fruit, forbidden, 21n20, 35–36, 178,
in Faerie Queene, The, 61, 65
184–185, 189–192, 209–210,
in Milton, 177, 219, 241, 248–250
224, 249
in Richard III, 99
in Sidney, 26–28, 30
in Tasso, 40–42
Gerusalemme liberata, See Tasso,
God (excluding Milton), 24–25, 68, I
125–128, 256–258, 264n2 Infernal, the, 9, 11, 20n11, 24, 73n29,
in Augustine, 37–38 213n16, 257–262, 264n2
in ballads, pamphlets, and in Milton, 177–178, 193–195,
sermons, 131–137, 143–146, 208–210, 218,
148, 150–165 226–237, 239, 244, 256, 259
in Richard III, 111–112, 116, in Richard III, 85, 107–109
123n49 in sermons, 145–148, 155–156

in Sidney, 30 in ballads and pamphlets, 132–134,

in Tasso, 42–48, 67 136–138, 149, 162,
See also Paradise Lost 167n14
Instruct and delight, See Horatian in Milton, 199, 224–226
binary in Richard III, 82, 96, 99,
106–107, 109
in sermons, 141, 145
J in Tasso, 42, 44, 48, 73n28
Jones, Robert C., 100, 109, 117n11, in The Faerie Queene, 55–56,
120n33, 122n42, 123n47 58–59, 75n43
Jonson, Ben, 21n19, 75n39, 114 See also Prodigious, the
Medicine of cherries, See Sweetness
Miller, Perry, 2, 176–177, 211n3,
212n11, 212n12
Kant, Immanuel, 4, 260–261
Milton, John, 75n41,
Kristeva, Julia, 10,
211n9, 212n11,
20n14, 117n9, 124n53
212n12, 212n13
Areopagitica, 178, 200–203,
L 209, 231, 263
Leigh, William, 130, 134, 136–137, De Doctrina Christiana, 151, 173,
141–142, 155, 167n10 176, 180, 186, 209–210,
Lewis, C. S., 19n5, 180, 185, 207, 210n1, 211n8, 212n13,
210n2, 212n13 220–224, 226–227, 231, 234,
Lieb, Michael, 171n46, 210n1, 240, 251, 252n8, 252n9,
211n9, 226, 239, 246, 250, 252n10, 253n15
252n3, 253n15 Reason of Church-Government,
Lusus naturae, See Marvelous, the; The, 72n22, 175, 252n10
Monsters; Prodigious, the Samson Agonistes, 211n7,
221, 252n6
See also Paradise Lost
M Monsters, 48, 67–68, 167n17,
Macabre, the, 20n17, 68, 168n22, 256–257, 262, 265n7
114, 145, 156, in Augustine, 37
166n9, 169n31, 262 in ballads, pamphlets, and
See also Corpses sermons, 127–138, 140–145,
Manningham, John, 97–98 149, 152, 154–163
Margolis, Joseph, 5 as category violations, 8, 10, 20n9,
Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso, 263 42–44
Marlowe, Christopher, 1, in Faerie Queene, The, 49–61, 64–67
14, 81, 123n48 in Milton, 196–200, 202–205,
Marvelous, the, 75n43, 134, 146, 234–236, 239–241, 243–244,
264n3, 265n7 246–247

Monsters (cont.) chaos, 228–230, 233

in Richard III, 82, 87, devils, 67, 193–196, 202, 245
105–109, 111, God and the Son, 15–16, 18, 165,
113–115, 117n8, 174–178, 200, 210, 212n10,
117n10, 120n31, 213n15, 217–254
123n50, 124n52 heaven, 208–209, 227, 237–240
in Sidney, 29–30 hell, 181, 193–195, 197, 209,
See also Chimera; Prodigious, the 226–229, 232–238
Montaigne, Michel de, 94, 98 Satan, 3–4, 6, 15, 18, 81, 117n11,
146, 173–215, 217–218, 221,
225–227, 229–233, 235–237,
N 240–241, 243–247, 250,
Normative aesthetic, 5, 9, 251n1, 254n22, 256–257,
11, 50–51, 70n7, 256, 263 259–260
in Augustine, 33, 36–37 Sin and Death, 45, 196–199,
definition, 6 202–205, 214n26, 214n28
in Faerie Queene, The, 56, 60–61 Paré, Ambroise, 135, 157
in Milton, 177–178, 180–185, Perversity, 3, 6, 8, 13, 68, 170n43
192–193, 196, 203, 208, 210, in Augustine, 32–36, 213n13
233, 238–240, 245, 250 in Faerie Queene, The, 62, 65–66,
in Richard III, 86, 88, 96, 105, 76n49
112–113, 117n12 in Milton, 177–178, 180–181,
in sermons, 140, 147–148, 159 186–199, 202, 206, 217, 232,
in Tasso, 41, 47 234, 240, 244, 250
See also Platonic paradigm, in Richard III, 87–88, 93, 95–99,
Sweetness 102, 115, 117n5
in sermons, 140, 149, 159, 171n49
O in Sidney, 29
Olivier, Laurence, 87, Plato
119n19, 122n43 Republic, 69n4, 70n7, 70n12,
73n29, 73n30
Symposium, 70n7
P Platonic paradigm, the, 5, 45, 70n8
Palpable device, 61–64, 82–83, 87, in Augustine, 32
91–93, 98, 115, 118n18, in Faerie Queene, The, 63, 65–66
204–205 in Milton, 184–185, 193
Pamphlets, See Ballads and pamphlets in Richard III, 84–85, 96
Paradise Lost, 3–4, 10–11, 15–16, 18, in sermons, 140, 148
19n5, 20n14, 21n19, 40, 68–69, in Sidney, 27–29
77n59, 146, 173–261 in Tasso, 41
Adam and Eve, 120n30, 183–186, Plays and playwrights, See Changeling,
192, 214n23, 222, 246–250 The; Duchess of Malfi, The; Jonson,

Ben; Marlowe, Christopher; in Milton, 211n7, 219, 221–223,

Milton, John; Revenger’s Tragedy, 230, 234–235, 241, 248–249
The; Richard III; Shakespeare, in Richard III, 17, 88, 111–112,
William; Spanish Tragedy, The; 115–116, 123n48,
White Devil, The 123n49, 133
Poetic justice in sermons, 160–165, 219
in ballads, pamphlets, and
sermons, 154–155
in Faerie Queene, The, 56, 60
in Milton, 18, 219, 233, 236, R
240–248, 251, Rackin, Phyllis, 91, 100, 117n11,
254n25, 254n26 118n16, 119n25, 122n44
in Richard III, 110–112 Razovsky, Helaine, 17, 131, 154
See also Divine punishment Reader response, See Subjectivity
Popular print, See Ballads and Reason of Church-Government, The,
pamphlets; Sermons; Sermon See Milton, John
writers Renaissance, the, 1–8, 23–26, 28–29,
Problem of evil, the, 15, 21n20, 68, 31, 40, 65–66, 69n1,
255, 257 70n7, 71n20, 73n30,
definition, 3, 150 74n31, 75n38, 120n32
in Milton, 16, 18, 165, Revenger’s Tragedy, The, 114,
173, 175, 178–179, 187, 121n35, 169n31
199–200, 209–210, Richard III, 14, 17, 67–69,
213n15, 217–254 79–124, 133, 138, 155,
in sermons, 17, 150–165 163–164, 166n8, 180–181,
Prodigious, the, 68, 114, 126, 166n2, 184, 190, 205, 218,
253n14, 256, 260 224, 227, 231–232,
in ballads, pamphlets, and 235–236, 243,
sermons, 127–138, 251n1, 255–256
140–145, 158 Anne, 83, 87–110, 115, 218
in Milton, 199, 203–204, Elizabeth, 88, 99–105,
234–236 111–112, 120n33,
in Richard III, 82, 106–109, 121n35, 121n39
111–112, 115–116, Margaret, 17, 85, 104–112,
122n40, 122n41 118n13, 121n36, 123n50,
See also Marvelous, the; Monsters 138, 256
Protestant Reformation, 14–15, Richmond, 67, 100, 104, 112–113,
23–24, 32, 125–126 115, 123n49, 123n51,
Providence, 14–15, 69, 125–127, 124n52, 124n53, 256
165n2, 166n7, 167n11, 167n12, Richmond, Hugh, 83, 107, 122n41
173, 255–258, 261 Rogers, John, 224, 228–230,
in Augustine, 72n21 253n11

Rossiter, A. P., 83, 86–87, 119n21, Shuger, Debora, 2, 10, 15, 153, 160,
123n48, 123n51 163, 168n25, 169n35, 170n39,
Rumrich, John, 6, 28, 171n45, 171n46, 171n48,
211n4, 228–229 171n49, 172n51
Sidney, Philip, 25
Astrophil and Stella, 5, 50–51
S Defence of Poesy, 6, 26–31, 40–41,
Samson Agonistes, See Milton, John 45, 49, 52–53, 59–60, 65,
Sarcasmos, 163, 246 83–84, 149, 186, 200, 217
Schwartz, Regina, 228–229 Silberman, Lauren, 57–60
Scourge of God, 111–112, Sinister aesthetic
123n48 definition, 9
Sermons, 2, 14–15, 17, 49, 127–132, See also Abject, the; Anti-blazon;
138–165, 175, 189–190, Carnivalesque, the; Chimera;
218–220, 222, 226, 235, Corpses; Curiositas; Deformity;
257–258 Filth; Grotesque, the; Infernal,
definition, 129 the; Macabre, the; Monsters;
as entertainment/ Palpable device; Prodigious, the;
performance, 129–130, Sarcasmos; Spice; Sublime, the;
138–139, 145, 149, 161–165 Vice, the
Sermon writers. See Adams, Thomas; Sinister allegory, See Poetic justice
Allestree, Richard; Andrewes, Song, Eric B., 20n14,
Lancelot; Bedford, Thomas; 215n31, 230, 253n18
Bunyan, John; Donne, John; Spanish Tragedy, The, 1, 81, 124n54
Gwalther, Rudolf; Hampton, Spenser, Edmund, See Faerie
William; Leigh, William; Taylor, Queene, The
Jeremy Spice, 36, 42, 71n18, 71n19, 72n21,
Shakespeare, William 73n28, 74n37, 103
Henry VI plays, 86–87, 95, 118n16, Subjectivity, 2, 4, 9, 19n2, 41–42,
119n19, 122n43 257–258
King Lear, 114 in Milton, 174, 188, 194, 196–199,
Macbeth, 7, 114, 171n50, 251n1 201–202, 206–207, 232, 251
Othello, 1, 91, 114, 116n3, in Richard III, 83–84, 115
118n17, 251n1 in sermons, 139–140,
Tempest, The, 114, 132–133, 163 159–161, 163
Titus Andronicus, 81, 85, in The Faerie Queene, 50–53,
116n3, 117n9 57–61, 66–67
Winter’s Tale, The, 132 Sublime, the, 4, 10–11, 19, 47–48,
See also Richard III 199, 207, 213n14, 239, 253n16,
Sharpe, Kevin, 2, 16, 168n25 254n22, 258–261
Shelley, Percy, 211n4, 218–219, Sweetness
265n7, 185, 251n2, 258 in Augustine, 37, 72n21

in Faerie Queene, The, 65 in Milton, 177–178, 180–181, 184,

in Richard III, 84, 88, 92, 105 192, 199, 202, 204, 232, 245,
in sermons, 140, 149, 159–160, 247–248
171n47, 189 in Richard III, 82–86,
in Sidney, 27, 30, 70n6 93, 96–97, 106
in Tasso, 41 in sermons, 140, 148
in Sidney, 28–31
in Tasso, 42
Tanner, Stephen, 100, 110, 120n33,
Tasso, Torquato, 4, 16–17, 25,
Vice, the, 11, 14, 60, 80–81,
39–48, 50, 66–69, 77n56, 82,
90–91, 96, 110, 113–114,
106–107, 147–148, 160, 203,