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"Paradise Lost -- On Trial"

by Dr. Lisa A. Celovsky,
Suffolk University

(December 2018 Issue / PDF)

In the late 1980s, Dana Carvey’s Church Lady character routinely posed a signature question to audiences of Saturday Night Live.  Referencing contemporary sinners, the Church Lady would primly inquire who was responsible for their actions: ‘who,’ she might ask, ‘was really behind that reprehensible incident?  Who could possibly have instigated that shameful act? Who could it be?  Who ever could it be?’  The audience would wait as the Church Lady twitched in anticipation of delivering her consistently triumphant answer.  Then, pronouncing the culprit’s name with echoing, ‘voice-of-heaven’ sound effects, she would verbally pounce: “Satan!” The expected response was invariably greeted with gratified applause from an audience already in the know.[1]   To open Paradise Lost, John Milton poses the ur-version of the Church Lady’s query when he asks, “what cause / Moved our grand parents” to “fall off / From their Creator” (1.28-31)?[2]   And new readers of the poem tend to resemble the Church Lady’s typical audience.  Especially when primed with reading a bit of Genesis, students often anticipate the questioner and confidently deliver the inevitable answer about Adam and Eve’s transgressions: the devil made them do it. 

But why, then, does Milton take twelve books to provide an answer to his opening query?  What does it mean to pose not just a question but an “epic question”?  Why choose epic form to tell a story that has been told before, and much more concisely?  The answer—or answers—are complicated.  On the surface, Milton’s follow-up question seems as easily answered as his first: “Who first seduced them ...?” likewise invites the reader to point a finger at Satan.  But the “foul revolt” mentioned in this same line —“Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?” (1.33)—applies also to the culpability of Adam and Eve.  And not many lines later Milton reminds the reader that Satan will bring about the Fall only through “the will / And high permission of all-ruling Heaven” (1.211-12).  Moreover, as readers advance into later books of the poem, responsibility seems to fall variably and confusingly not only to Satan, but also to Eve, Adam, or God.  For each character, pinpointing the motives or personality traits that potentially lead to the Fall justifiably occupies hours of class discussion.  And then there are the mitigating circumstances.  Should Adam have ‘guided’ Eve better, for example?  Is there a felix culpa

This essay describes a pedagogical approach designed to engage students with these complexities.  Students are invited to put Milton’s characters on trial for causing the Fall.  To do so, they become lawyers and jurors, witnesses and defendants, and through a collaborative project-based process, they are invited to transform the poem into a modern court room drama.  The series of assignments in this project allows students to pore over the available evidence— twelve books’ worth if time allows—and to draw informed conclusions not only about possible answers but also about their ambiguities and limitations.  In the material that follows, I offer one plan for imagining Paradise Lost into the courtroom as well as ideas for adapting and scaling this class project to suit differing time frames, student populations, and class levels and types.  Finally, I reflect upon how the trial project engages students with some larger critical concerns of the poem—such as fate versus free will, the limits of humans’ fallen perspectives, and Milton’s choice of epic genre.


Specifically, for an upper-level undergraduate course wholly devoted to Milton, a substantial portion of the class assessments comprise what the syllabus calls the “Paradise Lost Trial Project.”  Students work in groups to create a series of court-room dramas wherein God, Satan, Adam, and Eve respectively stand trial for the Fall of humankind.  For each ‘trial,’ one student takes on the role of prosecuting attorney and another, that of defense attorney.  Other students in the group play the defendant (God or Eve, for example) and the roles of as many witnesses as the group cares to call, usually providing some costume change to signify a change in role.  Witnesses may include major and minor characters, John Milton himself, and any literary critics whose work had been available as class reading. The students in each group enact these dramas before the class in the final week of term, a few weeks after we have finished our study of Paradise Lost.  Wearing my academic regalia, I play the judge, and the segment of the class not performing in that particular trial plays the jury.  Before the first trial (and after we have finished reading and discussing Paradise Lost), I ask the class to vote for the character with the greatest culpability for the Fall.  Invariably, Eve and Satan score the highest by wide margins.  At the conclusion of all the trials, the jury delivers verdicts in a series of votes, and we discuss why our minds were changed.  In the four times I have tried the assignment, by this point Eve and Satan appeared less culpable while God and Adam received more critical scrutiny for the roles that they played in the incident.  The act of returning to passages and episodes we had discussed a month or two earlier allows readers to rethink the poem with the help of contexts they initially lacked and through much more discussion with their project groups and the entire class.  The project also gives the students a purposeful mission to guide their reading and rereading of the poem: to nail—or to exonerate—a character for the crime.

Interpreting the poem as a courtroom drama makes Paradise Lost accessible to students because this genre is one that most students know well.  They are familiar with the courtroom's rhetorical rules and forms from their favorite television shows and films and from their daily news sources.  But relying on legal terminology to make sense of the poem is not new and taps into long-standing critical perceptions of how the poem affects its readers.  In his devastating critique of Milton’s God, for example, William Empson proposes that human characters are on “trial” and that God is not vindicated in this trial (94).  According to Empson, God sets humans up to transgress in order to deliver their earned punishments (95-110, 116, 118, 146).  Similarly, Stanley Fish proposes that the reader’s experience of God’s speech anticipating the fall of humankind —“whose fault? / Whose but his own?  Ingrate, he had of me / All he could have” (3.96-8)—is that of “overhearing a legal brief in which [the reader] is the defendant and pronounced guilty”; Milton’s God, Fish concludes, “does nothing to assure the good will of the jury” (82).  In turn, the reader delivers “judgment” (83) on God.  Likewise, the poem’s status as a theodicy designed to “justify the ways of God to men” (1.26) invites critics to conceptualize the poem in legal terms.  As Dennis Danielson observes, “A vital component of Milton’s theodicy is the ‘Free Will Defence,’ the model or argument according to which God, for reasons consistent with his wisdom and goodness, created angels and human beings with freedom either to obey or disobey his commands”; “the amount of goodness that presupposes the exercise of freedom ultimately outweighs the total amount of evil” that disobedience creates (Danielson 148).[3]   The poem thus encourages us to consider what we might formally call in legal terms “mitigating circumstances.”

In the classroom, the dramatic reenactments of trials are the culmination of a series of assignments designed to help students not only to produce and perform their courtroom dramas, but also to prepare for writing final exams and essays and to learn and practice additional skills.  By completing a series of shorter exercises, each of which is assessed (Appendix), students learn how to exercise effective reading strategies, engage with and deploy critical voices in the service of an original argument, and develop long-term project planning and teamwork skills.  Students begin preparing for the Trial when they begin reading the poem in the first week of classes.  Although it is standard to organize a class on Milton by reading his works in chronological order or by placing Paradise Lost at some later culminating or climactic point in the class schedule, I prefer to begin with Milton’s epic achievement and to schedule reading of some of his earlier and shorter works in conjunction with studying Paradise Lost or after we have completed the poem.  There is some instant gratification for students as they have often been drawn to take the class by some desire to read the poem in full or at least to gain knowledge of the story of the Fall.  Moreover, when students have become invested in the achievement represented by Paradise Lost and the questions it raises, they find additional reasons to be intrigued by shorter works or excerpts.  These readings provide perspectives on those same questions and display the evolution of Milton’s themes and style from a time when he was close to the students in age to the monumental achievement of his epic poem.  Finally, this arrangement allows time for comprehensive and sustained work to prepare the Trial Project. 

Early assignments are designed to make them potentially useful for the Trial Project but not too limiting if readers choose to change directions mid-way through the term.  Preparation begins with some cross-fertilizing assignments that both teach strategies for approaching a line-by-line reading of Paradise Lost and invite investment in one of the potential culprits for the Fall (Appendix).  In ‘tell-me-about-yourself’ forms filled out in the first week of term, students are asked to declare an interest in one of the orders of existence in the poem—the Divine, the Demonic, or the Human—and are encouraged to choose early assignment topics based on that interest.[4]   These choices inform one assignment—an Exam Journal—where readers twice prepare written notes in response to the study questions provided for each of the first six books of the poem.  Those interested in the Demonic, for example, prepare their notes for the days we study Books 1, 2 or 6, and are required to contribute to class discussion with their examples and questions as part of the assessment.  These study questions encourage a focus on what constitutes “evidence” and require that readers find particular images or details to analyze and discuss (for an example, see Appendix).  Then, for their first formal essay (due about a month into term), students prepare a close analysis of one passage (about 30 lines) of their choice from the first three books of the poem (Appendix).  To complete this assignment, they learn how to use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), to parse Milton’s syntax by paraphrasing (and then comparing their results to those in Dennis Danielson’s parallel text), to explain the effects of figurative language, to research and analyze allusions, and to explore the implications of Milton’s prosody.  To encourage a systematic and transferrable approach, I require students to demonstrate the steps they have taken by filling in a worksheet.  An unanswered or weakly answered question becomes an opportunity to improve a reader’s analytical strategies and processes before ideas are committed to a formal final essay submission.

When our class reading brings us to the midpoint of the poem, the students begin to work on assessments that build toward the Trial Project proper (Appendix).  Based on the character who most commands their interest so far, the class is divided into four groups comprising about four to five students each.  At this point, students have the option to continue with their previously declared interests in the Human, Demonic, or Divine, or to switch to a new focus.  (Students rank their interests, and in the four times I have assigned the trial, it has never proven difficult to distribute students according to their top two preferences for the final trial.)  Relying on our course management system (Suffolk subscribes to Blackboard), each student must independently prepare two short reports (about three pages each) to share with their groups.  The first of these is a legal indictment.  This assignment requires careful work with Paradise Lost as the primary source of evidence as writers compile textual evidence for a given character’s responsibility or lack of responsibility for the Fall.  Because creating an indictment requires investigators to amass evidence from the points of view of both prosecution and defense, structuring the exercise as a formal legal document requires writers to find and acknowledge qualifications in the evidence and to anticipate counter-arguments from their opponents. The method thus helps to train student writers out of the common habit of starting with a thesis and then finding (only) evidence to fit that thesis.  Instead, a shadow thesis begins to emerge from scrutinizing a wider body of evidence and grouping evidence to identify patterns and contradictions.  Most importantly, groups must discuss areas of seeming conflict or ambiguity that may make their defendant vulnerable or victorious or raise a ‘shadow of a doubt.’  To aid the students, I provide links on Blackboard to definitions and advice for writing indictments for those who are curious.  These resources are particularly appealing to students who have considered attending law school after graduation. 

The second Project Report requires students to practice their skills of summarizing and applying ideas from secondary sources on Milton.  In general terms, students are introduced to scholarship on Milton in two ways.  Students are asked to subscribe to the internet discussion group Milton-L at the start of term, and other scholarly works, many in excerpted forms, are available as scans or links through the course management system or on library reserve.  These texts introduce students to the concept of critical debate by providing evidence that any critical argument—for or against Satan or Eve, for example—tells only part of the narrative.  One particularly useful resource for this assignment is Gordon Teskey’s Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost.  This edition divides part of its “Criticism” contents into sections “On Satan,” “On God,” and “On Adam and Eve” (401-76), each of which excerpts multiple critical viewpoints.  For essays that in themselves rehearse decades of critical debate, students can turn to The Cambridge Companion to Milton (offered electronically through many university libraries).  John Carey’s “Milton's Satan” begins by pointing out, “it is not useful to imagine that ... either Satanists or anti-Satanists can be shown to be ‘right.’  For what would that mean but ignoring what half the critics of the poem has felt about it—ignoring, that is, half the evidence?  A more reasonable reaction is to recognize that the poem is insoluably ambivalent, insofar as the reading of Satan’s ‘character’ is concerned, and that this ambivalence is a precondition of the poem’s success—a major factor in the attention it has aroused” (161).  Carey further advises that “To recognize that the character of Satan is essentially ambivalent is not to say that we must agree with everything the Satanists or the anti-Satanists propose.  Both sets of critics misrepresent or overstate in their bid to strengthen their case” (161).  In the Companion’s “Milton and the Sexes,” Diane McColley similarly shows that it is hard to assign blame because of the “interchange of attributes Eve and Adam have experienced in their unfallen lives together” (188): they can be read as characterized by mutuality and sharing of masculine and feminine qualities.  These essays are as much about the reflective process of creating critical arguments as they are about characters themselves.  A more recently available resource that would lend itself well to this exercise is John Leonard’s Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of Paradise Lost, 1667-1970 (2013).  Volume 2—Interpretative Issues—offers sections on Satan (393-476), God (477-525), and the sexes (650-704).  Leonard begins his discussion of Satan, for example, by noting the character’s inherent ambivalence even as he cautions how Carey’s claim that half the evidence is being ignored may be countered by breakthroughs in scholarship (393).  Leonard asks us to consider how critics have answered questions such as whether Satan’s pride is a positive or negative attribute, or whether God is unjustly responsible for Satan’s degradation (394). 

These essays are assigned as supplementary readings keyed to particular class dates, and students may earn class participation points by briefly reporting on critical ideas specific to the Order (Human, Demonic, Divine) they have chosen on a day that a relevant reading has been assigned.  To complete the second pre-trial assessment, students are asked to select about 25 pages from any of the readings, either a deep dive into one essay or a tasting menu from more than one essay or Milton-L posts (archived or current).  To prepare for the trial, a group can choose to divide its labors among available articles and to share results.  Each reader is asked to paraphrase or quote two specific ideas from this reading that seem especially intriguing, practicing appropriate citation form along the way.  The student must then supply two or three relevant pieces of evidence from Paradise Lost not discussed in the source and must explain how or how or why this evidence supports or contradicts the cited scholarly point.  Like the other assignments, this one encourages students to consider what constitutes viable evidence and to focus on specific details.  The exercise also helps the students to find their own authoritative voices in the critical conversation as they delve deeper into the poem.

With the resources generated by all previous assignments and my comments on them in hand, each group of students is ultimately ready to work toward designing and producing the trial for the group’s assigned character: Satan, God, Eve, or Adam.  Since we can devote two 75-minute classes to the Trial, each group has 20-25 minutes for its performance.  We hold three trials on the first day, and one trial and a post-trial discussion on the second day.  The trial begins with a vote for who is most culpable for the fall, and we write the results on the board.  Results recorded, the trials begin.  Each group has had two options to prepare for their performance.  They may choose to create a script and to perform it on book.  Alternatively, they may construct an experience more like that of a real courtroom where the students playing the defense attorney and prosecutor share lines of questioning they will pursue in advance while students playing the defendant or witnesses use the text to compile answers.  They must share these answers with the defense or prosecuting attorney who will rely on their testimony.  The trials seem to work equally well to engage participants and audience whether they are scripted as a group or not.  While my experience has been that most groups prefer the security and shared responsibility of working from a script, the groups that choose the second option have certainly offered the class the most dynamic and compelling experiences, as witnesses struggle for an answer or surprise the attorneys, who must then dig deep and search for alternative means of getting to the ‘truth’ they want the witness to reveal.  One of the most exciting moments for me was when two of my strongest students (both of whom went to law school the following year) played the prosecuting attorney and God: they had not rehearsed a script ahead of time, and engaged in a fierce battle of textual evidence wherein the prosecutor, try as she might, could not quite pin God down.

One of the delights of this stage of the project is seeing how the students have created the characters they will play.  They are always inventive and thoughtful.  The students wear ‘costumes’ and do quick changes as they become different witnesses: a flower in the hair for Eve, or a sock puppet snake or sunglasses and a loud shirt for Satan.  Encouraged to base their courtroom dramas on the most dramatic or cliched television and movie depictions of trials, they shamelessly appeal to the jury, badger the witnesses, and appeal to the judge (I get to respond with ‘over-ruled’ or ‘sustained’).  They bring in props and evidence like the floral garland Adam drops when confronted by the freshly fallen Eve (9.891-92) or an apple with a bite taken out of it in an evidence bag.  Students who enjoy acting get into their roles.  We have had aggressively seductive Eves and mansplaining Adams, but also sincere and wronged ones, with the contrast raising an opportunity for groups to defend their decisions based on textual evidence for why they believe their portrayal is appropriate.  Various literary critics and even Milton himself are subpoenaed as ‘expert witnesses.’  I have never had a requirement for what kinds of witnesses or how many, but that could be imposed.  Participants receive points for relying on the words of the text as much as possible to ask and answer questions, but they are also encouraged to contextualize and paraphrase their points with modern language (Eve on conception in Paradise, speaking confidentially to the judge: “we were trying”).

Following the four trials, we conduct another vote.  As mentioned, the results invariably reflect some changes, with Satan and Eve (Satan especially) generally being regarded as bearing less responsibility and Adam and God bearing more.  This moment is especially revelatory for judging Adam’s role, as he often receives short shrift in the class discussions of individual books of the poem, and has received little critical attention relative to God, Satan, and Eve.  The discrepancies between the results of the pre- and post-trial votes begin the discussion of what made different students in the class change their minds—or become even more convinced they had it right all along.  These discussions then encourage the class to revisit many of the larger critical questions we had considered while reading the poem (see below).  The discussion is always excellent review and preparation for the final exam held the next week and for preparation of final long papers, which students often chosen to base in some way on characters or issues dealt with in the Trial Project.

The final assessment for the Trial Project is a student evaluation of the entire assignment, rewarded with a small number of points to encourage submission.  In the evaluation, students describe the contributions of their group members, identify the most effective aspects of the project, and provide feedback on areas that need improvement.  The four batches of assessments of the Trial Project that I have collected show some trends.  Students have reported particular satisfaction with the Trial Project’s role as a course capstone, an experience that comprehensively synthesizes previously acquired skills and knowledge and makes students aware how much they have learned as they approach the final exam and paper.  Another common point of satisfaction is how the series of assignments builds an explorative portfolio that can be used to produce not only ideas for the trial but also a foundation for a final essay.  Finally, though they have flagged difficulty finding time for group work as an issue, students have appreciated that group work was structured both to allow them to rely on one another as resources but also to ensure that the professor evaluated substantial individual contributions.  Students submit their two pre-trial reports to the course management site for my evaluation a few days prior to sharing it with classmates.  This method prevents those who submit late from relying on the work of others without incurring penalties for late submissions.

Students have provided many suggestions for improving the experience or for experimenting with it.  They have pointed to two main ways to reframe the project.  First, several have proposed that finding ways to gamify the entire experience would make it more exciting and stakes-driven.  They suggest voting for winners (prosecution or defense) in each individual trial, or voting on each defendant before and after each trial (guilty or not guilty) as a better gauge of which teams had most convincingly argued their cases or cast shadows of a doubt.  Secondly, students have advocated for various way that the assignment could become “one big trial.”  They have proposed that everyone in the class be assigned one consistent role that they equip themselves to play over several weeks and then play in multiple scenarios.  For example, about two-thirds of the class would be assigned one major character or two or three minor characters or critics.  Another third of the class would become teams of prosecuting and defense attorneys.  The ‘attorneys’ would prepare for the trial by constructing lines of prosecution and defense and subpoenaing any available witnesses.  The ‘witnesses’ would prepare by learning everything about their characters and anticipating the lines of questioning.  This variation on the assignment could work well in a situation where there is not time for group preparation outside of class.  Individual students could be provided with templates of questions or sentence stems and could come to class with enough completed work to debrief with a small team and then to enact a trial.

The Trial Project is scalable for students working at different levels of understanding and for classes that have only limited time to spend on the poem.  Designing even one assignment as an indictment can provide the basis for class discussion.  With limited class time, an instructor might focus a class activity just on Book 9 or might rely on a semi-prepared script or template that asks students to fill in the blanks.  This document could then be used for a performance where students could creatively experiment with costume and character.  The concept of a trial could provide a compelling review for final exams.  Alternatively, class time during the semester could be allocated for preparations or rehearsals.  (At my university, these preparations constitute a fourth credit hour for a class that meets only three hours per week.)

If I am able to assign the Trial Project again, I expect to make the following changes.  As the basis for a final exam question following the trial, I am considering developing the concept of sentencing. The question would invite students to consider intent: for example, does Adam’s decision to eat based on love qualify as a ‘crime of passion’?  Was voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaugher committed?  I intend to ask respondents to identify the elements of the sentences handed down in the poem and to describe what they have in common with options in our own legal system.  When Adam and Eve “with wand’ring steps and slow / Through Eden [take] their solitary way” (12.648-9) at the end of the poem, is this experience closer to jail, a half-way house, an ankle bracelet, a penal colony in Australia, or something else?  Would respondents change these sentences?  Can ‘good behavior’ affect sentencing?  Another approach for incorporating sentencing is staging the poem's scene of sentencing.  Such an exercise could reveal the extent to which Adam temporizes and evades blame compared to Eve.  “[F]alt’ring long” (10.115), he admits his guilt yet ends by pointing out to God:

This woman whom Thou mad’st to be my help
And gav’st me as Thy perfect gift so good,
So fit, so acceptable, so divine
That from her hand I could suspect no ill,
And what she did, whatever in itself
Her doing seemed to justify the deed
She gave me of the tree and I did eat.

Eve’s confession similarly acknowledges her guilt and shifts blame (in her case, to the serpent), but, unlike Adam, she responds “soon” (160) and is “not ... loquacious” (160-61). 

I would also like future students to become more reflective about how the Trial Project develops desirable workplace skills in collaborative research and problem-solving (“It Takes More than a Major”).  To build that awareness, in future iterations of the assignment I would expect to rely on resources and tools for project-based learning and teaching effective collaboration (for example, Buck Institute for Education, Wolfe, or Sibley and Ostafichuk).  Finally, I plan to enhance the Trial Project’s role as a departmental or college event.  While we have invited other faculty and English majors to join us, there has so far not been much interest.  I would like to try hiring out troupes of students to a departmental open house or to lower-level survey classes.  I see potential to involve our university law school, perhaps asking for use of their beautiful moot court room or getting law faculty or students to come into the class and provide guidance on how write an indictment or try a case.  With declining law school application rates, law schools may see this kind of collaboration as a recruiting opportunity.

For me as instructor, the Trial Project provides a means for reaching several pedagogical goals.  It has proved to be an antidote to end-of-term ennui.  Certainly, the assignment appeals to the future lawyers among our English majors, to those interested in theater, and to lovers of television’s legal dramas.  But, because the assignment asks students to make new cognitive connections through retrieval, synthesis, explaining peer to peer, seeing or reshaping material in different ways, linking ideas to popular and contemporary notions of courtroom practice, and so on,[5] the Trial Project assignment also helps students to gain confidence as critical thinkers and to develop some mastery of Paradise Lost.  I begin study of the poem with open reflection about the myriad ways that Paradise Lost can be challenging or intimidating.  By the end of term, the Trial Project shows students how far they have come as they authoritatively assemble and assert their own arguments.  In their evaluations, students comment on how their understanding of the ways the entire poem works was much improved, first by their being forced to find evidence on both sides for the ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ of their defendants, and then by their being confronted in the other trials with evidence about more than one possible ‘culprit’ for the Fall or more than one ‘hero’ in the recovery from it.  That synthetic understanding in turn feeds into final essays while their scripts become a collective final exam review as well.  It is gratifying for all learners (me included) to end the term not with a race to the end of Book 12 to stay on track with the syllabus, but with a ritualistic and formal closure that affords synthesis and reflection. 

The discussion that follows final voting for culprits and discussion about why students changed their minds is an accessible point of departure for returning to questions and complexities introduced as we read the poem.  This final discussion produces the most gratifying moments of teaching and learning we have had in the class.  Students can revisit earlier discussions, but armed with evidence from the whole poem and its critical heritage as well as with the passionate authority that intense creative work on a project provides.  Is the question of fate versus free any more clear than it had been when introduced in Book 3?  To what extent should blame be assigned, and are there mitigating circumstances?  By this point, students can tackle whether God’s agency in causing the Fall results in a positive salvation, or is evidence of God’s hypocrisy and tyranny.[6]   They can agree with John Carey and John Leonard that a character such as Satan is ambivalent and that the prosecutor or defender must overstate the one side to “make a case,” and from that starting point can move to discussion of why this ambivalence exists or the effects of it upon us as readers.  For answers, for example, we can look to the suggestions of critics such as Carey that the three traditional characters of Satan—as once glorious Archangel, as Prince of Hell, as Tempter/Serpent—and the lack of clarity of boundaries between them contribute to this effect (162).  And we can pose Carey’s question about whether Satan’s “Stupidly good” momentary delight in watching Eve (9.465) makes him more sympathetic as he shows capacity to love—or less sympathetic as he shows a conscious will to reject this state and do evil (168).             

Discussions of culpability also raise the question of whether those who are blamed also deserve credit for making retribution.  In the invocation to Book 1, the narrator references an epic hero, one “greater man / [who will] Restore us and regain the blissful seat” (1.4-5).  Does the invocation reference the Son?  Adam?[7]   It is worth spending some time drawing attention to this opening ambiguity as the Trial Project can raise questions about exactly how and why the sentences of Adam and Eve (and humanity in general) are commuted at the end of the poem.  Interest in these questions allows students to consider why scholars have proposed other candidates in addition to Adam and the Son for the role of epic hero.  These candidates include God, Eve, Milton, humanity, the reader, and marriage.  Ultimately, we can consider how the poem’s interest in questions of responsibility confronts us with our own fallen desires to assign blame and find easy answers.  We can engage with Stanley Fish’s argument that the poem educates its readers by taking us through a series of temptations, choices, and falls that teach us how to read and move toward truth despite our flawed postlapsarian perceptions (see esp. 208-40). 

The Trial Project facilitates another discussion that is hard to have as readers are moving chronologically through the poem, but that becomes more accessible in retrospect.  Should the Fall be considered a single moment—an action or inaction by one individual?  Or is it a series of falls or steps, possibly taken by multiple individuals?  If so, how far back did those steps begin?  Does Eve’s dream, for example, reveal an already flawed nature that inclines humans to fall?  If so, does God deserve more blame?  In his chapter “The Fall” (2.601-49), John Leonard summarizes the relevant critical questions and debates.  In the early twentieth century, he notes, critics asked, “Was it one sin or many?  Was it the same sin in Adam as in Eve?  Can it be summed up in one word [such as ‘pride’ or ‘passion’], and (if so) which?” (2.601).  He further observes that the terms of this debate are later complicated by more consideration of Adam and Eve’s motives, psychology, and characterization, including the role played by human love.  Students can be encouraged to participate in these same debates and can identify many of the same qualities their critical predecessors have perceived in Adam and Eve: pride, uxoriousness, lightness of mind, courage, ‘human’ strength, ambition, logical and ethical decision making as the foundation of ‘choice.’ These qualities may be considered positive or negative, or sometimes potentially both positive and negative, most complicated when admirable inclination leads to devastating results.  Discussion of these issues coalesces around an unsolved critical crux: do innocence and experience coexist such that “temptation [is] a necessary precondition for salvation,” or are innocence and experience “incompatible opposites” such that “any inclination to evil ... is sin” (Leonard 2.598)?

To conclude the discussion, I usually return to the ‘epic question’ posed at the start— “what cause / Moved our grand parents” to fall (1.28-29)—and to the question of why Milton married his retelling of a seemingly straightforward biblical episode with his career ambitions to create an epic.  By this point, it is evident that brief answers are not possible.  Students draw evidence from twelve books, and they find ideas in different forms: some narrative and some encyclopedic.  The answer to the epic question of what caused Adam and Eve to fall is a complicated one, and students can appreciate that Milton invests all he knows in trying to answer it in his epic.  By definition, Northrop Frye explains, an epic is “The Story of All Things,” so Milton’s “proportions are gigantic” and “rightly so” (4).  A poet “can never complete a second epic unless he is the equal of Homer,” and “an epic can only be completed late in life, because of the amount of sheer scholarship it is compelled to carry” (Frye 4).  The final discussion allows the class to revisit their early readerly frustrations: with the poem’s Latinate diction, its often abstruse vocabulary, its mythological and biblical allusions, its unfamiliar conventions, its discursive scholarship on life, the universe, and everything—and of course the copious and often lengthy footnotes on all of these features whereby editions signal that readers must be in constant engagement with scholars to approach the poem.  The Trial Project, though, not only gives students confidence to engage with Milton on their own terms but also to appreciate the scope and power of epic form.  They can value the range and depth of the poem as they circle back to search for answers even as they experience first hand the impossibility of containing it within a unified argument and the intellectual pleasures that arise from its ambiguities.  As Frye wisely counsels, students at any skill level can be “rewarded” studying Milton: “The only ones who have abjectly failed with him are those who have tried to cut him down to size” (4).

Works Cited

Buck Institute for Education (BIE).  “Gold Standard PBL: Essential Project Design Elements.”  2015. 

Carey, John.  “Milton’s Satan.”  The Cambridge Companion to Milton.  Edited by Dennis Danielson, 2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 1999, pp.160-74. 

“Dana Carvey Collection.”  Saturday Night LiveNBC.

Danielson, Dennis, editor.  The Cambridge Companion to Milton.  2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 1999. 

Danielson, Dennis.  “The Fall and Milton’s Theodicy.”  The Cambridge Companion to Milton. Edited by Dennis Danielson, 2nd ed., pp. 144-59.

Danielson, Dennis, editor and translator.  Paradise Lost: Parallel Prose Edition.  By John Milton, Broadview, 2012. 

Fish, Stanley.  Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost.  1967, 2nd ed., Harvard UP, 1997.

Frye, Northrop.  “The Story of All Things.”  The Return of Eden: Five Essays on Milton’s Epics.  U of Toronto P, 1965, pp. 3-31.

“It Takes More Than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.”  Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).  Liberal Education, vol. 99, no. 2, 2013.

Lang, James M.  Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning.  Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Leonard, John.  Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of Paradise Lost, 1667-1970.  2 vols.,  Oxford UP, 2013.

McColley, Diane K.  “Milton and the sexes.”  The Cambridge Companion to Milton.  Edited by Dennis Danielson, 2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 1999, pp. 175-92.

Milton, John.  Paradise Lost. The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton.  Edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon, Modern Library, 2007, pp. 251-630.

Sibley, Jim, and Peter Ostafichuk.  Getting Started with Team-Based Learning.  Stylus, 2014.

Steadman, John M.  Milton and the Renaissance Hero.  Oxford UP, 1967.

Teskey, Gordon, editor. Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Sources and Backgrounds, Criticism.  By John Milton.  Norton, 2005.

Wolfe, Joanna.  Team Writing: A Guide to Working in Groups.  Bedford, 2010.


I. Sample Exam Journal: Study Questions for PL, Book 1 (Demonic Order)
Answer the following questions. Where questions ask for “evidence” or “details,” most of your responses should be short (3-4 word, even one word) quotations.

1. What is hell like?  List several pieces of evidence, and after each say what it suggests about hell (appearance, atmosphere, ‘rules’, geography, etc.).

2. Name a way in which Milton’s hell is like the hell of the Economist reading.  Name a way that Milton's hell is unlike.  Explain your reasoning.

3. What does Satan look like?  Provide a few pieces of evidence and say what they suggest about him.

4. What does Satan ‘sound’ like?  Provide several pieces of evidence and say what they suggest (about his self-conception, his attitude to his situation, his attitude to or conception of God and his relation to God, his relationship with his fellow devils, etc.).

5. Some people suggest that Satan is the hero of the poem, at least at first.  What, in what you have noticed, makes Satan heroic, and what makes him not so heroic?  Why or to what effects does Milton begin by showing a more admirable side to Satan? 

II. Paradise Lost Trial Project: Assignment Overview (abridged)

Who is responsible for the Fall of humankind?  Your goal for this assignment—as an individual and as a member of a team—is to produce a trial of one of the characters to help us answer that question.  This overview will give you guidance on how to prepare your trial with your group.

Paradise Lost–On Trial

Together with your group, you will examine and cross-examine your assigned character (God or Satan or Adam or Eve) on at least the first of these questions:

1. Are you responsible for the Fall?  That is, are you guilty or innocent of causing the Fall?

2. Are you the hero of the poem?  One way–it is not the only way–of thinking about this question is whether or not your character is responsible for recovery from the Fall (‘mitigating circumstances’); another way is thinking about potentially different definitions of heroism.              
Be prepared to enact a courtroom drama of about 22 minutes that addresses these questions. Your character should be examined by a prosecuting lawyer, and then defended by a lawyer for the accused; cross examination is permitted.  Witnesses may be called: these may include characters from the poem, John Milton, and/or literary critics.

To create your trial, think about all the TV or movie courtroom dramas that you know.  Rely on that knowledge to prepare a plan for the trial of your assigned characters.

Group work and this assignment:

For the Trial itself, you will need some advance planning with your group (taking roles, finding good questions, finding good evidence).  You should be able to do most of this planning by phone, email, and use of Blackboard “Groups” functions if meeting in person proves difficult.  A couple of meetings in the couple of weeks before the Trial will be useful to rehearse, so you should schedule these as soon as you know your groups.

For the Project Reports, the amount of group interaction is up to each group.  Think of your group as a support network, others with whom you can trade information or talk over difficult passages in the reading or a complex critical argument.  Maybe you would like to share your work via email. Maybe you all would like to read the same article and work together on summarizing it.  Or maybe each person can read a different article (or different parts of the same article), and you can all trade your findings with one another. 

PL Project Report #1: Indictment

1. Be the prosecuting attorney.  Keeping in mind the two questions at the start of the project overview, draw up an indictment against your character (Satan or God or Eve or Adam).  Using Milton’s text (or perhaps the occasional critical opinions by scholars or ‘expert witnesses’) for your evidence, outline any arguments a prosecuting attorney might make to accuse your character of being responsible for the fall.

2. Switch roles and become a defense attorney. Again, using Milton’s text for your evidence, draw up a defense of your character.  Make a list of evidence that could be used to defend your character.  One way of thinking about the question of heroism, for example, is to argue whether or not your character is responsible for recovery from the Fall.  Another defense approach might be to argue that the Fall was in the long run a good thing (the felix culpa, or “fortunate fall”).  Whom would you call as witnesses?  What would they say?

3. Finally, become the judge.  Taking both sides of your argument into account, summarize your verdict on your order: Villain? Hero? Remember, your judgment should be based on the evidence in the poem.

This assignment should not come in the form of a formal essay.  Use point form and lists. The important thing is to provide references for the evidence you have for your claims against, or on behalf of, your client. Be detailed, be specific.

4. Post your indictment to Blackboard, so that others can read your ideas.  Once most are posted, I will make them available for viewing by the class.

PL Project Report #2: Expert Witnesses and Critical Readings

1. Read about 25 pages of selected criticism on your character and fill out the worksheet below, referencing ideas that may be particularly helpful to understanding your character's motivations, guilt, innocence, admirable qualities or less than admirable qualities. You may work with one reading or with more than one. 

2. Provide 5 entries structured as follows:
a. Source (critic’s name, article title, page citation):
b. Idea (paraphrase and/or quotation from critic) with page citation:
c. With logic and evidence from PL – with citations to specific lines – support or contradict and develop the critical point:  I agree or disagree with this idea because ...
d.How or Why is this idea useful or interesting for the trial?  Because ...

3. Post your report Blackboard, so that others can read your ideas.  Once most are posted, I will make them available for viewing by the class.

Evaluation of Trial Project Assignment

1. Describe the contributions of each of your team members to this assignment (a few sentences about each person).  If you like, assign each team member a grade.

2. What were the best things about this assignment?  How or why did the assignment help you to learn more about Milton, problem-solving, working with others, or anything else?

3. What parts of the assignment need to be improved?  Do you have ideas for how to do that?  How could the assignment be better?



[1] For varied examples, see any episode of “Church Chat” in the “Dana Carvey Collection.”

[2] All references to Paradise Lost are from The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton.

[3] For an overview of the poem’s status as theodicy, see Danielson, “The Fall.”  

[4] The division is proposed by Frye, who also includes the “Angelic” (21).

[5] See Lang for a recent guide to pedagogical practices informed by research on how students learn, especially his chapter on how self-explanation (including to peers) enhances learning (137-59) and his chapter on how learners build comprehension through assignments and exercises that create connections among disparate classroom lessons as well as to understandings developed outside the classroom (91-111). 

[6] For some of the foundational critical arguments on either side, see Leonard, esp. 2.497-8, 503-6, 510-11, 521-23.

[7] See Steadman, Milton and the Renaissance Hero, for a standard treatment of these candidates in the context of the epic tradition; he also describes Satan’s “pseudo-heroism” (xvii) and Milton’s “intentionally ironic” (126) portrayal of Eve’s heroism.

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