Nigel Smith. Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2008.  xvii+214 pp.  ISBN 13: 978 0 674 02832 6.

 William Walker
University of New South Wales

 William Walker. "Review of Nigel Smith, Is Milton Better Than Shakespeare?" Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:>. 

  1. Since English neoclassical critics such as Dryden, Addison, Burke, and Johnson directly addressed the question of how good Milton is, one might expect that a book devoted to this question might acknowledge, if not respect, some of their judgments.  But apart from the occasional description of Milton’s poetry as “sublime,” Smith says nothing of them.  Neither does he take seriously their, or anyone else’s, judgments about the achievement of Shakespeare.  Smith in fact says almost nothing about Shakespeare in this book and provides no reading of any poem or play by him.  He nevertheless attempts to show that Milton is better than Shakespeare. 

  2. He does so by observing that, having placed “liberty at the center of his vision” (xv), Milton has been more “salient and important” than Shakespeare (xv).  “Historically,” Milton has been more “influential” than Shakespeare, in part because his writings played “such a dominant role in the discussions and definition of liberty that surrounded the founding of the United States” (4).  Milton is better than Shakespeare because he is of more “use to us in our current predicaments” and “more thoughtfully progressive” (5).  Milton’s “interrogations of free will, liberty, and the threat to it are more riveting” than anything Shakespeare ever did (7), and his writing is “the literary embodiment of so many of the aspirations that have guided Americans as they have sought to establish lived ideals of ethical and spiritual perfection” (11). We can “use Milton to think through our contemporary dilemmas” (5) in part because his writings have “applications… in a multicultural and multiethnic context” and they can “facilitate cross-cultural mutual understanding” (13).  “As our experience of preeminence mutates into something else,” Milton’s vision will be a useful “tool of reflection,” for “the truths in Milton, various and liberal, are there for all to see” (14).

  3. Having never been a preeminent American, having never even been British, I can only imagine how valuable Milton must be to those who are, as they mutate from preeminence.  But no matter who we are, Smith’s case for the superiority of Milton to Shakespeare founders for reasons beyond the basic facts that he says nothing about the latter and that his criteria are mainly utilitarian.  One of these reasons is that Smith is so incoherent as he attempts to present Milton’s poetry and prose as expressions of a “republican” vision of liberty.  On some occasions, by “republican” Smith means someone who repudiates monarchy (110).  On this definition of the term, Milton is seen as a republican because of the “polemic against monarchy” (91) Smith finds in the regicide tracts, and the way in which “earthly kings are subjected within Milton’s writings to iconoclastic condemnation” (108).  But Smith also observes that “Milton certainly bought into the presentation of the English state as the ancient ideal of a balanced combination of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy when it suited him, until the late 1650s” (115).  But then again, Milton “left them [institutions] alone in any great detail in his published writings until the very late 1650s” (112).  So, in the major political prose works from 1649-54, Milton repudiates monarchy, affirms mixed monarchy, and says little about forms of government.

  4. On other occasions, Smith works on a broader definition of the noun “republican” as one who is significantly indebted to the writings of the ancients and Machiavelli.  Thus, the prose tracts of the 1640s qualify Milton as a republican because they “display Milton’s immersion in classical civic thought as he constructed his ideas of free will and heresy” (69).  His tracts of the 1650s qualify him because in them he is the “ideologist of virtue for the English republic and Protectorate, pointing up the practice of liberty by his contemporaries in a value economy where an excess of heroic virtue exemplifies the free state and pleases God” (112).  This ideology, with its “republican precepts” deriving from Aristotle, Cicero, and Machiavelli, is also “laid out in the clearest parts” of the late great poems (119), though Paradise Regained is even “more coherently republican in character” than is Paradise Lost (120).  But “Milton implicitly criticises the classical tradition in Paradise Lost” (40), and there is indeed an “astonishing denunciation of classical learning…  pretty much an attack on most of Milton’s learning” in Paradise Regained (38).  So, Milton is a republican, a republican is someone who affirms the teachings of the ancients and Machiavelli, and in the major late poetry, Milton denounces the teachings of the ancients and Machiavelli.

  5. Such an incoherent account of the vision of liberty that Smith finds at the centre of Milton’s oeuvre does little to show that Milton is better than Shakespeare.  Smith is more effective as he provides a kind of summary of current views on Milton’s treatment of various topics such as poetics, divorce, free will, creation, and politics.  It is all very au courant.  But this does not excuse the fast and loose manner with which he deals with evidence from the texts themselves.  Thus, in support of the view that Paradise Regained is “coherently republican,” he cites the Son’s line: “All things are best fulfilled in their due time” (3.182).  Though I have been reading Machiavelli over the last five years, I have difficulty in seeing that this line “suggests the Italianate republican ideal of occasione, waiting for the optimum time to bring in a proper order in the state” (121).  Smith also claims that one of the crucial components of Milton’s “republican political theory” expressed in the prose and “throughout” Paradise Lost is patriotism:  “loving your country or your people” and “loving your state” (160-61).  But he provides no evidence from Paradise Lost for this view.  This is not surprising to me since I and many others do not think there is any such evidence.  There is no such evidence because, as Smith (sometimes) quite rightly observes, Milton in this poem rejects ancient Graeco-Roman learning, according to which patriotism is a virtue for an animal, such as man, that must be a member of a political society in order to fulfil its ends.

  6. Another reason I find Smith’s case for Milton’s superiority over Shakespeare so weak is that he waters down or just ignores many things that people of a certain taste find bracing in his writing.  Thus, he passes over Milton’s vehement, highly tropological railing against the populace of his own country in the prose from 1649-1660.  Though he urges us to confront Milton’s “violent imagination” (88), he passes lightly over the fact that one of the main things Milton aimed to do in the prose was to justify military coups that established a kangaroo court that tried and executed a king, and that installed various military regimes that had little popular support.  In showing that Milton placed liberty at the centre of his vision, Smith also cares not to observe that in this prose, Milton explicitly endorses the principle that in cases where most of the members of a political society are corrupt, it is just and reasonable for a virtuous minority to use force to deny them the freedom to choose the form of government they want and the freedom to choose those who will hold office in it.  And, when he brings himself to acknowledge that, in the republic Milton proposes in The Ready and Easy Way, the populace does not have the right to vote, Smith observes that this “sounds decidedly less liberal” than the account of citizenship in Areopagitica.  Yes, denying the vote to the populace when it does not meet your own moral and religious standards really does not sound very “liberal” or “progressive.”  In the case of Paradise Lost, this watering down takes the form of ignoring those grim representations of how depraved we all are, including the punishing and austere vision of history of the final books, and playing up suggestions in the poem that life in this world can be so much more than a long day’s dying.  Indeed, because the appearance and behaviour of prelapsarian Adam and Eve resemble that of the Puritans, it seems to Smith that we can achieve their happiness in this world (53, also 152).  And though he thinks Milton’s god is “beastly” for not giving Adam a mate sooner than he does (153), Smith presents him as a pedantic nice guy who insists on man’s free will and loves his creation, rather than the Old Testament tough guy who says things like “die he, or justice must” before sentencing him to misery until he returns to dust. 

  7. All of this serves Smith's intention to assert the quality of Milton’s writing on grounds that he is so “relevant” and “useful” to we moderns.  For what makes Milton relevant and useful to us is that, even though his assertion of violence and destruction is “in places abhorrent” (88), he is au fond one of “us”:  Milton’s career and writings are “vitally part” of “contemporary perspectives, even though he lived more than three hundred years ago” (3-4); his art and thought are “peculiarly resonant with our own moment, and with the youth art of the past four decades” (12); Milton’s “definition of truth as a supercommodity” looks forward “to our own world, in which information itself has become a valuable commodity in a globe tied together by information technology” (75).  Indeed, since “Milton is both theistic and post-theistic, monotheistic and polyglot,” and since “for many, this is precisely the condition of our modernity,” Milton is a modern just like us (182).  Or should we say that we moderns are just like him?  After all, if we survey “popular culture,” we can see with Smith that “philosophy, then, as much as poetry, has become truly Miltonic” (185).

  8. Much of Smith’s case for Milton’s achievement is thus built on a kind of presentism, a failure to acknowledge what many historians and historians of political thought describe as the difference between Milton and “us,” between seventeenth-century England and twenty-first-century western democratic societies.  This failure is driven by a misguided attempt to assess the achievement and value of Milton’s writing mainly on the basis of his modernity and his “relevance” to the history and current state of those who are now wondering about how much civil liberty should be sacrificed to security, and how preeminent they are.  Since it is mainly Milton’s “vision” and “theory” of liberty that makes him so modern and relevant to us, and since this theory is expressed just as well, if not better, by the prose (especially Areopagitica) as by the poetry, Smith’s case for Milton’s achievement also plays down the difference between these two kinds of writing and will offend all those who feel that Milton’s achievement as a prose writer is a distant second to his achievement as a poet.

  9. It also renders his case for Milton’s superiority to Shakespeare both unfair and irrelevant in an important sense.  If we are going to determine fairly whether Milton is better than Shakespeare on grounds of influence of a certain kind and the presence of a theory or vision of liberty, then we must assess both authors in relation to these criteria.  And the case for Milton’s superiority would have to contend with the case for Shakespeare’s influence, his relevance and modernity, and the quality of his treatment of liberty.  It would have to contend with, among other things, Harold Bloom’s case that Shakespeare invented us, and with Andrew Hadfield’s case (in Shakespeare and Republicanism) for Shakespeare as a significant source of early modern republican political thought.  It would have to contend with those, such as myself, who would wish to claim that Shakespeare’s “interrogations of free will, liberty, and the threat to it” in plays such as Julius Caesar and Coriolanus are just as “riveting” as anything Milton did.  Because Smith does not do this, his case for Milton’s superiority to Shakespeare is unfair.

  10. But it is also irrelevant because, though in some plays he did aim to represent societies, such as ancient Rome, in which civil liberty was a burning issue, Shakespeare’s primary intention was neither to influence the constitutions of nations, nor to present an ideology or theory of liberty, but to produce entertaining plays.  That is to say that the criteria of judgment upon which Smith proceeds are stacked in Milton’s favour, given that at least in some works, Milton was intending to forward a theory of liberty.  Smith thus ends up arguing that Milton is better than Shakespeare at doing something Shakespeare was not very concerned to do.  So what?  A more relevant project, given Smith’s criteria of judgment, would be that of showing that Milton is better than those – such as Marchamont Nedham, James Harrington, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke – whose main aim was to present ideologies and theories of civil liberty which might serve to help England and other nations establish the best kind of political society.  That Milton’s writings have not hitherto been included in courses devoted to the most powerful, influential, and original thinkers about civil liberty and government is one indication that that project would fail.

  11. One still might let it all go since, after all, Smith claims to be urging “as general a public as possible” to reconsider and appreciate Milton’s writings (xv), and that has to be a good thing, especially on the occasion of the author’s four-hundredth birthday.  But being a party-pooper on this occasion is in my mind thoroughly justified since Smith celebrates Milton by way of treating unfairly another. And though he seems to agree with just about every contemporary big-name Miltonist there is, he also addresses his little book to specialists as a strong argument against the work of one of the great Milton scholars of the last forty years, Stanley Fish (12, 181-83).  It is bad enough that Smith, like most reviewers of How Milton Works, provides such a misleading account of what Fish says in this book.  Anyone who has read it, for example, knows how misleading it is to say that Fish claims that “Milton did not believe in action in this world” (182).  But does Smith really think that he can persuade Miltonists that Fish’s hard, driving commentary on Milton is misguided by way of this kind of rambling, urbane talk?  Perhaps he can, but if so, I’m outa’ here.

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