‘Samson Agonistes’ is a verse drama by John Milton based on a Biblical story.
The main themes are inner blindness, Christian faith, violence, and criticism of romantic love. In this lesson, we’ll look at a more detailed summary and a deeper analysis of these themes.
Background on Milton and ‘Samson Agonistes’
John Milton was one of the most important and influential British writers of the 17th century and wrote both prose and poetry.
You may have heard of his most famous work, Paradise Lost, a book-length poem. ‘Samson Agonistes’ (1671) is also a long poem and, like Paradise Lost, illustrates biblical themes.‘Samson Agonistes’ is a dramatic poem or a drama written in blank verse, meaning presented like a play with dialogue for several characters but is written in a poetic style.
Blank verse uses meter but does not adhere to a strict rhyming structure. Milton was one of the early masters of this poetic form.Drama of this time period was still heavily influenced by ancient Greek tragedies, such as Oedipus the King by Sophocles (429 BCE) and Hecuba by Euripides (424 BCE), and ‘Samson Agonistes’ is no exception. Milton’s introduction gives a disclaimer–an old timey way of saying ‘Spoiler alert!’–defending his choice of a tragedy, claiming that tragic verse best illustrates morality.
Let’s look at a summary of the ‘Samson Agonistes,’ then we’ll explore some of the important themes of the work.
Characters and Summary
The main characters are Samson, his father Manoa, and Samson’s wife Dalila. There is also a chorus.
A chorus is a Greek dramatic convention, which uses a group of people who are outside the main action to comment on it.The biblical Samson is a man of superhuman strength whose Achilles’ heel is actually his . .
. hair. The drama takes place after Samson’s wife Dalila has cut his hair, robbing him of his strength. He’s imprisoned in Gaza, blinded by his enemies the Philistines. In this drama, Samson finds himself at his lowest point. He’s been betrayed by his wife, thrown in prison, and blinded. The chorus, visiting him in prison, doesn’t help matters, lamenting the strong man’s self-pitying state.
Next, Samson’s elderly father Manoa comes to prison and tells him that the Philistines are celebrating a feast day in commemoration of their defeat of Samson, which depresses him even more. Manoa has money for his son’s ransom, but he can’t seem to snap Samson out of his depression.Next, Samson’s wife Dalila visits him, weeping and apologizing for her betrayal. While Samson eventually forgives her, he wants nothing more to do with her.
Harapha of Gath, a giant, ridicules Samson in prison. Samson challenges him to combat, citing God as his strength, but Harapha balks. Samson derides him as a coward, and Harapha runs off.The story’s climax comes with off-stage violence.
Samson goes off to show his feats of strength in the Philistines’ festival. His father returns to the prison with the ransom money, and a messenger describes what has happened. Samson, led docilely to the Philistines’ Temple, the main arena for the festival, pulls the building down around himself, killing his enemies and dying in the process.
Analysis of ‘Samson Agonistes’
Although we’re not sure when Milton began composing this poem, the parallels between Samson’s blindness and Milton’s blindness at the end of his life are striking. Samson’s opening speech, in fact, mirrors the arguments of one of Milton’s best-known sonnets, Sonnet XX, ‘On His Blindness’ (c.
1655). Samson asks why he should have been given to expect great things of his life when he has ended up blinded, betrayed, and imprisoned. Samson equates darkness, lack of light, with death, referencing 1:3 of Genesis, ‘And God said, ‘Let there be light.’One of the main themes of the poem is Christian faith. This is interesting because Milton applies a Greek form (the tragic drama) to a Christian story. For example, the chorus is upset that Samson has become his own jailer: The dungeon of thyself.
This seems to be one of Milton’s most beloved themes, used most famously in Paradise Lost, where he suggested that Hell was not only a place but a state of mind. The chorus persuades Samson to have faith as God’s justice is impossible for mere mortals to interpret.Dalila is represented quite negatively in ‘Samson Agonistes’ and may be a commentary from Milton on the feebleness of romantic love. When Dalila visits Samson in prison, she tries to convince him that her intentions were good. He rejects her arguments, saying that all wickedness is weakness, and this isn’t a good enough excuse. Dalila is represented much more negatively than Eve in Paradise Lost; whereas romantic love is celebrated in Paradise Lost, Milton is a harsh critic of it in ‘Samson Agonistes.’One of the other major themes of ‘Samson Agonistes’ is violence.
The chorus suggests that each person can be his or her own rescuer, a direct response to Samson’s earlier suggestion that he is imprisoned within himself. Toward the end of the poem, after Samson has pulled the pillars of the temple down, he is compared to a Phoenix, the mythical desert bird that is consumed by flame but rises from the ashes more powerful than ever.
In ‘Samson Agonistes’, a dramatic poem or a drama written in blank verse, meaning presented like a play with dialogue for several characters but is written in a poetic style, John Milton, one of the most important and influential British writers of the 17th century who wrote both prose and poetry, addresses themes of inner blindness, Christian faith, rejection of romantic love, and the cathartic potential of righteous violence. Milton believes that it was the best way for him to tell a morality tale.
It also was Milton’s way of addressing his crisis of faith that he received as he gradually became more and more blind–why would Samson be given his talents of strength by God if they could so easily be taken away?’Samson Agonistes’ is interesting because it uses the forms of ancient Greek drama (such as a chorus, a group of people who are outside the main action to comment on it) and applies them to a story that celebrates Christianity. Milton does this by using blank verse, which uses meter but does not adhere to a strict rhyming structure to create a piece of drama entirely new with characters such as Samson’s wife Dalila, his father Manoa, and the giant Harapha of Gath. It also explores the notion of imprisonment in that it can not only be a place but also a state of mind, something Samson realizes while he’s locked away.