Study Guide

Samson Agonistes

by John Milton

Samson Agonistes Analysis

The Poem (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Samson, eyeless in Gaza, is given a holiday from his labors during the season of a Philistine religious festival. He sits alone before the prison, lamenting his fallen state. His hair grows long again and his physical strength returns, but to him life seems hopeless. He wonders why God chose him, who seems destined to live out his days as a miserable, blinded wretch, but he nevertheless blames his misfortunes on himself. He should not have trusted in his strength without also seeing to it that he gained the wisdom to protect him from the wiles of Philistine women. He mourns also the blindness that makes him live a life only half alive.

A chorus of Hebrew elders joins him. It recalls his past great deeds and speak of the present state of Israel, subject to Philistine rule. Samson accuses his people of loving bondage more than liberty because they refused to take advantage of the victories he won for them in the days of his strength. Manoa, Samson’s aged father, also comes to see his son, whose fate gives him great distress. He brings news that plunges Samson still deeper into his depression: The Philistine feast is being given to thank the idol Dagon for delivering the mighty Hebrew into the hands of his enemies. Samson realizes then the dishonor he brought to God, yet he is able to find hope in the thought that the contest now is between Jehovah and Dagon. He foresees no good for himself, cast off by God, and he prays only for speedy death.

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(The entire section is 583 words.)

Samson Agonistes Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Gaza

*Gaza. Philistine city. The prison is at once a literal punishment by the Philistines for the Nazarite Samson’s Hebraic faith and fight against the Philistines and a metaphorical punishment for Samson’s betrayal of himself and his God. Once metaphorically blind to Dalila’s treachery, Samson has been physically blinded by the enemy to whom his wife has betrayed him. As the heart of Philistine power, Gaza marks first the nadir and later the zenith of Samson’s faith and power. Each of his visitors, the chorus, his father (Manoa), Dalila, and the giant from Gath, Harapha, allows him to show moral strength, revealing to him the strength of his faith and the use to which God plans to put his restored physical strength.

Theater

Theater. Site where Philistines from Gaza and the surrounding cities gathered for the festival. The theater becomes the focal point of irony and divine justice when Samson turns a potentially degrading spectacle of enslaved strength into a triumphant act of faith, self-sacrifice, redemption, and the power of his God.

Samson Agonistes Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Crump, Galbraith M., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Samson Agonistes.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Assembles seven seminal articles and eight shorter selections of critical commentary. Following an introductory critical survey, the selections offer a wide range of literary criticism dealing with the tragedy’s biographical significance, structure, style, themes, and genre.

Hanford, James Holly, and James G. Taaffe. A Milton Handbook. 5th ed. East Norwalk, Conn.: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970. Presents an overview of the tragedy and a survey of previous criticism. An excellent starting point. Bibliography.

Hunter, William B., ed. Milton’s English Poetry. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1986. Reprints articles on Milton’s poetry from A Milton Encyclopedia, written by distinguished scholars. The long entry on Samson Agonistes provides a detailed survey of the numerous important critical issues and controversies associated with the tragedy.

Low, Anthony. The Blaze of Noon: A Reading of “Samson Agonistes.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1974. Offers a scholarly analysis of origins, style, and characters of the tragedy. The extended scholarly discussion is developed with the general reader in mind; the book is accessible and erudite.

Wittreich, Joseph. Interpreting “Samson Agonistes.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986. A challenging but highly informative book, it surveys the biblical and Renaissance traditions related to Milton’s tragedy. Furnishes a comprehensive assessment of modern criticism.