Samson Agonistes "To The Public Good Private Respects Must Yield"

John Milton

"To The Public Good Private Respects Must Yield"

Context: Samson, blinded, betrayed to the Philistines by Delilah, who, in Milton's drama is his wife but who in Judges 16:4 is merely a woman from the valley of Sorek whom he loved, laments his great fall from the position of God's elect to that of a slave to the enemy. Delilah appears on the scene and is scorned by Samson as a traitoress, but she says that she comes in conjugal affection and hopes to lighten his sufferings. She tries to justify her betrayal of him to his enemies and says that it was her womanly weakness of natural curiosity, a product of her love for him, that made her pry into the secret of his strength; and if she should not have tried to learn his secret, he, on the other hand, should not have told it to her. She says that she did not want to be deserted like Samson's former wife at Timnath and thought that she could bind him to her if she knew his secret. And furthermore, the Philistines who bribed her to tell the secret assured her that all that was intended against Samson was to place him in safe custody, where she could enjoy his company and his love the while he remained safely out of danger. Samson belittles her reasons by saying that any criminal could excuse his wrongful acts by pleading his own weakness, and how could she expect his love to be a product of her betrayal? Delilah then says that the proposal to betray him was presented to her as her duty to entrap a common enemy; that is, it was her public duty:

Only my love of thee held long debate,
And combated in silence all these reasons
With hard contest: at length that grounded maxim
So rife and celebrated in the mouths
Of wisest men, that to the public good
Private respects must yield, with grave authority
Took full possession of me and prevailed;
Virtue, as I thought, truth, duty so enjoining.