Samson Agonistes is John Milton’s profound treatment of a biblical story in the form of the classical Greek tragedy. The poetic play, published with Paradise Regained in 1671, was not designed for the stage (such a play is known as a closet play); the author modeled his work on Greek tragedy because he found it “the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other poems.” The story of Samson is one of the most dramatic episodes in the Old Testament; the parallels between the life of the blind Hebrew hero and Milton’s own must have encouraged him to base his last work on the story of the man singled out before his birth as a servant of God. Milton opens his play during Samson’s imprisonment. He refers frequently to the biblical accounts of the events of Samson’s youth, but the episodes that make up most of the play are his own creation. Each affects Samson’s character, renewing his faith in God and influencing his decision to go to the Philistine temple to die.
Samson Agonistes is a powerful and moving drama. The poetry is majestic and simple, different from the rich verse of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) and Paradise Regained but perfectly suited to the subject. The play is the masterpiece of an old man, one who suffered like Samson and who has, in his own way, triumphed over suffering. Samson Agonistes was published in the same volume as Paradise Regained, three years before Milton’s death, so tradition ascribes its composition to the late years of his life and marks the drama as the last of his three great poems. More recently, however, various theories place the date of the work as far back as the 1640’s. Generally, support for the earlier date of composition is related to the critical opinion that the artistry of Samson Agonistes is of a lower order than that of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. In other words, by placing Samson Agonistes at a greater chronological distance from the other poems, it is easier to support a theory that it is an inferior work of art. It is certain from manuscript evidence that as early as the 1640’s Milton planned a series of five Samson plays; so it is by no means impossible that at least a first draft of Samson Agonistes was written at that time. The traditional view that Samson Agonistes belongs to the end of Milton’s canon is still widely held, and whether the drama was written shortly before publication or nearly thirty years earlier, scholars know that it was initially conceived long before it appeared.
Perhaps the origin of the view that Samson Agonistes is inferior to Milton’s other major poems lies in Samuel Johnson’s criticism of its tragic form. Ever since he said that the play has a beginning and an end but no middle, critics have been addressing themselves to the problem of viewing the poem as a classical Greek tragedy. Milton set the stage for later arguments by prefacing the poem with an essay discussing Aristotle’s concept of tragedy and extolling classical tragedy. By harking back to the ancients as his models rather than his own Elizabethan predecessors, he hoped to reestablish the “classical” pattern of tragedy, purging the abuses into which the genre fell through the English habit of mixing comedy and lowborn persons into the plot of a tragic play. The difference between Milton and the ancients is also established in the prefatory essay, however, when he says that Samson Agonistes was never meant for the stage. Those who sided with Johnson find that, in spite of Milton’s attempt to follow the classical pattern, the play is flawed by the static and lifeless quality they see in the central episodes.
What the drama lacks, however, is not life but action. All the famous acts of the protagonist occur either in the past or “offstage.” Samson’s actions as the hero of the Israelites and his subsequent fall are over before the poem begins, and his final triumph over the Philistines is narrated, not shown. There is no physical action during the episodes with Manoa, Dalila,...
(The entire section is 1,190 words.)