Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1190
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, and Harapha, but there is much psychological action. These episodes provide readers with the background of Samson’s present dilemma and reveal the progressive revitalization of Samson’s willingness to fulfill his role as the hero and the deliverer of his people. The three episodes in the middle of the play may be seen as temptations to betray his faith, fortitude, and patience. The action of the drama may be seen as the psychological process by which Samson meets and overcomes these temptations. Through these episodes, which some have found dramatically empty, Samson moves from despair to courage and to the final heroic act of self-sacrifice. Johnson’s critical mistake was in not accepting inner conflicts and resolutions as action.
Beyond the structural problems that complicate Samson Agonistes’ claim to being a tragedy, there is an additional difficulty arising from the basic difference in theological perspective between Milton and his Greek counterparts. The question is whether it is possible to write such a thing as Christian tragedy. Is it possible, within the Christian view of the human experience as a comedy, to have an ultimately tragic event? One of the paradoxes in the drama then is that while the play ends with death, it is a death-in-victory, like that of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it may be argued that the play is not a tragedy.
In a sense, the tragedy already took place before readers meet Samson “eyeless in Gaza.” Samson already fell, and the fall was precipitated by hubris, his tragic flaw of excessive pride. Samson’s death results from a conscious willful act, not from a personal flaw or from an act of the indifferent Fates. Through his death Samson triumphs over his enemies and fulfills his destiny. This victorious tragedy, too, has parallels among the classics. Certainly the Oedipus cycle presents the similar pattern of a protagonist who falls first through a flaw and then later, in a tragedy resulting from the first fall, transcends the disaster of death with a spiritual victory.
Granting the classical parallels in Milton’s poem, readers are left with the issue of fitting tragedy into Milton’s Christian view of history. Critics are right to say that tragedy is not ultimately possible for a Christian hero in a Christian universe. That is not to deny, however, that tragedy may exist in human terms. Thus, on one level the deaths of Samson and Christ are tragic, but the paradox of the Christian faith is that one who loses his life shall find it. Although individual tragedies can exist, they are ultimately subsumed in the larger cosmic framework of the divine design. That is, they become a part of a larger pattern in which death is followed by resurrection. Hence, readers can see Milton’s tragic poem as the union of a biblical theme and a classical literary form, just as Paradise Lost is the union of the classical epic form and the Christian vision of creation.