Samson Agonistes

by John Milton

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Samson Agonistes

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Because Milton was blind when SAMSON AGONISTES was published, the drama is sometimes interpreted biographically by critics who perceive Samson as a spokesman for Milton’s own feelings. The work, however, may have been composed as early as 1646-1648 and revised much later for publication.

As Milton indicates in the preface, this dramatic poem was never intended for performance. The first great “closet drama” in English, SAMSON AGONISTES questions the justice of God’s treatment of Samson and by extension his treatment of all men.

Prior to the play’s action, which takes place over a twenty-four-hour period, Samson, overcome by Dalila’s wiles and by his own pride, disobeys God. The Philistines blind Samson to render him helpless. During the action of the play, Samson is visited by his father Manoa, his wife Dalila, his enemy Harapha of Gath, and finally by a Public Officer, who encourages the blind hero to join the festival. The Chorus of Hebrew Elders discusses these visitors with Samson.

The play concludes when Manoa returns, joyful at having ransomed Samson; a messenger appears who relates the final catastrophe. His strength renewed, Samson has pulled down the pillars of the temple, ending the lives of many Philistines, but sacrificing his life as well.

One of the last great works of the Renaissance, SAMSON AGONISTES represents a successful effort to synthesize classical, Hebraic, and Christian traditions. Samson suffers from pride, the Greek tragic flaw, but faced with temptations of the spirit and flesh, he refuses either to distrust God or to run away from his suffering.


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.

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Critical Evaluation