Samson Agonistes Analysis
by John Milton

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Samson Agonistes Analysis

John Milton's Samson Agonistes is a tragic play based on the biblical figure in the Book of Numbers. The play deals with the suffering and redemption of Samson, who has been enslaved and blinded by his enemies. Samson is able to gain spiritual insight through his trials, something he did not have when he was powerful. This links him with Milton's Adam and Eve, who start the road to forgiveness and reconciliation with God once they admit their sin and learn from their fall.

Samson is viewed as a tragic hero. He is brought low by both outside forces and his own hamartia; however, he regains control over his life in the end—by ending it, ironically. He pulls down the temple of Dagon, killing himself and his enemies.

Samson's hero status is complicated, though. After all, he ends up killing himself and other people in a final, violent gesture. Is Milton claiming Samson's actions are heroic or is there a note of condemnation there, since such conduct is hardly Christian in philosophy (since Christian conduct involves forgiveness and turning the other cheek)? The play is Milton's attempt to create a tragedy (in its Greek form) from biblical sources, but it is debatable whether Samson Agonistes is a natural fit for such a form or not.

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.

As the chorus muses over God’s treatment of his chosen ones, Dalila approaches. When she offers Samson help as recompense for her betrayal of him, he scorns her. She tries to excuse herself, pleading weakness and patriotism, but Samson refuses to compound his sins by yielding to her again; he is regaining spiritual as well as physical might. He again accepts his position as God’s champion when Harapha, a Philistine giant, comes to gloat over his misfortune. It is too bad that Samson is now so weak, says Harapha; had he met him sooner he would have won great honor by defeating him. Harapha cannot defile himself by combat with a slave. Samson, enraged, invites Harapha to come within his reach. The giant refuses to accept the challenge, however, saying that such a contest would be beneath his dignity, and leaves.

When a public officer comes to summon Samson to the feast, the blind man refuses to go. His presence there would violate Hebrew law, and he has no desire to have the Philistine mob make sport of his blindness. As Samson tells the chorus why he will not go, however, he feels a sudden inner compulsion to follow the messenger. He senses that the day will mark some remarkable deed in his life. When the officer brings a second, more imperative summons, Samson accompanies...

(The entire section is 1,193 words.)