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Samson as a Heroic Figure

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In Milton’s drama, Samson Agonistes, the reader is shown the Biblical figure of Samson portrayed as a martyr of sorts. In the beginning of his life, though he was a great warrior, who fought not only against his enemies but those of God, he was also a promiscuous and arrogant person. By the end of his life, though, he has been humbled through the treachery of a woman, and in an effort to take revenge on his oppressors, commits an act of self-sacrifice that ends not only the lives of his enemies but also his own. Samson’s heroic actions appealed to Milton because of their similarities with those of the Christian martyrs of Roman times. Samson not only suffered for his people, but was also given the chance of redemption through the grace of God, and through his final act of heroism, sacrifices himself for the betterment of his people. These correlation’s between Samson and the saintly figures of Christianity, are the most likely reason as to why Milton decided to portray Samson as a heroic figure in his work. Though Samson had his faults in the beginning, by the end he has recognized his mistakes and repents, proving him to be the hero that he is.

At the beginning of the work, the reader is shown Samson giving a monologue in which he laments his error. In his speech, Samson questions his destiny of being the one to save his people: Why was my breeding ordered and prescribed…designed for great exploits if I must die betrayed, captived, with both my eyes put out? (1614 lines 30-33). Samson is questioning his gift, wondering why he was destined to be a savior of sorts, yet is put into a seemingly hopeless situation. A major part of his woe is concentrated on his loss of sight, as he believes that it is what makes his situation all the more hopeless (But chief of all, O loss of sight, of thee I most complain! Blind among enemies! O worse than chains… 1615 lines 64-66). Soon Samson is visited by a group of citizens of his homeland, who already regard Samson as a hero. They describe him as That heroic, that renowned, irresistible Samson…who tears the lion as the lion tears the kid (1616, lines 125-128) and as matchless in might, the glory late of Israel (1617, lines 178-179). From these quotes, the reader sees Milton portrayed people of this time as having a preoccupation with one’s personal might as an indicator of his heroism, similar to the preoccupation with strength and honour found in earlier British works such as Beowulf. It seems that Milton was influenced at least in part by these earlier works in developing his characters ideals.

Samson, however, disagrees with the accolades given by his friends. He argues that he has squandered his gift from God and does not deserve their praise: How could I once look up, heave the head, who like a foolish pilot have shipwrecked my vessel trusted to me from above…? (1617, lines 197-199). Samson goes on to say that [he has] divulged the secret gift from God to a deceitful woman (1618, lines 201-202), and asks if he is sung and proverbed for a fool in every street… (1618, lines 203-204). This quote is important not only because it shows that Samson has realized his faults, but also because it shows that Milton, with his Puritanical views, sees all women as inherently deceitful. Samson continues his penitent acts when he is visited by his father, Manoa. He tells Samson that he has made way to some Phillistian lords, with whom to treat about [Samson’s] ransom (1624, lines 481-483), to which Samson replies, Spare that proposal, father..let me here as I deserve…my punishment. This shows that Samson obviously regrets his errors, and is willing to receive punishment for them. Manoa conitnues to plead with Samson, saying, Be penitent…repent the sin, but if the punishment thou canst avoid, self-preservation bids… (1624, lines 502-505), yet Samson still refuses. This is a major step in Samson’s development as the Christian hero Milton wants him to be. Samson’s penitent nature after his mistake is the first step to his redemption, as it gives him a more Christian persona, likening him to the saints who sinned then repented to live a life devoted to God.

In the end of this work, Samson’s father and the chorus of his friends hear screams of anguish coming from afar, and Manoa assumes that they are coming from his son (Oh it continues, they have slain my son. 1646, line 1516). His friends, however, know that [Manoa’s] son is rather slaying them, (1646, line 1516) as that outcry from slaughter of one foe could not ascend (1646, lines 1516-1517). They postulate over what could be happening (What if, his eyesight by miracle restored, he now be dealing dole among his foes, And over heaps of slaughter walk his way 1646, lines 1528-1531), yet soon a messsenger comes and relays to them what happened: Then take the worst in brief: Samson is dead. (1647, line 1570). The messenger continues to relay to them how Samson ended his life, telling of how Unwounded of his enemies he fell…with horrible convulsion to and fro, he tugged, he shook, til down [the columns] came, and drew the whole roof after them…upon the heads of all who sat beneath. (1649, lines 1649-1653) His friends, know this to be the fulfillment of Samson’s destiny (Living or dying thou hast fulfilled the work for which thou was foretold… 1649, lines 1661-1662), and now regard him has a true hero. Manoa agrees, saying [he] heroically hath finished a life heroic… (1650, lines 1710-1711), and tells that Samson will be honoured with silent obsequy and funeral train to his father’s eyes…there will I build him a monument…[where] the virgins also shall on feastful days, visit his tomb with flowers (1651, lines 1732-1744). It is clear from these excerpts that Milton has given Samson all that he needs for true heroism. A clear indication of this is the description of Samson’s funeral, which likens itself to not only the way heros in the time of Beowulf were buried, but also to the crucifixtion of Christ himself, who would obviously be Milton’s greatest hero.

Through the use of several influences, Milton models Samson on his ideals of what a hero should be. While Milton’s work uses several liberties with the original story from the Book of Judges, he uses these liberties to make Samson seem more like the hero that Milton wants him to be. Milton obviously wants us to see that through penitence, all are given the chance of redemption through God, and that sacrificing oneself is the ultimate act of true heroism. Milton’s Samson achieves both of these, which, in Milton’s eyes, make him a true hero.

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