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Samson Agonistes is Milton’s attempt to bring together the seemingly opposing worldviews of Christianity and tragedy. While some would contest that tragedy has no place in Christianity, Milton observed the tragedy in Judges 12-16, and, as an astute student of human nature, imagined the emotions Samson must have felt and the verbal exchanges that could have occurred between him and others. The result of Milton’s conjectures is Samson Agonistes.
If, as Chaucer writes, “Tragedy is to say a certain storie, As olde bookes maken us memorie, Of him that stood in great prosperitee And is yfallen out of high degree Into misery and endeth wretchedly” (http://www.dictionary.com), then Samson is indeed a tragic hero in the literary sense. Samson has clearly fallen from “high degree”, as his friends remember a great man, a “Herioc…Renown’d…Irresistable Samson” (S.A. 125-126), the “glory late of Israel, now the grief”(179). Manoa recalls an “invincible Samson” (341), and the even the mighty Harapha admits: “Much I have heard/Of thy prodigious might and feats perform’d/Incredible to me” (1082-1084). No one would dispute that at one time the Philistines feared Samson and the Israelites revered him. However, Samson’s life changed dramatically when he suddenly metamorphosed from a glorious hero to an “Ensnar’d, assaulted, overcome…/ Poor, and Blind” (365-366) prisoner. Samson languishes in a “double darkness”, lacking temporal and spiritual sight. To him, physical blindness is more bearable than the isolation he feels from God. Samson has tumbled headlong “from the top of wondrous glory,/ …To [the] lowest pitch of abject fortune” (167-169).
A character must have one fatal flaw before he or she can become a tragic hero; Samson’s weakness was pride. Biblically, pride is one of the “seven deadly sins” that surely bring about one’s ultimate downfall. Samson was endowed with superhuman strength, but by his own admission, lacked proportional wisdom (53-57). As his ego grew, his relationship with God diminished, until “Swoll’n with pride into the snare [he] fell” (532). Samson would have never been captured, blinded, and humiliated were it not for his burgeoning pride. In order for God to show Samson that He was really the one in control, He was forced, by Samson’s own arrogance, to reduce Israel’s vainglorious son to nothing before he could be restored.
A true “tragic hero,” Samson refuses to solicit help from outside forces. Samson vehemently refuses Manoa’s offer to pay a ransom for his release, and urges him to “Spare the trouble/ Of that solicitation; let me here,/ As I deserve” (487-489). Samson believes that he brought all his misery upon himself; therefore, he cannot accept help from another person (374-376).
At the outset, Samson is immersed in self-pity, and has no desire to exact revenge upon the Philistines. Samson’s meeting with Dalila (Delilah) jolts him from his Laodicean state. Up until this point, Samson refuses to show anger, and instead accepts his fate with abject resignation. Dalila, however, kindles a fire inside of him, a fire that once ignited, consumes his despair and fuels his desire for retribution. Samson’s first utterance to her, “Out, out Hyaena,” (748) displays that he has instantaneously broken free from his apathetic mindset. As Marjorie Hope Nicolson aptly observes, “Samson’s vigor is returning…more than he knows” (362). In truth, Dalila’s visit to Samson was the catalyst needed in order for Samson to bring down the Philistine’s temple. Samson grows increasingly confident during his discourse with Dalila, and, more importantly, feels God returning to him. Samson is now able to forgive Dalila, although it is “at a distance” (954). This act of forgiveness symbolizes that Samson has finally yielded to God’s authority, for his carnal desire is to “tear [Dalila] joint by joint” (953). Samson’s forgiveness also releases him from any bonds he once had to Dalila and the Philistines, freeing him psychologically to do what he must in the temple in the final scene.
Samson’s interaction with Harapha is evidence of the inward change that occurred in his conversation with Dalila. Harapha expected to find a dejected has-been hero, a former champion reduced to nothing more than reams of pale skin haphazardly slung over brittle, mortal bones. The Samson he encounters has been invigorated with renewed self-confidence and the assurance that God is with him again. Minutes earlier, Samson complaines God has “cast me off as never known,/ And to those cruel enemies,/ Whom I by his appointment had provok’t,/ Left me all helpless with th’ irreparable loss” (641-644). Now, however, Samson boldly proclaims that God’s “ear is ever open; and his eye/ Gracious to re-admit the suppliant;/ In confidence whereof I once again/ Defie thee to the trial of mortal fight,/ by combat to decide whose god is God” (1172-1176) and is able to confidently back down the giant. If it were not for Dalila’s intervention, the outcome of Harapha’s visit would have been quite different.
Milton portrays Samson’s fall from grace as a tragedy, yet from a Christian perspective, the tragedy is not Samson’s present condition, but Samson’s disobedience to God. Samson was able to abstain from wine, but not the solace of Philistine women. Herein lies the Christian tragedy. Were it not for Samson’s flagrant disregard for God’s laws, he would not be in his current predicament. Samson himself acknowledges that God “justly” inflicted the evils he is suffering upon him as punishment for foolish behaviour (S.A. 1169-1171). From the Christian viewpoint, God’s discipline is to be celebrated; it is a sign of his love. A tragedy only occurs if an individual refuses to heed divine correction. Samson chose to accept his punishment and determined to use his remarkable gift for God’s glory once more. Even his death is not a tragedy, as Samson has regained favour with God.
Samson’s untimely demise at the conclusion of the play could be seen as a tragedy, a triumph of Christianity, or a combination of the two. In a literary sense, Samson Agonistes is a tragedy in every sense. The flawed hero fights alone and dies alone. A Christian perspective sees the play as a beautiful illustration of God’s love: though he strayed from God’s laws, Samson’s heavenly father welcomes him back and allows him to become a legend again in death. Here though, is the conflict. In order for Samson to be restored to God, he needed to relinquish his pride. God would not have returned Samson’s strength any other way. For the play to be a literary tragedy, however, Samson’s pride must cause his downfall. In reality, the tale, as it was intended, must be seen as two distinct stories. The first is a tragedy: Samson’s pride brings his spiritual demise and is the cause of his suffering. The second is anything but tragedy: Samson restores his relationship with God and dies bringing glory to His name, justifying himself and his God in death. Thus, the two seemingly antithetical worldviews become one.
Milton, John. Samson Agonistes, and Other Shorter Poems. Ed. A.E. Barker. Harlan Davidson, Inc: Wheeling, Illinois, 1950. 65-111.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. John Milton: A Reader’s Guide to His Poetry. Octagon Books: New York, 1963. 348-373. <http://www.dictionary.com>
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