Samson Agonistes by John Milton: Summary and Analysis

The poetic drama Samson Agonistes by John Milton is set in Gaza and is composed of dialogues between the blinded and imprisoned protagonist and different groups and individuals. A chorus of Hebrew friends comments upon what passes.

John Milton (1608-1674)

After some exchanges with his men, Samson agrees to go with a Philistine officer to perform feats of strength at "a solemn feast" held in honor of the Philistine God Dagon. There, Samson pulls down the pillars of the "Spacious theatre" destroying both them and himself. The title is a combination of a Hebrew name and a Greek epithet. The Samson of opening soliloquy expresses the mind of the spiritually blinded, emotionally exhausted and imprisoned hero in his despair

The second section extracted in the course is the lamentation of Samson for having made the terrible mistake of disobeying God. He repents the loss of 'light', the first creation and prime gift of God, and then begins to talk about being in the captivity of enemies. But he feels he must not quarrel with the will of highest dispensation, whom he at first thought was unjust in taking away his light (eyesight). As a person who is only beginning to understand God's will, he only says that the reason and justification of it is beyond his comprehension. His grieves are "so many and so huge" that it may take an age for each to describe. He then goes on to describe how important is sight; he explores its real and religious meanings. Light is the prime work of God. So all the 'objects of delight' in the nature have been invalid for him. He has become inferior to the meanest of creatures, including the worm. He is in the dark, exposed to all kinds of insult, fraud, contempt and abuse by his enemies. Inside and outside the door, he is an object of mockery for the Philistine enemies of Israel his country. This is the extent of his grief at the loss of light. He feels being bereaved of the first and most important creation and gift of God to man. For him, the sun itself is silenced like the moon hidden in her cave. Light is life itself, he says, but for him it is extinguished. Light they say is in the soul, but Samson wonders why at all God has confined the sight to such a fragile thing as the eye? Why didn't God spread the power of sight all over the body, like the sense of touch? If it were so, he would not have to bear this suffering and agony. Samson is an ignorant man who is not yet able to understand God's punishment and its justice. At the end, he will understand that God has taken the external light away from him so as to give him the light of the mind or soul. This unenlightened hero is to become a true and repenting Christian at the end of the verse drama.

Samson Agonistes is an allegorical poem in which Milton expresses his sentiments about his own going blind, and the implications of God's treatment of him. He finds the Biblical Samson a typical model to explore the issue of God's justice and man's duty and faith in the face of the troubles and tests of life. This is a dramatic poem modeled on Greek tragedy. There are parallels between Samson and Milton as both are blind; betrayed by their nations, failed in leading the chosen few, and therefore the poem has been taken as Milton's own story.

The original Samson is actually quite different from the swaggering folk hero of Israelite myths. And Milton further converted this hero into a repenting, ideal Christian. The original Samson was the defender of the chosen people of Israel against the many enemy kingdoms of the Philistines. At the request of the Philistine kings who were afraid of Samson, Delilah seduced Samson and learnt the secret of his great strength. He deceived her for three times and only took the occasions to destroy more Philistines when he was captivated; once he was taken bound with a 'burnt rope', the next time tied to a peg and so on! But Delilah persisted until he at last told her that his strength lay in his hair. Delilah caused him to fall asleep in her lap, called a barber who cut off the seven locks of his hair, and delivered him to the Philistines. They put out his eyes, bound him in brass fetters, and set him to slavish work and entertaining the people. Samson was put on display at Dagon's temple to celebrate the festival of their God, Dagon. He prayed to God for strength that he might avenge his blinding. His prayer was granted. Samson pushed over the two pillars that supported the temple, and Samson and 3000 Philistines were killed in the crash. The Biblical Samson is an egocentric, insensitive bully whose character and adventures are like those of a pagan sun-god.

But Milton's Samson is entirely different in many ways. The Biblical Samson is neither sensitive and moral, nor intelligent; but following some scholars who had interpreted his adventures as an anticipation of Christ's life, Milton makes his Samson eloquently introspective and gives him the conscience of a seventeenth century Puritan. Milton's play is, in form, a classical tragedy: the unities of time, place, and action are carefully observed; there is a chorus and a messenger, violent action takes place off stage, and we watch a hero enmeshed in the coils of fate. But, just as Milton conquered the epic form in Paradise Lost and the elegy in "Lycidas" he bends Aristotelian tragic principles to his own ends in Samson Agonistes. Samson's epiphany reveals the ways of God with a sinful man. The play is a brilliant weaving of the Hebraic story on a classical form for Christian purposes.

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Sharma, Kedar N. "Samson Agonistes by John Milton: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 26 Mar. 2018,

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