Table of contents
II. Summary of Samson Agonistes
III. Religious aspects in Samson Agonistes
3.1 Milton's religious faith
3.2 Samson Agonistes, a (religious) drama?
3.3 Samson Agonistes as a religious play
3.3.1 Samson as a religious figure
3.3.2 Religious interpretation of Samson Agonistes with examples of the text
IV. Political aspects in Samson Agonistes by John Milton
4.1 Political background
4.1.1 Milton and the Regicides
4.2 Milton's political attitude
4.3 Samson Agonistes as a political drama
4.3.1 Samson as a political figure
4.3.2 Political interpretation of "Samson Agonistes" with examples of the text
V. The problem of drawing autobiographical parallels between Milton and Samson
Milton is one of the greatest poets of the English language. His career as a poet was marked by private tragedies and public controversies. Samson Agonistes is a piece of work, which was composed by Milton not as a pure didactic exercise but also as extended personal meditation. It seems to be one of his attempts to justify the ways of God to himself and thereby establish a vision of Christian heroism that answers the fears and misgivings of his own heart and mind. Samson Agonistes also shows Milton's struggle with politics after the defeat of the Good Old Cause in which he supported strongly. The events and emotions surrounding his composition Samson Agonistes had a great influence on this work.
Nobody knows exactly when Samson Agonistes was written but it is assumed that it was in a time where his own resurrection and salvation had begun and that he had taken Samson as a role model less numinous than Christ to express his inner feelings. Samson Agonistes is therefor more interesting as a religious, political and autobiographical play than as the classical, Greek tragedy or as the Christian comedy, as so many people have judged it.
In this term paper I will work out how much politics and religion have influenced Samson Agonistes and whether there are bibliographical correspondences between Milton and Samson.
II. Summary of Samson Agonistes
Samson Agonistes is based on Judges 13-16 but Milton limits the biblical Samson story on the final episode in Samson's life.
Though the drama is actually undivided it unfolds in five sections.
The first episode shows Samson alone with the chorus of Hebrews (l.1-325).
The blinded Samson has a holiday from the slave labour in the Gaza because this day celebrates Dagon, the fish God of the Philistine, Samson's captors. The chorus and Samson bitterly compare his former career as a hero and dedicated servant of God with his present misery as a captive and the downfall of his folk. Samson differentiates between his own sins and the sins of Israel's rulers which are by no matter for him the real reason for the suffering of God's chosen people. At the end of this scene the chorus earnestly debates God's justice.
In the second scene Samson and his father Manoa meet. (l.326-709)
Manoa hurts further with his "I told you" attitude towards Samson. Manoa is entirely too optimistic and bustles off to offer ransom. Samson passionately vents his sense of hopelessness and the chorus ponders the baffling ways of God.
The third scene is the encounter between Samson and his wife Dalila. (l.710-1009)
Dalila begs her husband for forgiveness because she is just a weak woman. He should instead blame himself for yielding for femininity. She only gave away his secret for love and because she thought that the Philistines would not capture him, only diminish his strength. Also she offers to mother him as he is blinded. Samson has a point of recognition and takes the blame on himself but nevertheless orders her off. Hers is not Samson's concept of marriage as sex bondage. Samson's savage dismissal demonstrates his fear of yielding if they establish physical contact.
The fourth episode (l.1061-1440) is the turn of the drama. Samson is confronted with Harapha, a giant Philistine, and a public officer.
Harapha is a bluster and bravado man. He is laughing about the great man's downfall. A pretended motion by Samson chases Harapha off. When the Philistine officer first summons Samson to give an exhibition of strength for the amusement of the celebrants of Dagon, Samson first refuses, but then, feeling a surge of superhuman strength and divine, agrees.
The last episode takes place at the feast (l.1441-1758)
Manoa hastens to Samson to tell him of his success in ransoming Samson. Cries from the temple of Dagon are followed by a messenger, who relates the off stage violence. Samson pulled down the pillars supporting the structure and involved in his own death all the chief Philistines. Manoa and the chorus realize the fitting heroic end, willed by God.
III. Religious Aspects in Samson Agonistes
3.1 Milton's religious faith
In his whole life Milton was shaped by religion. In his early years he had a close relation to religion. His life seemed to be settled as member of the Established Church. As he grew older he did not want to be classified in terms of party. He began to change his mind often in matters of Church, from relative orthodoxy to more heretical opinions in his later life. Nevertheless he was still fascinated by Christianity but he began to build up his own idea of religion and church. Frequently Milton was disillusioned by the Church of England. From his Puritan viewpoint he believed that history progressively reveals God's providence to men prefiguring the future. He held the believe that the average Englishman is a worthy part of an elect nation with whom God is allied and that this Englishmen will reform the Church. The reward of God will then be their social and political stability until the millennium, when Christ will reign on earth. Therefor a clear distinction between religion and politics cannot be made, because the religious faith of the nation is decisive for political security.
His believe of God differentiated him from others. He always thought that God created all beings with both reason and innate freedom of choice. God's decision to create men with reason and free will was made in the knowledge that some would abuse their freedom. His faith of God is formed by the belief that all events take place as God foresees but not because he prophesies it. But he never had the viewpoint that God damns unbelievers, reprobate them or hardens their hearts. Unbelievers damn, reprobate and harden themselves.
To summarize, Milton held the belief that man must form a personal theology consisting of correct ideas about God:
" It is the safest for us to form an image of God on our minds which corresponds to his representation and description of himself in the sacred writings. Admittedly, God is always described or outlined not as he really is but in such a way as will make him conceivable to us. Nevertheless, we ought to form just such a mental image of him as he, in bringing himself within the limits of our understanding, wishes us to form. Indeed he has brought himself down to our level expressly to prevent our being carried beyond the reach of human comprehension, and outside the written authority of scripture into vague subtleties of speculation."
3.2. Samson Agonistes, a (religious) drama?
Milton ,in his prefatory note to Samson Agonistes, made clear that this play is a tragedy but he did not exactly say that it is as well a religious drama. By religious drama one would understand a kind of drama which takes religious experience for its main theme. A play in which a man of saintly life and experience plays an incidental part, without his sainthood affecting the lives or actions of other characters, would not be a religious drama in the main sense. Milton has shaped a new kind of drama. He is presenting religious experience in one or other essential phases. The play does not offer in equal degree the characteristic concentration and immediacy of the (religious) drama but he does not forget the essentials of dramatic mood and form. The extraordinary aspect in Samson Agonistes is that the contest takes place entirely in the depth of Samson’s soul. The inward conflict is revealed in the speeches, and the function of event is to occasion that progress of the mind which constitutes the real action of the play. The action of this play is a psychological contest, except at the end of the play, when the two worlds of event and thought fall together in what is technically the catastrophe. Here, Samson’s thoughts are translated into the act which destroys the Philistines. Samson Agonistes is a play whose action consists not only in a mental progress, but in a progress of a particular kind, drawn from material that is normally compatible with drama only within narrow limits yet here shaped into dramatic form. Instead of the typical action of a drama, Milton emphasises moods, phases and states of mind. All in all one can say that, although the drama has not an action in the common sense, the moods and states of mind can be seen as the action. Also, there is an psychological beginning, middle and end. All this is achieved within the narrow limits left to drama when it embodies religious experience and to religious experience when it takes on dramatic form.
 Mary Ann Radzinowicz: Toward Samson Agonistes p.268