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Milton's Samson Agonistes: Summary & Analysis

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Instructor: Leslie McMurtry

Leslie holds a PhD in English and a M.A. in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University, as well as a B.A. in English and French from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. She has experience teaching at the University level, and has taught courses ranging from science fiction and gothic horror to script development. She has multiple academic and non-academic publications, and work experience as a fiction editor.

John Milton's blank verse poem Samson Agonistes is based on a biblical story. Explore a summary and analysis of Samson Agonistes, its background and characters, and discover why the poem is considered an example of how 17th-century writers were influenced by ancient Greek tragedies. Updated: 09/15/2021

Background on Milton and 'Samson Agonistes'

John Milton was one of the most important and influential British writers of the 17th century and wrote both prose and poetry. You may have heard of his most famous work, Paradise Lost, a book-length poem. 'Samson Agonistes' (1671) is also a long poem and, like Paradise Lost, illustrates biblical themes.

'Samson Agonistes' is a dramatic poem or a drama written in blank verse, meaning presented like a play with dialogue for several characters but is written in a poetic style. Blank verse uses meter but does not adhere to a strict rhyming structure. Milton was one of the early masters of this poetic form.

Drama of this time period was still heavily influenced by ancient Greek tragedies, such as Oedipus the King by Sophocles (429 BCE) and Hecuba by Euripides (424 BCE), and 'Samson Agonistes' is no exception. Milton's introduction gives a disclaimer--an old timey way of saying 'Spoiler alert!'--defending his choice of a tragedy, claiming that tragic verse best illustrates morality. Let's look at a summary of the 'Samson Agonistes,' then we'll explore some of the important themes of the work.

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  • 3:03 Analysis of Samson Agonistes
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Characters and Summary

The main characters are Samson, his father Manoa, and Samson's wife Dalila. There is also a chorus. A chorus is a Greek dramatic convention, which uses a group of people who are outside the main action to comment on it.

The biblical Samson is a man of superhuman strength whose Achilles' heel is actually his . . . hair. The drama takes place after Samson's wife Dalila has cut his hair, robbing him of his strength. He's imprisoned in Gaza, blinded by his enemies the Philistines. In this drama, Samson finds himself at his lowest point. He's been betrayed by his wife, thrown in prison, and blinded. The chorus, visiting him in prison, doesn't help matters, lamenting the strong man's self-pitying state.

Next, Samson's elderly father Manoa comes to prison and tells him that the Philistines are celebrating a feast day in commemoration of their defeat of Samson, which depresses him even more. Manoa has money for his son's ransom, but he can't seem to snap Samson out of his depression.

Next, Samson's wife Dalila visits him, weeping and apologizing for her betrayal. While Samson eventually forgives her, he wants nothing more to do with her.

Harapha of Gath, a giant, ridicules Samson in prison. Samson challenges him to combat, citing God as his strength, but Harapha balks. Samson derides him as a coward, and Harapha runs off.

The story's climax comes with off-stage violence. Samson goes off to show his feats of strength in the Philistines' festival. His father returns to the prison with the ransom money, and a messenger describes what has happened. Samson, led docilely to the Philistines' Temple, the main arena for the festival, pulls the building down around himself, killing his enemies and dying in the process.

Analysis of 'Samson Agonistes'

Although we're not sure when Milton began composing this poem, the parallels between Samson's blindness and Milton's blindness at the end of his life are striking. Samson's opening speech, in fact, mirrors the arguments of one of Milton's best-known sonnets, Sonnet XX, 'On His Blindness' (c. 1655). Samson asks why he should have been given to expect great things of his life when he has ended up blinded, betrayed, and imprisoned. Samson equates darkness, lack of light, with death, referencing 1:3 of Genesis, 'And God said, 'Let there be light.'

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