For the characterisation in Samson Agonistes Milton places the greatest emphasis on Samson. The title of the tragedy leads the reader to expect this. Milton is from the outset concerned to explore the arduous spiritual inner struggle that Samson has to overcome to strengthen his faith in God and realise his vocation so familiar to contemporary Protestants.
The most notable point about Milton's characterisation in Samson Agonistes is its Hebraism. Milton has paid close attention to the precepts of ancient Greek tragedy in the structure of his play, but his characters are drawn from the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Judges. Samson, Manoa and Dalila are taken from Judges.
The Chorus and the Messenger were important elements for the compositional harmony of the Greek tragedy, but Milton makes them Hebraic. The Chorus is comprised of Danites, the tribe and district of Dan to which Samson and Manoa belonged (Judges 13:2). Milton appears to have invented the Philistian character Harapha for the temptation of Samson in the Gaza prison-house. The deployment of the Messenger in the fifth act was an established classical tradition in tragedy. Traditionally the role of the messenger was to reveal to the other characters and the audience the fate of the hero off-stage.
Critics have long attempted to understand Milton's characterisation of Samson. It is apparent that Milton made some notable alterations to the Samson story of the Old Testament, but also that the poet inherited a tradition that had elevated Samson's deeds in pursuit of his calling above other aspects of his life.
Why Milton made or accepted Samson as a tragic hero is rooted in the early modern Samson tradition. By the seventeenth century the earlier feats of the Danite hero had commonly been subordinated to attention surrounding the latter part of his life. Hence attention focused on Samson the blind prisoner, servant of Jehovah and bane of the Philistines, deliverer of his people.
Some of Milton's contemporaries had written of the tragic features of the latter part of Samson's life. Furthermore the conception of the nature of Samson's tragedy had changed by Milton's time, no longer the medieval and Renaissance conception - i.e. only caused by the treachery of Dalila - it had more become a tragedy or failure of calling. Samson's fall and misery in the prison at Gaza became internalised, the physical aspects of his fall subordinated to the spiritual - his innermost despair and anguish, and his blindness (which during the seventeenth century was thought of as spiritually symbolic). One contemporary spoke of Samson 'sitting in the irksome prison in paine of body, but greater of mind'.
Hence it has been noted by critics that even before the earliest possible date Milton could have composed the tragedy, there had already developed an extensive Samson literary tradition. There are records of non-dramatic tragedies and were a number of tragic dramas written in Latin and vernacular languages during the Renaissance. That is not to say that these works directly influenced Milton's tragedy; rather it exemplifies that by the poet's time Samson had been treated as a tragic hero.
However, there is little in the pre-Miltonic literary treatments of the Samson story to support or parallel the spiritual and psychological complexity of Milton's Samson. In Judges 13-16 he is presented as no more than a boisterous Israelite shôphet of vast and primitive energy. Although Josephus attempted to ennoble this Hebrew ruffian to make him more acceptable to Roman readers, the Samson of the Jewish Antiquities remained a hero of strength, a hero of action. In the medieval analogues of Chaucer, Lydgate and Gower, and also in the anonymous fourteenth-century Cursor Mundi, Samson continued to be remarkable for his physical strength rather than his strength of mind. It was not until the Renaissance, with Marcus Andreas Wunstius's Simson, Tragoedia Sacra and Joost van den Vondel's dramatisation of the subject in Samson, of Heilige Wraeck, Treurspel that a conscious attempt to depict the spiritual growth of the protagonist emerged; yet neither Wunstius nor Vondel can be said to explore in any depth the dramatic potential inherent in Samson's inner development in anything close to the same way as Milton does.
Milton subordinated Samson's earlier exploits at the expense of an emphasis on his later deeds. It is apparent that Milton wanted to present his readers with a mature and tragic Samson. There is no mention of the episode with the foxes; and only fleeting reference to Samson's riddle (ll.1016-17; 1064). Many
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