critics have felt that Milton selected from the Book of Judges only those features of the hero that would ennoble him and render him a fit subject for tragedy. However, this has been doubted more recently - as the emphasis Milton puts on the later Samson is entirely in accord with the Samson tradition that had developed.
Milton is interested in the spiritual struggle that Samson undergoes during the course of the tragedy. The poet, himself of strong 'puritan' confessional persuasion, was interested in the relationship of God and man, coming to terms with God's ways, and fulfilling one's calling or vocation. Samson's life illustrates that even the most godly of men cannot expect divine intervention to resolve matters between humans, even if the issues concerned are directly related to divine will. God has provided sufficient revelation of his will, and man must suffice with this. This is a poignant message for Milton's own times: after the failure of the republican experiment and the godly reformation by 1660, many puritans were disillusioned about the fate of the 'good old cause' and its political and religious values under a restored Stuart monarchy. Milton strongly believed in martyrdom, not of the kind that Samson chooses, but that of Christ. Cromwell had illustrated the futility of trying to impose political and religious arrangements intended to preserve the liberty of the people if the people were not receptive to them. That was, Milton concludes in the Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Commonwealth, the heart of the problem behind the failure of the Parliamentary cause to create a firm foundation of its power and principles during the 1650s.
The Samson story illustrates the struggle to come to terms with God's ways and with the fate of God's chosen people. Many of Milton's contemporaries were undergoing the same 'agon' as Samson during the late 1650s and 1660s. There is a belief among more recent critics that Milton's poetical works of the 1660s and 1670s can be taken together and interpreted to divulge ideas the poet had with regard to the political and religious environment under Charles II. This places Samson in the context of Milton's other major 'characters', Adam and Christ.
Milton's version of the Samson story makes for a Christian tragedy in the eyes of many critics. The work adheres to the rules of Greek tragedy, with Hebraic elements (particularly characterisation), but has a Christian message.
Milton's characterisation of Dalila in Samson Agonistes is one of the poet's finest literary creations. Critics have differed in their interpretations of Dalila; many have found much in the poet's characterisation of Dalila in support of the view of Milton's misogyny.
Dalila is by no means a 'lady': she is an enemy of virtue, a 'viper', a 'serpent', the wife who betrayed the secret of Samson's God-given strength to the enemies of His chosen people. Dalila is the principal cause of the 'agonistes' that Samson manages to overcome during the course of the tragedy. Samson himself labels her 'That specious monster, my accomplished snare' (l.230). The most resounding denunciation of Dalila comes from the Chorus: 'wisest men | Have erred, and by bad women been deceived; | And shall again' (ll.210-12). Milton's contemporaries would have been able to rouse a host of 'wicked' women whose deceit and betrayal had brought the downfall of good men. The context of this was always sexual; women such as Dalila, Eve, Helen of Troy, Salome and Jezebel, were usually given the vast and powerful sensuality and erotic appetite. The Chorus asks:
'Is it for that such outward ornament
It is the great betrayal of the wife's foremost marital duty, loyalty to the husband, that the Chorus so vehemently denounces in Dalila.
'Seeming at first all heavenly under virgin veil,
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