Samson Agonistes: A Chrisitan Tragedy?

To Milton, drama implied Greek tragedy, as against the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Restoration dramatists' forms. Milton wrote against the 'error of mixing comic stuff with tragic sadness and gravity'. Before Milton, Sir Philip Sidney, in his Defence of Poesie, discussed mixed genres with some ambivalence. Similarly, in Hamlet Shakespeare used the buffoon Polonius to parody such mixing (although Shakespeare himself frequently mixed tragedy and comedy).

Neither the structure nor style of Milton's works can be discussed without his central preoccupation with theological concerns. For example Greek or Latin epics, or even Aristotelian principles, are largely irrelevant to an examination of either Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained. For Samson Agonistes however, given Milton's profession of his concern to follow Aristotle's guidelines advocated in the Poetics and the examples of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, comparing the poem to the precepts of Greek tragedy is useful. Milton's tragedy is closest to Aeschylus, but also draws on Euripides (his favourite dramatist) and Sophocles. Samson Agonistes resembles Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound in its stark simplicity - that is, few characters, a simple plot, and concentration of the principal or central figure.

In his Poetics, Aristotle defined 'Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions... Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality - namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody.' This first part of this passage is that which Milton invoked at the beginning of the Preface to Samson Agonistes, a revelation of the poet's intentions to follow the precepts of Greek tragedy. In considering Milton's adherence to the rules of Greek tragedy.

In Greek tragedy, plot is the 'first principle' and the most important feature. Aristotle defined plot as 'the arrangement of the incidents', that is, not the story itself but the way the incidents are presented, the structure of the play. Aristotle maintained that tragedies where the outcome depends on a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain of actions are superior to those that depend primarily on the character and personality of the protagonist. Milton followed this in his composition of Samson Agonistes making Samson's spiritual regeneration the crux of the plot, itself progressive and dependent on the intercession of the other characters (and even the unseen 'character' of God) more so than on the hero himself. Each of the incidents, his confrontations with Manoa, Dalila, Harapha, the Philistian Officer, contribute to the ongoing process of Samson's spiritual recovery and eventual catharsis.

According to classical Greek rules for effective tragedy, the plot must be 'complete', having 'unity of action'. By this Aristotle means that the plot must be structurally self-contained, with the incidents bound together by internal necessity, each action leading inevitably to the next with no outside intervention, no deus ex machina. According to Aristotle, the worst kinds of plots are 'episodic,' in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence'; the only thing that ties together the events in such a plot is the fact that they happen to the same person. In Samson Agonistes, the hero's inner tribulations unify the plot and connect the sequence of events.

While the poet cannot change the myths that are the basis of his plots, he 'ought to show invention of his own and skilfully handle the traditional materials' to create unity of action in his plot. Milton certainly does this, bringing alterations to the Samson story found in the Biblical accounts.

For Aristotle, character has the second place of importance in tragedy. In a perfect tragedy, character will support plot - personal motivations will be intricately connected parts of the cause-and-effect chain of actions producing pity and fear in the audience. The protagonist should be renowned and prosperous, so his change of fortune can be from good to bad. Samson's was undeniably a well-known and influential story in Milton's times.

The form of Samson Agonistes and many of the tragedy's characteristics are Greek. The characters however are Hebraic, drawn from the Book of Judges XIII-XVI. For Samson Agonistes, Milton carefully

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