followed scripture, as he had done with Paradise Lost. The poet did however elaborate and develop certain features in order to heighten the poignancy of the tragedy. For example in the Bible, Dalila is Samson's mistress rather than, as Milton makes her, his wife. But most notably Milton's characterisation of Samson is very different from that of the Bible.
The change, Aristotle noted, 'should come about as the result, not of vice, but of some great error or frailty in a character.' Samson's fall from grace, to which we are introduced at the beginning of the tragedy, was indeed the result of his own weaknesses - his three-fold sins of pride, doubt and presumption.
In the ideal tragedy, the protagonist will mistakenly bring about his own downfall - not because he is sinful or morally weak, but because he lacks wisdom. One of the preconditions for Samson's spiritual regeneration is that he be educated in the error of his pride, presumptuousness and doubt in God. Though Samson's lack of wisdom (which he laments in his early soliloquy) relative to his strength has led the hero to err from God's will, his education, or anagnorisis, allows for redemption.
Indeed Samson does undergo what Aristotle calls 'a change from ignorance to knowledge' during his confrontations. At the end of the tragedy, in the final 'scene of suffering', Samson dies in the ruins of the temple of Dagon with the Philistian lords, however rather than the 'downfall' or catastrophe of Greek tragedy, Samson's fate by virtue of his 'great act' is that of heroic martyrdom in pursuit of his vocation.
By applying the presages of Greek tragedy to a Biblical story of spiritual regeneration and the realisation of vocation, Milton has inversed the rules that govern tragic plot. We encounter the fallen Samson in the prison-house at Gaza, blind, enslaved, immersed in self-pity, doubting both God and his own vocation. During the course of the tragedy, we witness the hero's gradual spiritual regeneration and reconciliation with God's grace. The tragedy concludes with the spiritually regenerated Samson dead, but having answered his calling and realised his vocation. Thus Samson's change of fortune is from bad to good (rather than the usual good to bad); he returns to God's favour and at the end of the tragedy answers divine charge to go to the temple of Dagon to fulfil his vocation as God's champion and Israel's deliverer. Milton followed the convention of tragedy in the final act: Samson's 'great act' at the temple of Dagon is made known only through the dialogue of the Messenger and reports of distal noise from the temple.
Aristotle argues that the Chorus should be fully integrated into the play like an actor; choral odes should not be 'mere interludes' but should contribute to the unity of the plot. Milton deployed the Chorus in Samson Agonistes as an integral part of the development of the plot.
Critics have debated whether a Christian could write tragedy as the essence of the genre is nullified by belief in either a providential God or the prospect of eternal reward for the protagonist. Milton himself had no such reservation about these inconsistencies; he had asked in his Commonplace Book on Lactantius' hostility to drama.
For what in all philosophy is more important or more exalted than a tragedy rightly produced, what more useful for seeing at a single view the events and changes of human life?
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