The Composition and Publication of Samson Agonistes
Samson Agonistes is traditionally considered Milton's final work on both thematic and stylistic grounds, and it is customary to assign the years 1667 to1670 to its composition. John Shawcross recently made a convincing case for some composition at various junctures before then, going back to the 1640s.
Samson’s life is given in Judges XIII–XVI. As was the case with Paradise Lost, the idea of using it as material for a tragedy occurs in a document known as The Cambridge Manuscript, which dates from after Milton's return from Italy in 1639; the topics include Samson's marriages, his pride, and his triumphs as God's champion. Milton also made mention of Samson in his treatise The Reason of Church Government (1642), and there is an allusion to Samson in his Areopagitica (1644).
Samson Agonistes was published once in Milton's lifetime, in 1671, in the same volume as Paradise Regain'd.
The Literary Background of Samson Agonistes
Milton intended Samson Agonistes as a drama in the manner of Ancient Greek tragedy according to the principles expounded by Aristotle in the Poetics — i.e., unities of time, place, and action — meaning that he limited the action to the final day of Samson's life, had it occur in one place with a messenger arriving to report the tragic denouement at the Philistine temple, and made use of a Chorus as a commentator on the action. Other elements great and small also contribute to the Ancient Greek flavor of this work. For instance, Samson's tragic error, and in the end that of the Philistines, is attributed to overweening pride or hybris. Milton occasionally employed Greek dramatic strategies like stychomythia (an exchange of single lines between characters) and a riddling question-and-answer dialogue, and in the manner of Sophocles in particular, he made constant use of irony.
One should therefore not look for a lot of action in Samson Agonistes but rather consider it as a series of encounters: between Samson and the Chorus of Danites, his fellow countrymen; Manoa, his father; Dalila, his estranged Philistine wife; Harapha, a Philistine champion on the order of Goliath; and finally (offstage as reported by the Messenger) the Philistine citizenry. In the end, Samson Agonistes is indeed a tragedy according to Ancient Greek principles — except that its protagonist Samson has been baptized by Milton's Protestantism and humanized by his Renaissance outlook. Many, though not all Milton scholars, would go on to agree with Una Ellis-Fermor that Samson Agonistes is a drama of inward struggle giving us a "steady psychological progression from despair through heroic conflict upwards to exaltation and the final assumption into beatitude."
A Note on the Verse
The predominant verse form of Samson Agonistes is blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter). Like the English dramatic blank verse of the preceding century, it tends toward plain statement and end-stopping. One easily recognizable feature of Milton's blank verse in this work is an extra unstressed syllable at the end of a line, which was commonly to be found in Shakespeare's plays (e.g., "To be, or not to be, that is the question").
Here and there, beginning with line 84 in Samson's first speech ("Without all hope of day"), one finds short lines ranging in length from 6 to 9 syllables, constituting inset odes. As of lines 160 to 161 ("Shut up from outward light / To incorporate with gloomy light"), rhymes begin occurring in the speeches of Samson, Manoa, Dalila, and the Chorus, these often in couplets, with the couplets often consisting of a short line (6–9 syllables) and a long line (10 or more syllables). On lines 1010 to 1017, there is something resembling Skeltonics, with six consecutive rhymes on "it" that are separated or broken up, if you will, by the end-rhyming of "say" and "day" on lines 1013 and 1016. In the final Semichorus (lines 1687–1707), there is an intricate weaving of cross-rhymes that ends with a couplet, all of this with lines of varying length, and in the final speech of the Chorus (lines 1745–1758), Milton presented his readers with a sonnet, with lines of varying length, whose first section is English or Shakespearean (consisting of two cross-rhymed quatrains: abab, cdcd), and second section Italian or Petrarchan (consisting of a sestet of cross-rhymes: efefef). Scholar Robert Beum noted that the rhymes seem to occur "in places of importance, in areas of increasing tension, in major and minor climaxes" — in other words, Milton used rhyme as we would italics.
Regarding the tragic background and the verse of Samson Agonistes, let Milton in his preface to the first edition have the last word:
OF THAT SORT OF DRAMATIC POEM WHICH IS CALL'D TRAGEDY
Tragedy, as it was anciently compos'd, hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other Poems: therefore said by Aristotle to be of power by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions, that is to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight, stirr'd up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated. Nor is Nature wanting in her own effects to make good his assertion: for so in Physic things of melancholic hue and quality are us'd against melancholy, sour against sour, salt to remove salt humors. Hence Philosophers and other gravest Writers, as Cicero, Plutarch and others, frequently cite out of Tragic Poets, both to adorn and illustrate thir discourse. The Apostle Paul himself thought it not unworthy to insert a verse of Euripides into the Text of Holy Scripture, I Cor. XV, 33, and Paraeus, commenting on the Revelation, divides the whole Book as a Tragedy, into Acts distinguisht each by a Chorus of Heavenly Harpings and Song between. Heretofore Men in highest dignity have labor'd not a little to be thought able to compose a Tragedy. Of that honor Dionysus the elder was no less ambitious than before of his attaining to the Tyranny. Augustus Caesar also had begun his Ajax but unable to please his own judgment with what he had begun, left it unfinisht. Seneca the Philosopher is by some thought the Author of those Tragedies (at least the best of them) that go under that name. Gregory Nazianzen, a Father of the Church, thought it not unbeseeming the sanctity of his person to write a Tragedy, which he entitl'd Christ Suffering. This is mention'd to vindicate Tragedy from the small esteem, or rather infamy, which in the account of many it undergoes at this day with other common Interludes; happ'ning through the Poet's error of intermixing Comic stuff with Tragic sadness and gravity; or introducing trivial and vulgar persons, which by all judicious hath been counted absurd; and brought in without discretion, corruptly to gratify the people. And though ancient Tragedy use no Prologue, yet using sometimes, in case of self defense, or explanation, that which Martial calls an Epistle; in behalf of this Tragedy coming forth after the ancient manner, much different from what among us passes for best, thus much beforehand may be Epistl'd; that Chorus is here introduc'd after the Greek manner, not ancient only but modern, and still in use among the Italians. In the modeling therefore of this Poem, with good reason, the Ancients and Italians are rather follow'd, as of much more authority and fame. The measure of Verse us'd in the Chorus is of all sorts, call'd by the Greeks Monostrophic, or rather Apolelymenon, without regard had to Strophe, Antistrophe or Epode, which were a kind of Stanzas fram'd only for the Music, then us'd with the Chorus that sung; not essential to the Poem, and therefore not material; or being divided into Stanzas or Pauses, they may be call'd Allaeostropha. Division into Act and Scene referring chiefly to the Stage (to which this work never was intended) is here omitted; it suffices if the whole Drama be found not produc't beyond the fifth Act. Of the style and uniformity, and that commonly call'd the Plot, whether intricate or explicit, which is nothing indeed but such economy, or disposition of the fable as may stand best with verisimilitude and decorum; they only will best judge who are not unacquainted with Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the three Tragic Poets unequall'd yet by any, and the best rule to all who endeavor to write Tragedy. The circumscription of time wherein the whole Drama begins and ends, is according to ancient rule, and best example, within the space of 24 hours.
Previous Performances of Samson Agonistes
Georg Friedrich Handel subsequently used Milton’s text as a basis for his opera Samson (1742); the libretto, by Newburgh Hamilton, borrows considerably from the text of Samson Agonistes, but the work, down to the conceptions of the characters, is clearly quite different. We know of only two productions of Samson Agonistes in modern times. The first was given in 1938 at the Maddermarket Theater in London by the Norwich Players under the directorship of Nugent Monk; while the work was fully staged, the text was cut considerably. The second, billed as a readers' theater performance, occurred at Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY, in May 1979 as part of a forum on religion and literature. This version excluded two hundred-odd lines and featured four professional actors and three speech instructors, with one of each doubling a part. All seven, wearing white on top and black on bottom and lighted by theatrical lighting, appeared before reading stands with standlights.
This Performance of Samson Agonistes
The Lark Ascending performed this work twice at the German Evangelical-Lutheran Church of St Paul’s, once at the Fordham University Law School in 2003, and once in 2004 at the CUNY Graduate Center as part of the Renaissance Society of America convention. There was a major cast change for the final two performances, Maurice Edwards replacing Russell Oberlin as the Chorus and George McGrath replacing Jason Bauer as the Messenger. We are offering you all the last performance.