Samson Agonistes Summary

John Milton

Samson Agonistes

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Samson Agonistes Summary

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In the introduction to Samson Agonistes, John Milton explains that it is a dramatic poem written in the tragic style. He aims to offer a cathartic experience to the reader. Milton provides an overview of other writers of tragedies throughout history. He believes that by mixing comedy and tragedy together, others have made the latter insignificant; he intends to remedy that with Samson Agonistes. Though the poem was inspired in meter and structure by ancient Greek drama, Milton does not intend for his poem to be performed. He provides a summary of the plot of the poem in a section titled “The Argument.”

The poem begins with a soliloquy from Samson. He is imprisoned, but free from hard labor for the day because the Philistines, his captors, are celebrating a festival in honor of Dagon, one of the gods they worship. He laments how he was once a great warrior, and now has been reduced to a blind prisoner. Samson is upset that he shared the secret of his strength with Dalila, who betrayed him.

The Chorus speaks of how they cannot believe what has happened to Samson. The Chorus is comprised of Samson’s admirers and friends. He hears them and welcomes them as they move closer to him. He explains that before he met Dalila, he married a Philistine because God told him that an alliance with the Philistines would help him in his mission to defend the Israelites. Samson and the Chorus both agree that if the Israelites had sent troops to support him, they would have been freed.

Manoa, Samson’s father, arrives and is stunned to see his son in his current state. Samson explains to his father that it is his own fault for telling Dalila the secret to his strength. They talk about the festival to Dagon, which is even bigger this year; Samson says that is because the Philistines are also celebrating his defeat. Manoa is certain God will avenge Himself, and hopes that He will also forgive Samson so he can come home. Samson has no wish for a long life—he seeks only God’s forgiveness for being prideful,which allowed Dalila to cut his hair, thus stripping him of his strength. Manoa does not want Samson to stay in prison and hopes God will restore his sight, since he allowed Samson to get his strength back. Manoa plans to bribe an official to release Samson.

Dalila arrives and cries over Samson’s state. She apologizes and offers to help, but Samson, no longer trusting her, just asks her to leave. Dalila says they both did wrong, and Samson agrees, but when she says she felt pressured by the Philistines and Dagon, he dismisses her claims since he thinks her religious concerns are a pretense. She offers to take care of him, but he refuses. He will not let her even touch his hand. She tells him that the Philistines will praise her through the generations, and leaves. The Chorus talks with Samson about how a woman as beautiful as Dalila can be unfaithful.

Samson’s next visitor is Harapha of Gath. Harapha is a giant who wants to meet the warrior who might have been a worthy opponent in battle. Samson challenges Harapha to a fight. Harapha claims that Samson’s strength is sourced from magic, but Samson insists that it is from the Israelite’s God. He claims God is stronger than Dagon, and Harapha points out that God left Samson to his enemies. Harapha says he will not sink so low as to fight Samson, so Samson tells Harapha he is a coward. Harapha leaves, and the Chorus worries that he will cause trouble for Samson by going to the governors. A public officer arrives to bring Samson to the festival, to prove Dagon’s greatness, but Samson refuses, saying it would be against the rules of the Hebrew Bible. The officer leaves, and the Chorus predicts a visit from another messenger. When the second officer arrives, Samson agrees to go.

Manoa arrives to tell the Chorus that he has paid a ransom for Samson and hopes it will earn his release. Shouts are heard from the city, where the festival is taking place. The Chorus is certain that Samson is exacting some horrible revenge on the Philistines, and wonders if God has restored his vision. Another messenger appears and says, though Gaza still stands, Samson has killed many of the Philistines. He pulled down the temple on them—and himself. Samson has died. Only the peasants survive, because they were not standing under the roof. The Chorus praises Samson’s vengeance and says the Philistines brought their own destruction because they were intoxicated by both wine and idolatry. They were blind on the inside, the Chorus adds, while Samson’s inner sight was virtuous.

Manoa promises to hold a funeral for Samson to honor his bravery. The Chorus concludes that humans do not always know God’s plans, but they may be consoled by God’s victory.