Samson Agonistes Questions

John Milton’s Drama Samson Agonistes (1671)


1. In Samson Agonistes 1-114 (“A little onward lend thy guiding hand …”), what is the main character’s situation and apparent state of mind when we first meet him? What complexities can you find in that mindset, beyond the fact that he is obviously remorseful and miserable? How has he come to view his past career as defender of the Danites (and of the Israelites generally) against the Philistines? What does he lament most, and why?

2. In Samson Agonistes 115-75 (“This, this is he; softly a while …”), we hear from the Chorus of Samson’s Danite kinspeople. How do they construe what Samson has meant to them, and how do they look upon his fall and his current plight? Finally, how do they draw out the strong horror with regard to blindness that both Samson and they have expressed?

3. In Samson Agonistes 176-86 (“I hear the sound of words …”), Samson and the Chorus first speak directly, and the ruined hero is appreciative to find so much good will where he had not expected it. Then, from lines 187-236 (“Your coming, Friends, revives me …”), they begin their conversation in earnest. How does Samson represent his mistakes and his fall to the Chorus, in particular his notions about the proper relationship between wisdom and physical prowess? Why do the Chorus members find it necessary to caution him about his remarks, and how, in turn, does he further explain his own understanding of the error he has committed and who is to blame for it? Who (if either) seems to be wiser about the whole affair at this point: Samson, or the Danite kinsmen who make up the Chorus? Explain.

4. In Samson Agonistes 237-329 (“In seeking just occasion to provoke …”), the exchange between Samson and the Chorus continues, and it quickly becomes a discussion about the recent behavior and current status of the tribes of Israel. How, then, does Samson situate his own career with regard to that embattled group? How do the Chorus members field the issue of Samson’s supposed sins against his own people by marrying gentile (non-Jewish) women? What is Samson’s relationship to God’s Laws, as they see the matter?

5. In Samson Agonistes 340-471 (“O miserable change! is this the man …”), Samson and Manoa begin an extensive dialogue. In this section of it, they discuss the issue of responsibility for what has gone wrong as well as the religious consequences of Samson’s mistake. What are their respective views about these things? Moreover, what do you consider the best way to characterize the method or psychological process underlying the exchange between Manoa and Samson? In responding to this latter question, it might help to reflect that in a Greek tragedy (rightly understood, Aristotle’s claim about plot and action being the lifeblood of any tragedy does not contradict this point), much of the play centers on dialogic exchanges in which key characters “take up an attitude” towards some previous event.

6. In Samson Agonistes 472-651 (“With cause this hope relieves thee …”), Manoa and Samson have a long back-and-forth regarding whether it’s worth trying to ransom the fallen hero from his Philistine captors, and whether it’s right for Samson simply to wish for a speedy end to his sufferings. Choose part of this stretch of text (not necessarily all of it) that you find most interesting and discuss the following: what causes for near-despair does Samson advance, and how does Manoa try to break them down and replace them with more helpful thoughts? On the basis of what Manoa says, how might we characterize the approach he is promoting in the face of Samson’s disaster? How successful does he seem to be as a counselor to his son at this point?

7. In Samson Agonistes 652-724 (“Many are the sayings of the wise …”), the Danite Chorus members voice at some length how they perceive Samson’s plight and the general relationship it suggests between God and mankind. What view emerges from the Chorus at this point? Does it seem consistent with what they have been saying up to now? In terms of the text’s dialogic structure and progress, what role does this collective utterance play? Finally, if you have some experience with classical Greek drama, how is this reflection on the Chorus’ part similar to the reflections we sometimes hear in Greek tragic plays?

8. In Samson Agonistes 732-996 (“With doubtful feet and wavering resolution …”), Dalila approaches Samson and tries to get him to forgive her and agree to let her take care of him now that she has betrayed him to the Philistines. The argument between them goes through a number of interesting phases, so choose one or two of them and explain what’s going on in the argument. Does Dalila’s blunt disregard for Samson after she has failed to convince him surprise you? Why or why not? All in all, how has this long conversation between Samson and Dalila moved the action forward or helped Samson to achieve any insight, if indeed it has?

9. In Samson Agonistes 997-1075 (“She’s gone, a manifest Serpent by her sting …”), the Danite Chorus members speak at length about their views on women. What conjectures do the Chorus members make to explain women’s nature? Does the lesson they draw about marriage and the dominion of men seem appropriate to the text’s action? How should we assess the value of the Chorus in making such statements as it does here?

10. In Samson Agonistes1076-1243 (“I come not, Samson, to condole thy chance …”), Samson’s next antagonist appears in the form of the mighty Harapha, reputed father of Goliath. What is Harapha’s purpose in coming to see Samson? What is the nature of the quarrel that shapes up between them, and how, if we consider the interest of the text as consisting partly in our ability to follow the modulations in Samson’s attitude towards his predicament, might this episode with Harapha be analyzed on such grounds? What seems to be his state of mind or spirit at this point?

11. In Samson Agonistes 1247-67 (“I dread him not, nor all his Giant-brood …”), Samson speaks fearlessly with the Chorus about his dim prospects, and from 1268-1307 (“Oh how comely it is and how reviving …”), the Chorus members suggest that perhaps “patience” (1287) is now Samson’s task or lot in life. Does this suggestion on their part seem plausible? That is, does it seem to be in keeping with Samson’s career as it has been delineated so far in Milton’s text and in the Biblical book Judges 13-16? Explain.

12. In Samson Agonistes 1308-90 (“Ebrews, the Pris’ner Samson here I seek….”), a public officer arrives and says the Philistines have ordered Samson to appear at the festival for Dagon and perform for the lords and common people. How does Samson initially respond to this demand? Once the officer leaves, what advice does the Chorus offer Samson: what do they think he should do, and how does he in turn articulate his point of view on the matter?

13. In Samson Agonistes 1391-1444 (“Samson, this second message from our Lords …”), the public officer returns and is pleasantly surprised when Samson agrees to go along with the Philistines’ demand. How much does Samson seem to intuit about his coming actions at this point? How does he prepare his fellow Danites (the Chorus members who surround him) for whatever is to happen soon? Why do they in turn rejoice at the decision he has made, one that just moments ago they counseled him against?

14. In Samson Agonistes 1445-1507 (“Peace with you brethren …”), Manoa explains his hopes for Samson. How does he see the remainder of his son’s days? What would be the basis for such a perspective? While Manoa’s views are fatherly and therefore quite understandable, why (if one considers the idea of Samson as a prefiguration or type of Christ) would they also present difficulties in terms of Christian theology?

15. In Samson Agonistes 1508-1659 (“I know your friendly minds and — O what noise! …”), Manoa, the Chorus and we readers are informed about the strange event that has just taken place at Dagon’s festival. From lines 1660-1758 (“O dearly bought revenge, yet glorious! …”), how do Manoa and then the Chorus members react to the news that Samson has brought down the house (or rather theater) on the Philistines and himself? How does Samson’s significant, symbolically charged “narrative afterlife” (i.e. the stories to be told about him after his death) begin to take shape from the moment of his passing? Finally, the Chorus members say that the text’s dramatic final event has allowed the faithful to experience “calm of mind, all passion spent” (1758). That phrase should remind us of Aristotle’s well-respected theory of tragedy in The Poetics: how so? Moreover, how does the phrase help to round off the text itself in thematic terms?

Edition: Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. Hackett: 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0872206786.

Copyright © 2013 Alfred J. Drake. All rights reserved.