English 317 Milton Samson Agonistes Outline, CSU Fullerton Spring 2013



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Assigned: Samson Agonistes (549-93 Hughes ed.).


Of Interest: Soul Theory 1 | Soul Theory 2 | Great Chain of Being | Typology | Allegory | Classical Rhetoric | Arguments


001-114. Samson asks others for guidance as he makes his way towards a resting place on this day of celebration for the Philistines' god Dagon. His mind, however, gives him no rest. Why, he wonders in his blindness and captivity, did portents of greatness accompany his birth if his life was only to come to this, a would-be deliverer of Israel now reduced to being "Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves" (41)? But he does not mean to impugn Providence: it's all his own fault for blurting out to Dalilah the secret of his strength. More vexing even than captivity, he laments, is the loss of his eyesight, for that loss makes him less able to fend for himself than even the meanest slave around him, and more apt than ever to feel that his body is no more than the tomb of his soul. He mourns at length the loss of this gift of spiritualized light that God created first. Who comes now to view his distress? he asks, fully expecting that their intentions are only to gape and mock.

115-175. The Chorus members express their sad surprise at the transformation they behold in once mighty Samson. They are his kinsmen Danites, we can tell, because they don't mock the man but rather run through his glorious past as a warrior (as told in Judges 13-16) and then lament his blindness and captivity.

176-177. Samson says that he hears the Chorus' words, but can't distinguish the meaning.

178-186. The Danite Chorus members tell Samson that they mean to offer him "Counsel or Consolation" (183) as best they can.

187-209. Samson is touched by the good will of visitors from whom he had not expected the like. Samson says that for the moment, he is almost glad to be blind since at least he need not avert his gaze from them for shame. He again laments that he has been found wanting in the wisdom that should have been paired with his superhuman strength.

210-218. The Chorus members take Samson's utterance as a reproach against God, and they caution him not to "Tax … divine disposal" (210). They remind him that even wise men have gone astray thanks to seductive women, though they can't help asking why he successively married two Philistine women rather than females of his own Danite tribe. (The Bible doesn't say that Dalila was a Philistine or even that Samson actually married her, but that's the way Milton casts the story. See the Milton Reading Room's line 216 note on this matter.)

219-236. Samson tells his listeners that his first marriage to the woman of Timna wasn't simply due to lust but was rather prompted by God. But the marriage to Dalila, he admits, was a mistake; he admits as well that his current suffering is much more his own fault than Dalila's.

237-240. The Danite Chorus say that they don't blame Samson for wanting to harm the Philistines; however, they point out that Israel still serves foreign masters.

241-276. Samson responds that the latter misfortune (Israel's servitude) isn't something for which he can properly take the blame. Israel's governors, he points out, failed to take advantage of the great works God had done through him, until the men of Judah pursued him and ended up trying to betray him to the Philistines. Had they only taken up arms and been strong, says Samson, they would not still be under the Philistine yoke: a deliverer had been sent to them, and they despised him.

277-289. The Chorus members recall other examples of such conduct: two cities that refused to help Gideon go after the defeated Midian kings (Judges 8), and the men of Ephraim who refused to help Jeptha against the Ammonites (Judges 11-12).

290-292. Samson tells the Chorus they can add him to their list of examples; it is a heavy thing to ignore God's offer of deliverance.

293-329. The Chorus insists that God's ways are just, and only an atheist would doubt such a statement, they suggest. Still, many believers can't bring themselves to accept that God is indeed just, and they end up trapped in mazes of "perplexities" (304). God's laws, they say, are for sinful mankind, not for God to be bound by, and he may exempt whom he will from obeying them. Surely God allowed Samson, a pure Nazarite, to marry the woman of Timna. The Chorus sees that Samson's father Manoa is approaching. How should Samson receive him?

330-331. Samson regards his father's approach as "another inward grief awak'd" (330).

332-337. Manoa asks the Danite Chorus whether Samson is there among them.

338-339. The Chorus answers in the affirmative.

340-372. Manoa is shocked at the transformation in Samson, and can't restrain himself from complaining that from such great promise things have come to this. Once everyone thought him blessed, but "Who would be now a Father in my stead?" he asks, appearing to place the blame squarely on God for the harsh treatment meted out to Samson.

373-419. Samson warns Manoa not to reproach God for what is nobody's fault but his own. He should have learned from his experience with the woman of Timna not to trust Dalila, but he gave in to her during her fourth attempt to wrest from him the secret of his strength. Samson accuses himself of "foul effeminacy" (410) for that lapse, and says that his weakness towards Dalila was "True slavery" (418).

420-447. Manoa agrees with Samson's logic in blaming himself, adding only, "Bitterly hast thou paid" (432). He now brings up a new cause for misery: this festival day isn't only for the god Dagon, it's to thank Dagon for delivering Samson into Philistine hands. Manoa says he considers that a greater shame than any other; namely, that Samson is in any way the cause of a festival that idolizes pagan gods and blasphemes the God of Scripture.

448-471. Samson agrees with Manoa: his worst shame is that he feels responsible for many Israelites' falling away from God and bowing to idols that somehow seem stronger than the Hebrew Deity. Samson speaks of Dagon as if he believes that this figure actually exists: a proud, wicked god who means to challenge the Most High. But Samson also asserts that the true God will assert Himself soon, and that "Dagon must stoop" (468) under the power of Yahweh.

472-486. Manoa takes Samson's words for a prophecy: surely, God will vanquish Dagon. Still, it would be wrong to ignore Samson's plight, so Manoa plans to go meet with the Philistines to see if they might ransom him. After all, what more can Samson do to harm them, blind and wretched as he is?

487-501. Samson begs Manoa not to bother with the ransom attempt since he believes that he deserves the punishment meted out to him.

502-520. Manoa counsels Samson not to seek ignominious death in the mills, but rather to accept what means may prove possible to return home, pray, and hope to avert further anger on God's part: "act not in thy own affliction" (503), he advises his son.

521-540. Samson replies that he would very much like God's pardon, but as for an extension of his miserable life, no, that would not be desirable. He has done heroic deeds, and he has fallen due to his own weakness in the presence of a fair woman. Why go on? What's the point?

541-576. The Danite Chorus members point out that like many great warriors, Samson was capable of resisting strong drink, preferring to drink only the purest water like the Nazarite he has been. The man himself chimes in with an agreement at least on this point: he did indeed avoid the allurements of alcohol. But then he returns to bewailing his "effeminate" weakness for Dalila. There is no recovering his glorious strength or his career as a Danite champion, he says, so why should Manoa or others struggle so hard to deliver him from the place of his grief?

577-589. Manoa continues to try to cheer up Samson, telling him he still has his strength and that in any case, it would be better to lie an invalid at home than lift a finger to help the Philistines by doing the drudge-work they have set out for him. God, thinks Manoa, works through Samson still, and it would be ungracious not to acknowledge the fact.

590-598. Samson replies that his "genial spirits" (594) have been irreparably depleted, his sight will return no more, and his thoughts have turned to death.

599-605. Manoa tells Samson to push back such thoughts, referencing the theory of the humors prevalent in Milton's day: an excess of black bile makes a person melancholy. Manoa insists that he knows a father's duty, and in this case his duty is to try to ransom his son and bring him home.

606-651. Samson laments that his wounds are not only physical; rather, the worst of them is the perpetual torment that rages in his mind. He grew up under God's care, and now feels cast off, unregarded. His one wish, he says, is for "speedy death, / The close of all my miseries, and the balm" (650-51).

652-724. The Chorus members seem to reinforce the despair of Samson at this point since they observe that while God deals even-handedly with angels and animals alike, with man that hardly seems to be the case: he exalts a man to incredible heights only to cast him down lower than the rabble, doling out punishments far exceeding their faults and seemingly in an arbitrary way. The Chorus finally turn from this complaint, and supplicate God instead to pity Samson and "turn / His labors, for thou canst, to peaceful end" (708-09). Then they spot a stately, beautiful woman approaching, and discern that it can be no other than Dalila.

725-731. Samson says he wants no talk with Dalila, but the Chorus members describe her sorrowful looks as she prepares to address him.

732-747. Dalila says she has been repentant; the betrayal she is guilty of had worse consequences than she ever thought it could, and she has, she says, come to visit Samson from "conjugal affection" (739).

748-765. Samson calls Dalila a "Hyaena" (748) and later a "poysnous bosom snake" (763). He sets her present attitude down to the same depressing pattern one can, he suggests, find in any female who has practiced deceit: first the deceit, then the great show of penitence to find out just how far she can go in controlling the man she has wronged.

766-818. Dalila responds that she puts her conduct down to simple feminine curiosity and inability to keep a secret once it's learned. She even blames Samson for being weak enough to tell her what she kept asking: "thou to thyself wast cruel" (784), she says to her ruined husband. Besides, she claims, it was really love that drove her on: an earnest desire to keep Samson with her and away from perilous exploits against the Philistines. His enemies, she alleges, promised that all they would do was keep him from fighting, and now she begs him to soften his anger.

819-842. Samson is contemptuous of Dalila's talk, and sums up his dismissal with "All wickedness is weakness" (834). She wanted Philistine gold, he insists, and that's all there was and is to it. As for her love, why, "lust" would be more like it – perhaps lust for someone else, for all he knows.

843-870. Dalila now claims that it wasn't gold at all that drew her on; rather, it was the threats and pleadings of the Philistine authorities who came to visit her: magistrates, princes, and priests alike all urged her to find out and publish Samson's secret. At last, she says, she caved in to the maxim that "to the public good / Private respects must yield" (867-68).

871-902. Samson says he chose Dalila in spite of all obstacles, and that she ought to have been respectful of that and behaved as a proper wife, as one who would for her husband "leave / Parents and country" (885-86), not ally herself with his sworn enemies, promoters of false or wicked gods to besides.

903-906. Dalila says that in an argument with a man, a woman just can't win.

907-927. Really? Samson retorts: Dalila seems to have won that earlier "argument" about whether or not he should confide in her.

928-927. Dalila offers to intercede with the Philistines on Samson's behalf; she wants to bring him home and at least offer him the comforts of a tranquil domestic life.

928-950. Samson declares angrily that Dalila's wiles and charms have no more power over him: he would rather stay here in prison than enter through her doors again, only to be more abused and manipulated than ever, now that he is blind and therefore more or less helpless.

951-951. Dalila entreats Samson to let her touch his hand.

952-959. Samson refuses, saying instead, "At distance I forgive thee" (954), and bidding her to go away and enjoy the golden fruits of her treason against him.

960-996. Dalila lays her cards on the table, now that reconcilement has failed: "To mix with thy concernments I desist / Henceforth, nor too much disapprove my own" (969-70). Her name may become a byword for faithlessness with Danites and other Jews, but among her own people, she will be respected, even celebrated, for what she has done.

997-1075. The Chorus calls Dalila a "manifest Serpent" (996) as she departs. They and Samson hash out the question as to the value of a woman's love; the Chorus members are of the view that it hardly conduces to virtue or strength, but there's something mysterious in it, hard to guess as the riddle that Samson offered the Philistines during his marriage celebration to the woman of Timnah (see Judges 14:14, "Out of the eater came meat, and out of the strong came sweetness"). Either way, women, they suggest, either lack the capacity to appreciate what's best or they are so rooted in "self-love" (1031) as to render their love fickle or even to make them incapable of loving at all. The exception to this alleged rule is so rare, they claim, that the law of man's dominion over woman is surely justified. The Chorus members then say they sense a "storm" (1061) approaching, and it turns out that the reference isn't to the weather, it's to the brash, powerful Harapha of Gath, possibly the father of Goliath. This giant is unarmed, but his looks spell menace.

1076-1090. Harapha blusters that he has come not to help Samson but rather to have a look at him and see if he measures up to his awe-inspiring reputation.

1091-1091. Samson challenges Harapha to try him out as a fighter, his poor condition notwithstanding.

1092-1107. Samson challenges Harapha to try him out as a fighter, his poor condition notwithstanding, but Harapha only laments that Samson's blindness has made that challenge impossible to take up. When Samson repeats his challenge, Harapha again turns him down, citing his would-be opponent's blindness and uncleanness.

1108-1129. Samson tells Harapha that he will gladly meet him at close quarters with nothing but "an Oak'n staff" (1123).

1130-1138. Harapha is incensed at Samson's dismissive attitude towards heavy armor and the like, and claims not to believe the great warrior's strength is really in his long hair: no, it's nothing more than enchantment, he says.

1139-1155. Samson retorts that he never used any black magic, but put his trust in the God of the Hebrews: go to Dagon's temple, he challenges Harapha, and get that deity to agree to a match between him and Yahweh through their respective mortal agents. Samson doesn't doubt the result.

1156-1167. Harapha scoffs that this all-powerful God of the Hebrews has obviously abandoned Samson, leaving him to be blinded and humiliated by his worst enemies.

1168-1177. Samson accepts the insults of Harapha, admitting that he feels he deserves them all, but then reiterates his challenge in the name of the Hebrew God to Dagon and Harapha.

1178-1181. Samson accepts the insults of Harapha, admitting that he feels he deserves them all, but then reiterates his challenge in the name of the Hebrew God to Dagon and Harapha, who responds with scorn: why should this God of the Hebrews choose "A Murtherer, a Revolter, and a Robber" (1180) as his champion? Samson is outraged at being the recipient of such labels.

1182-1191. Harapha taunts Samson that the Israelites must consider themselves vassals of the Philistines because they gave up Samson to them as a "League-breaker" (1184), and points out that when the Philistines solved his wedding riddle, Samson killed thirty men of Askalon and gave their clothes to those who had solved it. (See Judges 14.)

1192-1223. Samson says those thirty men he killed were in fact spies, not guests, who pressured his wife of Timnah to help them solve the riddle. Furthermore, he points out, the Israelites betrayed him, and refused to understand that he had been sent as their deliverer. For that, he suggests, they deserve to be subjected as indeed they are. For the third time, Samson challenges Harapha to single combat.

1224-1243. Harapha again snorts that he'll have no combat with a low sort like Samson, reduced as he is to penury. Samson threatens the giant in earnest, and the latter blusters but makes his exit soon enough.

1244-1267. The Chorus tells Samson that Harapha parted rather "crest-fall'n" (1244), and by no means displaying the swagger that marked his entrance. Still, they fear that he means to go to the Philistine authorities and get them to punish Samson still more harshly. The latter says that whoever brings him death is doing him a favor, and really, what more can the Philistines do to him? Perhaps he will even get the opportunity to take out a few more Philistines who come to do him mischief.

1268-1307. The Chorus members praise the works of strong deliverers, but declare that patience is the virtue of saints: it would seem, they say, that patience is now Samson's lot, ground down as he is by his oppressors. Perhaps more trouble lies ahead because now the Chorus members catch sight of a Philistine public officer making his way towards them and Samson.

1308-1347. The Philistine public officer informs Samson that the city's great lords have commanded him to appear at the festival of Dagon and give them all a show of his tremendous strength. He tells them that it's inappropriate for him to do so since he is a Hebrew, and such observances are forbidden to his religion. When the officer insists that such an answer won't do, Samson tells him that the Philistines ought to hire themselves some jugglers or dancers, or other entertainers of that sort, and stop trying to make trouble for him. The officer again says he can't take that answer back to his betters, and Samson reiterates his refusal to go, along with a dark warning: it may be that the officer will have "cause to sorrow indeed" (1347).

1348-1390. When the public officer temporarily leaves, the Chorus members ask Samson if he is sure he has made the right choice in refusing the Philistines' call to perform. Samson says that to appear at Dagon's festival would amount to an "unclean, prophane" (1362) act. The Chorus members suggest that Samson is already using his strength at the Philistines' command, but he replies that earning his keep is no abomination, and the Chorus agrees. He also says that to obey their commands only from fear would be disrespectful towards God. But now Samson has a change of heart, and informs the Chorus that he will freely go along with the officer, giving them as his reason the following thought: "This day will be remarkable in my life / By some great act, or of my days the last" (1388-89).

1391-1426. The public officer returns, and lays down a much sterner command from his masters: Samson must appear at Dagon's festival, period. Samson, who has already changed his mind, seems to feign helplessness to smooth the way forward: "Masters' commands come with a power resistless / To such as owe them absolute subjection" (1404). The officer is pleasantly surprised, and allows Samson's shackles to be removed. Samson bids the Danite Chorus members goodbye, telling them that he doesn't want to expose them to any danger and that there's no need to suppose he will do anything unworthy of them, God, or himself. It may or may not be his last day on earth, but no dishonor will come of whatever he does.

1427-1444. The Chorus members praise Samson and bless his decision since they know him to be subject to visitations from the Lord. (See Judges 13:25.) They also wonder what's on Manoa's mind, since he is now approaching with a youthful spring in his step.

1445-1472. Manoa says that he isn't coming in expectation to see Samson here, for he knows what has transpired: the Philistines are flocking to the feast for Dagon in expectation of the big show the strong man has been ordered to give them. No, he has come to report that he may be near to winning Samson's freedom. The Chorus members ask excitedly for more information, and Manoa obliges: he visited many Philistine lords, and while some seemed intransigent, a good number of them showed themselves amenable to accept ransom money, either out of greed or magnanimous sentiment. But suddenly a great "noise or shout" (1472) is audible, and Manoa wonders what it can be.

1473-1507. The Chorus members suppose that the shouting must be due to the Philistine common people's surprise at seeing Samson, or perhaps they're applauding some feat of strength he has done. They and Manoa discuss his enthusiasm for spending whatever it takes to ransom his son and bring him home where he can be taken care of properly. Manoa believes God wouldn't have allowed Samson's locks to grow long again if he didn't have some wonderful purpose in store for him yet; he even believes that his son's eyesight can be restored.

1508-1570. Manoa is just starting to respond to the Chorus' latest remarks when a horrible new noise makes itself heard. What can it be? He and the Chorus come to the realization that the entire gathering at the festival must have perished: that noise didn't come from one or a few people, it included the death-agony of many. They continue to speculate and stay put. Soon a fellow Hebrew approaches with news. Breathless, this Messenger informs them all that while Gaza itself is still standing, its citizens are dead. They draw from him that Samson is the cause of it, but he hesitates to blurt out what he needs to say next, knowing it might crush Manoa.

1571-1659. Manoa wants to know how Samson died, and the Messenger explains that the strong man pulled the building down on the audience at Dagon's festival and on his own head. Manoa wants an eyewitness account of this terrible event. The Messenger says that the location was a large theater with two main pillars holding it up. Samson was accompanied in by armed guards, and the people, delighted, let out their first shout. Samson performed amazing acts of strength, and at length was led for an intermission to a spot between the two pillars. He asked to be allowed to lean on them both, and took up an attitude of prayer. Soon after that, he made an announcement to the Philistines, telling them that he had one more amazing thing to show them. He then shook the pillars until they fell, and the entire edifice crashed down upon the great lords and ladies "fortunate" enough to be within the building; only the commonfolk outside escaped destruction.

1660-1707. The entire Chorus praises Samson for fulfilling his destiny as a champion of Israel, and a Semichorus section says that God must have instilled a frenzy into the Philistines, making them welcome their own destroyer and egging him on. But Samson, they say, felt his virtue rise from the ashes like a Phoenix. His fame, too, will live on like yet another Phoenix come to life from the ashes of the old.

1708-1744. Manoa is in no mood to lament now: his son has died heroically, completing his life-arc as a champion of his people. Let Israel seize the occasion to free itself, Manoa prays. He wants to go find Samson's body, cleanse it and give it proper burial with a monument that Israel's strong youth can visit and draw inspiration from. The only thing to regret, says Manoa, is that Samson chose so poorly in his marriages, which brought about his blindness and captivity.

1745-1758. The Chorus members assert their faith in God's purpose: he has not abandoned Samson after all, but has instead made him an agent in his master plan. The Philistines mourn their dead, but the Lord's faithful (the audience, in metadramatic terms, though this is not a "performing" drama) may now make their exit with "calm of mind, all passion spent" (1758).