In my “Art of Scansion” posts (here, here, here, and here), I mentioned Milton’s impact on English versification. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, respectively, are in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter that had theretofore been used mainly in drama (cf. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Lyly, Ben Jonson, Dekker, Kyd, et al.). So, naturally, when it came time for Milton to write a drama, he continued to experiment both in structure and format.
Samson Agonistes is the last of Milton’s three late masterpieces. Like the other two, he takes Biblical themes as his subject; like Paradise Lost, he applies a classical form to his Biblical theme. Here the form is of Greek drama, that of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, which would later be used by playwrights like Rome’s Seneca or France’s Corneille and Racine. Applying Aristotle’s poetic theory, Samson Agonistes is built around Judges 13-16 in general, and 16:23-30 in particular.
In doing so, Milton has to radically reanalyze Samson’s character, rewriting him from Judges’ rather daft musclehead with a serious Philistine-lady fetish to someone willing to do decidedly unheroic things like contemplate. His father Manoah has come to Gaza to ransom his release, and the play unfolds with a tension between the Israelites (Samson, Manoah, the Danite chorus) and the Philistines (Delilah and Harapha, identified as Goliath’s father).
First the Chorus, then Manoah, try to comfort Samson; after Manoah leaves in an attempt to beg Samson’s release, Delilah and Harapha come to heap invective on him, which Samson rebuffs, usually with threats of violence. Finally, Samson is summoned to appear before Gaza’s elders, after which Manoah reappears, bearing news of his mission’s fruitlessness.
As the Chorus tries to console him, we hear a commotion in the background; twice Manoah pauses and remarks on it. The first time —
What noise or shout was that? It tore the sky.
— is, in my opinion, Milton’s best individual line … There is a sense here that important events are happening just offstage.
Finally, at length, a messenger comes bearing news of the dénouement: Samson is dead, having brought down the temple of Dagon on himself and all of Gaza’s elders. So we have here — in a certain sense, a question that catches even the Chorus unawares — how Samson’s heroic death — in fact, a redemption from servitude by death — is tragic at all, much less tragic in the classical mold.
This is made more difficult when we realize Samson is not Judges 16’s most tragic character; Delilah — who Milton has had to make antagonist — is. The choice of love or money is a fundamentally tragic decision, and the choice of money over love an excellent example of hamartia, Aristotle’s much-vaunted “heroic flaw”.
(That said, Milton, like most Christian writers, denies the tragedy by denying Delilah love.)
Rectifying this issue is Milton’s fundamental problem with Samson’s character. To that end, he calls his Samson “Agonistes” — a rough translation would be Samson “the agonizer,” somebody who’s been brought to contemplation because they’re agonizing within themselves over a choice. Well then, what can that choice be? The dénouement — Samson’s death — informs us: the question, as it is in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, is one … of suicide.
Oh, the other characters may sugarcoat it, but there is no question that Samson knew, as he marched through that door into Dagon’s temple, that what he was planning on doing would result in his own end as well. This is, without a doubt, the unspoken question Samson is agonizing over for the play’s first half: he wants to live.
He wants to live yet when the officer first tries to summon him to Dagon’s temple for the feast. It is only after the Chorus cajoles him otherwise, and the officer reappears with a more insistent message, that Samson makes up his mind, saying
If there be aught of presage in the mind,
This day will be remarkable in my life
By some great act, or of my days the last.
It is in this moment that Samson confronts his destiny.
But this still begs the question: what is, fundamentally, the tragedy of Samson Agonistes? We need a weakness of character — Delilah’s greed, for example, or Creon’s hubris — or a horrific choice put before a character, as was to Orestes. Samson has shown neither. Agonizing over a deed likely to result in one’s death may have been a failing for Beowulf, say, or Gilgamesh or Roland, but it would have hardly been so for Milton, much less us! And one can well argue that Samson was doomed to be brought before Dagon’s temple this day anyway, which rather renders moot the whole question of why he agonizes so much over it!
The best solution I can come up with is that the hamartia’s the Chorus’s; willingly accepting one’s fate works in a pagan warrior society, but not a Christian one. (Recall here that the drama is draped in Milton’s Christian sensibility.) By convincing Samson to go to his doom willingly, the Danites ensure his death (albeit one with dignity). Or perhaps the point Milton wishes to make is Samson’s tragedy is one of circumstances — that the real tragedy is his love of Philistine women, one which nearly brought him to his doom once and did the second time around.
Samson Agonistes is much freer in versification than any equivalent work of the period. While Milton (mostly) maintains the iambic beat, line lengths vary from two beats to six, with most having four or five beats. He even seems to use metric rigidity as a subtle means of characterization: where undecided Samson and consoling Chorus are more metrically free, Delilah and Harapha, iron-solid in their certitude, are more metrically rigid.
It is not quite free verse the way Eliot’s plays, for example, would be, but it is way ahead of his contemporaries — the Frenchman, Jean Racine, for example, developed his plays with rigid alexandrine couplets.
It is quite possible the worldly and well-read Milton knew of Racine’s work. In his introduction to the Miltonic triumvirate, Richard Eberhart tells of a Dartmouth production of Samson Agonistes whose producer found it closer in form to a Racine — Athalie, say — than e.g. Aeschylus. Despite being a “closet drama”, he closes with — I am paraphrasing here — it is meant to be performed.
I rather suspect it is.