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The Uncertain World of Samson Agonistes

The Uncertain World of Samson Agonistes

John T. Shawcross
Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 168
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt9qdj04
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  • Book Info
    The Uncertain World of Samson Agonistes
    Book Description:

    Shawcross proposes that the many ambiguities surrounding Milton's dramatic poem Samson Agonistes are intentional: the actual words, the dates of composition, the genre, and the characters - particularly Samson and Dalila but including Manoa, Harapha, and the Chorus. Ambiguity also lies in Milton's presentation of political issues both philosophical and practical, his treatment of gender concepts, the constant questioning of the reader, and the poem's effect. Discussing all these elements, Shawcross follows with a detailed reading of the text which argues that it remains purposefully ambiguous, reflecting Milton's own recognition of the uncertainty of the content, and suggesting that Milton himself would question some of the nice 'solutions' that modern scholarship has offered in the last two decades. JOHN SHAWCROSS is Professor of English, Emeritus, University of Kentucky.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-341-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Chapter 1 THE WORLD OF SAMSON AGONISTES
    (pp. 1-16)

    As a result of recent feminist critical movements, the two important female characters in John Milton’s major poems have come under particular scrutiny, with an accompanying reassessment of Milton himself as male author. These fictionalizations are Eve inParadise Lost, a portrayal of the female progenitor of human life in the Bible, generally believed to have had real existence, and Dalila inSamson Agonistes, a rendition of Delilah in the biblical story found in Judges. She and the Samson story are treated as truly historical because they are biblical, by some people as actual persons in every detail. But the...

  5. Chapter 2 UNCERTAINTY AND THE TEXT
    (pp. 17-34)

    THE text ofSamson Agonistesposes a number of problems: its received text in terms of orthography, punctuation, capitalization, and the like; and therefore, its exactness of words and its prosody; its date of composition and even its date of publication. While no problems with specific line lengths and lineage or with images have been raised, such a destabilized text does not offer strong reliability. Some questioning of the similes at the end of the poem as to meaning, application, and appropriateness of their being included has been voiced. The dramatic poem appears in only one text, that of 1671,...

  6. Chapter 3 THE DRAMATIC WORK AND ITS READING
    (pp. 35-47)

    The dramatic character (in a dramatic work as well as on the stage) operates with its own integrity. That “integrity” may ultimately define pernicious, lying deceitful person within the literary work, but that person must be understood from that dramatic character’s own existence, not from some prejudgment. (Compare, for instance, Iago in Shakespeare’sOthelloor Thersites inTroilus and Cressida.) Of course, an author may be doctrinaire and offer only a mouthpiece for personal views or a figure espousing opposed views which are to be negated (or even ridiculed) in the course of the action. But generally a dramatic character...

  7. Chapter 4 SAMSON: GOD’S CHAMPION, A TYPE, OR INDIVIDUAL?
    (pp. 48-64)

    The positive view of the biblical Samson, representing an agent of the true God who pulls down the pillars around the heads of those opposed to the true God and his nation, overlies Milton’s poem. One can understand the flickerings of a Christ typology illuminating this Samson, particularly after one has moved in the 1671 volume from the earthly Jesus who will become the Christ (with his ministry and crucifixion after the end of the poem) to a human being who has succumbed to wrong thinking and who now, through trial, must learn repentance. In his final actions he joins...

  8. Chapter 5 DALILA: SEDUCTRESS OR WIFE?
    (pp. 65-80)

    Because of his importance in the history of literature and culture itself, Milton has been singled out as an epitome of influence upon people’s thinking about gender concerns. The view of Eve that some readers have seen inParadise Lostis accepted both as valid and as reflective of Milton’s own beliefs. Since Eve is prototypical woman, the characterization that is advanced becomes the commonplace analysis of woman by and for a male audience and, through patriarchal domination, for a female audience as well. The point of Milton’s influence on culture and of subordinate, inferior status for woman in patriarchal...

  9. Chapter 6 POLITICS IN THE DESTABILIZED TEXT
    (pp. 81-91)

    Eve is not a seductress, of course, although Adam is seduced by her female charms; she is not fraudulent, not even after the Fall when she believes that she has taken on Wisdom and Godliness, and though she is acting as Satan is hopeful she will, she is not consciously his agent. She is woman and she is wife; and she becomes an exemplar of sincere repentance. Eve and Dalila seem not to have certain qualities in common, and certainly do not have others in common. They cannot be put together in a generality without clear speci®cations of person and...

  10. Chapter 7 BIOGRAPHICAL INTRUSIONS
    (pp. 92-101)

    Amajor question that is usually not directly made part of gender discussions of the dramatic poem, but that does direct many people’s thinking, is the alleged biographical nature of the work. Because Milton was blind and Samson was blind, they become equated, thus also aligning the monarchy, which Milton argued against, with the Philistines; such identification calls for a real-life Dalila, and Mary Powell, Milton’s first wife, becomes the dubious recipient of that role. But then it is supposed there would be a real Harapha, and nominated has been Salmasius, that is, Claude Saumaise,¹ whoseDefensio Regia, Pro Charles I...

  11. Chapter 8 THE UNCERTAINTIES OF IRONY
    (pp. 102-111)

    The concepts of tragedy that we have looked at in Chapter 3 and the questions of Samson’s development taken up in Chapter 4 do not really account for the reader’s reaction at the end of the dramatic poem. This reaction is due in large part, I argue, to a vague identification with the hero and becomes the key to what is the tragedy that the drama exposes. The substance of tragedy has been molded in various ways. At the base is the effect which the readers (or audience) feel when the final lines are voiced, an effect rather dificult of...

  12. Chapter 9 A HERMENEUTICS OF THE TEXT
    (pp. 112-137)

    Samson is led on to the scene out of his prison in Gaza by someone (“Thy guiding hand”), apparently a young Danite, who, one would imagine, stays in close position to aid the blind man, although no further reference is made to him. Someone also leads Samson off alone after line 1426, and this according to the argument could be the Officer. Samson is brought to the “spacious Theatre” (1615, 1605) “as a public servant,” perhaps by this same officer who conducts him to center stage. Perhaps it is more likely that the young Danite served both to lead Samson...

  13. Chapter 10 SAMSON AGONISTES AND CONSISTENCIES OF BELIEF
    (pp. 138-144)

    Many years ago William Riley Parker remarked the “legend” that the career of John Milton as poet and prose writer exhibits an agenda of hopes for achievement that, one item after another, was completed without swerving from his determined course. While we can argue with that “legend” as far as his career is concerned, it does epitomize a consistency, even a pertinacious unswerving, of thought and of value in life and of belief in God. We may credit as the cause of his not following a ministerial career in 1632, when he was graduated from Cambridge University with a master...

  14. List of Works Cited
    (pp. 145-152)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 153-158)