John Milton’s Samson Agonistes: Framing ‘Terrorism’

Having just read John Milton’s Comus, I was curious and anxious to read his only other dramatic work: Samson Agonistes.  The work is interesting on many levels.  For one, it is very much a relevant political piece (as Feisal G. Mohamed and Norman Mailer have both noted in their dialogue on the ‘Muslim Samsons’, the Samson narrative is very relevant today), and was likely seem as even more incendiary during its initial publication as a work like The Wretched of the Earth is for people in a post 9/11 world.  But there is more at work than politics here.  Religion plays a big role, as does gender, and Milton takes note to question notions of nationalism long before the modernists of the post-WWI era did.  The work is ripe with layered meaning, much like Milton’s more famous Biblical recreation.

 

 

Though separated by geography, social standing and time, John Milton and Frantz Fanon shared similar views.

Though separated by geography, social standing and time, John Milton and Frantz Fanon shared similar views.

With the recent scholarship on Samson Agonistes focusing on how such a narrative applies to the narrative surrounding 9/11, it seems like that may be a good place to start.  The narrative, at its heart, is a celebration of a figure who brought down a building filled with people because he felt his religious identity was threatened by these people.  Sound familiar? The work, in Milton’s time, would have had similar implications.  With a king who was infamous for targeting people with dissenting views on Christianity, England’s secular government would have been viewed as a tyrannical power akin to the one which Samson destroyed.  With a recent king  decapitated and regicide still very much fresh in the minds of many Britons, the threat of violence was very real.  Milton’s work, then, would have been seen much in the same light as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched Of the Earth which samson-and-delilahsuggests, perhaps as a polemic argument, possibly as a literal one, that violence is the only appropriate response to an oppressor who employs violence as a means of control.  Fanon, though he had been resting in his grave for nearly half a century, seemed to have a lot of fingers pointed at him after 9/11 (mostly by people who didn’t want to acknowledge the role the U.S.  had played in fostering such anti-American sentiments through their own acts of violence).  Milton would have been subject to such finger pointing in his era as well.  Though Milton’s message was not so overt as Fanon’s, Milton lived in an era where such overt ideas would not have been published and were often masked in metaphor.  Whether or not the two would have shared the same sentiments will never be known, but I have a feeling Milton and Fanon shared many views.

 

Samson really needs to respect the ecosystems with which he interacts.

Samson really needs to respect the ecosystems with which he interacts.

What is perhaps most interesting about Milton’s work is the omissions he makes and the additions he includes.  The Samson story, for Milton, starts in medias res.  Samson is already in prison.  We do not get to see Samson kill hoards of men, or rip apart a lion and pull honey out of the lion’s corpse.  Instead, he is chained in prison, his hair having already grown back.  What follows is an act of memory.  Samson retells what path he took to his current state, though his homicides and battle with the lion are omitted.  Samson focuses on how Delilah betrayed him, but also admits that he betrayed God.  There is a sense that Samson put the corporal before the spiritual.  His physical relationship with Delilah poisoned his spiritual relationship with God.  This idea that the corporal taints the spiritual is not overt in the source material, or, at least, Samson’s recognition of it is absent.  This is an addition on Milton’s part. Delilah likewise forgoes the spiritual for the corporal.  She follows her civic duty over her romantic obligations.  By prioritizing the civil (king) over the spiritual (God, as represented by Samson), Delilah can be aligned with the royalists/loyalists.

 

Tom Jones once knew a woman named Delilah as well.  That narrative didn't end well.

Tom Jones once knew a woman named Delilah as well. That narrative didn’t end well.

Delilah is not the same Delilah that was presented in the Bible.  The Bible mentions a payment offered to her by the Philistines, after which she betrays Samson.  It is not made overt that she collected the money, but in Milton’s interpretation, Delilah makes it clear: It was out of loyalty to her country that she did what she did.  Samson had killed her Countrymen, and she did what was in the best interest of her Country, placing her loyalty to her people ahead of her individual wants and desires.  For Milton’s Eve, there is a lack of loyalty, both to Adam and God, but here, Milton presents a woman for whom loyalty is important.  Being an unreliable narrator, it is possible that she is performing for Samson, but the fact that she has come to ask Samson for forgiveness does demonstrate a sense of genuine guilt and a degree of loyalty to Samson suggests her words are sincere.  Regardless of her sincerity, the fact that Milton creates room for reason and conflict within Delilah, and does not present her solely as a woman who betrays her lover for money, is a drastic improvement on the source material from a feminist perspective.

 

 

Eric Snowden could be considered a Miltonic hero for challenging the corrupt secular authority.

Eric Snowden could be considered a Miltonic hero for challenging the corrupt secular authority.

The visits in prison are the primary addition Milton makes to the text. This was likely meant to reflect the trend in England for prison visits.  Men, like George Fox (no relation to Megan or Samantha), or John Bunyan (no relation to Paul), or Milton himself, would see time in prison because of their dissenting views and during their imprisonment would receive many visitors.  They were, in a sense, ‘celebrity prisoners’ (though more in line with people likes Eric Snowden or Chelsea Manning, and not Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan).  It was a time during which they could openly share their dissenting thoughts since, already being in prison, they could not be punished any further.  There was an expression in the era: Nowhere, but in prison, free.  Samson’s visitors then can be seen as a representation of such prison visits.  The visits, most especially the one with his father, reveal that it was perhaps Samson who was at fault for his own fall and that he should have not only been stronger spiritually, and also suggests that he made a serious laps in critical thinking in not recognizing Delilah’s divided loyalty earlier as she had thrice betrayed him before shaving his head.  I mean, come on, Christ saw Peter betray him three times BEFORE it happened, while even after Delilah betrayed Samson three times, he still couldn’t see the fourth one coming.

 

If I were casting Delilah, Catherine Zeta-Jones would be near the top of my list to play the iconic figure.

If I were casting Delilah, Catherine Zeta-Jones would be near the top of my list to play the iconic figure.

The work is not as long as a staged play, which was typical of closet dramas of the era, but it is a well-crafted and layered work that speaks to issues of gender, religion and politics.  Samson is a flawed character, but, at least in his own eyes, is redeemed at the end.  Like the Biblical narrative, Delilah’s fate is not mentioned, but Milton does add depth to the narrative.  With links to extremist sentiments, politically and religiously based acts of violence, and a high body count, all of which are the issues with modernist thought are brought under examination much as they were after WWI, and again after many of the tragic conflicts that followed: from WWII, to Vietnam, to 9/11, to everything in between (please accept my apology for not including a tragic event/conflict you thought more worthy of notice than the ones I selected as examples).  The work is as relevant to as it was when Milton wrote it and is perhaps more relevant today than any of Milton’s other works outside of ‘Areopagitica‘.

 

If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler, on Facebook, and add me to your RSS feed.

 

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php