Milton's Debt to Greek Tragedy in Samson Agonistes

Milton's Debt to Greek Tragedy in Samson Agonistes

Milton's Debt to Greek Tragedy in Samson Agonistes

Milton's Debt to Greek Tragedy in Samson Agonistes

Excerpt

The scope of this book, like Satan's princes and potentates, is more limited than its title would suggest. In his preface to Samson Agonistes, 'Of that sort of Dramatic Poem which is call'd Tragedy,' Milton indicates a debt both 'to antient rule, and best example.' It is with the latter only that I am here concerned. An extremely interesting, extremely profitable study might be made of Milton's debt to Aristotle; but in the present work allusions to the Poetics are made only to clarify generalizations about the extant tragedies. Of 'antient rule,' codified and set down for the guidance of playwrights, I shall have little to say. Furthermore, with the closing words of Milton's preface before me, I have adopted a somewhat limited view of the term 'best example.' To be sure, the author of Samson declares: 'In the modelling therefore of this Poem, with good reason, the Antients and Italians are rather follow'd, as of much more authority and fame.' It remains for someone to trace the influence of the Italians upon Samson Agonistes; this is one of the things unattempted yet in Milton scholarship. But the challenge and the key to the work here presented are found in the penultimate sentence of the preface:

of the style and uniformitie, and that commonly call'd the Plot . . . they only will best judge who are not unacquainted with Æschulus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the three Tragic Poets unequall'd yet by any, and the best rule to all who endeavour to write Tragedy.

The exact purpose of my study, then, is to establish the major aspects of Milton's debt to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in his drama of Samson. In order to avoid pitfalls of misinterpretation, I have confined my attention to the extant plays of these three tragedians. Fragments of their work, and fragments of other dramatists' work, I have completely ignored. Parallel passages, moreover, have been mentioned only in certain sections where their . . .

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