An examination of early Restoration theater culture and the various contesting interpretive communities of England in the 1660s offers an illuminating context for rereading John Milton's Samson Agonistes.1. As much as any text can be, Milton's dramatic poem is located in the fault lines of literary history. Likely a product of the Restoration, Samson Agonistes was nevertheless composed by a poet who repudiates Restoration literary culture and who in our day has been claimed by scholars of seventeenth-century studies. 2. Furthermore, Samson Agonistes negotiates between print and performance: it advertises itself both as a readerly text and as a drama; yet, as a tragedy it imitates Greek rather than newly restored Roman models and denies its performability. Finally, while appealing to an elitist, republican readership, the text registers its discomfort with popular tastes, especially those cultivated by stage plays, whose ﬁnal performance Milton fantasizes when Samson brings down the theater on his idolatrous Philistine audience.
An exploration of the literary and political culture in which Restoration drama was generated and to which Samson Agonistes responds exposes the fault lines in the critical tradition of the poem and in the Miltonic oeuvre, which have commonly been buffered from “infamy” and problems of textual variability. To reread Samson Agonistes as a text that responds to popular inﬂuences is to oppose the strong tendency in Milton studies to enshrine the poem as a sacred text, a practice criticized in recent years by Leah S. Marcus, John P. Rumrich, and Stephen B. Dobranski, who have exposed its indeterminacy and internal difference. With the exception of Jackson Cope and, more re-____________________