"True Religion" and Tragedy: Milton's Insights in 'Samson Agonistes.'

By McLoone, George H. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 1995 | Go to article overview

"True Religion" and Tragedy: Milton's Insights in 'Samson Agonistes.'


McLoone, George H., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


In the early 20th century, an "old" historicism - derived from the Cambridge school of anthropology - sought to uncover layers of "pre-rational" meaning in ancient Greek drama, especially in the plays' reflection of the myths and rituals of primitive folk religion (Fergusson 33). Criticism of Renaissance biblical drama had been reluctant to follow suit until the current generation of postmodernists and "new" historicists began to emphasize the "pre-rational" impulses and patriarchal tyrannies possibly underlying the esthetic constructions of any religious discourse, orthodox as well as pagan. In the old historicism, the prevailing critical view had been that the dubious rationality and the undeniable violence of many biblical narratives had ultimate cultural meanings that were missing from classical myth, and that imitations of Greek drama using biblical characters were inspired by a higher logic than that of ancient Dionysian celebration. If an aura of obscure ritual remained in these imitations - i.e., when a biblical hero was divinely motivated or tragically sacrificed - it was subsumed by a typological consciousness shared by author and reader, which saw the wisdom of God's providential design for salvation beyond the catastrophe. Sometimes an explicit typological allusion was added to the plot if the Old Testament story did not seem to make the eventual outcome quite clear enough. Milton's contemporary, Hugo Grotius, for instance, had the hero of his Old Testament tragedy Iosephus prophesy about the future Redeemer who, like Joseph, would sojourn in Egypt, and Joos van den Vondel subtitled his 1660 dramatic version of the Samson story "Holy Revenge."

Milton's biblical tragedy, the "dramatic poem" Samson Agonistes (1671), has a more celebrated history than these forgotten works, of course, but what is now seen as the controversial nature of its unrelieved Hebraism has become a central issue for interpreters. Although written by a famous polemicist for the radical Christianity of his time, Samson Agonistes has no Messianic prophecy or pronounced typological vision of Christian redemption, no moment when its tragic hero glimpses the course of salvation history, as Milton's Adam does in Paradise Lost. To be sure, a biblical tragedy is not a biblical epic, and the traditional epic convention of prophetic scenes such as we find in Paradise Lost may have been beyond the scope and literary decorum of tragedy as Milton construed the genre. Nonetheless, the biblical Samson is somehow an important figure in the culture of a Christian poet, and writing a tragedy about him - rather than an epic - has not, apparently, settled the question of his religious significance for modern readers.

The current critical debate on the issue of typological significance often returns to the ritual, or sacrificial, meaning of Samson's tragic, if also heroic, death. The affirmative declares that Samson Agonistes does have a visionary perspective, that Samson's final act in Dagon's temple is both tragic and good, a redemptive act consistent with biblical types of Christian sacrifice. Thomas Stroup, for example, finds stages of regeneration in Milton's text that imitate ceremonial structures in The Book of Common Prayer, and he states that the work is eventually sacramental or eucharistic because Samson "has offered himself for his people and has kept his covenant through his ritual" (57-62). Sherman Hawkins also concludes that Samson is a true sacrifice, "offering himself in the likeness of one who is both priest and victim" and contradicting the falsely eucharistic feast of Dagon (226-67). Michael Lieb, while not suggesting a specific sacramental analogue, interprets Samson's renewed Nazaritic cultism as consistent with a "true sacrificium" and his "rouzing motions" as coterminous with the divine impulse Milton mentions in the De Doctrina, an aspect of the same Holy Spirit that anointed Jesus (Poetics 77). In the broad sense of the term, such readings of Samson may be described as "liturgical" in that they refer to forms of worship in attempting to explain Samson's heroism. …

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