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Tragic Freedom in Samson Agonistes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)197 - 211
Number of pages15
Issue number2

King's Authors


In his preface to Samson Agonistes, Milton cites "the ancients" and especially Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, as his models in a tragedy "after the Greek manner." In this preface, Milton interprets Aristotelian catharsis in medical terms as a restoration of balance or "just measure." The final lines of Samson Agonistes, beginning with the words "All is best," are an attempt at closure, suggesting that the storms of passion should give way to a healthy, serene calmness. But the mass slaughter near the end of the poem makes these closing moments deeply disturbing and problematical. Unlike the heroes of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus and Philoctetes, and unlike the Samson of the Book of Judges, Milton's Samson is presented throughout the poem as a free moral agent. Rather than being the plaything of a remote and cruel deity, Milton's Samson accepts his responsibility for his own downfall. His conviction that he is God's "nurseling," set aside from early childhood as "a person separate to God, / Designed for great exploits," that he has failed in his responsibilities and has been brought low by his own weaknesses is consistent with Milton's sometimes heterodox theology as set forth in De Doctrina Christiana. At the heart of Milton's tragedy is the paradox of tragic freedom, the hidden presence of a deity, who with divine foreknowledge, allows his creatures freedom on the condition that, if they fail to obey his exacting demands, they must bear the terrible consequences.

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