John Milton's Samson Agonistes is a story of destiny, of heroism, of the fate of a nation and the threat of seduction, and, oh yeah, a guy's hair. Yep: our main star and man of the hour (that would be Samson) has superhuman strength and crazy fighting skills, so long as no one ever cuts his hair. (Don't tell this guy.)
Milton can't take credit for the unusual premise of this tragedy. (Spoiler: it's a tragedy.) That would go to one Bible, specifically a story in the Book of Judges. But he can take credit for turning this short Biblical episode into a beautifully written and deeply moving account of loneliness, loss, and the challenges of faith. In fact, after you're done reading Samson, you may never think of a haircut in the same way again.
Samson's author, John Milton, a late English Renaissance poet, political figure, and all around bookish-intellectual type, might seem to have zero in common with his larger-than-life strongman protagonist. But when Samson was published in 1671, Milton was not only blind but he had almost been executed by the English government for supporting the rebellious political leader Oliver Cromwell. Yikes.
So, don't be fooled into thinking that Samson is just another unrealistic ye olde myth. Check out for yourself how powerful and sincere this tragedy is. In fact, that's kind of the point. Milton is also doing some nifty work with the genre of tragedy (check out "Genre" for lots more on that). While we might think of tragedy as something traditional and venerable, Milton and his Renaissance contemporaries were only just beginning to delve into the origins of Greek tragedy... and they were a surprised at some of the violent, immoral, and even racy stories they found.
And tragedy was pretty much never used to tell a biblical story. In fact, the pagan Greek world of tragedy and the Biblical world of Samson weren't even necessarily compatible. So while Milton might appear to be doing the same-old same-old, he's actually exposing how radical the "traditional" really is.
Interested yet? Keep reading.
We're going to be straight with you. For a story featuring the strongest man in the world who is tragically betrayed by his sneaky and seductive wife, not a whole lot actually happens in Milton's tragedy. Set after all this major drama goes down, Milton's Samson Agonistes focuses on Samson's post-heroic life in prison.
No, Milton wasn't going a little senile—we promise. Believe it or not, this unheroic hero lets Milton think about heroism in exciting and new ways.
Think about it: how often do we get to see heroes after their prime? Or worse, after they've lost? Are they still even heroic? These are the kinds of questions Milton wants us to ponder. You know who else likes to ask these questions? That guy Christopher Nolan who directed a little film called The Dark Knight Rises. (We're not even going to ask if you've seen it.)
The point is, these questions about heroism are absolutely relevant and crucial to our time. Who are the 21st century's heroes? What do we need from them? And how do we treat them when they stop being heroes?
A general, but helpful, overview of various topics in Milton that have lasting importance.
Calling Homeland Security
If the ending of Samson made you a little uneasy, you'll be fascinated to read more about just how controversial Samson has been post-9/11.
A. N. Wilson, famous English historian, biographer, and author, thinks about why Samson Agonistes is the work that most makes John Milton the "father of modernity."
Woe Is Samson
Fascinated by Samson's unusual relationship to the genre of tragedy? Have a little extra time on your hands? Check out this lecture by famed Renaissance scholar Richard Helpern on exactly that question.
More on Milton
For a great general, but also super smart, introduction to John Milton's poetry, check out this series of lectures by John Rogers at Yale.
Ask the Experts
A series of lectures on podcast from various big name Milton scholars.
Get Out Your Earbuds
Audio versions of Milton's dialogue-heavy poem can be found here.
A Radical Timeline
This timeline lays out in detail the ups and downs of Milton's politics.
We'd Like To Run Our Fingers Through That Hair
Serious but serene, Milton looks just like we'd imagine.
A portrait of Milton as a kid. Enough said.