It's almost never good when your old friends tell you you've changed. And the first thing we learn about Samson—like, even before we learn basic facts about his identity—is that he's changed.
When the Chorus of his friends first comes upon him, they're astonished: "O changed beyond report, thought, or belief!" (117). This kind of astonishment is something pretty much every single other character who visits Samson will also comment upon, so chances are good that it's important.
And if it feels confusing (because you've just met Samson), that's the idea. By narrating our first impression of Samson through every other character's much later impressions of Samson, we're intentionally left a little lost. It's up to us to do the work of reconstructing who this Samson guy is and was.
Sound familiar? That's exactly what Samson himself is struggling with in the story of this poem: loss, blindness, confusion about his own identity and destiny. Milton is making his readers do some of the same intellectual labor that he presents his character as doing too. Nifty, huh?
Moreover, by making Samson's changed character a major point of discussion, Milton can talk about both Samson's former strength and his current weakness without writing some massively long epic poem (...'cause he already did that! Check out Paradise Lost). It also prepares his readers for Samson's overall capacity for drastic change, something that helps account for Samson's total 180 at the end of the play.
O wherefore was my birth from Heaven foretold/ Twice by an Angel? (22-3)
Right at the beginning of the play, Samson wonders about his purpose on Earth. We know that
he has a not-your-average relationship with the divine—and that he's never entirely sure what that relationship is all about. And we have to admit that he has a point:
• If he's so special, why is he a blind prisoner?
• If God did choose him, why did he make so many bad decisions?
• If he was supposed to marry a Philistine woman, why did she betray him?
Although the Chorus famously claims that "Just are the ways of God,/ And justifiable to Man" (293-4), we're with Samson on finding the poem's divine stuff pretty confusing. (Brain snack: in Paradise Lost, the speaker says that he's writing to "justify God's ways to man." Milton obviously had a lot to think about.)
In fact, how God communicates with us, what he communicates, and how we're supposed to act on it are the poem's major questions. Is Samson doing God's will, or just what he thinks is God's will? And how do you tell the difference?
Yeah, yeah, Captains Obvious over here. But it's actually more complicated than it seems.
See, Samson's most famous and distinguishing feature is his strength, which we learn was a special gift given to him by God to help him defeat the Philistines, Israel's enemy. For reasons that we never fully understand, God has made Samson's superhuman strength contingent upon keep his hair uncut. Once the hair is cut, there goes the strength.
Samson's superhuman strength might remind you of Hercules, which gives us another way of thinking about the connection between the Biblical and the Classical. (For more on that, check out "Why Should I Care?," "Genre," and "What's Up with the Title?"). Samson and Hercules share a lot in common: both receive strength from divine sources, are known for wrestling wild animals, and have a soft spot for beautiful but not-so-loyal women.
They're also, thanks to Milton, both subjects of tragedy, figures whose physical advantages are placed in tragic contrast to his emotional, spiritual, and psychological disadvantages. Which brings us to Samson as...
Okay, so we know that this sounds a little contradictory. But, guess what? This is Milton's contradiction, not ours, and it's actually pretty fascinating: Samson's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. How do we know that?
His hair. Samson's incredible strength relies upon something incredibly small and weak. Samson himself makes this connection early on: "God, when he gave me strength, to shew withal/ How slight the gift was, hung it in my Hair" (59). In other words, Samson's most powerful characteristic relies on his least powerful attribute.
And Milton is really interested in this. He doesn't want to tell another boring story about a superhero: this is Spiderman 3, The Dark Knight Rises, or even Hancock: a guy who's lost his mojo. In other words, he wants to look at physical strength as a liability to suggest that other kinds of strength might matter more.
And this raises the question of heroism: are heroes always defined by their physical abilities? Can you even have a weak hero? And what about a blind one?
By the time he wrote Samson Agonistes, Milton was blind. You can imagine that he had a personal investment in talking about the debilitating effects of blindness for someone who had previously been able to see. When Samson cries "O dark, dark, dark amid the blaze of noon,/ Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse/ Without all hope of day!" (80-3), it's hard not to imagine Milton felt that pain too.
But believe it or not, blindness isn't totally doom and gloom. It actually has a long history of being associated with both poetry and wisdom. And we see that: Samson is only able to fulfill his destiny as a blind man. (For more on this, check out "Symbols: Blindness.")
Okay, so we've learned that Samson's physical weakness might actually turn out to be a strength. But there's another kind of weakness that we can't really justify—his relationships with women.
Straight talk, Shmooperinos: all this misogynistic language gets us pretty worked up. Sure, this was written around 400 years ago, but we still don't like hearing about how women are all deceitful and untrustworthy.
However, we're setting aside our personal feelings to look at what Milton actually says. And based on the way he portrays Dalila—well, Samson might be right not to trust the ladies. And he does seem to have been a bit uncritical in his choice of wives. Remember that Dalila is the second Philistine woman Samson married who betrayed him. Although Samson certainly places the majority of the blame on himself, he definitely casts women as a weaker gender in general and as bringing out the worst qualities in him.
There's also a pretty clear sexual aspect to this weakness that comes from a longstanding idea that any man who allows himself to be sexually dominated by a woman is inherently weak and unmanly. As Samson says, "foul effeminacy held me yok't" (410). It's not that Samson is calling himself effeminate in the way we think of it today. What he means is that he just likes women too much—the original meaning of effeminate.
No doubt about it: the fact that Dalila can seduce Samson into revealing his secret makes him weak. Her ability to take away his strength—i.e. power—makes Samson at least metaphorically impotent, a word that at its root just means "lacking power." Strength becomes weakness—but, by the end of the poem, the apparent weakness of his captivity and despair eventually becomes a strength.
Samson may not be the kind of character you can cozy up to. You can't imagine him actually running around in the real world doing real things. But you're not supposed to. He's a way for Milton to think about living life—as a hero, or just as a man trying to make the best of the character and situation that God (or Milton) has given him.