Study Guide

Samson Agonistes Themes

  • Religion

    Shock! Samson Agonistes is obsessed with religion. Okay, now that you've recovered from that mind-blowing announcement, let's check out exactly how this theme gets deployed: lots of talk about God; pretty much everyone spends their time talking about religion; and, oh yeah, it's based on a Biblical story. But religion isn't just a superficial spackling. Milton is asking some serious questions here: What's the right way to be religious? What's the right religion? How can religion or the divine help you understand what right and wrong are? We think it's proof of just how serious Samson Agonistes is about religion that it doesn't offer any easy answers to these big questions. Instead, it just puts them out there for you to decide.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do all the characters we encounter seem to have the same relationship to religion, even if they practice different ones? If not, do any characters seem to view religion in the same way, or does everyone have a slightly different take?
    2. While religion is obviously a big deal all on its own, it often affects other areas of life. What other areas does it seem to touch in Samson Agonistes? Politics? Justice System? Romance? Society? Family? How?
    3. If you didn't know that Samson Agonistes was based on a Biblical story, how would you see religion coming into the story? Who brings it up and how do they talk about?

    Chew on This

    Even though the characters in Samson make a big deal about whether they're Hebrew or Philistine, they all seem to act in the same way. Religion doesn't seem to make a big difference after all.

    Considering how this story ends, Milton is trying to show religion's dangers, not its benefits.

  • Suffering

    Here's another no-brainer: opening with lines that describe our protagonist as both blind and imprisoned, it's pretty obviously that Samson Agonistes is about suffering. But just in case you need convincing, the poem spends most of its time listening to various characters describing suffering: the who, what, where, when, and, oh yeah, why. Each of the various visitors Samson talks with offers a different perspective on Samson's suffering and their own. Does anyone find relief? Do they all? We'll leave that up to you.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What kinds of suffering does Samson Agonistes depict? The physical ones are the most obvious, but do you see other kinds as well? Which ones and where?
    2. What various attitudes towards suffering do we see presented? Do all the characters feel the same way about it or do different characters have different points of view? If so, are they incompatible?
    3. Does Samson's suffering increase, decrease, or remain exactly the same throughout the poem? Why?

    Chew on This

    Since Samson's problems are entirely his own fault, this story isn't about his suffering at all.

    Tragedies are always about suffering. There's nothing special about suffering in Samson.

  • Guilt and Blame

    No one wins the blame game. But, if there's one thing that seems to unite every character in Samson Agonistes, it's that they're all trying to blame someone else for the situation they're in. Even though Samson admits he's most at fault many times during the poem, he's also pretty good at pointing fingers at other people: Dalila, the Hebrew leaders... sometimes he even seems to be blaming God. There's obviously a lot of guilt and blame to go around in this story, and the bigger question isn't who's at fault, but why it even matters. Does it help to place blame? Or does it—ahem—just keep you locked in a prison of your mind?

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Is there one character in particular who seems most interested in assigning blame? What about guilt? Is there one character that also seems to feel especially guilty?
    2. Do the topics of blame and guilt not seem to apply to some characters? Or is everyone, somehow, implicated?
    3. In what way are characters usually identified as being guilty: through their actions, beliefs, identities? Are these all equally valid ways of assigning guilt?

    Chew on This

    Samson is depicting a war situation between the Hebrews and Philistines. In war, both sides are always guilty. Samson shouldn't be trying to identify who is guilty and who isn't. The poem suggests that assigning blame is God's job, and we should just sit back and wait.

  • Strength and Skill

    It's a bird, it's a plane... it's Samson! Okay, you got us: he's not actually Superman, but from the way some of the characters describe Samson's previous mojo, he's not so far off. Saving his people, conquering enemies, fighting while totally outnumbered—Samson definitely was strong and skilled. Unsurprisingly then, a big preoccupation of Samson Agonistes is: what happened? The question isn't just literally how Samson lost his strength and wound up in prison, but also whether the fact that it did happen means Samson never was truly either of these things. Could someone with genuine strength and skill make the choices that he did?

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. When do we first hear about how strong Samson was? From whom and why does this matter?
    2. What kinds of stories do we hear about Samson's previous strength, and how does he come across? Heroic? Vicious? Both?
    3. Why does Samson believe that God made him strong? Did this strength have a certain purpose?

    Chew on This

    You can't actually call Samson "strong" because he was endowed with this strength by God and didn't even have to work for it. He just has a superpower.

    Samson probably was never as super-duper as he and everyone else has been claiming. He's just romanticizing his past life.

  • Fate and Free Will

    If we could only take one fact about tragedies to our desert island (don't ask), it would probably be—you can't escape fate. In Greek mythology, the concept of fate was personified by a trio of goddesses, and suggested that all people have a certain destiny that must be fulfilled. Essentially: no free will. Now, this whole fate/free will thing gets very (very) complicated for Christianity. Was Eve fated to eat that apple? If so, what does that say about God? Can we do anything to help our salvation, or are we just born saved or damned? For Samson Agonistes, the important thing is that Samson can't decide whether everything he does is fulfilling God's destiny for him (a kind of Christian version of fate) or whether he has total control over himself. So we're left wondering—where does his self-sacrifice fit in to all this?

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Where does the idea that God has special destiny for Samson come from? Who attests to this and what is it based on?
    2. What, if anything, seems to be the connection between destiny, free will, and heroism? Are they all compatible? Why or why not?
    3. Does everyone believe that Samson is specially destined? Who doesn't?

    Chew on This

    Samson's belief that he might be fulfilling God's destiny isn't heroic or pious at all; it's totally narcissistic. Even in prison, he needs to believe he's special.

    Samson has to be specially destined by God. Otherwise, how can you explain his whole hair-strength power?

  • Mortality

    By the time we get to the end of Samson Agonistes, it's clear that we're dealing with questions of life and death. And not just literal death. Samson spends as much time describing his current life in prison as a kind of death as wishing that he could actually, literally die. Samson therefore creates a situation in which, really no matter what had happened in the poem, death is always be part of his thinking. But the fact that Samson winds up actually killing himself and many others makes ethics a big part of this larger topic of mortality: Should we be in control of our own death? What about the death of others?

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Do characters other than Samson worry about their mortality? Who and how?
    2. What about immortality? Do characters seem interested in achieving immortality through famous deeds?
    3. What connection, or connections, does the poem offer between religion and mortality?

    Chew on This

    Samson was a prisoner and was almost certainly going to die anyway. His choice to bring the theater down freed his people and enabled them to survive.

    Samson's strength before his downfall probably made him believe he was kind of immortal, so it's about time he came down to earth and faced the reality of his own mortality.

  • Marriage

    Sadly for Samson, something that might have been one happy part of his life turned out to be the absolute worst. disaster. ever. (Fun fact: Milton was drawing on personal experience here. He was one of the first people to make a Biblical argument for divorce.) Both of Samson's marriages to Philistine women end with betrayal, raising questions not only about marital fidelity, but also about fidelity to one's nation or people. In fact, it's a kind of uncommon and interesting aspect of Milton's writings that he so often focuses not simply on the passions of romantic love and sex, a typical topic of literature, but equally on the complexities of marriage as a personal and social contract. In Samson Agonistes, marriage is as much a political act as a private act.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. What reason, or reasons, does Samson give for marrying a non-Hebrew woman twice? Do we believe him? Why or why not?
    2. How would you characterize Samson and Dalila's differing perspectives on marriage? Are they in any way compatible? Is either more persuasive than the other?
    3. Other than Samson and Dalila, who else has an opinion on marriage? Does this opinion, or opinions, differ from Samson's?
    4. How, if at all, does sexuality play into these discussions of marriage? What role is it imagined to have?

    Chew on This

    Dalila is obviously the unfaithful one here. You don't turn your husband into the authorities, plain and simple.

    Samson's misunderstanding about what a good marriage should be like is the number one source of his problems.

  • Change

    The more Samson changes, the more he stays the same... or something like that. Change and stasis (non-change) are two big, oppositional pulls that, confusingly, both seem to be at work in this story. On the one hand, everyone who visits Samson is totally freaking out because "He's so different!!!" And they're right. But, considering how many changes Samson has undergone, it's never entirely clear that he's really absorbed the lessons. And that's really the big question of Samson Agonistes: does Samson's final choice show that he's grown and changed—or does it show he hasn't learned anything at all?

    Questions About Change

    1. Does every character react to Samson's physical change in the same way? Why or why not? And why might this help us understand his character?
    2. Do we see or hear about other characters changing? Who and how?
    3. Are there any obvious ways in which Samson has not changed? Which ones and how can you tell?

    Chew on This

    Samson's antagonistic interaction with the giant Harapha just goes to show he hasn't changed at all—he's just a big, strong, glorified bully.

    Samson is definitely wiser than he was in the beginning, because he's spent the entire poem thinking through his own actions and reactions.