Autobiographical elements in Samson Agonistes
One of the most conspicuous features of the play, Samson Agonistes, is that it shows the profound influence which Milton’s personal experiences in life exerted upon the writing of this play. But this does not mean that we should completely identify Samson with Milton. But it is obviously clear that (the biblical characters) Samson’s career largely corresponded to the state of mind of Milton himself, and to Milton’s own circumstances in life. Like Samson Milton also suffered blindness, an unsuccessful marriage, and political upheaval. Besides he also suffered from disease (gout) and financial stringency. In fact, after the Restoration in 1660, Milton had fallen on evil days and one can now imagine how miserable he must be feeling at the time he wrote Samson Agonistes (1667-69).
For Samson Agonistes, Milton selected a Biblical character, choosing the last episode of Samson’s life as the climax or Catastrophe of his play. Now during the last phase of his life, Samson was living as a prisoner and a slave in a prison in Gazo after he had been blinded by his enemies as a result of his wife Dalila’s betrayal of him. At the very outset of the poem, Samson says that this blindness is his worst misfortune. It is worse than chains, dungeon, or beggary. He finds himself blind among his enemies and on account of it, he is exposed to daily fraud, contempt, abuse, and wrong, both within doors and out of the door. So he says:
“O dark, dark, dark amid the blaze of noon
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse.
Without all hope of day!”
Now, these lines simply give an expression to Milton’s own sense of loss and wretchedness during his blindness as it was not possible for Milton to keep himself and his own feelings out of the portrayal of Samson.
Milton was now disillusioned when the Commonwealth came to an end and was now replaced by the monarchy in England. The song of king Charles I, who had been executed by the Puritans under Cromwell, had become the new king under the name of King Charles II. It was but natural for the Royalists to persecute the erstwhile followers and supporters of the commonwealth and Cromwell. Milton was himself among those who had been persecuted and could therefore enter fully into the feeling of the prisoner, Samson, who laments his failure to have fulfilled the destiny to which he was born. Samson had been brought up by his parents under the belief that he was God’s “nurseling” and God’s “choice delight”. He was destined to do great deeds as predicted by an angel and also to liberate Israel from the yoke of Slavery to the Philistines. But now, the same God had cast him off and thrown him at the mercy of his cruel enemies who have blinded him and have made him their captive. Nothing is left to him but ” Faintings, swoonings of despair and sense of Heaven’s desertion”.
Now, Milton too had been proud of his parents; he too had at one time been the champion and darling of his countrymen. But like Samson, he too had been betrayed by his own people who had welcomed Charles II to the English throne. Samson’s lament is thus Milton’s own lament, a lament without hope, a lament expressing the anguish of a proud and brave man compelled to live in unendurable condition.
Then there is a portrayal of Dalila in the play which at once reminds us of Milton’s first wife Mary Powell’s treatment of Milton, Milton, like Samson who is a Jew, chose a wife of Palestinian origin, had chosen a wife from among people who were unfriendly to him. Milton was a man of strong Republican views, while Mary Powell belonged to a Royalist family. Now, like Samson, Milton’s wife too had betrayed him and I had gone to her parent’s house from where she refused to come back to Milton as she found Miltons “home uncongenial to her. On the other hand, Dalila had shorn Samson’s hair and thus deprived him of his strength. So in depicting Samson’s mental torture when Dalila comes to see him, Million must have put his personal feelings into his writing of the dialogue between Samson and Dalila. Samson describes Dalila as a hyena and a sorceress and regards her as a cunning and deceitful woman who must never be relied upon again. In this context, it may be noted that, mainly as a consequence of Mary Powell’s conduct, Milton had begun to despise woman and therefore in his pamphlets he had insisted, that man was a higher being than woman, and that by virtue of this superiority, every man had a right to exercise full authority over his wife:
Therefore God’s; universal law
Gave to the man despotic power
Over his female in due awe
In many passages of Samson Agonistes, the personal note is too far clear to be mistaker as in the reference of contemporary events and happenings of Milton’s time. The great lament of the chorus, beginning with line 608, the phrases, “Unjust tribunals, under change of times.” “Their carcasses to dogs and fowls a prey; are certainly echoes of the Restoration, with its brutal trials of men like Sir Henry Vane who was executed in June 1662 as a result of the trial and the indignities to which the bodies of Cromwell and Ireton were subjected. After the Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660, the parliament started the trial and punishment of all those who had taken part in the impeachment and execution of Charles I in 1640. In December I660, the parliament ordered that the bodies of the dead like Cromwell, Bradshaw, and Ireton be taken out of their grave to be dragged to Tyburn, there to hang some time before being buried again. All the events have been hinted at in the lines before us. Then there are those lines in which Samson speaks of bondage and liberty. He there says that when a nation has been corrupt on account of its prolonged slavery, it begins to love bondage more than liberty. Here Milton is referring to his own countrymen whose love of bondage had been responsible for the restoration of monarchy and despotism to England and for the dislodgement of republicanism, and liberty. Such an experience speaks in Samson’s complaint:
“But what more oft in Nations grown corrupt,
And by their Vices brought to servitude,
Then to love Bondage more than Liberty.”
Samson’s lament is thus Milton’s own lament, a lament without hope, a lament expressing the anguish of a proud and brave man compelled to live in unendurable conditions.