Chorus in Samson Agonistes
In the preface to Samson Agonistes, Milton himself points out that he has introduced the chorus in this play after the Greek’s manner. However, in the use of the chorus Milton follows the example of Sophocles rather than that of Euripides. Unlike the chorus of Euripides Which remains aloof from the action and development of the plot, the chorus of Sophocles as well as in Samson Agonistes reviews what has happened, prepares the audience and readers for what is coming, and it maintains throughout a close sympathy with the characters. In Samson Agonistes the chorus echoes and reinforces, the feelings and thoughts of Samson, interprets the emotions appropriately, and expands and completes the story by its allusions to the past life of Samson. In fact, in Samson Agonistes, the chorus is built in such a way that, without it, the poem/play would fall to pieces.
Throughout Samson Agonistes, the chorus plays an important role. At the beginning of the poem, the chorus emphasizes Samson’s misery. Seeing Samson lying in utter despair in the prison, the chorus says that he looks like a man who is past all hope. The Chorus recalls his past heroism and exploits and contrasts it with his present wretched condition. The chorus recalls Samson’s exploit in having torn a lion as the lion tears a lamb. The Chorus then refers to Samson’s exploit having fought against a whole army and having inflicted a crushing defeat with the use of a mere ass’s jaw-bone as his weapon. It also refers to his exploit in having uprooted the gates of Gaza and the door-posts and having carried this heavyweight on his back to a distant hill. But now, Samson is not only a prisoner but also blind and the Chorus throughout the poem offers some comfort to the miserable Samson. The chorus, furthermore, not only helps the plot by dictating from Samson some information which is vital for our understanding of the background of the play but also illumines Samson’s character not only by its own remarks but also through the answers it obtains from Samson to its question. For instance, the chorus says that though Samson had certainly proved his patriotism by his actions, he failed to Liberate Israel from the philistine yoke, and Samson explains that the fault did not lie with him but it was his own Jewish tribes with Israel’s governors who were indifferent to his actions and compelled him to surrender to his enemies, and so he was unable to do so, the chorus is structurally very important.
“Just are the ways of God
And justifiable to men”
Later in the poem, the chorus again frames a generalization of moral import and significance :
“Marry are the sayings of the
In ancient and in modern books enrolled
Extolling patience as the truest fortitude”
In these lines, the chorus preaches the lesson of patience and endurance which a man should display in the face of misfortunes. At the same time, the Chorus here shows its awareness of God’s mysterious ways of dealing with individuals.
Some of the remarks by the Chorus serve to add to the use of tragic irony in the play. For instance, when Samson, in response to the officer’s second visit, goes to display his feats of strength the chorus offers its best wishes to him, saying:
“God and the Holy One
Of Israel be thy Guide….”
A minor duty performed by the chorus in the poem is to announce the arrival and departure of the various visitors such as Manoa Samson’s father; Dalila, Samson’s wife; Harapha, and the public officials who came to see Samson. These announcements are accompanied by their own opinions about the various characters. For instance, when Harapha is seen approaching, the Chorus tells Samson that a tempest is coming. The Chorus describes Harapha as the “Gaint of Gath”, having a haughty and proud look on his face; and it contrasts him with the “sumptuous Dalila”. And when Harapha leaves, the chorus expresses its contempt for him by telling Samson that “his giant ship is gone somewhat crest-fallen”. In fact, the chorus has something relevant to say about each visitor; and its comments serve to add to the total effect of the portrayal of each of the visitors.
Some of the lines spoken by the Chorus contain veiled references to Milton’s own life. For instance, the lines, in which the Chorus points out God’s arbitrary way of dealing with certain individuals, contain a veiled reference to Milton’s own experience. Just as Samson who was at one time a favorite of God but has now been doomed to suffer misfortunes, So Milton too had been a favorite of God, his parents, and of his countrymen, but he too had fallen on evil days after the Restoration and had suffered both persecution and disease. Apart from this, the chorus in its general observations makes certain references to contemporary events of Milton’s time. Thus, in 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”, certainly echoes of the Restoration, with its brutal trials of men like Sir Henry Vane and the indignities to which the bodies of Cromwell and Ireton were subjected.
In Infine, there are the three speeches which the semi-chorus and the chorus make at the end. In the first two speeches, the semi-Chorus speaks about God’s way of dealing with the Philistine lords and Samson’s achievement in destroying the Philistines just as a serpent destroys poultry or as Jupiter’s eagle hurls a thunderbolt on wrong-doers. And in the final speech, the chorus says: “All is best, though we oft doubt…..” Here the Chorus makes a remark which is intended to make us adjust ourselves to whatever happens in the course of our lives. This speech of the Chorus ends with the line “And calm of mind all passion spent.” The idea here is that the feelings of the audience, like the feelings of the Chorus itself, have duly been cleansed and purged and that they are experiencing the exhilaration which is the function of a true tragedy to provide.