Samson, the central figure in the play, Samson Agonistes may justly be described as a tragic hero as he fully corresponds to Aristotle’s conception of a tragic hero. He was a great man once illustrious and prosperous; and he has now fallen from his high estate is a consequence of one fatal flaw i.e, Lust for Dalila in his nature. That flaw is lust for women which has brought him down to his pathetic position, and it is a position that contains all the elements of pity for him and fear for ourselves lest we would meet a similar fate if we suffer from some fatal flaw.
Samson is in a state of great despondency and depression when the play opens; at the thought of what once he was and what he is now. 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 great 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 the sense of Heav’ns desertion”
Samson says that his blindness is his worst misfortune. It is worse than chains, dungeon, and beggary. He says:
“O dark, dark, dark amid the blaze of noon
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!”
Our impression of Samson’s sufferings and misery, as conveyed to us by his own recurrent lament, is greatly reinforced by what the chorus and Manoa say about him. The Chorus, for instance, says that the change in the condition of this man is “beyond report, thought, or belief”. And they ask:
“Can this be he
That heroic, that renowned
It would be worth in this context to recall the exploits of Samson as referred by the Chorus and he himself. Samson had one occasion killed a lion as easily as a lion kills a lamb. On another occasion, as he himself says during his talk with Harapha, he had killed thirty Philistines as an act of retaliation against the faithlessness of his first wife (from Timra). Then, as the chorus points out, he had killed a thousand Philistines merely with a dead ass’s jaw-bone. And now, when he is blind and almost helpless, yet he is willing to fight a duel with Harappa. And his final heroic deed, of course, is to bring down the roof of the building under which sat all the Philistine nobility and gentry.
However, Samson’s sense of guilt is as strong as his misery is great. For all his sufferings, he holds himself and his own follies responsible for His greatest jolly was, of course, his disclosure of the secret of his strength to that seductress, Dalila and thus betraying God’s most sacred trust. He told her that his strength is concentrated on his hair and how easily he could be deprived of that strength. In disclosing his secret to her, he had given evidence of being an effeminate person and proved to be Dalila’s bondslave. His entire conduct in this context had been “ignoble, unmanly, ignominious and infamous” when the chorus compliment him on having abstained himself from liquor, he says that Abstinence from liquor serves little purpose if one cannot control one’s lust. And it is Samson’s lust for Dalila, the main reason why he is “now blind, disheartened, ashamed, dishonored, quelled”. Samson says,
“Nothing of all these evils hath befallen me
But justly. I myself have brought them on,
Sole Author I, sole cause?”
Here he also admits that he had made a wrong choice of wife on both occasions. Firstly, the woman of Timna had proved to be faithless to him and his second wife, Dalila proved to be treacherous. And realizing this fact he shows his firmness of character and inflexibility of his resolve in this interview with Dalila. He had once surrendered to her wiles, but now he will surrender to them no more.
Samson describes Dalila as a hyena and a sorceress and regards her as a cunning and deceitful woman who must never be relied upon Though she had come to seek his forgiveness but none of her arguments or pleas carry any weight for him. He even threatens to tear her into pieces when she asks for permission to touch his hand purposedly to arouse his lust. It is, in fact, one of Samson’s triumphs, to have withstood all the entreaties and prayer of Dalila and it is this rage solid firmness of resolve which raises Samson in our estimation.
If Samson realizes his own folly and blunder, he does not ignore the fault of the Jewish governors or leaders. He says that the Jews people could have inflicted a heavy defeat upon the Philistines had they unitedly attacked the Philistines when he had certainly done his little bit to prepare the way for it. Then the Chorus fully agrees with the remark of Samson that, when a nation becomes accustomed to slavery over a long time, it loses the desire for liberty Samson complains:
“By what more oft in Nations grown corrupt,
And by their vices brought to servitude,
Than to love Bondage more than liberty.”
An outstanding ‘ trait of Samson’s character is his complete faith in the God of Israel. When his father tells him of his effort to obtain his release, Samson replies that he would like to stay on as a prisoner in order to do penance for the sin that he had committed against God in revealing the secrecy of his strength and having thus betrayed his sacred trust Samson says that though God has given him extraordinary strength he has not endowed him with the same proportion of wisdom. However, faith that encourages him to challenge Harapha is confirmed to a duel, as he is that with the growth of her new hand on his head God has once again bestowed on him the supernatural strength.
Again, when Manoa accuses him of having been responsible for the undue exaltation and glorification of the false god Dagon, he replies that now a direct confrontation between the two Gods would take place and the God of Israel would undoubtedly score a triumph over the false God Dagon and abolish his Supremacy. And finally, towards the end, it is in obedience to the impulses sent to him by God that he complies with the order of the Philistine lords and goes to display his feats of strength after having at first refusing to obey the order. Once there, he again receives a divine call and it is in response to that call that he pulls down the pillars supporting the roof, and killing in this way a very large number of the Philistines though he himself also perished in the act. Thus, on the whole, Samson fully endorses the following dictum of the Chorus:
“Just are the ways of God
And justifiable to men”
However, Samson is not portrayed as the usual kind of tragic hero. Generally, a tragic hero is depicted as falling from a great height of Prosperity and fame to the lowest possible condition and perishing. When the poem begins, Samson is already a spectacle of tragic woe but through the interviews with the different people, he undergoes a major spiritual development in the course of the poem.