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Milton the Dramatist

By Timothy Burbery

Publication Year: 2007

This book-length study of Milton as a dramatist fills a longstanding gap in Milton scholarship. Combining author-contextual criticism, historicized reader-response theory, and new historicism, Timothy Burbery begins by answering common objections to the claim that the poet is a dramatist, including the putatively static natures of Comus and Samson Agonistes, Milton’s egoism, and his Puritanism. Further, Burbery asserts, recent biographical evidence of Milton’s consumption of drama, such as his father’s trusteeship of the Blackfriars Theater, suggests that the future poet viewed commercial plays and thus probably alludes to these experiences in his early poetry. Exposure to the public theater may also have influenced major episodes of his own dramas, including the debate between the Lady and Comus, and Dalila’s stunning entrance in Samson.

The study then examines Milton as a practitioner of drama by analyzing Arcades and the Ludlow masque. Having mastered the conventions of masque in the former work, Milton stretched himself in Comus by composing a work that was far more playlike than any court masque. It is possible that his success with these dramas encouraged Milton to regard himself as a budding dramatist in the 1630s, for late in that decade he began sketching out ideas for tragedies on biblical subjects including the Fall, Sodom, and Abraham and Isaac. This material, found in the Trinity Manuscript, shows him working through practical problems of staging and presentation, and sets the foundation for Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes. While Samson was “never intended for the stage,” it nonetheless embeds numerous “stage” directions in its dialogue, including information about the characters’ appearances, gestures, and blocking. Awareness of these cues sheds light on some of the current critical debates, including the terrorist reading of the tragedy and Dalila’s role. Burbery surveys the surprisingly extensive stage history of Samson, a history that tends to confirm its theatrical viability. Milton the Dramatist emphasizes Milton’s dramatic achievements and thus restores a more equitable balance to our appreciation of his total literary achievement.

Published by: Duquesne University Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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p. vii

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p. viii

It is a pleasure to record the numerous debts to colleagues, students, and friends incurred during the writing of this book. Albert Labriola suggested the topic, while Joseph Pequigney supervised my doctoral thesis on the subject. Lee Erickson supplied excellent advice during the project’s early phases, as well as learned scrutiny of chapter 1. ...

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pp. ix-xviii

One of the most striking enigmas of literary history concerns the ambiguity of John Milton’s status as a dramatist. On the one hand, his tragedy Samson Agonistes has been highly esteemed by generations of critics and readers. James Russell Lowell was the first of many to remark that Samson constitutes the best re-creation of a Greek tragedy in English. Coleridge went further, declaring that ...

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One. Milton as Spectator, Reader, and Editor of Drama

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pp. 1-37

One of the first tasks in making the case for Milton the dramatist is to demonstrate that he had significant exposure to staged drama. The point matters because if his experience with the dramatic genre was essentially literary, limited to his reading of plays or, at most, supplemented by rudimentary academic productions, then ...

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Two. Mastering Masque, Engaging Drama Arcades and Comus

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pp. 39-65

For the examination of Milton’s evolution as a dramatist it is apt to begin with Arcades (1632?), a short (109-line), masquelike entertainment, and A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, first produced in 1634. It is essential to see these two pieces in relation to one another, for in Arcades Milton mastered key demands of the masque form: the work evinces his familiarity with masque ...

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Three. Problem-Solving in Milton’s Biblical Drama Sketches

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pp. 67-93

Throughout his early adulthood, Milton kept a private notebook containing both rough drafts and fair copies of several of his early works, including Lycidas, Arcades, Comus, and various sonnets. Seven pages of the notebook are also filled with titles, subjects, speech outlines, character lists, and plot summaries for projected ...

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Four. Theatrical Spectacle in Samson Agonistes Implications for the Terrorism Controversy and Other Interpretive Disputes

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pp. 95-149

Commentators have never reached consensus about the meaning of one of Milton’s declarations in the prefatory epistle to Samson Agonistes, where he notes, “Division into Act and Scene referring chiefly to the Stage (to which this work never was intended) is here omitted.” Some scholars feel that by removing these divisions, Milton wished ...

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Five. Intended for the Stage? Samson Agonistes in Performance

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pp. 151-163

The year 2000 marked the centenary of an important but overlooked milestone in Milton studies, namely, the first staging of Samson Agonistes by William Poel. While many scholars may be aware of isolated productions of the tragedy, the extent and variety of its stage history is perhaps less well known. The work was successful as a ...

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Six. Conclusion Milton’s Achievement as a Dramatist

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pp. 165-174

Having considered the major critical stages of Milton’s growth as a dramatic artist, we are now in a position to examine patterns and connections that have emerged, and to assess his achievement as a dramatist. I have already considered the impressive progress he demonstrates between the writing of Arcades and A Masque at Ludlow Castle. ...


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pp. 175-177


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pp. 178-199


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pp. 200-206

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705187
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820703879
Print-ISBN-10: 0820703877

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 608427849
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Milton the Dramatist

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Subject Headings

  • English drama -- 17th century -- History and criticism
  • Literary form -- History -- 17th century.
  • Milton, John, -- 1608-1674 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Milton, John, 1608-1674 -- Dramatic works.
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