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Shifting Contexts

Reinterpreting Samson Agonistes

By Joseph Wittreich

Publication Year: 2002

Samson Agonistes is the climax and completion of Milton’s poetic vision. As such, it has become the work at which the critical controversies in Milton studies converge and from which new critical perspectives on Milton’s poems emerge. In 1969, John Carey heralded the birth of new critical perspectives when he contended that Milton’s dramatic poem "is not a drama of inner regeneration," a view that flies in the face of traditional interpretation, which tends to perceive Samson as a hero of regeneration. Carey also focused on Samson’s “tragic sulk” and the “theatre-demolition” at the feast of Dagon. Following Carey’s lead, other critics, notably Irene Samuel, began to question the various elements, large and small, of the traditional interpretation of Milton’s dramatic poem. Milton’s religious and political thinking, his use of prosody and verse, his outlook on tragedy, and the like were all reexamined. Since this revisionist view of Samson Agonistes began to develop, it has unfolded with a decisiveness and momentum that now challenge the traditional view, if not overthrow it. The dramatic poem’s ambiguities highlight Milton’s innovative adaptation of the biblical narrative concerning Samson, undermine the traditional ideas of Samson’s election by God and his redemption, question the typological alignment of the Hebraic and Christian scriptures whereby Samson traditionally is perceived as a “hero of faith” who prefigures the mission and ministry of Jesus, and draw attention to Milton's use of Arminianism, Calvinism, and other theological views. This book contends that there are several Samsons in the dramatic poem and multiple contexts and various traditions that bring to light Milton’s unique rendition of a kaleidoscopic protagonist. To achieve its purposes, this book forges and deploys a new critical vocabulary of paramount importance not only to Miltonists but to critical theorists generally.

Published by: Duquesne University Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-vii


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pp. viii-x

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pp. xi-xxxii

Criticism is cumulative and, as it accumulates, assumes a corrective function, emending both a critic’s own errors, as well as the mistakes of others, in the process setting the record straight. That is a first imperative when criticism, in this instance of Milton, risks coming to a standstill, largely through ...

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One Reinterpreting Samson Agonistes

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pp. 1-66

The history of criticism is partly the story of changes and choices in both focus and methodology, some of which, the outcome of new discoveries, force both a reconceiving and a rewriting of tradition and, simultaneously, its pluralization. ...

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Two Justifying Samson’s Ways

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pp. 67-100

For some it is a fact, now indisputable, that the Samson of the Epistle to the Hebrews — a Samson sanitized and sainted — is Milton’s Samson. While Gladys J. Willis would trace Milton’s Samson, a “Saint,” to Athanasius (d. 373), even as she questions, ...

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Three “Glorious for a While”

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pp. 101-144

In Pseudo-Philo (first century A.D.), in response to Samson’s taking Delilah as his wife, God speaks:
Behold now Samson has been led astray through his eyes, and he has not remembered the mighty works that I did with him; and he has mingled with the daughters of the ...

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Four Several Texts in One

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pp. 145-192

Robert Bellarmine is the Catholic most frequently cited, among the Protestant commentators, as a sanction for the supposedly Popish interpretation of Revelation 7; and Bellarmine believed, as Francis Rollenson reports disapprovingly, that “the ...

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Five Thought Colliding with Thought

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pp. 193-242

By the seventeenth century, certain counter tendencies had already obtruded upon orthodox interpretation of the Samson story; and ubiquitous reference to this story was prompting new interpretation. That Samson was so often present in ...

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Six From Political Allegory to an Allegory of Readings

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pp. 243-286

Milton’s last poems are of a piece. In each of them, the poet makes interpretive choices in the full realization that to reject a representation, or an interpretation, on theological or political grounds does not preclude its use in poetry. For example, ...


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pp. 287-344


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pp. 345-354

E-ISBN-13: 9780820705262
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820703312
Print-ISBN-10: 0820703311

Page Count: 384
Illustrations: 2 facsimile pages
Publication Year: 2002

OCLC Number: 606874359
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Shifting Contexts

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Subject Headings

  • Bible -- In literature.
  • Samson (Biblical judge) -- In literature.
  • Milton, John, 1608-1674. Samson Agonistes.
  • Judges in literature.
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