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Introduction 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 the play is the finest “Greek” drama in any modern language, a judgment seconded in our day by George Steiner. Classicist Watson Kirkconnell stated that the tragedy “may fairly challenge most of the surviving dramas of Athens’ greatest period,” and the eminent Miltonist William R. Parker accorded it the highest praise, claiming that Samson “is more than an imitation of Attic drama, in the same sense that The Aeneid is more than an imitation of Homer. It is . . . so truly an individual work of art that we are justified now in adding the name of John Milton to the brief catalogue of ‘Tragic poets unequalled yet by any,’” which is Milton’s own description of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.1 On the other hand, despite such acclaim Milton is seldom regarded as a dramatist. Neither Frank Magill’s Critical Survey of Drama nor Frederick Link’s English Drama: 1660–1800 even mentions Milton. (Link’s omission seems especially puzzling, given his otherwise exhaustive catalogue, which extends to obscure figures such as Moses Mendez and Gabriel Odingsells.) William Adams’s Dictionary of English Literature refers to Milton as a “poet and prosewriter ,” the New Century Handbook of English Literature calls him ix x Introduction an “English poet,” Webster’s New World Companion to English and American Literature labels him a “poet and controversialist,” and both the Dictionary of Literary Biography and the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English denominate him a poet. Moreover, Samson is hardly ever included in drama anthologies. So while Parker wished to include Milton in the company of the great Athenian dramatists, and while Alfred Harbage’s Annals of English Drama lists him as a playwright, such assessments are indeed rare.2 In a 1966 PMLA article, Roger Wilkenfeld pointed out that the reluctance of the professoriate to view Milton as a dramatist had become something of a truism: “In the long history of Milton commentary a single axiom has survived for generations as a critical touchstone. . . . Simply stated it reads: Milton was not a dramatist and his poems are not dramatic.”3 Some 40 years later, that assessment remains the dominant one. It is founded primarily, perhaps, on the belief that neither Comus nor Samson constitutes successful drama. Samuel Johnson seems to have initiated this critique , claiming in Lives of the English Poets that the speeches of Comus, though poetic, are too long to be dramatically effective. Johnson also argued that the tragedy fails to provide any significant causal action between Samson’s entrance and exit that either hastens or delays the catastrophe.4 The present study contests the prevailing view, arguing that in addition to being a superb writer of epic and lyric, Milton was also a dramatist, and a considerable one at that. Though he composed but one play, it is an undisputed masterpiece. Moreover, as I demonstrate in chapter 5, Samson has a surprisingly extensive stage history . And if Comus is not a play, it is nonetheless very close to being one, much more so than any other masque. What is more, Paradise Lost was originally conceived of as a tragedy, not as an epic. In the early 1640s Milton completed four detailed outlines for a Fall tragedy, as well as at least one speech for the projected tragedy, a 10-line soliloquy by Satan that was later transferred wholesale into Paradise Lost 4. Even in its present form, Paradise Lost retains other dramatic vestiges, including what appear to be stage directions in book 9. In fact, as I argue in chapter 3, it is even possible that Milton completed the projected Fall tragedy. I also make the case in chapter 1 that his passion for drama was deep and lifelong, evidenced not only by his dramas and dramatic plans, but also by his extensive annotations of Euripides and by his firsthand experience with, and published defense of, the public theater. Regarding Milton as a dramatist restores a better balance to the totality of his literary achievement and sheds light on some of the most critical questions about his corpus, including the Satan controversy and the...


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