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  • Samson’s Death by Theater and Milton’s Art of Dying *
  • Dennis Kezar

In everything else there may be sham: the fine reasonings of philosophy may be a mere pose in us; or else our trials, by not testing us to the quick, give us a chance to keep our face always composed. But in the last scene, between death and ourselves, there is no more pretending . . . In judging the life of another, I always observe how it ended . . . all the other actions of our life must be tried and tested by this last act.

Montaigne, Essais 1

To die is to be counterfeit.

Falstaff, 1 Henry IV 2

Breath inward comforts to his heart, and affoord him the power of giving such outward testimonies thereof, as all that are about him may derive comforts from thence, and have this edification, even in this dissolution . . .

John Donne, Devotion 17 3

O, Death’s a great disguiser.

Vincentio, Measure for Measure 4

In a highly theatrical culture that also invests a great deal of ideological energy in questions of soteriology, one is not surprised to find death privileged as a uniquely authentic and revelatory drama: a faithful picture of “that within” somehow past “show” and unobscured by “actions that a man might play.” 5 But the very inescapability of theater in the Renaissance creates problems of authenticity for the actors of this drama and interpretive anxieties for its spectators. On a stage inhabited by the likes of Falstaff and the first Thane of Cawdor (the latter dying “As one that had been studied in his death”), nothing guarantees that a man will perform his last act with any more authenticity or biographical integrity than mark his countless preceding acts. 6 [End Page 295] Mortal drama does not necessarily provide transparency; its actors might counterfeit and its spectators misconstrue. In Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi,” the medieval advice to the painter may echo with a consummation still devoutly wished in the early modern period: “Give us no more body than shows soul!” 7 But to such a representational theory we must add the interpretive doubts (here voiced by Macbeth’s Duncan) produced by Renaissance theatricality itself: “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face.” 8

In an effort to keep the theater of death epistemologically viable, the Renaissance did in fact offer many forms of such an art, providing self-representational ground rules for the dying actor and hermeneutic guidelines for the living spectators. Casuistical tracts, consolatory treatises, heavily glossed accounts of the deaths of martyrs and reprobates, and especially the ars moriendi or art of dying literature that provided the period with its ultimate conduct books—all provided theatrical conventions whereby the dying could present themselves as interpretively accessible to the living. For reasons I shall try to make clear, the theatrical conventions of the Renaissance art of dying must be adduced to Milton’s interpretively vexed play if we are to appreciate the historicity of Samson Agonistes’s representation of both dying and the hermeneutics of dying. First, though, I wish to explain why this essay begins by rehearsing the faith and skepticism invited by the Renaissance theater of death and its utterly displayed, yet utterly inscrutable, subject. Recalling this epistemological tension can help us understand not only Milton’s dramatic transactions with seventeenth-century history, but also the central debate shaping Samson Agonistes’s recent and still unfolding critical history.

To a degree unmatched by any other Renaissance play, the critical history of Samson Agonistes records a preoccupation with the interpretation of its hero’s death. Manoa’s crucial question, “How died he?” speaks at some level for every interpretation of the play. 9 But if, as I will argue, Milton achieved this interpretive focus by deliberately designing the play to be recognizable as an art of dying, it is less clear that his text presents what the Chorus calls “self-satisfying solution” (SA, 306). After all, Samson Agonistes proves fatal to those spectators who directly witness the event defined as the play’s central interpretive moment. Countless passages, moreover, remind us of the eye’s vulnerability and epistemological limitations:

  why was the...

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pp. 295-336
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