In 1671, John Milton published Samson Agonistes, a closet drama written in the tradition of Greek tragedy, having as its subject the biblical story of Samson. It opens with Samson, former hero of Israel because of his strength, now a blind prisoner of the Philistines who questions the reason for his previous calling and great gift of strength in light of his current captivity, the result of his failure to withstand temptation in the wiles of his former wife. Through the narrative of the drama, Samson engages with various characters, some sympathetic to his plight, and others, enemies, to move from an inactive despair to the hope that God might be able to use him again to a final devastating action, which is either his greatest feat, in response to "inner promptings," or a tragic act of self¬wrought vengeance.
Throughout Milton's work, we see the connection between the private, inner response to reason, worked out in a public, political setting. The difficulty with Samson, then, is the interpretation of that connection: knowing if his public action proves the moral fitness of his intellectual life, and whether his action can be instructive to an audience within the drama. To understand more clearly the way that Milton conceptualizes Samson's rational process, we will examine three texts which relate to Samson Agonistes in the way they engage questions of the ethical implications of dramatic representation. The first is Aristotle's classical treatise on the elements of tragedy, the second is a closet drama that works from a didactic and political framework contemporary to Milton's but in sharp contrast, and the third is a drama that overlaps dialogue of multiple perspectives, one which Milton draws from and adapts. Each text is a model for Milton, and we can approach a way of understanding the meaning of Samson Agonistes by thinking about Milton's relationship - what he applies, transforms, or rejects from each - to other representations of dramatic education.