Milton Now pp 151-174 | Cite as

The Liberty of the Subject and the “Pris’ner Samson”

  • Molly Murray
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)


The suicide of the blind Nazarite Samson at the Philistian temple of Dagon ends Milton’s most focused poetic investigation of liberty and constraint. The intensity with which Samson Agonistes presents what Leonard Tennenhouse calls “the case of the resistant captive,” however, is matched by the inscrutability with which it represents both resistance and captivity.1 The poem’s bloody ending has inspired a long-standing debate about Milton’s attitude toward religio-political violence and the “rouzing motions” that might (or might not) justify it.2 Samson’s preceding captivity, meanwhile, has been understood in historical terms as a commentary on republican defeat, or on the persecution of the godly by the repressive religious legislation of the 1660s.3 Still more abstractly, Milton’s poem has offered to some critics a fable of political theory; in the story of a “great warrior who was captured and made a slave,” for example, Tennenhouse sees an account of the violence implicit in political sovereignty itself, while Quentin Skinner takes the poem’s representation of “slavery” as part of Milton’s classically informed investigation of the very conditions of political freedom.4


Arbitrary Power Public Trial Legal Precedent Habeas Corpus Civil Death 
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© Catharine Gray and Erin Murphy 2014

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  • Molly Murray

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