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Milton Now pp 151-174 | Cite as

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

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

Abstract

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

Keywords

Arbitrary Power Public Trial Legal Precedent Habeas Corpus Civil Death 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Tennenhouse, “The Case of the Resistant Captive,” South Atlantic Quarterly 95:4 (1996): 919–46;Google Scholar
  2. Joseph Wittreich calls the poem “the major site of contestation in Milton studies,” Wittreich and Mark R. Kelley, eds., Altering Eyes: New Perspectives on Samson Agonistes (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002), 11. This “contestation” is illustrated by the essays in that volume, as well as by Wittreich’s diptych, Interpreting Samson Agonistes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), and Shifting Contexts: Reinterpreting Samson Agonistes (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    See, for example, Mary Ann Radzinowicz Toward Samson Agonistes: The Growth of Milton’s Mind (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), esp. 269–349;Google Scholar
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  6. 3.
    For readings of the poem in terms of Restoration politics see Christopher Hill, The Experience of Defeat (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), 310–19;Google Scholar
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    Tennenhouse, 930. Skinner, “John Milton and the Politics of Slavery,” in Graham Parry and Joad Raymond, eds., Milton and the Terms of Liberty (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2002), 1–22. In her much more historicist account, Sharon Achinstein nevertheless reads Samson as Milton’s general “exploration of the nature of, and the conditions under which, moral agents might perform acts of obligation” (“Samson Agonistes and the Drama of Dissent,” Milton Studies 33 (1996): 134).Google Scholar
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    See Rchard Cust, The Forced Loan and English Politics 1626–1628 (Clarendon, 1987), 13–90; 58–62.Google Scholar
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    Proceedings 1628, II.176. The concept of “reason of state” as a justification for prerogative power has received extensive attention from political theorists, from J. N. Figgis’s classic account in Studies of Political Thought from Gerson to Grotius (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931), to Maurizio Viroli’s From Politics to Reason of State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). For a suggestive account of the concept’s literary implications, with particular reference to Samson,Google Scholar
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    The 1647 Large Petition of the Levellers demands that the Parliament publish laws in English “that each one who can read may the better understand their own affairs.” See A. L. Morton, Freedom in Arms: A Selection of Leveller Writings (London: International Publishers, 1975), 97.Google Scholar
  29. 23.
    For details of Lilburne’s career in and out of various English prisons, see Pauline Gregg’s authoritative biography Free-born John (London: Harrap, 1961), and the timeline inGoogle Scholar
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  33. 28.
    State Trials V.573. For Streater’s career, see Nigel Smith, Popular Republicanism in the 1650s: John Streater’s ‘Heroick Mechanicks,’ in David Armitage, Armand Himy, and Quentin Skinner, eds, Milton and Republicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 137–55.Google Scholar
  34. 36.
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  37. 38.
    Statutes of the Realm VI.304–06. The Act, with its allusions to seditious speech and writing, recalls the rapidly extended treason legislations of Henry VIII. See Paul Seaward, The Cavalier Parliament and the Reconstruction of the Old Regime 1661–7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 196–99.Google Scholar
  38. 43.
    J. M. French, ed. The Life Records of John Milton (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1956), 339–51.Google Scholar
  39. 48.
    Bennett sees the Chorus as “a people… in bondage to the law,” which Samson’s actions supersede, in Reviving Liberty: Radical Christian Humanism in Milton’s Great Poems (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989): 120–21; cf. Norman Burns, “Then up stood Phinehas’s: Milton’s Antinomianism, and Samson’s,” Milton Studies 33 (1996): 27–46. For a powerful counter-reading in terms of Mosaic law, seeGoogle Scholar
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  41. 49.
    In the irregular fee-based system of the early modern English prison, inmates were often able to raise sums to pay for “day leave,” or even for permission to live outside the prison proper. See Clifford Dobb, “London Prisons,” in Allardyce Nicoll, ed., Shakespeare Survey vol. 17: Shakespeare in His Own Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 87–102; andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  43. 54.
    See the broadside Humble Petition of Elizabeth Lilburne (1646); Mary Overton’s Appeale (1647) adduces legal precedent against the “arbitrary and accustomarie [not customary]” imprisonment of her husband, Richard. Cf. Katherine Gillespie, Domesticity and Dissent in the Seventeenth Century: English Women’s Writing and the Public Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 85–87, andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Ann Hughes, “Gender and Politics in Leveller Literature,” in Susan Amussen and Mark Kishlansky, eds., Political Culture and Cultural Politics in Early Modern England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 162–88. The Chorus’s expression of alleged sympathy with Samson at this point, asserting the “despotic power” of man over wife, further evinces their own flawed commitment to extra-legal tyranny (1053–60).Google Scholar
  45. 62.
    Parker, Milton’s Debt to Greek Tragedy in Samson Agonistes (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1937);Google Scholar
  46. Brewer, “Two Athenian Models for Samson Agonistes,” PMLA 42.4 (1927): 910–20. Cf. Mark R. Kelley, “Milton’s Euripidean Poetics of Lament,”(in Kelley and Wittreich, Altering Eyes, 132–67); and Wittreich, Shifting Contexts, 27–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 63.
    Aeschylus, Eumenides, ed. and trans. Herbert Weir Smyth (Loeb, 1926), ll. 696, 705. For a reading of the Oresteia in terms of dike, or cosmic order, and human “proceedings at law,” see Anthony Podlecki, The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy (Ann Arbor: University of Mchigan Press, 1966), 63–100.Google Scholar
  48. 67.
    For discussions of flawed interpretation at the end of Samson, see Dayton Haskin, Milton’s Burden of Interpretation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994);Google Scholar
  49. Ryan Netzley, “Reading Events: The Value of Reading and the Possibilities of Political Action and Criticism in Samson Agonistes,” Criticism 48.4 (2007): 509–33; and Knoppers, Historicizing Milton, 63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. 68.
    31 Cha. 2 c. 2. See Statutes of the Realm vol. 5 1628–80 (1819), 935–38; Holdsworth, History of English Law Vol 6: The Common Law and its Rivals (Boston, 1927), 126–27.Google Scholar
  51. 69.
    The most notorious example of this is John Carey’s essay “A Work in Praise of Terrorism? September 11 and Samson Agonistes,” Times Literary Supplement, September 6, 2002, 15–16. For a more recent survey and critique of this and other “terrorist” readings, see Feisal G. Mohamed, “Reading Samson in the New American Century,” Milton Studies 46 (2006): 129–64.Google Scholar

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© Catharine Gray and Erin Murphy 2014

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  • Molly Murray

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