Samson Agonistes is a blank verse play by John Milton. The work is heavily indebted to Greek tragedy, but with a Biblical hero. This mix of two different cultures presents Samson as a tragic hero, who rather than raging against the Olympian deities, supplicates himself to the the one, true Christian God, whom he calls upon to save him. Samson's blindness has led many to see him as a character with whom Milton identified with strongly (since he was blinded later in life).
Samson Agonistes plays out the final part of Samson's life, in which he is chained in Gaza. He was tricked by his lover Delilah, his hair was shorn, and he lost his God-given strength. He is a slave and he is torn with the guilt that he betrayed God by giving up the secret he was commanded to keep close (that the source of his strength was his hair).
The play is told by a minor character--much like Greek drama, with the climax often occurred off-stage. In the final moments of the play, Samson is tied to two great columns. As Samson pulls the columns down, the mockery by the Philistines of Samson suddenly turns to panic. Samson destroys his tormentors, and himself, in one final tragic act.
With this final desperate suicidal pull, Samson acts rather than bemoaning his terrible fate. We see Samson's inner strength--his ability to withstand hardships. Through Samson Agonistses, Samson must find serenity in suffering, and reconcile himself with the God, by whom he thinks has abandoned him.
In this way Milton makes an important contribution to the "tragic hero," particularly as it was imagined by the Greeks and later by Elizabethan writers like William Shakespeare
. In Greek tragedy, the hero was one who raged against his fate and, often, went to his death in one final stand against the Gods--it was their attempt to overcome the force of God's cruelty that made him great.
However, in the Christian tragedy that Milton writes, it is Samson's own passion that he must overcome before he can find greatness: both his anger at his captors and his betrayer, and his anger at God for allowing him to be imprisoned. In his final soliloquy we are led to believe that this reconciliation does take place, and that he accepts God's will as all-powerful and irresistable. In this way Samson becomes a Protestant hero--Milton himself was a Puritan--and embodies the doctrine of Predetermination that Protestantism believed in so fervently. No matter what a man did in this life, his fate had already been decided as part of the Divine Plan.
A powerful and affecting drama, Samson Agonistes, was written as a chamber play, and was therefore not to be performed. Perhaps because of the standing of plays under Puritan rule--they were considered frivilous and sinful--Milton did not want to be associated with the theatre. What's more, he thought that his message would be best served by being approached philosophically rather than dramatically. He wanted his work to be mused over whilst being read rather than passively accepted as a theatre audience might. Despite this caveat however, Samson Agonistes is not merely a dry treatise on the nature of fate, it is also a vital, dramatic play, with characters that make us feel, as well as think.