In choosing the classical form of tragedy for his Samson Agonistes, Milton decided to work on a distinctively unpopular medium. For, classically modelled tragedy had never been popular in England. Even Ben Jonson, excused himself for not obeying the Aristotelian rules and not having a proper chorus in his Sejanus. But with his contempt for mere popularity, Milton did not feel obliged to modify the form of classical tragedy to suit the purpose of what Jonson called “popular delight”. J. B. Broadbank has said that Samson Agonistes is actually more regularly Aristotelian in construction that any extant Greek tragedy. Milton has introduced a chorus which tries to be faithful to Aristotle’s precepts. Aristotle emphasised that the chorus must be regarded as one of the actors as part of the whole and as joining in the action. Milton’s chorus contributes to the overall dramatic effect by its continuous presence: it is able both to sympathise with Samson and to give an external point of view which makes his situation seem simpler and more vivid to us. In Milton, as in the earlier Greek tragedies, the choruses are not, as in Euripides, mere interludes; they enforce aspects of the action, as in Aeschylus and Sophocles. Thus in its parode or opening song, the chorus emphasises Sampson’s former heroism and present misery and sets the right perspective for the tragedy. By raising the questions about Sampson’s marriage, it gives voice to our curiosity and gives Samson an opportunity to defend himself against criticism. Another function of the chorus is to offer consolation to the hero. Thus in the first stasimon, the chorus seeks to cure Samson’s despair by vindicating God’s way: “Just are the ways of god And justifiable to men.” However, the chorus’ own understanding of God’s ways is not from the beginning perfect. This is entirely appropriate, for chorus is above all a group of ordinary Danites very much involved in Samson’s predicament. Like the chorus of the...
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