The role of Chorus in Samson Agonistes

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 women of Canterbury in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, “They know and do not know”. It is wrong to expect from them a serene detachment and deliver impeccable judgements even in the midst of Samson’s acute suffering. So the chorus’ realisation of God’s purpose grows with its perception of Samson’s gradual mastery over himself. Nothing in the play is more dramatic than the way in which the chorus first justifies “divine disposal”; it is temporarily deflected from its faith by the reality of Samson’s suffering. The suffering leads it to question God’s ways in the second stasimon and finally reaches an understanding of the essential justice of God’s ways. As last when it hears of Samson’s death and victory, the chorus observes that we, who have witnessed the tragic action, will be cured of passion. Tragedy is tragedy is a type of spiritual training for the audience and it is the chorus which brings out this significance of the action. We as audience are expected to identify not with Samson himself, but with the developing awareness of the chorus. Many critics have found faults with the chorus utterance after the departure of Dalila in the third stasimon. It has been said that this stasimon is inappropriate for the chorus, and the virulent note of misogyny does not accord with the supposed role of the chorus which should be always objective and detached. But we have seen that the chorus is very much involved in the action and that the spectacle of Samson’s suffering often leads it to partial, imperfect judgements. It would have been unnatural if, after the departure of Dalila, the chorus came out with s speech full of compliments about women. The Danites are attempting to solace Samson. Their judgement is not expected to be balanced. We must also be on our guard against a common “biographical fallacy”, the tendency to think that Milton is here putting in the chorus’ mouth his own antifeminist sentiments. In Milton’s own words: “...such words are put into the characters’ mouth as are most fitting for each character, not such as the poet would speak if he were speaking in his own person.” The versification of the choric odes has been a subject of controversy too. For instance, Dr. Jonson found this versification “harsh and dissonant”. But ever since Hopkins praised the technical daring of Milton’s choric verse, the versification of the odes has been recognised as a prosodic triumph. In his Preface Milton states that he did not want to reproduce the characteristic structure of the Greek choric ode which was usually divided into strophe, antistrophe and epode. There was no point in maintaining this division in a play from which music was absent. The source of the prosody of the chorus has been sought in the contemporary Canzone of Italian pastoral drama and in the patterns of the Hebrew Psalms. Whatever the source, the versification the central odes have a rhythm unheard before in English and display a technical originality unequalled with Hopkins. The metre of the choral verse is at once irregular and almost wantonly free, capable of giving the impression of powerful feelings surging under the control of grave thought.

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