Date of Award

Fall 2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Dr. Scott Crider

Second Advisor

Dr. Joshua Parens

Third Advisor

Dr. David Sweet

Abstract

In his prologue to Samson Agonistes, Milton champions the conventions of Greek tragedy over those followed by Elizabethan dramatists. Great tragedy, he contends, purges fear and pity out of audiences, facilitating a more sober, moral, rational life. Based on his argument and on the content of the poem, the most important difference between classical and Elizabethan tragedy is the Chorus. The Chorus represents a poetic, monolithic, communal voice that interacts dialectically with a strong, independent hero. The Elizabethans eschewed the unified Chorus in favor of realistic and comedic imitation of the various members of the British masses, which, according to Milton, dilutes the dialectical conflict of heroic independence with community morals and weakens the potential of tragedy to produce a cathartic synthesis in the audience. In order to further understand and test Milton’s conception of the Chorus, this dissertation compares Samson Agonistes with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Coriolanus was selected because many critics have contended that it is the closest Shakespearean tragedy comes to imitating the unified structure and aims of classical tragedy while still retaining many Elizabethan conventions. Coriolanus is a model of the Aristotelian tragic hero who is superior in virtue but falls because of an error. His aristocratic, military values are depicted in sharp contrast with the increasingly republican values of the Roman citizens. Those citizens are depicted in typical, Elizabethan fashion, making their conflict with Coriolanus an ideal contrast with the Chorus’s conflict with Samson. Further, there are many fascinating parallels between the experiences of Samson and Coriolanus and in the structure of both plays. This dissertation will argue that while Shakespeare’s more realistic and entertaining imitation of complex political interactions does produce tragic emotions, especially in the final confrontation between Coriolanus, Volumnia, and Virgilia, Coriolanus dies rejected by Romans, Volscians, and often by audiences. On the other hand, Milton’s tightly constructed dialectic between Samson and the Chorus, including the conflicts with Manoa and Dalila, tends to produce a more meditative experience and to mediate a clearer cathartic resolution. Samson dies celebrated by the Danite Chorus, and audiences, with some important exceptions, have accepted him as a hero.

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