In terms of the Circe myth, Samson Agonistes might be seen as a kind of epilogue, in which the Homeric/Ovidian enchantress makes her final appearance in Milton's work. Since there is only a single reference to Circe in Samson, and one that Douglas Bush rightly calls a  "veiled allusion" (p.293), I take for granted that, in an age when educated readers would have studied the classics, Milton expects them to be familiar with Circe and to understand the significance of all the previous Miltonic references to her, predominantly in Comus. [1]  "The traditional interpretation of the myth of Circe," in Bush's words, "commended itself to Milton as inevitably as it had to Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser, and others for the presentation of virtue's conflict with sensuality" (p.277), a generalization that certainly applies to Samson Agonistes. Inevitably, like his predecessors, and as he himself had already done in Comus and other works, he reshapes the myth one last time to suit his own purposes.

In addition to the temptation theme, a central feature of Milton's major poems, there is an interesting, if underemphasized, link between Comus and Samson, in that the Philistines appear to be revelers in the manner of Comus and his crew. In the midst of their religious festivities, "Drunk with Idolatry, drunk with Wine," and "only set on sport and play" (lines 1670, 1679),[2] the Philistines summon their humiliated captive, Samson, to entertain them.

Besides the obvious differences in their choice of divinity—the God of the Israelites versus the fish-god Dagon—Samson the Nazarite is separated from the Philistines by his abstinence from liquor: "Desire of wine and all delicious drinks," the Chorus remind him, "which many a famous Warrior overturns, / Thou couldst repress…" (lines 541-543). Samson's "drink was only from the liquid brook" (line 557).

I have elsewhere discussed the significance of the contrast between wine-drinking and water-drinking in Comus and the youthful Elegies (Green, " 'All His Mother's Witcheries,' " esp. Section VIII: [pp.13- 14]; and Section IX: [pp.14-15, and pp.16-17] [pagination mine]). Especially in Comus, banqueting and alcohol are invariably linked as precursors of sexual pleasure; on the other hand, water in Comus signifies chastity and purity, not merely in Comus' contemptuous references to the Lady as a water-drinker (lines 721-722) but, in a larger symbolic context, in the redemptive power of the river goddess Sabrina, who frees the Lady from Comus' diabolical spell. But as Samson is all too aware, refraining from strong drink does not reinforce for him, as it does for the Lady in Comus, the tendency to avoid sexual activity: "But what avail'd this temperance, not complete/ Against another object more enticing?" (lines 558-559).


By way of reminder, in Homer's Odyssey Circe was able to trap her victims and turn them into animals through the power of wine. Her victims, usually thirsty and, so far as I can tell, almost always male, succumbed to the temptation to drink from her goblet. A light tap from her magic wand completed the transformation to the subhuman. In later literature, long before Milton, alcohol became an indispensable component of the life of sensuality. In Spenser's Bower of Bliss (The Faerie Queene, Book 2, Canto 12) newcomers are offered a glass of wine, which, in good Homeric tradition, turns them into animals. And the Circe-figure who presides over the Bower is Acrasia, whose name, appropriately, is Greek for 'incontinence.' Likewise, in Comus, the titular figure, the son of Circe, offers wine to all who come his way. Milton's innovation here is to have Comus' animal-headed mob consist of both genders. Dalila, the last of Milton's Circe-figures, must use all of her sexual wiles to bend Samson to her will—but without the assistance of wine.

Judith Yarnall traces in some detail the way in which Circe became a target for post-Homeric misogynists, who attacked her in their commentaries because of the way in which she led men astray from their public—i.e., masculine—responsibilities  (Transformations of Circe—e.g., pp. 55,71,73-75, 78). Circe herself has been "transformed" through the ages into the embodiment of all the dangers that women pose for men. Spenser's Acrasia provides a good example in her seduction of a young knight named Verdant ("green," here probably with the meaning 'unripe' or 'naïve'), whose armor is hung from a tree as a sign of his defection from his knightly  duties. And Dalila, through her seductiveness, effectively ends Samson's career as God's champion and leader of the Israelites.


In Samson Agonistes a generalized distrust of women usually appears in speeches by Milton's Chorus. In Greek drama, whose principles Milton follows closely (as Milton scholarship has made abundantly clear), the Chorus often represent, as they also do in Samson, the townspeople, friends of the protagonist, and sympathetic to him (or her); their ideas are often conventional, safe, unoriginal. The Chorus in Samson, knowing Dalila's role in Samson's debasement, pour out their venom against her and, in lengthy denunciations, against women in general. Their verbal abuse of women, not necessarily to be construed as that of Milton himself, is part of a long and venerable tradition, impressively traced by Henderson and McManus to its roots in classical antiquity, the Bible, and Christian theology, and, with the advent of printing, increasingly found in sermons, pamphlets, poetry, and plays of the sixteenth and earlier-seventeenth centuries (Half Humankind, "Part I: The Contexts," pp. 3-130).

In some ways Dalila, Samson's estranged wife, and perhaps Milton's most intriguing  Circe-figure (in spite of only one clear reference to the mythological enchantress),  has many of the characteristics that today we identify with the "vamp" and that were frequently highlighted in Early Modern attacks on women: beauty, sexiness, flattery, persuasiveness, persistence—in a word, Sensuality personified. And these are generally the characteristics of Circe assumed by a long line of Homeric commentators.

Long before the Chorus can identify Dalila as she approaches the blind Samson, the Chorus note three distinct features of his visitor: first, she is lavishly dressed, "with all her bravery [i.e., finery] on"; next, the olfactory senses come into play before the visual, since "an amber scent of odorous perfume" is "her harbinger"; and finally, the fact that a "damsel train" is following her indicates that she is "some rich Philistian matron" (lines 717-722). All of these traits are early clues to the reasons for her presence: the first two underscore her seductiveness; the third, her social prominence, suggests a political mission.


When the Chorus comment on her lavish dress, they compare her to a "stately ship of Tarsus," with "tackle trim, / Sails filled and streamers waving" (lines 718-719), which had been, according to Merritt Y. Hughes, an Old Testament symbol of pride (Milton, Complete Poems…, p.568, note to line 715; the Old Testament English spelling is "Tarshish"). Vanity or pride in women was often signaled by preoccupation with dress. For example, in the anonymous antifeminist poem The Schoolhouse of women [sic] (1541?),[3] the author says that women "trim themself  [sic] every day now," and put on

                        The finest wear [i.e., clothing] that they may buy.
                        And all that ever they may imagine [i.e., devise or plan]
                        Is to allure the masculine.
                                    (Schoolhouse, in Half Humankind, p.145)

And at the beginning of the poem, using another familiar symbol of pride, the anonymous poet exclaims, "It may well be/ The peacock is proudest of his fair tail/ And so be all women of their apparel" (p.137).

The second detail about Dalila that is readily apparent to the Chorus is her overabundance of perfume, which can be smelled from afar. Often, though not always, in Early Modern discussions about women, perfume is lumped together with cosmetics, commonly referred to as the "art of painting" or "face-painting"—and, more often than not, treated negatively.

In an enlightening essay, "Face-Painting in Renaissance Tragedy," Annette Drew-Bear focuses on the relationship of cosmetics in Elizabethan drama to lust, immorality, and generally suspect behavior. Like the preoccupation with finery, the inordinate concern with cosmetics was commonly associated with women's vanity and pride. For instance, the controversialist Joseph Swetnam, who has harsh things to say about women in The Arraignment of Lewd, idle, froward, and unconstant women (1615), declares in an unflattering generalization: "For commonly women are the most part of the forenoon painting themselves, and frizzling their hairs, and prying in their glass like Apes to prank up themselves in their gaudies" (Arraignment of …women, in Half Humankind, p.205).

"What can be more barbarous," asks the speaker of the anonymous pamphlet Hic Mulier  (1620), "than with the gloss of mumming Art to disguise the beauty of their [i.e., women's] creation?"  (Hic Mulier, in Half Humankind, p.268). [4]  The questioner's horror is typical of the belief that women who use cosmetics are usurping the function of Nature or even of God. Thus Shakespeare asserts in Sonnet 127 that through the use of cosmetics [true] "beauty is slandered with a bastard shame":

                        For since each hand hath put on nature's power,
                        Fairing [i.e., beautifying] the foul with art's false borrowed face,
                        Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower,
                        But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
                                    (lines 4-8)[5]

A better-known example from Shakespeare is Hamlet's caustic remark, referring to women generally but addressed specifically to Ophelia: "I have heard of your paintings, too, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another" (3.1.142-43).

Equally damning is the association of cosmetics with prostitutes. Another example from Hamlet, Claudius' aside about the contrast between his virtuous appearance and the reality that he is a fratricide,  should suffice: "The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art [i.e., cosmetics], /  Is  not more ugly to [i.e., compared to]  the thing that helps it / Than is my deed to my most painted word" (3.1.53-55). 

For the conjunction of painting and perfume, we need only study Ben Jonson's satiric comedy Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, in which Clerimont, one of the young male protagonists, remarks on Lady Haughty's "autumnal face" (1.1.85), and adds, "There's no man can bee admitted till shee be ready, now adaies, till shee has painted, and perfum'd, and wash'd, and scour'd,…"  (lines 86-88)[6]   [emphasis mine] . Immediately afterwards his page sings a well-known Jonsonian lyric in which simplicity of appearance—the natural look—is preferred to "all th' adulteries of art" (line 101):

                        Still to be neat, still to be drest
                        As [i.e., as if], you were going to a feast,
                        Still to be pou'dred, still perfum'd: [emphasis mine]
                        Lady, it is to be presum'd,
                        Though arts hid causes are not found,
                        All is not sweet, all is not sound.  (1.1.91-96)

For our purposes the most explicit connection of all of this to Dalila is that between perfume and prostitutes, as in the speaker's reference in Hic Mulier to "the perfumed Carrion that bad men feed on in Brothels"  (Hic Mulier, in Half Humankind, p.266). According to Merritt Hughes and fellow Miltonists Roy Flannagan and Stella Revard, the "amber scent" of Dalila's perfume alludes to "ambergris" (from whales), a major ingredient of perfumes at the time  (Hughes, p.569, note to line 720; Flannagan, p.820, note 182; Revard, p.484, gloss on line 720).  As if to reinforce the bond between  "amber scent" and prostitution, Hughes asks us to compare Dalila to [John] "Donne's lady of pleasure in El[egy] II ,  13-14, who, in buying 'things perfumed,'  loads herself with 'muske and amber' "  (p.569, note to line 720). [7] 


At the opening of the speech in which the Chorus descry the as-yet-unrecognized Dalila from afar, they introduce her in impersonal, unfavorable terms, even employing the neuter pronoun it:  "But who is this, what thing of Sea or Land? / Female of sex it seems" (lines 710-711). Thus, in just a few brief lines, in which, figuratively speaking, they neuter Dalila, as well as compare her to the ship of Tarsus, and remark on her strong perfume, which links her to prostitutes, they have already stacked the deck against her. Implicitly they view her as a Circe- figure—the archetype of female sensuality.

Later, with Dalila clearly in mind, they generalize about the contrast between women's seductive bodies and their imperfect minds:

                        Is it for that such outward ornament
                        Was lavish't on thir Sex, that inward gifts
                        Were left for haste unfinish't, judgment scant,
                        Capacity not rais'd to apprehend
                        Or value what is best
                        In choice, but oftest to affect the wrong?
                                                (lines 1025-1030)

In other words, the combination of all beauty and no brains (a description that seems unfair to Dalila) is a perilous one for men, who can be drawn to "dotage, … [i.e., foolish infatuation] / To folly and shameful deeds…" (lines 1042-1043)—the story of Samson in a nutshell.

Since women supposedly appeal to men's passions and appetites rather than to their reason, allowing women free rein, in the opinion of the Chorus, subverts the hierarchical structure of things; and

                        Therefore God's universal Law
                        Gave to the man despotic power
                        Over his female in due awe,
                        So shall he least confusion draw
                        On his whole life, not sway'd
                        By female usurpation…  . 
                                    (lines 1053-1055, 1058-1060).

Their condemnation of women who are not under the governance of men makes much the same point as Aristotle's classic statement in The Politics about the need for the superior gender (man) to rule over the inferior gender (woman). (See Yarnall, p.93.)

The intellectual inferiority of women—viewed as being incapable of utilizing their reason to the same extent as their male counterparts—is an accusation that recurs in the diatribes against women in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. For example, "The generally held opinion of the time," as Henderson and McManus point out, was to "justify woman's [subordinate] position on the basis of her mental incapacity (according to the Schoolhouse [of women],"  they continue, "woman's reasoning power is 'not worth a turd…' " ) ( "The Debate about Women," Half Humankind, p.26).

Less crudely, in Paradise Lost Milton reinforces the conventional view of the Chorus (and of the period) about the inequality of the sexes and the need for man to be in control. As Satan sees Adam and Eve in Paradise for the first time, they are described in this way:

                        Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem'd;
                        For contemplation hee and valor form'd,
                        For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
                        His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar'd
                        Absolute rule; …      .
                                    (PL   4. 296-298, 300-301)

(There is some ambiguity here, perhaps intentional, about whether we are reading the Archvillain's perspective on the First Couple or that of the Miltonic narrator.)

In one of the later books of Paradise Lost Adam, describing for the Archangel Raphael God's creation of Eve, exults: "Grace was in all her steps, Heav'n in her Eye, / In every gesture dignity and love." Adam says that he was "overjoy'd" to behold her (PL 8. 488-490). Raphael has to remind him gently to keep his love in rational bounds:

                        What higher in her society thou find'st
                        Attractive, human, rational, love still;
                        In loving thou dost well, in passion not,
                        Wherein true love consists not; Love
                                        …    hath his seat
                        In Reason,  … is the scale
                        By which to heav'nly Love thou may'st ascend,
                        Not sunk in carnal pleasure, for which cause
                        Among the Beasts no Mate for thee was found.  [emphasis mine]
                                    (PL 8. 586-594)

God, in other words, has created Eve as a worthy mate for Adam; bestial pleasures are for the lower animals, not for human beings—a point that has ominous implications for the victims of Circe and for those of her Miltonic son, Comus, as well as for Milton's Samson.

As many scholars have pointed out, Milton appears to set up implied parallels in the relationship of Adam and Eve and that of Samson and Dalila. The two men are expected to be the governors of their respective mates and to allow Reason, not "carnal pleasure," to rule their love relationships. In this regard both men fail, as their excessive passion for a woman leads to sinful behavior explicitly prohibited by God. In Adam's case the warning by Raphael precedes the sinful act of eating the forbidden apple; in Samson's case  the implicit rebuke by the Chorus (and later the insensitive reproach by his father, Manoa) come after the fact of Samson's revealing the source of his strength. Adam is able to reconcile with Eve, but that will not happen for Samson and Dalila.

To allow a woman, therefore, to get the upper hand was considered unacceptable. Circe's stratagems—though a goddess, she is still a woman—turn Odysseus' men into unthinking animals: swine; and it is only through the power of reason, symbolized by the herb moly, a gift from the god Hermes, that Odysseus himself can overcome Circe's attempt to metamorphose him as well. (Inconsistently, immediately after overpowering Circe with his sword, he agrees to become her lover and has a year-long affair with her.) But the paradigm that Homer sets up for Odysseus does not hold true for Milton's Adam or Samson. In neither spousal relationship does masculine reason, when it is most needed, triumph over Circe-like "witchcraft."


An important part of what Milton is attempting to do in Samson is to focus on proper relationships between men and women in society, for when the delicate balance between the sexes is broken, as Samson's tragedy shows, discord easily follows. In yielding to Dalila's blandishments, Samson, the champion of the Israelites and nemesis of the Philistines, is captured by the enemy, blinded, imprisoned, and "debas't/ Lower than bondslave!"  (lines 37-38). But the disorder extends beyond Samson's personal and social humiliation: his God, the God of the Israelites, suffers humiliation as well, judged by the Philistines to be less powerful than their god, Dagon.

Although Dalila is the catalyst for these horrific events, Samson doesn't consider lust his primary sin so much as "shameful garrulity" (line 491)—violating the "seal of silence," as he calls it (line 49 ), or the "sacred trust of silence," as his father, Manoa, calls it (line 428): i.e., revealing to Dalila the source of his strength, though enjoined to secrecy by God. A major source of Samson's despair throughout much of the poem is his belief that he has failed—indeed, betrayed—his God. "To have reveal'd / … the secrets of a friend" would be bad enough, Samson confesses, …"But I God's counsel have not kept, his holy secret / Presumptuously have publish'd, …"  (lines 491-492, 496-498). Samson notes that revealing divine secrets is a "sin / That Gentiles  [i.e., pagans] in thir parables condemn / To thir abyss and horrid  pains confin'd"  (lines 499-501)—i.e., to Hades. Merritt Hughes suggests that Milton "thought of the myth of Tantalus."  He cites Euripides and Ovid as sources, as well as Renaissance mythographer Natale Conti  [Natalis Comes], who "found evidence that [Tantalus] was condemned [to Hades] for his 'loquacity because he divulged the secrets of the gods.' "[8]

Samson thus defines himself as a "blab" (line 495), one of a number of terms he uses to indicate that he has not lived up to his own, let alone anyone else's, standards for masculine behavior. He might have resisted Dalila's pleas, he says, "…with a grain of manhood well resolv'd" (line 408);  instead, he is "vanquisht with a peal of words (O weakness!)"  (line 235).

Following the pattern of Spenser's Red Cross Knight, in Book 1 of The Faerie Queene, whose pride makes him vulnerable to the sexual temptations of the witch Duessa, another earlier, pre-Miltonic Circe-figure, Samson admits to the same flaws as Red Cross:

                        Then swoll'n with pride into the snare I fell
                        Of fair fallacious looks, venereal trains,
                        Soft'n'd  with pleasure and voluptuous life;
                                    (lines 532-534) [9]

In Samson's view the consequence of such pride and lustful behavior is his garrulity, the inability to keep quiet about the God-given source of his strength.

The herculean warrior who had terrorized the Philistines continues to discuss the unmanning of himself: he has been "soft'n'd with pleasure";  but in being reduced to a Philistine  slave, Samson affirms that his current "servile" condition (loss of status, dignity, and honor)  is "…not yet so base /As was my former servitude [i.e., to Dalila], ignoble, /  Unmanly [emphasis mine], ignominious, infamous" (lines 415-417). In the same vein of self-loathing and gender self-questioning, he accuses himself of "foul effeminacy" (line 409).

Spenser, Milton's literary mentor, is intrigued (as Milton is) by the demasculinizing of men, especially powerful men, by seductive, manipulative women. Red Cross and the victims of Acrasia are not Spenser's only examples: Sir Artegall, the Knight of Justice in Book 5 of The Faerie Queene, is another, overpowered temporarily by the beauty of a female knight, Radigund, whom he has defeated in battle but who subsequently feminizes him by making him dress in women's clothing and sit at a spinning wheel. Later in Book 5 Spenser moralizes on        "beauties louely baite, that doth procure / Great warriours oft their rigour to represse, / And mighty hands forget their manlinesse" (FQ 5.8.1). [10]  And he uses Samson as a good instance of the generalization:

                        So whylome [i.e., long ago] learned that mighty Iewish swaine,
                                    Each of whose lockes did match a man in might,
                                    To lay his spoiles before his lemans [i.e., lover's]  traine:
                                    Such wondrous power hath wemens faire aspect,
                        To captive men, and make them all the world reiect.
                                    (FQ, 8-9)


In Samson Agonistes Samson's reduction in status, from fierce warrior to bondslave, and his shift in gender, from man to less than man (at least in his own eyes), is intensified by another manifestation of disorder, equally the result of reason's enslavement to passion: namely, his "transformation" from human being to lower animal. A word like "snare [s]" (e.g., "my accomplisht snare" [line 230]; "all her snares" [line 409]; and "into the snare I fell" [line 532] ) has the connotation of an animal being caught in a trap. In addition, Samson laments his "glorious strength / Put to the labor of a Beast" (lines 36-37). And the themes of being regendered (or neutered) and being bestialized come together,  with reference to the loss of his hair,  in a striking self-comparison by Samson to a "tame wether" [i.e., a castrated ram] despoiled of "all my precious fleece" (line 538).


Unlike Comus and its Homeric and Ovidian sources (the Odyssey, Book 10, and the Metamorphoses, Book 14), in which human beings are literally turned into animals, Samson provides only a figurative transformation of a human being into a beast. Like Circe, the women in Samson Agonistes and Paradise Lost lead men astray and prevent them, at least temporarily, from pursuing loftier intellectual or spiritual goals. Not surprisingly, Milton compares both of them to Circe, the mythological goddess with whom they have much in common.

Just before the Serpent confronts Eve as she wanders alone through Eden to perform her chores,

                              Shee…heard the sound
                        Of rustling Leaves, but minded not, as us'd
                        To such disport before her through the Field,
                        From every Beast, more duteous at her call,
                        Than at Circean call the Herd disguis'd.    (PL 9.518-522)

As for Dalila, that one reference to Circe is allusive but unmistakable. In his first meeting with Dalila after her cunning has led to his blindness and eventual servitude, Samson addresses her as if she were Circe:

                        Thy fair enchanted cup, and warbling charms
                        No more on me have power, thir force is null'd,
                        So much of Adder's wisdom I have learn't
                        To fence my ear against thy sorceries.
                                    ( SA, lines 934-937)

But even before this momentous speech Samson refers to Dalila as a "sorceress"  (line 819),  and right after Dalila leaves him, the Chorus, allusively, appear to echo Samson's reference to her Circean nature in their angry remarks on the destructive power of a woman's "charms"  (line 1040), a veritable double-entendre.

With the term "warbling charms,"  against which Samson must "fence [his] ear," Milton appears to be combining the danger from Circe with another well-known source of peril in the Odyssey: the enchanting Sirens whose alluring song leads vulnerable sailors to their deaths against the treacherous rocks on which the beautiful maidens are seated. [11]  But in the Odyssey Circe, too, has her hypnotic songs that attract a male audience. Milton may be recalling the scene from Book 10 in which Odysseus' men come to Circe's castle, where they hear

                                          her singing,  lifting
                        her spellbinding voice as she glided back and forth
                        at her great immortal loom,…
                        Polites, captain of armies, took command,
                                           … : "Friends,
                        There's someone inside, plying a great loom,
                        And how she sings—enthralling!
                        The whole house is echoing to her song."
                                    ( The Odyssey, trans Robert Fagles, Book 10, lines 242-244,

The superior (and ominous) musical abilities of Circe and the Sirens come together, in fact, in a momentary reminiscence  by Comus, who notes that his mother often collaborated with the Sirens to form a wonder-working quartet:

                                             I have oft heard
                        My mother Circe with the Sirens three,
                        Amidst the flow'ry-kirl'd Naiades,
                        Culling their Potent herbs and baleful drugs,
                        Who as they sung, would take the prison'd soul,
                        And lap it in Elysium; Scylla wept,
                        And chid her barking waves into attention,
                        And fell Charybdis murmur'd soft applause:
                        Yet they in pleasing slumber lull'd the sense,
                        And in sweet madness robb'd it of itself,
                                    (Comus, lines 252-261) [12]


Dalila/Circe begins her renewed attempt to seduce her now-blind ex-husband, Samson, by generalizing her flaws—especially,  prying into secrets and then revealing them to others—as "incident to all our sex" (line 774). Blabbing, of which Samson has accused himself earlier, is thus here confirmed as a woman's weakness; and Dalila cleverly manipulates Samson's complicity in this weakness to blame the victim: "To what I did," she states,  "thou show'd'st me first the way. /…  . /  Ere I to thee, thou to thyself wast cruel"  (lines 781-784).

Blabbing—chattering, gossiping, talking unrestrainedly or out of turn, etc.—is yet another of the flaws ascribed to women in the documents of the period. Numerous sermons exhorted a tripartite ideal for women: i.e., to be chaste, silent, and obedient [emphasis mine]. So-called conduct books prescribing appropriate behavior for women advocated silence as a sign of respect and submission to their husbands. Robert Cleaver, in A Godly Form of Household Government (1598), expects a woman to " 'stand in reverend awe' of her husband "and, 'even if she has just cause for anger,' "  she must remain silent  " ' and give him no uncomely or unkind words …' "  (qtd. In Henderson and McManus, "The Social Contexts," Half Humankind, p.53). Likewise, "Henry Smith, in A Preparative to Marriage  (1591), insists that 'Husbands must hold their hands [i.e., abstain from wife-beating] and wives their tongues' " (qtd. In Henderson and McManus, p.53). In this matter, according to Mary S. Weinkauf, Dalila is guilty of most unwomanly and unwifely behavior: she uses "irreverent speech to her husband; irreverent behavior … ; refusal to accept reproof and talking back"  (pp.142-43). Thus she is guilty of far more than just blabbing secrets.

Even Shakespeare's Emilia, Desdemona's confidante in Othello, who speaks her mind freely to other women (Desdemona and Bianca), is generally more restrained in the presence of men, including her husband, Iago. However, when she discovers to her horror that the slanderous remarks of Iago about Desdemona's alleged infidelity have led to her mistress' murder by Othello, she verbally attacks Iago: "You told a lie, an odious, damnèd lie, / …  . / She false with Cassio? Did you say with Cassio?"  Invoking a husband's prerogative, Iago demands: "Go to, charm your tongue." But caught in a critical conflict between obedience to her husband and loyalty to her dead mistress, she chooses the latter: "I will not charm my tongue. I am bound to speak. / My mistress here lies murdered in her bed" (Othello 5.2.187-192). Emilia thus reveals a damning secret about her husband of which, until now, she has had no knowledge. And a few lines later, when she realizes she has more to say, she deferentially addresses  the other men in the room who have come running, along with Iago, in response to her cries for help: "Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak"  (5.2. 202).

One final, if extreme, example will suffice to show the pervasiveness of blabbing, or incessant, ungoverned (and ungovernable) speech, as a patriarchally defined flaw in women. In The Schoolhouse of women the anonymous author offers a serio-comic folk tale about a man who marries a "woman tongueless"  (Schoolhouse, in Half Humankind, p.149). With a devil's assistance, the man is able to create a tongue for his wife, but her first words take the form of curses against her husband: " ' Thou whoreson, knave, and thief.' " And "from that day forward, she never ceased" but tormented him with "boister [i.e., boisterous] babble." But when the man appeals to the devil to make her "tongueless" again, the devil announces, " 'A devil a woman to speak may constrain, /  But all that in hell be cannot let  [i.e., stop] it again' " (p.149). Even devils have their limitations.

On the subject of uncontrolled speech, there is a significant contrast between Dalila, the blab, who cannot keep a secret and thereby destroys her marriage, and Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who keeps a very important secret from the suitors in order to protect her marriage. When the suitors, believing that Odysseus is dead, try to intimidate Penelope into marrying one of them, she promises to select a husband from their group after she has finished weaving a shroud for her aged father-in-law, Laertes. But unknown to them, at the end of each day she unravels everything she has woven during the day. It is one of her maids who reveals her secret, thus confirming, for the most part, Dalila's generalization  (to which Penelope is an exception) that women are too loose of tongue to keep a secret.

As a virtuous and faithful wife, Penelope is a contrast not only to Dalila but also, within the context of the Odyssey, to Circe, her dramatic foil. Circe, the beast-maker, embodies the animal appetites, whereas Penelope, like her husband and their son, Telemachus, merits the protection of Athena, goddess of wisdom, reason, and human resourcefulness.  Circe, an immortal, is portrayed neither by Homer nor by Ovid as having loyalties to any one man  (though, during her year-long affair with Odysseus, Homer seems to imply that she is faithful to the Greek hero, the one that actually breaks off the affair), whereas Penelope, a mortal woman, remains faithful to her husband throughout his twenty-year absence.

Faithfulness or loyalty to her spouse is hardly a trait we ascribe to Dalila (though, admittedly, there is no indication that her disloyalty to Samson has a sexual component).  Besides the weakness of Samson himself,  Dalila offers another precedent for revealing Samson's secret: the actions of Samson's first wife, the Woman of Timna (or Timnath), who has extorted from him the secret to a riddle he tells, "carrying it straight/ To them who had corrupted her, my spies,/ And rivals" (lines 385-387)—i.e., Philistine groomsmen in the bridal party.


Dalila continues her dialogue with Samson by adding two other characteristically feminine motives for her earlier behavior towards him: jealousy and fear of abandonment. She fears that he will abandon her as he did his first wife, "her at Timna" (line 795), and "sought by all means therefore/ How to endear, and hold thee to me firmest" (lines 795-796). To her self-justification she adds fear for Samson's safety (protection from "perilous enterprises": line 804)—though before her betrayal of him, nothing in his career suggests that his life was in danger. She even claims that the Philistines, who have succeeded in getting her to betray her husband, promised "that nothing was designed/ Against thee [i.e., Samson] but safe custody, and hold" (lines 801-802).

In thus suggesting that her actions were prompted by equal concern for Samson and for herself—keeping him "whole to myself, unhazarded abroad,/  Fearless at home of partners in my love" (lines 809-810)—Dalila is not a totally unsympathetic character. At least in the early part of their dialogue (or, perhaps, debate), it is sometimes hard to distinguish between deceit and sincerity.[13]

But even if she did act partly out of jealousy of other women, wishing to be "fearless at home of partners in my love," as she puts it, Dalila's jealousy has terrible consequences: the blindness and humiliation of her husband at the hands of his enemies. Indeed, her literary prototype, the goddess Circe, is portrayed by Ovid as someone whose jealousy leads to vindictiveness and heartbreak. In Book 14 of the Metamorphoses Circe at different times makes passionate advances to a god, Glaucus, and a mortal man, Picus, both of whom reject her advances. She cannot avenge herself on another immortal, so she seeks vengeance on his beloved, the nymph Scylla, whose lower extremities are changed into barking dogs. But she transforms Picus into a woodpecker; and his beloved, Canens, out of grief when she is unable to locate her lover, evaporates into thin air.


A major difference between Milton's Samson and his principal source, the Biblical narrative of Samson and Delilah, is that in the Book of Judges (xiii-xvi) Delilah is Samson's lover, whereas Milton makes Dalila Samson's wife. In Paradise Lost Milton compares Adam after the Fall to Samson, with an interpretation of Delilah closer to that of the Biblical source than to that of his tragic poem: "So rose the Danite strong/ Herculean Samson from the Harlot-lap/ Of Philistean Dalilah, and wak'd/ Shorn of his strength, …"  (PL 9. 1059-1062). The fact that in Samson Agonistes Dalila is Samson's wife, not his mistress (or harlot), makes Samson's suffering all the more poignant; and the extent of his anger is made clear by his reference to her as a "deceitful concubine" (line 537)—a suggestion that he repudiates her as his spouse and already begins to think of her more as a harlot than as a wife.

Dalila's precursor, Circe, developed a reputation in the Middle Ages as a whore, according to literary historian Judith Yarnall, through the influence of Servius, "author of the most widely read ancient commentary on the Aeneid, written around the turn of the fifth century. In his notes on the [relatively brief] Circe passage in book 7" [of Virgil's great epic],  Yarnall continues,  "Servius describes her as clarissima meretrix, 'a most radiant prostitute' "  (Transformations of Circe, p.98)—an astounding oxymoron, to be sure!

But several centuries before Servius, the Roman poet Horace, one of Virgil's illustrious contemporaries in the age of Augustus, made a similar assertion about Circe. (Virgil and Horace, together with their younger contemporary Ovid, formed one of the greatest poetic threesomes of the ancient world.)  In his seminal article, "Dalila, the Ulysses Myth, and Renaissance Allegorical Tradition," John M. Steadman focuses on a passage in the Epistles of Horace that calls Circe a whore (Latin meretrix). Horace specifically declares that Odysseus refused to be subjugated to a 'harlot mistress' (sub domina meretrice: Epistles 1.2.24-26)  (Steadman, p.561). Steadman reveals that

the meretrix-label, which Horace applies to Circe, is conventional among Renaissance mythographers. [Andrea] Alciati's emblem of the sorceress … bears the motto cavendum à meretricibus   ['Beware the whores': translation mine], and the accompanying verses refer to the ['infamous] harlot named Circe' (illustri  meretricem nomine Circe).[14]
             (Steadman, p.561).

Moreover, in asserting the "close relationship between Renaissance allegorization of the Ulysses myth and Milton's characterization of Dalila," Steadman emphasizes the "latter's proficiency in the arts of the meretrix" (p.561), like her forebear, Circe. One of those "arts," apparently, is deceit (see Steadman, p.564), a point that adds to the significance of Samson's reference to her as a "deceitful concubine."  And as we have seen earlier, Dalila's use of strong perfume, with its "amber scent," is simply one more detail that connects her to prostitutes.

Unlike Circe, Dalila (as I have already suggested) does not seem to be guilty of sexual infidelity but of the sexual (leading to the physical) enslavement of Samson, as well as some "proficiency," in Steadman's words, in the "arts of the meretrix."  Yet neither Samson nor anyone else accuses Dalila of granting her sexual favors to multiple recipients. The word "concubine," which he applies to his ex-wife in a conversation with his father, may or may not have for Milton the same connotation as "harlot" (a term used for Delilah in Paradise Lost but not for Dalila in Milton's poetic reworking of the Biblical narrative).  Milton surely knew, though, that the term "concubine" was applied in the Bible to a woman living with a man to whom she was not formally married and with whom she sometimes had children. She was accorded higher status than a mere mistress (or a harlot) but not quite the status, or respect, of a wife.  The classic example is Hagar, Abraham's concubine, of whom his wife, Sarah, grew exceedingly jealous. When Samson utters the word "concubine," he is being intentionally insulting.

All of the innuendoes in the poem, therefore, that seem to identify Dalila with prostitutes—the unflattering traits that she shares with members of that profession; her similarities to Circe and Samson's allusive reference to her as the legendary sorceress; her association with strong perfume; and Samson's application of the pejorative term "concubine" for her—contribute heavily to the negativity directed against Dalila that pervades the poem. Nevertheless, these insinuations that Dalila is a prostitute are not meant to be taken literally—I think  Milton would be among the first to agree—but, rather, should be seen as elements  that succeed in impugning her integrity and devaluing her worth—i.e., lowering her status from wife  (like Abraham's Sarah) to mere concubine (like Hagar).


It was generally taken for granted in the Early Modern Period that marriage was the be-all and end-all for women of all ranks, who were expected to love, honor, and obey their husbands. "The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony," from The Book of Common Prayer (1559), exhorts women to "submit your selves unto your own husbands as unto the Lord: for the husband is the wives' head, even as Christ is the head of the church" ("Form of Solemnization of matrimony,"  in Daughters, Wives, and Widows , p.9)—an authoritative confirmation of the previously discussed assertion, found almost everywhere during this period and earlier, that women need to be governed by men. By the same token, husbands are told to "love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church, … .  So men are bound to love their own wives, as their own bodies" (p.9).

We need not look far to find references to the divine origins of marriage. The great Dutch humanist Erasmus asserts in his Encomium Matrimonii:  "Now if we require the Author of matrimony, it was founded and ordained not of Lycurgus, not of Moses, not of Solon, but of the high and mighty worker of all things, of Him it was … consecrate[d]"  (Erasmus, Praise of Matrimony, in Daughters, Wives, and Widows, p.73).  Erasmus' Encomium Matrimonii begins, as Joan Larsen Klein notes, "by suggesting that matrimony is the holiest of all the sacraments because it was instituted by God in Paradise and because it follows God's command to increase and multiply" ("Introduction" to Erasmus, in Daughters, Wives, and Widow, p.66). According to Erasmus, God believed that Adam's  "life  should be utterly miserable and unpleasant, if he joined not Eve, a companion, unto him… whereby it is to be understood that nothing ought to be more dear to us than the wife, nothing more conjoined, nothing more fast glued unto us"  (Praise of Matrimony, p.73). Certainly no one has written more beautifully than Milton on the sanctity of Adam and Eve's prelapsarian nuptials,  particularly in the well-known "Hail wedded Love" passage of Paradise Lost (4.736-775), where the innocence of their love is contrasted with "the bought smile /Of Harlots, loveless, joyless, unindear'd"  (4.765-766).

Unlike Milton's Adam and Eve, who quarrel after the Fall but are reconciled and, in some ways, even closer than before, Samson and Dalila grow far apart after her betrayal. From a modern perspective, part of the tragedy of Samson Agonistes is that the marriage of Samson and Dalila has turned into an abysmal failure. The common view is that Samson gives too much of himself to his marriage, and that Dalila gives too little. According to David A. Harper, Samson's sin "is the sin of idolatry, specifically wife-idolatry, a sin he shares with Milton's Adam" (p.139). Like the Philistines, who worship the false god Dagon, "Samson divulged his sacred secret because he was enthralled in the sinful practice of worshipping a false idol—Dalila" (p.144).

Thomas Kranidas sees Dalila "as firmly culpable, in certain areas self-deluding, but in general quite deliberately wrong" (p.126). Moreover, he continues, "Dalila comes to visit Samson in order to reseduce him, not for the purpose of love, or even simply of lust, but as a means of bringing him back once more into her power" (p.136)—a view to which Samson himself subscribes.

The contention of John C. Ulreich, Jr., that Dalila is sincerely remorseful for what she has done to Samson, though a minority view, [15] is not without its appeal. Dalila, Ulreich contends,

speaks directly to Samson's condition, and in terms that powerfully suggest her desire to find an effective remedy for his suffering through 'nursing diligence' (l[ine] 924 ). And her promise of 'redoubl'd love and care' (l[ine] 923) seems genuinely compassionate, even selfless.  … Beneath all her elegant finery, Dalila is a woman desperately seeking love, struggling to find means by which to communicate her feeling to the man who hates her (p.189).

Ulreich suggests as well that "in rejecting her, Samson also rejects the principle of charity…"

In this positive interpretation of Dalila's return to visit Samson, which views her later behavior as quite different from her earlier betrayal, there is a useful analogy with Homer's Circe. The earlier portrayal of the sorceress as a trickster who turns Odysseus' men into swine but cannot do the same to their leader is different from the Circe who suddenly finds herself threatened with Odysseus' sword. She changes her approach entirely, restoring his men to their human shape, inviting him to become her lover (for which he has the gods' permission), and later, when he declares his intention to return to Ithaca, his homeland, offering him appropriate advice, instructions, and warnings on how to do so safely. This more positive aspect of Circe is often ignored in later literature and commentaries, but among those who have commented on it, in addition to Judith Yarnall (e.g., pp.54, 99, 123-126), is Marina Warner, who remarks that after Odysseus has withstood Circe's magic, "her role in the Homeric story is hardly witchlike at all, but correspondingly vatic: she takes the part of a storyteller, a wise teacher, a sibyl"  (p.4—pagination mine; original pagination not provided).

However we interpret Dalila's motives for returning to Samson, there can be no disagreement that the marriage of Samson and Dalila does not conform to any conventional pattern that Milton and his age would have understood or accepted. Samson and Dalila represent different cultures and different religions—and have totally different sets of values. Their confrontation becomes a debate on the nature of marriage. It is in this debate that we see Dalila's political mission, to which I referred much earlier, heralded by the large retinue accompanying her—the third of three major points about her that the Chorus initially observe, along with her ostentatious garb and her strong perfume.

Samson expects his spouse to make him the center of her life: "Being once a wife, for me thou wast to leave/ Parents and country" (lines 885-886). But Dalila takes a totally unconventional path. Instead of aspiring to the traditional roles of wife and mother in the private, domestic realm, she takes on public responsibilities, usually limited to the male gender. Dalila cites an important patriotic principle almost always associated with men: namely, "to the public good/ Private respects must yield" (lines 867-868). Samson's view of the role of a wife is the Biblical view, the historical Judeo-Christian view, and no doubt the Miltonic view, which is opposed by Dalila the Philistine and worshiper of Dagon. Nor does she appear to fulfill in any way the wifely role of helpmate, unlike Eve in Paradise Lost.

In her insightful remarks on Milton's views of women and of marriage, Susanne Woods makes some telling comments on Dalila. "Far from being a misogynist," she asserts, "Milton was ahead of his time in granting to women a dignity and responsibility rarely conceded in the seventeenth century" (p.15). Nonetheless, Milton is "locked into his culture's assumptions of woman's inferior position in the human paradigm" (p.16).

Woods reminds us of Milton's emphasis, in almost everything he wrote, on the importance of liberty and free will—of human agency. Moreover, she continues, "as [Milton] rejects the broader social hierarchy, he also allows some leeway in the gender hierarchy."  Far from accepting the traditional view that Milton created in Dalila an intellectually and morally inferior woman, she believes "his Dalila," a good example of aggressive female agency, "has intelligence beyond guile" (p.16). But to a great extent Dalila's limitations as a free agent are directly related to those that constrain Milton himself:

He is too thoughtful to accept cultural assumptions without question, yet he has no frame of reference for responding to biblical authority in this matter [especially that of St. Paul, who emphasizes woman's subordinate role in almost all matters, including subjection to her husband]. The curious result is that the dignity and intelligence he gives his female characters strain against the inferior social position in which they find themselves. 

Dalila, Woods asserts, is actually a victim of patriarchy; indeed, "Milton portrays her as caught between husband and fathers [i.e, Philistine political and religious authorities], a woman who has internalized patriarchal attitudes and yet strains against them" (p.28). Though Woods concentrates on Dalila in a somewhat different way from Ulreich, she is, like Ulreich, part of the "pro-Dalila forces."            


Unhesitatingly Samson accuses Dalila of being a spy for the Philistines, of being unable "to resist/ Philistian  gold" (lines 830-831). The language with which he assaults her for having abandoned her basic wifely duties is strongly political: she has sold him out for the "gold/ Of Matrimonial treason" (lines 957-958); earlier he refers to her as "my Wife, my Traitress" (line 725); and after she leaves, he calls her betrayal "wedlock-treachery endangering life" (lines 1009-1010).

Dalila attempts to justify her actions by pleading public pressures from the magistrates and priests: "How honorable, how glorious to entrap/ A common enemy, who had destroy'd/ Such numbers of our Nation," the secular authorities intoned (lines 855-857); and the priests added, "How meritorious with the gods/ It would be to ensnare an irreligious/ Dishonorer of Dagon" (lines 859-861).

Samson, however, who sees things very differently, calls into question the arguments of those magistrates and priests: any country that encourages a wife to seek the death of her husband acts "against the law of nature, law of nations,/ No more thy country, but an impious crew/ Of men…" (lines 890-892). And furthermore, he insists,

                                … Gods unable
                        To acquit themselves and prosecute their foes
                        But by ungodly deeds, the contradiction
                        Of thir own deity, Gods cannot be:
                                    (lines 896-899)

Finally Dalila doffs her disguise of civic and religious duty and reveals her true motive, not entirely unrelated to the one she has been hiding behind: desire for fame and glory, a wish to be seen as the savior of her country. Though Samson's position is that Dalila will become a negative example "among illustrious women, faithful wives" (line 956), Dalila opposes his position on women, marriage, and gender roles. Fame, she asserts, is two-sided, and even if, among the Israelites, she may stand "defam'd,/ With malediction mention'd, and the blot/ Of falsehood most unconjugal traduc't[,]" among her own people, "where I most desire,/ …/ I shall be nam'd among the famousest/ Of Women" (lines 977-979, 980, 982-983)

Interestingly, Milton is silent on the question of Dalila's social status. Her large entourage suggests that she is someone of note among the Philistines, but it is not clear whether she is socially prominent when Samson marries her, or whether  her prominence is recent, a reward for betraying Samson—i.e., in Samson's words, for selling him out for the "gold/ Of  Matrimonial treason."


What is ironic—and likely part of Milton's intention—is that throughout the poem Dalila  shares (indeed, in some circumstances takes on) many of Samson's characteristics. I have already noted the tendency of both to blab, as well as their predisposition to vanity and pride. Early in Samson Agonistes the Chorus describe Samson in a state of despair, a condition that will continue throughout much of the poem: "See how he lies at random, carelessly diffus'd,/ With languish't head unpropt,/ As one past hope, abandon'd  [emphasis mine], / And by himself given over;/ …"  (lines 118-121). Sometime later, echoing that description, the Chorus paint for Samson a verbal picture of the approaching Dalila, also in a state of despair, or pretending to be:

                                     Yet on she moves, now stands and eyes thee fixt,
                        About t'have spoke, but now, with head declin'd
                        Like a fair flower surcharg'd with dew, she weeps [emphasis mine]
                        And words addrest seem into tears dissolv'd,
                        Wetting the borders of her silk'n veil;
                                    (lines 726-730)

Like her husband (or ex-husband), Dalila wishes to be recognized for her public service and patriotic deeds, so Samson's use of military imagery (in addition to the negatively charged political imagery already noted ) to describe her triumph over him is not without a tinge of irony: "…I myself,/ …vanquisht with a peal of words (O weakness!)/ Gave up my fort of silence to a Woman" (lines 234-236). In other words, the formerly invincible Samson has been overcome by a better soldier. What is more, the two appear to have exchanged gender characteristics. Samson, by his own admission, has become more feminized, and Dalila, as she is presented to us, more masculinized.[16]  At the moment of their inevitable separation,  Dalila tries desperately to win him back, to have him in her power again, as Samson believes. Blind and helpless, he would be in a subordinate position, and, contrary to all the assertions of Milton's patriarchal society about gender roles, she would be in control. In some ways the two have become a bit like the title characters in the anonymous seventeenth-century pamphlets referred to earlier: Haec Vir ('the Effeminate Man') and Hic Mulier ('the Mannish Woman').

Another similarity between the former spouses emphasizes the negative aspects of Dalila's character: unlike Circe's victims in Homer and Ovid, who are transformed literally into animals, Dalila—like Samson—undergoes a figurative transformation into a beast. Samson and the Chorus both use serpentine imagery to characterize Dalila:  Samson refers to her as a "viper" (line 1001), and the Chorus stigmatize her as a "manifest Serpent by her sting" (line 997). In connection with this imagery we recall that in the Allegory of Satan, Sin, and Death in Paradise Lost personified Sin is portrayed as half woman and half serpent, [17] in anticipation, perhaps, of the Temptation scene in Book 9, where Eve and the Satanic serpent join forces to produce the first example of earthly sin. Equally significant, Samson calls Dalila a "Hyaena" (line 748). Merritt Y. Hughes, Roy Flannagan, and Stella Revard, distinguished editors of Milton, remind us that Milton's original readers would know of the association between hyenas and deception: Pliny's Natural History specifies that hyenas could imitate the human voice and thus lure men to their destruction (Hughes, p.509, note to line 748; Flannagan, p.821, note 186; Revard, p.484, note 87). We recall Steadman's emphasis on deceit as one of the "arts" of the meretrix (p.564), and although Dalila is not literally a meretrix, she is quite adept at the art of deceit.

One final ironic comparison between Samson and Dalila involves their respective endings. After Samson's death his father, Manoa, reassured that Samson is a martyr for his people and his God, not a suicide,  plans to make him a dignified funeral, "build him/ A Monument, and plant it round with shade/ Of Laurel ever green, …/ With all his Trophies hung, and Acts enroll'd/  In copious Legend, or sweet Lyric Song."  And to celebrate their champion and take inspiration from his matchless deeds, "thither shall all the valiant youth resort."  Moreover, the "Virgins also shall on feastful days/ Visit his Tomb with flowers, …"  (lines 1733-1738, 1741-1742).

In a moment of self-delusion Dalila envisions for herself a similar celebration after her death for being, as she supposes, an illustrious Philistine patriot. She imagines herself being "sung at solemn festivals, …/  …Who to save / Her country from a fierce destroyer, chose/ Above the faith of wedlock bands, my tomb/ With odors visited and annual flowers" (lines 983-987).

Indeed, husband and wife are reunited in death after Samson pulls down the pillars of the temple upon himself, "self-kill'd/ Not willingly, but tangl'd in the fold/ Of dire necessity" (lines 1664-1666), and "upon the heads of all [the Philistines] who sat beneath,/ Lords, Ladies, Captains, Counsellors, or Priests, / Thir choice nobility and flower" (lines 1652-1654). As a lady of some importance among the Philistines, presumably Dalila has a seat of honor within the temple and is thus among the slain. And presumably, also, as part of Milton's ironic scheme, there is no Philistine of any importance left among the living to oversee her memorial ceremonies after her violent death, and no one with enough information about her part in the betrayal of Samson to supervise such activities in the future. So much for her lofty dream!

Perhaps the supreme irony in all of the similarities and parallels between the ex-spouses, at least from the reader's perspective, is that Dalila, the indirect destroyer of Samson, appears not only to be masculinized but also to be "Samsonized": i.e., the male whom she most wishes to imitate is Samson himself.


Both the Odyssey and Samson Agonistes can be seen as structurally divided into two large general sections: 1) the hero's escape from a woman or women in order to achieve a major goal, and 2) the ultimate fulfillment of that goal. In the Odyssey, besides Circe, Odysseus must also confront Calypso, a goddess who keeps him prisoner for seven years until Zeus, king of the gods, demands his release, and also the Sirens, whose hypnotic song he is permitted to hear only when his men tie him to the mast as they sail by the Sirens' rock of destruction; as for Samson, who will not allow seemingly repentant Dalila even to touch him, "lest fierce remembrance wake/ My sudden rage to tear thee joint by joint" (lines 951-952), his repudiation of his ex-wife is the start of his spiritual reawakening. Odysseus' major goal is to return to his homeland in order to be reunited with his family and restored to his kingship; Samson's major goal is to become God's champion once more.

Without doubt the Odyssey ends with the fulfillment of Odysseus' goal, but there is some question, not least by Samson himself throughout the entire poem, whether the Hebrew warrior can fulfill his goal. Yet at the end of Samson Agonistes Manoa, after cataloguing Samson's crowning achievements in his final victory over the Philistines, adds one significant comment: "And which is best and happiest yet, all this/ With God not parted from him, as was fear'd,/ But favoring and assisting to the end" (lines 1718-1720) [emphasis mine]. And to confirm Manoa's self-assurance, the Chorus assert, in their speech that ends the play, "Oft [God] seems to hide his face,/ But unexpectedly returns/ And to his faithful Champion hath …/ Bore witness gloriously; …"  (lines 1749-1751) [emphasis mine]. So it would seem that both heroes—Homer's and Milton's—are successful in achieving their respective goals.[18]


In spite of only one identifiable reference to Circe in Samson Agonistes, Milton is able to use her in complex ways in his Hebraically themed classical tragedy. Post-Homeric allegorists, including Renaissance mythographers, gave her a major role in the traditional conflict between men and women, in which from pagan antiquity to the eighteenth century men represented Reason, Self-Discipline, and the search for Wisdom, whereas women embodied Passion, Lust, and Pleasure—which tended to undermine those masculine goals.

To a great extent Milton models Dalila on this classical sorceress who turns men into animals and prevents them, at least for a while, from undertaking their heroic responsibilities. By transforming Samson into a figurative beast of burden, Dalila puts a temporary roadblock in Samson's attempts to defeat the Philistines, and in the process she creates gender problems and distortions of traditional marital roles. While Samson is reduced to a helpless slave, literally and otherwise, through Dalila's seductions, and considers himself "unmanly," Dalila wishes to be the controlling spouse in their marriage and to assume public duties usually allotted to men. Dalila is not the silent, submissive wife that was the ideal in the Early Modern period, and blind Samson is no longer the aggressive masculine warrior. By becoming more masculinized, as I have tried to suggest, Dalila seems to have chosen Samson—her implacable foe—as her role model.

The notion that Dalila's literary forebear, Circe, was a whore can be traced at least as far back as Horace, in Augustan Rome, and was incorporated into much Renaissance commentary and, without question, into Milton's portrayal of Dalila, though with some ambiguity.  "Many of the latter's salient characteristics," Steadman announces, such as her

meretricious and libidinous nature, her skill in the arts and snares of the harlot, her flattery and deceit, her appeal to the vita voluptuosa [the 'life of pleasure': my translation], her eloquence [,] are qualities she shares with her classical analogues [especially Circe and the Sirens], as Renaissance mythography had allegorized them (p.56).

It is possible, however, that there is another side to Dalila, as John C. Ulreich has averred, a side that we should not overlook. The possibility that her fears and her pity for Samson's suffering are genuine, as Ulreich believes, has relatively few adherents. But again there is an analogue for behavioral change in Homer's Circe. And Milton, one of the great classicists of the age, was sufficiently familiar with the Odyssey to be aware that Circe does have a good side.

When Odysseus tells her that he wishes to return home to Ithaca, it is she who tells him he must first visit the Land of the Dead, where the prophet Tiresias will provide him with wisdom and an understanding of his future; and when he has successfully completed  this journey, Circe warns him about all the obstacles still standing in his way, including the Sirens, with their "high, thrilling song,"  surrounded by "heaps of corpses/ rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones…" (Odyssey, Book 12, lines 50-52). It is she as well who, echoing the advice of Tiresias, warns him not to touch the sheep and cattle of Helios, the sun god, on the isle of Thrinacia. But when his hungry men disobey and kill part of the herd for food, Zeus destroys his ship and all of his shipmates, leaving him to make the rest of his voyage alone.

The point is that if Circe can do an about-face from her earlier inhospitable behavior, why not Dalila, one of her literary offspring?

And finally, in both the Odyssey and Samson the role of the temptress is significant and double-edged. As part of their trials or tests, as men and as heroes, Odysseus and Samson must encounter female wiles, which will temporarily block them from going where they wish to be and doing what they wish to accomplish. But in both cases the men learn a bit more about the nature of the world and about themselves from their experiences with women; i.e., they learn wisdom. Similarly, both Odysseus and Samson, in spite of appearances, are better off as a result of these experiences. Circe has practical and prophetic knowledge to offer Odysseus. Dalila, whatever her true motives might be for her last visit to her ex-husband, inadvertently drives away Samson's despair: the anger against himself is slowly but ineluctably converted into terrible anger against Dalila, and then against the Philistine giant, Harapha, whom he exposes as a coward, and ultimately against the entire Philistine nation. Samson's self-confidence, especially in his ability to perform God's bidding once more, gradually but perceptibly returns and reaches its apex in the catastrophic events with which the poem ends.




[1] See Paul D. Green's article  " ' All His Mother's Witcheries': Milton and the Circe Myth," emphasizing Circe's influence on A Mask Presented at Ludlow Castle  (more popularly known as Comus since the eighteenth century) but paying some attention, also, to Milton's early Latin Elegies 1 and 6 and to Paradise Lost.

[2] Quotations from Samson Agonistes and other works of Milton are cited from the edition by Merritt Y. Hughes of The Complete Poems and Major Prose.

[3] For possible authorship of this poem, see the editors' comment in Half Humankind, p.137, note 4.

[4] Hic Mulier  ('The Mannish Woman') and its companion piece, Haec Vir  ('The Feminine Man'), two anonymous pamphlets published in 1620, deal with inappropriate clothing and consequently behavior for each gender: i.e., women dressing and acting like men, and vice versa. The ungrammatical Latin titles are deliberate.  ("Hic" is a masculine demonstrative adjective and pronoun that here modifies "mulier,"  'woman,' a feminine noun; "haec," a feminine demonstrative adjective and pronoun, here modifies "vir,"  'man,'  a masculine noun.) At the end of  Haec Vir, when the status quo is restored—i.e., the respective characters doff their inappropriate garments and behavior, and dress and agree to act more "normally"—the title characters' names are transposed and become more grammatical: "Haec Mulier" ('The Feminine Woman') and "Hic Vir" ('The Manly Man'). For more on the social contexts of these pamphlets, see Half Humankind—e.g., pp.28 and 52.

[5] Quotations from Shakespeare's poems and plays are cited from the 2nd edition of The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al.

[6] Quotations from Jonson's Epicoene are cited from Volume 5 of the 11-volume edition of Jonson's works edited by C.H. Herford and Percy Simpson.

[7] For a very different interpretation of Dalila's perfume, see Heather Asals,  "In Defense of Dalila …," p.185.

[8] For more details see Hughes' comment in his edition of Milton, p.563, note to lines 499 to 501.

[9] Renaissance mythographer Natale Conti, according to John M. Steadman, "interprets Circe as libido ['lust'] and voluptates ['voluptuous pleasures'] (p.562). Samson's reference in this passage to "venereal trains,"  "pleasure," and "voluptuous life" seems to interpret Dalila in much the same way. For an extended study of Samson's similarity to Red Cross, see Paul D. Green, "Milton's Samson and The Faerie Queene."

[10] Quotations from The Faerie Queene are cited from the edition of Thomas P. Roche, Jr., and C. Patrick O'Donnell, Jr.

[11] In "Dalila, the Ulysses Myth, and Renaissance Allegorical Tradition," John M. Steadman points out that the first line of Samson's speech ("Thy fair enchanted cup, and warbling charms") is very likely indebted to a phrase from Horace's Epistles: Sirenum voces et circae pocula ['The Sirens' songs and Circe's goblet'—translation mine] ( Epistles I, ii, 23)  (Steadman, p.560). In his article Steadman looks at Renaissance interpretations of both Circe and the Sirens as influences on Milton's conception of Dalila.

[12] Comus' wording is ambiguous enough to make it unclear whether the Naiades (or Naiads), classical water nymphs, are part of the musical ensemble, or whether they joined Circe and the Sirens in gathering "potent herbs and baleful drugs." Since they lacked the sinister associations that surrounded Circe and the Sirens in Renaissance allegory, it is doubtful whether Milton had the Naiades participate in either activity.

[13] In his essay " 'Incident to All Our Sex': The Tragedy of Dalila," John C. Ulreich, Jr., makes a strong case for Dalila's sincerity in her expression of love for Samson and her regret for the suffering she has caused him.

[14] Emblem books, popular in the Renaissance, contained a series of emblems, each with three parts: a    pictorial representation, a motto, and explanatory verses (usually in Latin) to help the reader understand the significance of the other two elements. Alciati's Emblematum Liber  (1531) is thought to be the first book of emblems to appear. Yarnall's enlightening chapter on "Renaissance Circes," which presents diverse interpretations of  Circe in significant writers and painters of the Renaissance  (Transformations of Circe, pp.99-126), includes reproductions of Circe in the emblem books of Alciati [Padua edition, 1621] and Geffrey [sic] Whitney's A Choice of Emblems [1586]  (pp.102 and 103). Whitney reproduces the passage from Horace on Circe as meretrix.

[15] Mary S. Weinkauf lists other major critics who take the "minority view," the "pro-Dalila forces," as she calls them, notably David Daiches, E.M.W. Tillyard, and William Empson (pp.135-136). The title of her lively and readable essay, "Dalila: The Worst of All Possible Wives," makes clear that she is part of  the opposite camp.

[16] For a provocative psychoanalytic interpretation of Samson's plight, resulting in part from his gender insecurities, see Jackie Di Salvo's essay, " 'Intestine Thorn': Samson's Struggle with the Woman Within."

[17] For a major source of Milton's conception of personified Sin, see Spenser's Error ("Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide, / But th'other halfe did womans shape retaine: FQ

[18] In a thoughtful and well-argued study of Samson's final destructive act, Tobias Gregory affirms—contrary to the opinion of a number of contemporary critics, whose views he refutes, point by point—that Samson is not a criminal but an "early modern hero of faith" (p.182) carrying out the commands of his God. Gregory asserts that he will attempt "to settle beyond reasonable doubt the question as to whether Milton meant to show Samson's final act as praiseworthy. He did, and whether you or I agree with him is a separate issue…" (pp.175-176). Implicitly, then, Gregory appears to interpret the final views of Manoa and the Chorus on Samson's deed as Milton's own.

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