Samson Agonistes was first published in 1671 in one volume with Milton's four-book epic, Paradise Regain'd. The title page read: "Paradise Regain'd. A Poem. In IV Books. To which is added Samson Agonistes." Because the 1671 title page might appear to treat Samson Agonistes as a kind of supplement to Paradise Regain'd, some early readers assumed that the two poems were composed at about the same time, or that Samson was written shortly after Paradise Regain'd.
William Riley Parker, in his 1968 biography, argued that Milton wrote Samson in the 1640s or 1650s, citing certain metrical similarities to earlier poems and Milton's own marital difficulties with his first wife, Mary Powell. However, the general consensus at present is in favor of a later date of composition, after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Blair Worden has shown how much the language of the drama echoes statements made by and about republicans and regicides imprisoned or exiled during the Restoration; Milton was one of those imprisoned, though briefly.
The 1671 edition also included a separate title page at the beginning of Samson Agonistes that identified the piece generically as "a Dramatic Poem." Milton meant the poem to be read as a tragedy but not performed on the stage. In an essay placed just before the poem and titled, "Of that sort of Dramatic Poem which is call'd Tragedy," Milton specifically noted that Samson Agonistes was never intended for the stage (see Elizabeth Sauer's essay, "The Politics of Performance in the Inner Theater: Samson Agonistes as Closet Drama"). Citing classical tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—as precedents, Milton modeled his tragic dramatic poem on their works and on Aristotle's descriptions of tragedy in the Poetics. The Samson titlepage features a quotation, in Greek and Latin translation, from chapter six of Aristotle's Poetics, the beginning of Aristotle's treatment of tragedy: "Tragedy is, then, a representation of an action, . . . through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions" (translated by W. H. Fyfe). Milton's drama, however, might be said to concentrate more on representing the inner mental and emotional struggle (agon) of its hero, than on representing his actions. The most significant outward action of the play—Samson's murder of the Philistine elite in Dagon's temple—takes place off-stage. In his essay on tragedy, Milton echoed Aristotle's phrase, "imitation of an action," but with a significant change:
Tragedy, as it was antiently compos'd, hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other Poems: therefore said by Aristotle to be of power by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions, that is to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight, stirr'd up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated.
In Paradise Lost, Milton tried to redefine heroism as "Patience and Heroic Martyrdom" (Paradise Lost 9.32); Samson's tragic heroism is similarly an inward sort. Whether or not his outward action counts as heroic depends upon how we evaluate the "rouzing motions" that prompt it (Samson 1382).
The story that underlies Milton's plot in Samson comes from the biblical book of Judges, chapters 13-16. Milton added characters to the biblical story (Harapha the arrogant carpet-knight giant and the Publick Officer), ignored some (Samson's mother), inflated others (Samson's father), but the most significant change was to make Dalila Samson's legally wedded wife. Judges 16:4 describes Delilah as a Philistine woman "from the valley of Soreck" whom Samson "loved" sometime after having gone "in unto" a "harlot" in Gaza (16:1). Flavius Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities 5:306 writes the following: "[Samson] at length transgressed the laws of his country, and altered his own regular way of living, and imitated the strange customs of foreigners, which thing was the beginning of his miseries; for he fell in love with a woman that was a harlot among the Philistines: her name was Delilah, and he lived with her." Paradise Lost refers once to Delilah as a harlot (Paradise Lost 9.1060). In this poem, however, Milton re-casts Dalila as Samson's "Traytress" wife, perhaps the most perfect example in every particular of the "unfit and mistak'n wife" Milton described in his Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce of 1644. (Search the text for "unfit" to find many more examples.) It may be helpful to regard Samson as achieving a sort of heroism Adam could not: Samson divorces his unfit wife.
The Milton Reading Room text of both these poems was prepared from the 1671 edition as found in the Rauner Special Collections of the Dartmouth College Library (Val. 824/M64/U612). This copy appears to be made up of the following signature states identified by Harris Fletcher (4.30-34): Signature B-state 1; C-1; F-2; H-1; K-2; M-2; N-1; P-2. There are no signatures A or J; all other signatures display no printing variations according to Fletcher. All of the errors listed as "Errata" at the end of the volume have been corrected in ink or erasures by a careful hand, except that where the "Errata" calls for removing a full stop after "frail life" in SA 656, the period has been changed to a comma.