Samson Agonistes draws on the story of Samson from the Old Testament, Judges 13–16; in fact it is a dramatisation of the story starting at Judges 16:23. The drama starts in medias res. Samson has been captured by the Philistines, had his hair, the container of his strength, cut off and his eyes cut out. Samson is "Blind among enemies, O worse than chains" (line 66).
Near the beginning of the play, Samson humbles himself before God by admitting that his power is not his own: "God, when he gave me strength, to show withal / How slight the gift was, hung it in my hair" (lines 58-9).
The Chorus discusses Samson's background and describes his various militaristic accomplishments:
- Ran on embattled armies clad in iron,
- And, weaponless himself,
- Made arms ridiculous, useless the forgery
- Of brazen shield and spear, the hammered cuirass,
- Chalybean-tempered steel, and frock of mail
- Adamantean proof;
- Then with what trivial weapon came to hand,
- The jaw of a dead ass, his sword of bone,
- A thousand foreskins fell
- (lines 129–134, 142–4)
Although he is great, the Chorus points out that, through his blindness (actual and metaphorically), he is a prisoner:
- Thou art become (O worst imprisonment!)
- The Dungeon of thy self; thy soul
- (Which men enjoying sight oft without cause complain)
- Imprisoned now indeed,
- In real darkness of the body dwells,
- Shut up from outward light
- To incorporate with gloomy night
- For inward light alas
- Puts forth no visual beam
- (lines 155–163)
Samson reveals how he lost his power because of his desire for Dalila, and, through this act, betrayed God:
I yielded, and unlocked her all my heart,
Who with a grain of manhood well resolved Might easily have shook off all her snares: But foul effeminancy held me yoked Her bond-slave. O indignity, O blot To honor and religion! Servile mind Rewarded well with servile punishment!(lines 407–413)
However, his state is more than just his own, and it represents a metaphor for the suffering of God's chosen people when Samson says:
- Or to th' unjust tribunals, under change of times,
- And condemnation of the ingrateful multitude.
- If these they scape, perhaps in poverty
- With sickness and disease thou bow'st them down,
- (lines 695–698)
After Samson rejects Dalila’s pleas, she asks for Samson to "let me approach at least, and touch thy hand" (line 951), and Samson responds, "Not for thy life, lest fierce remembrance wake / My sudden rage to tear thee joint by joint" (lines 952-3). He shows Dalila how not to upset him: “At distance I forgive thee, go with that" (line 954). The Chorus, shortly after, complains about the nature of women and how deceptive they are:
- Whate'er it be, to wisest men and best
- Seeming at first all heavenly under virgin veil,
- Soft, modest, meek, demure,
- Once joined, the contrary she proves, a thorn
- Intestine, far within defensive arms
- A cleaving mischief, in his way to virtue
- Adverse and turbulent, or by her charms
- Draws him awry enslaved
- With dotage, and his sense depraved
- To folly and shameful deeds which ruin ends.
- (lines 1034–1043)
Harapha points out that Samson is
- ... no worthy match
- For valor to assail, nor by the sword
- Of noble warrior ...
- But by the barber’s razor best subdued
- (lines 1164-7)
But he does describe Samson's past accomplishments when he says "thou art famed / To have wrought such wonders with an ass’s jaw" (lines 1094-5).
The Chorus discusses how God grants individuals with the power to free his people from their bonds, especially through violent means:
- He all their ammunition
- And feats of war defeats
- With plain heroic magnitude of mind
- And celestial vigor armed;
- Their armouries and magazines contemns,
- Renders them useless, while
- With winged expedition
- Swift as the lightning glance he executes
- His errand on the wicked, who surprised
- Lose their defence, distracted and amazed.
- (lines 1277–86)
The last two hundred and fifty lines of describe the violent act that actually occurs while the play was unfolding: Samson is granted the power to destroy the temple and kill all of the Philistines along with himself. However, this event does not take place on stage but is told through others. When the temple's destruction is reported, there is an emphasis on death and not peace:
- Man. I know your friendly minds and – O what noise!
- Mercy of Heav’n, what hideous noise was that!
- Horribly loud, unlike the former shout.
- Chor. Noise call you it, or universal groan,
- As if the whole inhabitation perished?
- Blood, death, and dreadful deeds are in that noise,
- Ruin, destruction at the utmost point.
- Man. Of ruin indeed methought I heard the noise.
- Oh it continues, they have slain my son.
- Chor. Thy son is rather slaying them; that outcry
- From slaughter of one foe could not ascend.
- Man. Some dismal accident it needs must be;
- What shall we do, stay here or run and see?
- Chor. Best keep together here, lest running thither
- We unawares run into danger’s mouth.
- This evil on the Philistines is fall’n;
- From whom could else a general cry be heard?
- (lines 1508–24)
Manoah describes the event as "Sad, but thou know’st to Israelites not saddest / The desolation of a hostile city" (lines 1560-1)
The final lines describe a catharsis that seems to take over at the end of the play:
- His servants he with new acquist
- Of true experience from this great event
- With peace and consolation hath dismissed,
- And calm of mind, all passion spent.
- (lines 1755–1758)
- Manoa the Father of Samson
- Dalila his Wife
- Harapha of Gath
- Public Officer
- Chorus of Danites