Comparing Shakespeare's Play, Hamlet and Milton's Play, Samson Agonistes

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Comparing Shakespeare's Play, Hamlet and Milton's Play, Samson Agonistes: The Mental Awakenings of Hamlet and Samson

In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet and in John Milton's play Samson Agonistes, both title characters undergo an intellectual metamorphosis, each becoming more and more aware of the power of his mind as he learns to master it. Despite a difference of almost 50 years between the writing of each of these plays, Hamelet being composed in 1601 and Samson Agonistes not being completed until circa 1646-1648, both reflect a preoccupation of the 17th century shared by both authors, the emergence of the mind and the human reason.

Hamlet, while already a scholar and a philosopher, must, in the course of his plot to revenge the death of his father, constantly reassure himself that his mind has not erred. He must verify that the apparition of his father's ghost was a "spirit of health" and not a "goblin damned" designed to lead him to an inopportune demise. He must be certain that the revenge that he exacts on his father-in-law will suit his crime and not "this same villain send / To heaven".

Samson, on the other hand, must also awaken his mind, but in his case his mind has been dormant all his life and this thus presents him with a more diffficult task than that of Hamlet. Samson had always relied on his brute physical strength to rescue him from dangerous situations whereas Hamlet had the more well-rounded formation of a Renaissance man. Oddly enough, it is Samson who seems to have been more successful at the end of the tragedy in that he does not unwittingly take his mother nor his friend with him to his grave.

The first instance in which Hamlet demonstrates an awakening of his mind is in Scene 1 when he must...

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...t both must learn to develop and to trust their mind rather than rely on a supernatural power to guide them. In Hamlet's case, this supernatural being is the ghost of his father which comes to give him the noble cause of revenging his foul death. For Samson, the cause is for the honour of his god which must be proven to be stronger and more right than the Philistine god Dagon. In the end, both succeed in awakening their minds, and while their deaths may be considered tragic, from a 17th century point of view, and even from today's perspcetive, they are heros because they learned to put their trust in themselves as rational human beings.

Works Cited

Milton, John. Samson Agonistes. In John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Macmillan, 1957.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

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