Monday, October 27, 2014

The story of Samson is a tragic one



All literature deals with the joy and the terror of what it is to be human. Joy, for example, means happiness, love, success, belonging, a sunny day, and so on; Terror is about the darkness without and within, isolation, fear, rejection, failure... Classically, joy and terror are represented by the two dramatic masks of Comedy and Tragedy.




The plots of both classical forms are characterised by a reversal of fortune: in Comedy, from low to high (the character's fortunes improve); in Tragedy, from high to low (the character's fortunes fall). But these transformations are not simply the result of pure luck. Always, the character's actions contribute to the rising or falling movement. So, for example, in Twelfth Night, Viola, through her ingenuity, charm, and skill goes from destitution to riches, getting married in the process (the play actually ends with three marriages); in the story of Macbeth, the great man of Scotland suffers a calamitous downfall through his own 'vaulting ambition'.

Following these models we can view the biblical story of Samson as a tragedy. Samson is favoured by God even before he is born, with his mother receiving instructions about him directly from an angel. He is endowed with great strength and becomes successful from an early age. All he has to do is to obey God's instruction that he lives as a nazir, that is to never cut his hair, avoid strong drink, and presumably also avoid corpses. In the biblical story he has his hair cut off, eats honey from the corpse of a dead lion, and (presumably) drinks wine during his marriage feast. But these things happen primarily through his own weakness, which happens to be a predilection for foreign women. He just can't resist their looks. It's ironic therefore that once he falls, the first thing the Philistines do is gouge out his eyes.

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