Heracles by Euripides.

Hercules Vanquishing The Hydra Of Lerma 
by Guido Reni (1620).
I've been looking forward to reading Euripides' Heracles ever since I read Sophocles' play Women of Trachis (early 400s B.C.) about the death of Heracles, killed inadvertently by his wife Deianeira. In Euripides' play Heracles (Ἡρακλῆς μαινόμενος), first performed around 416 B.C.) he tells the story of Heracles and his first wife Megara. 

It begins with a monologue by Amphitryon, the mortal father of Heracles, who tells the audience of Heracles' genealogical history and that he, Amphitryon, is the son of Alcaeus, and Alcmene, his wife, is the mother of Heracles. Heracles' true father is Zeus. He goes on to tell the audience about Lycus, the unlawful King of Thebes, who is planning to kill Amphitryon and Heracles' wife Megara, the daughter of Creon (the lawful king of Thebes; Creon is the dreaded king of Thebes in Sophocles' Theban Plays and Euripides' earlier play The Suppliants), and their children.

Heracles, however, cannot save them. Before the action of the play begins, he was engaged by King Eurystheus of Argos to perform twelve labours; by the time begins he is on his final mission, to capture Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog of the Underworld (in Theogony Hesiod describes him as "Unspeakable Cerberus, who eats raw flesh, / The bronze-voiced hound of Hades, shameless, strong, With fifty heads."). His family, then, are left and they take refuge at the altar of Zeus.

Heracles and Cerberus by Peter Paul Rubens (1636).
Lycus appears and asks them,
How long do ye seek to prolong your lives? What hope, what succour do ye see to save you from death? Do you trust that these children's father, who lies dead in the halls of Hades, will return? 
This claim that Heracles is already dead is false, and Amphitryon, Megara, and the children remain unmoved, and so Lycus orders the burning down of the temple. Megara, believing been burned alive in such a manner would be a coward's death, asks that she may dress herself and the children in an appropriate dress and be executed. He consents and they prepare, greatly moving the Chorus. However Heracles appears - he tells them he was delayed as he also rescued Theseus from the Underworld. They tell him of Creon's overthrow and Lycus' plans to execute them, and when Lycus returns to execute Megara and the children Heracles intervenes and kills him.

Before I continue, there's another back story to explain: as Amphitryon said in the prologue, Heracles is the son of Zeus and Alcmene: Zeus' wife is Hera, notoriously and frequently acting out revenge on the lovers and illegitimate offspring of her husband. Heracles is no exception, and Iris is sent down to tell Heracles of Hera's plans to drive him mad and kill his children. Poor Heracles is indeed driven mad and he believes he has killed Eurystheus, and to avoid Eurystheus killing him out of revenge, he has killed them too: in his madness, however, he has actually killed Megara and his own children, and had Athena not intervened he would have killed Amphitryon too. When he learns of his actions Heracles is dismayed and vows to kill himself.

However the good King Theseus arrives and though shocked remains friends with Heracles and takes him to Athens as Amphitryon is left to bury the dead (the law would have prohibited Heracles from doing so). The play ends with the Chorus chanting,
With grief and many a bitter tear we go our way, robbed of all we prized most dearly.
This is a great and powerful play. Megara and Heracles both suffer from the actions of those greater than them - Megara from Lycus and Heracles from Hera. It's interesting to compare the two - Lycus is a mortal and Hera a goddess, yet both inflict pain and provoke fear from an innocent. Ultimately Hera, surely, is responsible for the death of Megara, and though Heracles is unwilling to believe this and takes responsibility for himself the more reasonable Theseus points to the pain and chaos the gods inflict on mankind, which, largely, goes unpunished. Heracles is a great deal more of a sympathetic character than he was in Sophocles' Women of Trachis, and Euripides, through Heracles, asks the question,
Who would pray to such a goddess? Her jealousy of Zeus for his love of a woman hath destroyed the benefactors of Hellas, guiltless though they were.
It is interesting, at this stage of the 5th Century B.C. that Euripides would portray the gods in such a chaotic and vengeful manner whereas, a little later, Sophocles would suggest they were more orderly and, most importantly, had their own plans for mankind.

I loved reading Heracles and I do think that Euripides' plays get better and better. I'm looking forward to reading The Trojan Women next!

The Lovers by Giulio Romano (1525).
It's possible in this painting the two lovers represent Zeus and Alcmene.

The Plays of Euripides


  1. Great review. I love how Euripides writes the Greek Gods. They are chaotic and flawed and he gives a certain humanity to them that other writers dont, which I really like and admire. The Trojan Women is one of my very favourite Greek plays I hope you enjoy it :)

    1. I read it last night - I loved it! It's absolutely amazing. I'm going to read it again over the weekend :)

      I like his portrayal of the Greek gods as well - as you say, chaotic and flawed, but almost human. Very interesting I thought :)


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