Hercules Furens by Seneca the Younger.

A manuscript of Hercules Furens
by Seneca theYounger
Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules) is a play by Seneca the Younger written around 54 A. D. and was inspired by Euripides' play Heracles (416 B.C.).

It begins with a long monologue by Juno, which, long as it is, I'll quote in full (courtesy of Theoi Classics) because I did love it:
The sister of the Thunderer (for this name only is left to me), I have abandoned Jove, always another’s lover; widowed, have left the spaces of high heaven and, banished from the sky, have given up my place to harlots; I must dwell on earth, for harlots hold the sky. Yonder the Bear, high up in the icy North, a lofty constellation, guides the Argive ships; yonder, where in the warm springtime the days grow long, he shines who bore the Tyrian Europa across the waves; there the Atlantides, far wandering, put forth their band dreadful to ships and sea alike. Here Orion with threatening sword terrifies the gods, and golden Perseus has his stars; the bright constellation of the twin Tyndaridae shines yonder, and they at whose birth the unsteady land stood firm. And not alone has Bacchus himself or the mother of Bacchus attained the skies; that no place might be free from outrage, the heavens wear the crown of the Cretan maid.
But I lament ancient wrongs; one land, the baneful and savage land of Thebes, scattered thick with shameless mistresses, how oft has it made me stepdame! Yet, though Alcmena be exalted and in triumph hold my place; though her son, likewise, obtain his promised star (for whose begetting the world lost a day, and Phoebus with tardy light shone forth from the Eastern sea, bidden to keep his bright car sunk beneath Ocean’s waves), not in such fashion shall my hatred have its end; my angry soul shall keep up a long-living wrath, and my raging smart, banishing peace, shall wage unending wars.
What wars? Whatever fearsome creature the hostile earth produces, whatever the sea or the air has borne, terrific, dreadful, noxious, savage, wild, has been broken and subdued. He rises anew and has thrives on trouble; he enjoys my wrath; to his own credit he turns my hate; imposing too cruel tasks, I have but proved his sire, but give room for glory. Where the Sun, as he brings back, and where, as he dismisses day, colours both Ethiop races with neighbouring torch, his unconquered valour is adored, and in all the world he is storied as a god. Now I have no monsters left, and ‘tis less labour for Hercules to fulfil my orders than for me to order; with joy he welcomes my commands. What cruel biddings of his tyrant could harm this impetuous youth? Why, he bears as weapons what he once fought and overcame; he goes armed by lion and by hydra.
Nor is earth vast enough for him; behold, he has broken down the doors of infernal Jove, and brings back to the upper world the spoils of a conquered king. I myself saw, yes, saw him, the shadows of nether night dispersed and Dis overthrown, proudly displaying to his father a brother’s spoils. Why does he not drag forth, bound and loaded down with fetters, Pluto himself, who drew a lot equal to Jove’s? Why does he not lord it over conquered Erebus and lay bare the Styx? It is not enough merely to return; the law of the shades has been annulled, a way back has been opened from the lowest ghosts, and the mysteries of dread Death lie bared. But he, exultant at having burst the prison of the shades, triumphs over me, and with arrogant hand leads through the cities of Greece that dusky hound. I saw the daylight shrink at sight of Cerberus, and the sun pale with fear; upon me, too, terror came, and as I gazed upon the three necks of the conquered monster I trembled at my own command.
But I lament too much o’er trivial wrongs. ‘Tis for heaven we must fear, lest he seize the highest realms who has overcome the lowest – he will snatch the sceptre from his father. Nor will he come to the stars by a peaceful journey as Bacchus did; he will seek a path through ruin, and will desire to rule in an empty universe. He swells with pride of tested might, and has learned by bearing them that the heavens can be conquered by his strength; he set his head beneath the sky, nor did the burden of that immeasurable mass bend his shoulders, and the firmament rested better on the neck of Hercules. Unshaken, his back upbore the stars and the sky and me down-pressing. He seeks a way to the gods above.
Then on, my wrath, on, and crush this plotter of big things; close with him, thyself rend him in pieces with thine own hands. Why to another entrust such hate? Let the wild beasts go their ways, let Eurystheus rest, himself weary with imposing tasks. Set free the Titans who dared to invade the majesty of Jove; unbar Sicily’s mountain cave, and let the Dorian land, which trembles whenever the giant struggles, set free the buried frame of that dread monster; let Luna in the sky produce still other monstrous creatures. But he has conquered such as these. Dost then seek Alcides’ match? None is there save himself; now with himself let him war. Rouse the Eumenides from the lowest abyss of Tartarus; let them be here, let their flaming locks drop fire, and let their savage hands brandish snaky whips.
Go now, proud one, seek the abodes of the immortals and despise man’s estate. Dost think that now thou hast escaped the Styx and the cruel ghosts? Here will I show thee infernal shapes. One in deep darkness buried, far down below the place of banishment of guilty souls, will I call up – the goddess Discord, whom a huge cavern, barred by a mountain, guards; I will bring her forth, and drag out from the deepest realm of Dis whatever thou hast left; hateful Crime shall come and reckless Impiety, stained with kindred blood, Error, and Madness, armed ever against itself – this, this be the minister of my smarting wrath!
Begin, handmaids of Dis, make haste to brandish the burning pine; let Megaera lead on her band bristling with serpents and with baleful hand snatch a huge faggot from the blazing pyre. To work! claim vengeance for outraged Styx. Shatter his heart; let a fiercer flame scorch his spirit than rages in Aetna’s furnaces. That Alcides may be driven on, robbed of all sense, by mighty fury smitten, mine must be the frenzy first – Juno, why rav’st thou not? Me, ye sisters, me first, bereft of reason, drive to madness, if I am to plan some deed worthy a stepdame’s doing. Let my request be changed; may he come back and find his sons unharmed, that is my prayer, and strong of hand may he return. I have found the day when Hercules’ hated valour is to be my joy. Me has he overcome; now may he overcome himself and long to die, though late returned from the world of death. Herein may it profit me that he is the son of Jove, I will stand by him and, that his shafts may fly from string unerring, I’ll poise them with my hand, guide the madman’s weapons, and so at last be on the side of Hercules in the fray. When he has done this crime, then let his father admit those hands to heaven!
Now must my war be set in motion; the sky is brightening and the shining sun steals up in saffron dawn.
Her anger at her husband Jupiter's illegitimate son Hercules is palpable, and she vows to do whatever she must to destroy him. Hercules meanwhile has completed the Twelve Labours, the final one being to descend into the Underworld, from which he brought back Cerberus, who he had subdued. As he returns, Thebes is in chaos, now under the dictatorship of Lycus after he killed Creon. He then plans to murder Hercules' wife Megara, the daughter of Creon, however Hercules arrives and saves her. But Juno's plan is then put into action: Iris and one of the Furies arrives and drives Hercules into madness. He kills Megara and his children, and is only saved from killing himself by Theseus, who persuades him to go to Athens.

This isn't one of Seneca's most popular plays, but all the same I enjoyed it. We see in it not only the madness of Hercules, but also that of Juno, which adds a different dimension to Euripides' play. Seneca is a playwright who runs deeper than the older Greeks, and for that I love him. I'm sorry to say I only have one play left by him to read, The Phoenician Women, which I'll read at some point this year (it's on my Deal Me In Challenge).

And that was my 24th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - Nantas by Émile Zola.


  1. Whenever I feel in 'reading limbo' I come to your blog and bask in all the classics (Greek/Roman; 18th and 19th C literature) and hope I can be inspired to read one of them. Congrats reaching 1000th post, chapeau au bas!
    PS I did not know Seneca was a playwright!

    1. Thanks Nancy for those kind words :) And funnily enough until I started the Greek and Roman Challenge I *only* knew Seneca as a playwright! The ancients were such a blind spot for me.


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