Euripides’ Heracles and Theseus

“Theseus: Now then, you who sit there in misery, I bid you reveal your face to a friend. No darkness has a cloud so black as could conceal the depths of your misfortune. Why do you shake your hand at me, showing fear? Are you afraid I may be polluted if I speak to you? It does not trouble me if your friendship brings me back luck; there was a time it brought me good. That happy hour came when you brought me safely into the light of day from the world of death. I hate a friend whose gratitude fades with age, or one who wants to enjoy your success but not to share your voyage when storms arise. Stand up, uncover your wretched head and look at me! A noble heart endures what the gods send; it does not recoil.” (Herakles by Euripides, translated by John Davie)

Euripides’ Herakles is believed to have been presented at the City Dionysia in 416 BC, a few months before Athens’ invasion of Melos. The plot features several variations that some scholars believe may have been Euripides’ invention. His Hera drives Herakles mad after his labors are underway rather than being the reason he is forced to undergo them. The character of Lycus and his threat to Herakles’ family may also have been Eurpides’ invention.

At about the halfway point, Herakles arrives, seemingly just in time to save the day, but instead, he becomes the instrument through which Lycus’ intentions are carried out. Acting as Hera’s messenger, Iris informs Madness that Hera wills for Herakles be driven to madness so that he will murder his wife and children. Madness is reluctant and advises that the plan is wrongheaded, given Herakles’ reputation, strength, and restoration of worship of the gods. But Iris will not be moved, and Madness complies.

After he realizes what he has done, Herakles wants to end his life. He cloaks himself in a dark garment, indicative of his state of grief and reminiscent of portrayals of Achilles on ancient pottery. But his friend Theseus intercepts him, offering to bring Herakles back to Athens, cleanse him of the pollution the murder incurred\, and (effectively) establish a cult in his honor.

Herakles has been called one of Euripides’ darkest plays, but of course, whether one takes this view depends on the lens through which one reads and interprets the play’s events. Have you read the play? If so, what are your thoughts?

2 thoughts on “Euripides’ Heracles and Theseus

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: