Friday, July 8, 2022

Heracles by Euripides - These are poets' wretched lies.

With Heracles (c. 416 BCE) we move to a new period for Euripides, or at least, given the limits of the plays that survive, the illusion of a new period.  Like the mature Shakespeare, Euripides, in his sixties at this point, becomes attracted to screwy, revisionist “romances,” as un-tragic tragedies as we’ll read, and also stories as violent and horrific as any.  Heracles is one of the latter.

We begin with suppliants, threatened by violence, around an altar to Zeus.  How many plays have we read, now, that begin this way?  The action moves along the familiar lines.  The chorus of old men are sympathetic but useless.  The usurping king is a savage cartoon villain.  The half-divine hero Heracles arrives just in time, saving the suppliants, who happen to be his father, wife, and three children, with the expected offstage bloodbath.  The usual thing, except the play has only reached its exact center.  What is left?

With no warning, a pure sucker punch, Heracles goes mad and murders his wife and children.  The murders are offstage but described with great goriness.  Heracles recovers to find that his “last worst labor has been done.”  He will now live in order to grieve.  Curiously, and I believe this is where Euripides is aiming, Heracles effectively renounces his divinity.  His berserk madness is not, to him, the fault of Hera, but rather something within himself.

Ah, all this has no bearing on my grief;

but I do not believe the gods commit adultery, or bind each other in chains.

I never did believe it; I never shall;

nor that one god is tyrant of the rest.

If god is truly god, he is perfect,

lacking nothing.  These are poets’ wretched lies.  (111)

This is Heracles, the greatest Greek hero, the son of Zeus.  “I never did believe it.”

The first half of the play is effectively a parody of Greek drama, set up to be annihilated in the second half, where even the function of the chorus is destroyed:

CHORUS:  What dirge, what song

shall I sing for the dead?

What dance shall I dance for death?  (97)

And in fact they stop dancing, or singing, or doing anything except, like us, watching.  Earlier, while the first slaughter was going on, they celebrated: “Turn to the dances!” (88)  Maybe the gods can still dance:

HERACLES: Let the noble wife of Zeus begin the dance,

pounding with her feet Olympus’ gleaming floors!  (110)

The two halves of Heracles are full of parallels and linked imagery.  This radically disjointed play is tightly constructed.  I will look at a sample passage, full of interesting things.

HERACLES:  I have no wings to fly from those I love.


They will not let me go, but clutch my clothes

more tightly.  How close you came to death!

                                   (He sets down his bow and club and takes his children by the hands.)

Here, I’ll take your hands and lead you in my wake,

Like a ship that tows its little boats behind…

  All mankind loves it children.  (83)

First, this is one of several points where Euripides humanizes the otherwise silent and abstract children, in order to make their murder as painful as possible. 

Second, that alliteration, clutch / clothes / close, appears several times but only in Heracles’s speech.  I have been quoting entirely from William Arrowsmith’s superb version of Heracles, but I also read the weirder translation of Anne Carson in Grief Lessons, and she also alliterates in the same places.  In the Greek, I guess.

Third, those boats – at the end of the play it is Heracles who is towed way “like some little boat.” 

Fourth, the wings, part of the bird imagery that runs through the play.

Heracles is, textually, a rich play.  But some of that is hard to see under the smash job Euripides does on Greek tragedy.

The image of mad Heracles is from a New York Times review of a 2013 Brooklyn Academy of Music performance.  Heracles is not performed much.

The next play will not lift the mood.  It is The Trojan Women (c. 415 BCE), with which Euripides more or less invents protest literature.  Along with a straight translation, I hope to read one of its descendants, Femi Osofisan’s Women of Owu (2004), where the Trojan War is moved to 19th century Nigeria.


  1. A very odd play for the reasons you describe, but I think I did quite like it. The chorus is somewhat standard, but I found them somewhat more compelling than most - their lament about old age and desire for a second youth (only for those "whose lives were virtuous" - Heracles' fate makes clear the impossibility of such a judgment) segues into a tribute to music that seems unrelated, until the lines "Even an aged singer still has memory, and sings [Victory's] praises... I am not yet too old to serve the Muses." I'm not surprised to learn that Euripides was now in his sixties.

    The Chorus soon gets to hear "the opening note of a song I long to hear!" - the scream of the murdered Lycus - and then gets to sing a victory song. But then, as you point out, it cannot find the right funeral song, and falls silent.

    The personification of Madness is really interesting - I did not expect her initial reluctance, nor her pleas to Iris to choose good over evil. But the way her speech rises in intensity once she's accepted her task is great. "Tuneless music" is what the Chorus calls it - again, arguing against the aesthetics of the very play they're in.

  2. Yes, I love this one, as much as it resists love. The music theme is so rich. The personification of Madness, too, full of surprises.