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Heracles | Study Guide


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Heracles | Context


Features of Greek Tragedies

Greek tragedies were typically performed during significant religious festivals, such as the Great Dionysia festival in Athens, Greece. Playwrights each wrote three tragedies and one satyr play—a coarse tragicomedy—for the competition. Each tragedy conformed to prescribed specifications:

  • The theme had to be mythological, involving familial and religious elements.
  • The actors had to be male and wear masks.
  • The speaking roles had to be limited to three, although an actor could play multiple parts.
  • The chorus had to consist of no more than 15 performers.
  • Depictions of violence and death were not permitted on stage, nor were political comments.

In the earliest tragedies, one actor in costume and wearing a mask performed the play. Later, the form evolved so that more actors appeared on stage. The chorus could grow to a group of up to 15 actors who sang and danced but did not speak.

Performances took place in open-air theaters with bench seating—usually wood in Euripides's day—extending in wedge-like formations up a hillside. The audience looked down on the stage, which often incorporated a raised platform. On the stage was a skene, a structure in which costumes, props, sets, and machinery were stored. It also served as a changing room for the actors. Originally a tent and then a small wooden structure, the skene evolved into a grand stone building. The stone building was used as part of the set, often representing a palace or temple. The opening scene of Euripides's Heracles, for example, takes place on the steps to Heracles's palace. The skene featured several doors through which actors could enter and exit. Its central doors were wide so that preconstructed interior sets could be wheeled in and out. This design enabled the audience to view significant conversations or the results of violence. For example, this type of dramatic situation occurs in Heracles when the central doors open to show the sleeping Heracles tied to a column after killing his family. Equipment stored in the skene included the crane-like flying machine used to allow certain characters to fly into or out of scenes. For instance, in Heracles the flying machine enabled the two immortals Iris and Madness to arrive, as stated in the stage directions, "from above."

Most tragedies, including Heracles, follow this dramatic structure:

  • Prologos (PRŌH-lōh-goss): Usually called the prologue in English texts, the prologos opens the play with dialogue revealing the topic, setting, and themes.
  • Parodos (PAIR-uh-doss): The chorus makes its first appearance in this section, without the other actors.
  • Episode(s): These scenes involve the actors in dialogue with each other and the chorus.
  • Stasimon(s) (STASS-uh-mon[z]): Stasimons are choral odes, one of which follows each episode; the chorus sings a song, commenting on the action in the previous episode.
  • Exodos (EX-uh-doss): The exodos, or exit scene, is the final chorus chant, in which the moral of the play is revealed or discussed.

The Gods, the Sophists, and Euripides

Polytheism—belief in multiple gods—was central to Greek religion. The gods were anthropomorphic—that is, they had human characteristics. Even gods who symbolized cultural concepts such as war (the god Ares) or elements of nature, such as the sun (the god Helios), were anthropomorphized. The roots of polytheism date back to earlier civilizations, but over time, the Greeks came to believe in a sort of family of gods living on Mount Olympus. The father of this family was Zeus, who commanded the natural elements of storms—thunder, lightning, rain, and wind. The Greeks worshipped their gods through sacrifices—usually of animals—as well as offerings and formal prayers. These rituals were carried out in natural places, such as caves or groves considered sacred to certain gods, or in shrines or temples. People also celebrated festivals to honor certain gods. For instance, the Great Dionysia drama festival honored Zeus's son Dionysus, the god of vegetation, fertility, theater, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, and wine. Similarly, the Olympics were part of a festival honoring Zeus. Humans did not anticipate any rewards in the afterlife. It was commonly believed that the dead were no more than weak, mindless shades, or ghosts. Instead, people hoped for rewards for their devotion during their earthly lives.

Faith in these traditional beliefs was already dwindling in the 6th century BCE with the rise of a new school of philosophy. The Ionian philosophers looked to the physical realm rather than the spiritual for explanations of the world around them. In the 5th century BCE, this tendency continued with the Sophists. The Sophists were educated men, most of whom made their living traveling through the country, working as paid teachers. The Sophists instructed their students—mostly elite young men—in the art of rhetoric, or argument. They taught that an effective argument must rely on reason, not on tradition or blind faith. Developing reasoning skills required students to study a wide range of subjects, including history, science, and mathematics as well as music and poetry. Among the most influential Sophists was Protagoras (c. 490–c. 420 BCE), one of Euripides's tutors. Protagoras believed that it is only possible to know that which can be perceived by the senses. According to Protagoras, "Man is the measure of all things." In other words, an individual's perception of the world determines how they understand it, and different people perceive it differently. For example, one person may find the temperature too warm while another finds it too cold. Moreover, because knowledge is rooted in perception, it is natural to be agnostic—to neither believe nor disbelieve in the existence of the gods. Pythagoras wrote, "I cannot know whether ... [the gods] exist or ... do not exist nor what they are like in form."

Some argue that Euripides's plays reflect Sophist notions. He tends to portray the gods as fickle and unreliable. From a human perspective, their actions have no logic. If salvation comes, it comes through human, not divine, agency. Thus, in Heracles it is ultimately Theseus, a human being, who saves Heracles's life and helps him overcome despair. The gods offer no rational explanation for their actions. Reason is found, instead, in the arguments of the human characters. In Heracles this quality is particularly true of Amphitryon and Theseus, who both offer convincing arguments. In contrast, the demon, Madness, argues persuasively against harming Heracles, only to be overruled by Iris. Iris wins only because she is acting on the orders of the chief goddess, Hera, who is acting out of spite rather than reason.

However, later scholars have challenged the notion that Euripides's plays reflect Sophist ideals. Instead, they argue that the plays show the misguidedness of Sophistic beliefs. Although the gods do not solve all the characters' problems by the ends of the plays, Euripides does not advocate that his audiences give up honoring the gods. Rather, he reiterates the point that the gods act to please themselves, not to ease the burdens of humans. As in life, the characters come to understand this trait only after events have occurred and there is no time to change the outcomes.

Myth of Heracles

Heracles, known in Roman mythology as Hercules, was born to a royal family. His mother, Alcmene, translated as Alcmena in the play, was the grandchild of Perseus—another famous Greek hero—who founded Mycenae. Alcmene was married to Amphitryon, whose uncle, Creon, was king of Thebes. According to Greek mythology, however, Amphitryon was not Heracles's father. Zeus, the lusty ruler of the gods, disguised himself as Amphitryon and slept with Alcmene. So, Heracles was actually Zeus's son and, therefore, a demigod—half-god, half-human. The goddess Hera, Zeus's wife, became so jealous that she waged a campaign of vengeance against Heracles, starting even before he was born. While Alcmene was pregnant, Hera cajoled Zeus into declaring that the next son born to the house of Perseus would become the high king of the Greeks. The second boy born to the house of Perseus would become the high king's servant. Heracles was due first, but Hera arranged for Eurystheus to be born early in another branch of the family. This interference made Eurystheus the high king and made Heracles his cousin's servant. When Heracles was just a few months old, Hera sent two snakes to kill him and his adopted brother, Iphicles, Amphitryon's son. The snakes attacked the toddlers in their cradle, and in the first of his many heroic feats, Heracles strangled them.

Despite Hera's machinations Heracles grew to manhood. He was well-known for his strength, courage, masculinity, and temper. Heracles was well educated in literature and the arts as well as in sports and warfare. On one occasion he defeated a powerful enemy of Thebes. The grateful Theban king, Creon, gave Heracles the hand of his daughter Megara in marriage, and the couple had several children. However, in her continuing quest for vengeance, Hera ensured that Heracles suffered a bout of madness. While out of his mind, he killed Megara and their children. As penance, Heracles was sent by Eurystheus to complete 12 Labors—12 heroic acts. These involved slaying legendary monsters, capturing dangerous animals, and other improbable feats. Zeus made Hera promise that if Heracles completed these Labors, he would be made immortal. Heracles did so and even went on to perform other acts of strength and heroism. These later feats included killing a centaur (a being with a man's head and torso on the body of a horse) that had tried to rape a human woman. Later, a touch of the dying centaur's blood fatally poisoned Heracles. Although his human side died, Heracles had earned immortality through his many great achievements and rose to join the gods on Olympus. Now that Heracles was a god, Hera forgave him and allowed him to marry her daughter—his half-sister Hebe.

In Heracles Euripides rearranges the myth to suit his needs. When Heracles first appears in the play, he has just completed his 12th Labor: capturing the three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guards the underworld. While in the underworld, Heracles also finds and rescues Theseus, the king of Athens. Upon returning to Thebes, Heracles finds his wife and children about to be executed by Lycus, who has murdered Creon and stolen his throne. In some versions of the myth, it is Eurystheus who attempts to kill Heracles's children. Heracles rescues his family, only to become infected with madness and kill them himself—after, not before, completing his Labors. Instead of serving Eurystheus and completing his Labors after the killings, in the play, Heracles goes to live out his days as a respected hero in Athens. These changes in the Heracles legend allow Euripides to present a new approach to the hero's guilt.

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