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Heracles | Study Guide

Euripides

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Heracles | Episode 1 | Summary

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Summary

Lycus enters with his entourage of followers. He makes snide comments to Amphitryon and Megara, asking if they really think Heracles will save them when he "lies dead in the halls of Hades." He taunts Megara for calling herself the "wife of so peerless a lord." He belittles Heracles's feats and calls his bow a "coward's weapon." Lycus says that he has no wish to be cruel but plans to kill them out of caution. He doesn't want Heracles's sons to grow up and take vengeance on him for killing their grandfather, Creon. Amphitryon defends Heracles's courage and calls the bow a wise weapon because it can fire countless arrows from a safe distance. Instead, he says, it is Lycus who is a coward because of his "terror of a brave man's descendants." Then Amphitryon reproaches "the land of Cadmus" for abandoning Heracles's family and leaving them to face their terrible fate alone, after all Heracles has done for Greece. Amphitryon adds that if he weren't so old and feeble, he would have killed Lycus himself.

The leader of the chorus approves of Amphitryon's speech. Lycus is furious at Amphitryon and the chorus. He tells his servants to go collect oak logs, pile them around the altar, and set them alight. He will burn the family alive to teach them that he is king. He tells the chorus, "Ye shall ne'er forget ye are slaves and I your prince." The leader of the chorus curses Lycus, telling him that as a foreigner, he will never rule the people or gain from their hard work. But then the leader of the chorus realizes that he is too old and weak to fight Lycus, who has called them slaves. Megara thanks the chorus, and she warns them not to provoke Lycus. She tells Amphitryon that she does not want to be burned alive because it would "furnish [their] foes with food for merriment ... an evil worse than death." She believes that it would make them look like cowards.

Amphitryon asks Lycus to kill him and Megara before killing the children so they don't have to hear the children begging for their help. Megara asks Lycus to allow her to go into the palace to dress her children "in the robes of death." Lycus agrees and leaves, followed by his attendants. Megara takes the children into the palace. Bitterly, Amphitryon accuses Zeus of only pretending to be their friend. Amphitryon says that he surpasses Zeus as a man of real worth even though Amphitryon is only a mortal. Zeus is either "a god of little sense ... or naturally unjust." Then Amphitryon, too, enters the palace.

Analysis

In the first episode the audience meets Lycus and learns more about the characters of Amphitryon and Megara. Euripides's audience would have been aware that Heracles is alive and will return and stop the execution, only to kill his wife and sons. Thus, the effects of dramatic irony continue throughout the scene.

For Euripides's audience, Lycus was the least familiar character. There were many men called Lycus in Greek mythology, but this particular Lycus was known only for his takeover of Thebes. In Episode 1 Lycus reveals himself to be an insecure monarch. He claims that the execution is nothing more than a necessity born of caution. When the boys grow up, they might return to Thebes to exact revenge on him for killing their grandfather, Creon, and taking over the city of Thebes. This fear is not just paranoia. This sort of violence often happens in Greek mythology. For instance, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, killed her husband, Agamemnon, at least in part for sacrificing his oldest daughter, Iphigeneia, to the gods. Later, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon's son, Orestes, avenged Agamemnon's murder by killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Many of the famous families of Greek myth have similar stories.

Despite his claim to be driven purely by practical motives, Lycus's comments about Heracles show him to be vindictive, petty, and envious. He pointedly and repeatedly states that Heracles is dead. He makes fun of Amphitryon for bragging that Zeus is Heracles's father, making Heracles "a new god." He ridicules Megara for bragging about her "peerless" husband. Heracles, he implies, is no more than a mortal man and is certainly no hero. Lycus belittles Heracles's accomplishments and calls his signature weapon, the bow, a "coward's weapon." Lycus was not alone in his opinion of the bow. Greek soldiers of that time often made fun of the bow because it allowed the warrior to fight at a distance, as opposed to the spear, which required hand-to-hand combat. Therefore, the audience will get the impression that Lycus is killing Heracles's family not only to protect himself, but also to prove that he is better than Heracles, Greece's greatest hero. As he speaks, the audience knows that Lycus will soon become a victim of that very hero.

Lycus is also thin-skinned. When Amphitryon defends Heracles's reputation, Lycus gets angry. He immediately threatens to burn the family alive—a prolonged and much more painful death than necessary. The audience will realize that Lycus wants to punish the family for standing up to him. This realization will be confirmed when Lycus turns on the chorus as well, for their support of Heracles's family. According to Lycus they are no longer citizens but slaves. Slaves had no political rights and were generally treated as property. Although he does not threaten the chorus members' lives, he threatens their status.

Lycus's comments about Heracles lead Amphitryon to defend the hero by listing many of his victories. He does so in an apostrophe—that is, by addressing someone who is not actually present, namely Heracles. In his remarks, Amphitryon explores the true nature of courage and heroism, which involve not only strength and combat prowess but also cleverness and wisdom. Because Heracles uses all the tricks at his disposal and tries to avoid hand-to-hand combat, he can defend Greece more effectively. Amphitryon's pride in Heracles would have been particularly moving for Euripides's audience, who knew Heracles would return and kill the people he most wants to defend.

Amphitryon's dialogue also returns to the theme of friendship. He blames the Thebans for not defending the family of Heracles despite all Heracles has done for the city. Friendship, as Amphitryon defines it, is not about liking each other and spending time together. It is characterized by honor and reciprocity (mutual benefit). Friendship implies obligation among the friends even in the worst circumstances. Euripides provides an example of true friendship in the Exodos when Theseus—another famous hero—will arrive to come to Heracles's aid.

Megara again shows her practicality when she asks Lycus to allow her to dress the children for burial. A proper, dignified burial was important to the Greeks. By showing Lycus respect, Megara hopes to ensure the family's bodies will also be treated well.

A modern audience might wonder why Amphitryon refers to Thebes as the "land of Cadmus." Cadmus founded Thebes and was the city's first king. He was a famous mythological hero and would have been familiar to audiences of Euripides's day.

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