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Heracles | Study Guide

Euripides

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Heracles | Episode 2 | Summary

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Summary

Megara laments that she is seeing her and Heracles's sons for the last time. She tells them that their father had intended for each of the three boys to rule a city. The first was to have the throne of Argos, currently ruled by Heracles's cousin Eurystheus. That first son would also inherit Heracles's lion skin. The second son was to inherit his grandfather's throne in Thebes. Megara recalls how Heracles used to give the child his club in play. The third son would rule Oechalia, which Heracles "wasted." She had been planning their marriages to other royal houses. But their fates have changed. Now they will be marrying death. She doesn't know which to hug goodbye first. Megara calls out to Heracles in Hades to come to their rescue, even if only as a phantom. Even a phantom Heracles would be enough to frighten off the cowards who plan to murder his children.

Amphitryon calls on Zeus to help the boys, saying that his aid must come fast or it will be too late. He bids the chorus—his "comrades"—farewell. He regrets that "fortune in a single day" has robbed him of his reputation "as of a feather that floats away toward the sky."

That's when they catch sight of Heracles approaching. Megara rejoices that he is alive, telling her children, "Cling to your father's robe ... never loose your hold, here is one to help you." When Heracles arrives, he greets everyone heartily. Noticing that his children are dressed for the grave and his father is in tears, Heracles urgently asks Megara to explain this "confusion." She catches him up on recent events in Thebes and tells him that messengers from Eurystheus had proclaimed his death. Heracles wonders why no one came to their aid, especially in light of all he had done for the city. Megara tells him, "Misfortune ... has no friends." Heracles vows to kill Lycus and every traitorous Theban. He regrets having spent so much time on his Labors when he should have been protecting his family. Of this regret, Heracles says, "What [is] so noble in having fought a hydra and a lion ... if I make no effort to save my own children from death?" The chorus agrees: "Parents should help their children ... aged sires, and the partners of their marriage."

Amphitryon worries that Heracles may have been seen entering the city and that his enemies may be preparing an ambush. Heracles assures him that he saw a sign of warning along the road and was careful not to be seen. He also says that Eurystheus has no idea that he has escaped Hades because he came to see his family first. He was somewhat delayed in leaving Hades because he stayed to rescue Theseus, who has returned home to Athens. After the conversation with his father, Heracles observes that everyone—rich or poor—loves their children. In that love "all mankind are equal." Happily reunited, Heracles and his family enter their palace.

Analysis

The second episode describes the first of three turning points in Heracles—his return from Hades. His return is the event hoped for by his family and anticipated by the audience. The emotion among the characters goes from grim acceptance of impending death to joy and relief. However, for the audience, there is no such relief. They know what the characters do not: Megara and her sons will die at their father's hands. Thus, once again, dramatic irony creates an undercurrent of sorrow beneath the play's surface. It is particularly tragic when Megara tells her sons to "cling to your father's robe ... never loose your hold, for here is one to help you." As the audience hears that, they know that the children would be much safer far away from their father. Because of dramatic irony, Heracles's promises to save his children's lives are likewise heartbreaking.

As the scene opens, Megara is saying farewell to her sons, telling them what she and Heracles had planned for them had they lived. Their plans indicate that Heracles had high expectations for his sons. All the plans she attributes to Heracles reflect events in his mythology. The first bequest indicates that Heracles anticipated one of his sons taking over from Eurystheus, the Greek high king. It was Eurystheus who assigned Heracles his Labors and has been spreading the false news that Heracles is dead. The lion skin that he plans to give this same boy was the keepsake Heracles took from his first Labor. He had been sent to get rid of a fierce lion that had been terrorizing the Nemea region. Weapons could not pierce the lion's skin, so Heracles had to strangle it to death. He kept the lion's skin and wore it himself as protection from then on. According to some accounts, the club that the second son played with was the one Heracles used to stun the Nemean lion so he could strangle it. The third son would rule Oechalia, which Megara says Heracles "wasted." However, Euripides has taken this event out of its normal place in Heracles's timeline. According to the original myth, Heracles first went to Oechalia long after his family's deaths to enter an archery competition. The winner of the competition would marry the king's daughter. However, wishing to protect his daughter from sharing Megara's fate, the king refused to follow through on his plan. It was still later that Heracles returned and took the city. The reference to Oechalia is brief, but savvy Greek audience members might have found the anachronistic mention amusing.

Like the recitation of the Labors by the chorus, by listing Heracles's promised inheritance, Euripides, through Megara, heightens the suspense, the tension, and the glory of Heracles's appearance on stage. This too may be another reason Euripides chooses to rearrange the mythology to enhance his own storytelling.

When Amphitryon says that "fortune" has stolen his reputation, his point is that no one's destiny is secure. Fate is fickle, and things can change in the blink of an eye. He is referring to Lycus's overthrow of Creon and decision to kill Heracles's family. However, his comments come immediately before Heracles appears and are very relevant to the hero's arrival. Although Lycus is in power now, he will soon be dead. This will be another reversal of fortune—and not the last in Heracles.

The conversation between Heracles and Megara is a rapid-fire dialogue consisting of alternating lines. Heracles asks a series of questions, and Megara gives a short, clear answer to each. This is a technique called stichomythia. Classical Greek playwrights used stichomythia to intensify emotion. Here it highlights Heracles's urgency in finding out what has happened in Thebes. A similar exchange takes place between Heracles and Amphitryon. This time Heracles is providing answers about his stay in Hades. The conversation is important because it introduces Heracles's rescue of Theseus.

The exchange between Megara and her husband ends with her observing, "Misfortune ... has no friends." She and Amphitryon have already commented several times that none of their Theban friends rallied to their defense after Lycus targeted them. However, while Megara's observation has proven true in her situation, it will not hold true at the end of the play, when Theseus arrives.

After each instance of stichomythia, Heracles brings up the importance of family, one of the play's main themes. In doing so he also touches on the theme of heroism, realizing that heroism begins at home. He wonders, "What [is] so noble in having fought a hydra and a lion ... if I make no effort to save my own children from death?" (The lion was his first Labor, and the hydra was his second.) His statement is another example of verbal irony: the audience clearly understands the nobility of Heracles's Labors and their benefit to all of Greece. It is Lycus, not Heracles, who has brought this awful fate upon his wife and children. Still, as a father, Heracles's first obligation is to protect his family. When Heracles observes that all people, regardless of their station, love their children, he aligns himself with all Greeks, not only the ruling class. Like his earlier comments, these downplay his fame and emphasize his humanity. In the Exodos, when Theseus talks about Heracles as a hero, he will return to the notion that Heracles has benefitted all of Greece.

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