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Heracles | Study Guide

Euripides

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Heracles | Episode 4 | Summary

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Summary

Iris introduces herself and Madness. Iris is "the handmaid of the gods." Madness is the "daughter of Night." They mean no harm to anyone—except Heracles and his family. Now that Heracles has completed the Labors set by Eurystheus, Hera has decided "to brand him with the guilt of shedding kindred blood by slaying his own children." Iris agrees with the plan and instructs Madness to "send forth frenzy upon him." This frenzy should make Heracles kill his sons and "shake out the sails of death." She intends this murder to teach Heracles "to know how fiercely against him the wrath of Hera burns." And, Iris says, she also wants Heracles to experience her wrath. If Heracles is not punished, the gods will lose power, and humankind will gain it.

Madness disagrees with Iris's plan. Heracles is famous both on earth and in heaven and has brought honor to the gods. So wishing evil upon him is a mistake. However, Iris insists, and Madness submits, noting that she is acting against her will. She tells Iris to return to Olympus, as Heracles is already feeling the effects of madness. Then Madness says that earthquakes and lightning will be "half so furious as" the insanity she is inducing. She describes his growing frenzy, saying he looks "like a bull." His head is tossing, and his eyes are rolling. He pants and bellows. Madness disappears into the palace.

Analysis

In this brief scene the only speakers are the two immortals, Iris and Madness, who arrive at the beginning and depart at the end of the episode. The first to speak is Iris, a winged goddess who introduces herself as the gods' handmaid. Her name has two interpretations. Iris is Greek for "rainbow," and eiris is Greek for "messenger." In Greek mythology, Iris was the goddess of the rainbow but most frequently served as a messenger, especially for Zeus's wife, Hera. It may be her closeness with Hera that makes Iris take Hera's side so steadfastly against Heracles. The other immortal is a primordial spirit, introduced here as a demon. According to Greek mythology, primordial spirits existed before the gods of Olympus came into power. Here, she is called Madness, but she was also known as Lyssa or Lussa. She was associated with madness, blind rage, and frenzy in humans and with rabies in animals. However, as she reminds Iris in the scene, Lyssa was reluctant to use her powers on human beings.

Driving Heracles into a murderous frenzy is just another attempt on Hera's part to get even with Zeus for sleeping with Heracles's mother. She began trying to kill Heracles when he was a baby. Then she sent poisonous snakes to do the job, but the baby throttled them. Now that Heracles is himself a father, Hera has targeted his children, who are also Zeus's grandchildren. So, she is still trying to get back at Zeus through his mortal descendants. Interestingly, Iris's reason is quite similar to Lycus's. Lycus wanted the family and the chorus to know for certain that he had the ultimate power. Iris says that by killing his children Heracles "may learn to know how fiercely against him the wrath of Hera burns and may also experience mine." The gods and Lycus share the same self-centered reasoning. In Episode 1 Lycus angrily says that killing Heracles's family would prove his power to them and the chorus. Here Iris claims that his family must die to make Heracles feel the gods' wrath to prove the gods' power over humankind.

Like the choral odes, the immortals' dialogue is particularly poetic. For example, Iris says that Hera wants to "brand [Heracles] with ... guilt." She is using the metaphor (figurative language that makes an indirect comparison) of branding—burning a permanent identifying mark into the skin. This one word implies not only the pain of burning, but also lifelong suffering. Several lines later, she uses another metaphor: "shake out the sails of death." Death has sails like a boat because, after death, a person's soul is ferried along the river Acheron to reach Hades. Iris references the ferry later in the sentence. Later Madness employs rich sensory language to describe how the madness she induces will affect Heracles. She describes how he will look, with his "wildly tossing ... head" and his "rolling ... eyes." She describes how he will sound, with his "panting breath" and his "bellows." She also uses a simile, saying he will be "like a bull in act to charge." Since the Greeks could not display violence on stage, they often used rich sensory language to convey its occurrence offstage.

When the two immortals disagree, there is a brief instance of stichomythia. Such rapid-fire dialogue was used by the Greek playwrights to show heightened emotion, including heated disagreements. Here, it is Iris who becomes angry. Madness has dared to challenge Hera's plan. Even for readers, the short, direct sentences make it easy to imagine the quick flare of tempers. However, after Iris dismisses Madness's reasoned argument, Madness quickly submits, putting an end to the short stichomythic exchange.

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