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Heracles | Study Guide

Euripides

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Heracles | Exodos | Summary

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Summary

The doors of the palace open. Heracles lies there asleep, chained to the fallen column. Amphitryon comes out and asks the chorus not to make any noise. Amphitryon is afraid that Heracles will wake and try to kill his own father, making his situation even worse. The chorus wonders why Zeus has allowed this to happen to his own son.

Heracles eventually wakes but has no idea where he is or what has happened. He doesn't understand why Amphitryon is crying. When he is sure Heracles is sane again, Amphitryon unties him. Slowly, he explains what has happened. When Heracles realizes that he has killed his family, he thinks that he should avenge their deaths by killing himself. While he is contemplating suicide, Theseus arrives. Heracles worries, "The dearest of my friends will see the pollution I have incurred by my children's murder." He covers his head in shame.

Having decided to repay Heracles's kindness in rescuing him from Hades, Theseus has brought a troop of warriors. His had intended to help Heracles overcome Lycus. Amphitryon quickly explains what has happened. Lycus is dead, and so are Megara and Heracles's sons. Heracles has killed them. Theseus immediately realizes Hera is to blame. He uncovers Heracles's head. He shows sympathy rather than horror. When he learns that Heracles means to kill himself, Theseus says that isn't a worthy action for "man's benefactor, his chiefest friend."

Heracles disputes that there is any reason to praise him, saying that his "foundation [was] badly laid at birth" because his stepfather, Amphitryon, killed Heracles's mother's father and because his father, "Zeus, whoever this Zeus may be, begot [Heracles] as a butt for Hera's hate." Still, he assures Amphitryon, "thee rather than Zeus do I regard as my father."

Heracles says that he can't live in Thebes after committing his murderous crimes. He can't go to Argos, his home, because he has been exiled. He can't go anywhere else because his reputation as the murderer of his wife and sons will follow him. He suspects that the earth itself will protest his presence. So, he concludes, Hera has won. She has ruined the innocent "benefactors" of Greece. "Who would pray to such a goddess?" he wonders. Theseus points out that the gods have committed terrible crimes against one another. Still, they continue living together on Olympus. He invites Heracles to come to Athens, "the city of Pallas." Theseus will give Heracles half of everything he has, and the people of Athens will honor Heracles "with sacrifices and a monument of stone."

Finally, Heracles agrees, saying that he would not want to be "branded as a coward for giving up [his] life." He asks Amphitryon to bury his wife and children since, as their murderer, he cannot legally do so. He wonders if he should keep or discard the weapons he used to kill his family but realizes that he will need them. He says that he must go to Argos to claim his reward for capturing Cerberus and asks Theseus to accompany him. Theseus reaches out to Heracles to help him stand up. Heracles hesitates, not wanting to get bloodstains on Theseus. Theseus replies, "Wipe it off and spare not," and he tells Heracles to lean on him as they walk. Heracles tells Amphitryon, "This is the kind of man to make a friend." After embracing Amphitryon, Heracles says that he will return to take the old man with him to Athens. Then Heracles leaves with Theseus and his warriors.

The chorus sums up the tragic outcome: "With grief and many a bitter tear we go our way, robbed of all we prized most dearly."

Analysis

In this long Exodos, Euripides revisits all the major themes of the play—family, friendship, and heroism. He examines the importance of family, first, from Amphitryon's perspective. Amphitryon initially appears afraid of Heracles. He frantically tries to quiet the chorus so that they won't wake Heracles, and when Heracles stirs, Amphitryon tries to hide. He explains, though, that he's not afraid of dying. Amphitryon doesn't want Heracles to make his situation worse by murdering his father. Amphitryon's selfless love for Heracles contrasts with Zeus's indifference, which has been apparent throughout the play. The contrast has not been lost on Heracles, who says as much to Amphitryon: "Zeus, whoever this Zeus may be, begot me as a butt for Hera's hate; yet ... thee rather than Zeus do I regard as my father."

The Greeks—and their gods—considered killing a parent the worst sort of murder. After Orestes killed his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge her role in murdering his father, her husband Agamemnon, Orestes was pursued by the Furies (Erinyes in Greek) as punishment. In Euripides's time Athenian law required people to support an elderly father. If someone killed their father, it struck at the foundations of the Greeks' patriarchal society. A patriarchal society is one in which fathers govern both the family and the government and in which inheritance passes from father to son.

Despite the strong feelings against it, patricide (murdering one's father) and similar crimes turned up quite often in Greek mythology. Both Amphitryon and Theseus had firsthand experience of this. Before marrying Alcmena, Amphitryon accidentally killed her father, who was also Amphitryon's uncle. For this reason, Amphitryon was exiled—the exile from which Heracles won his release. Theseus did not kill his father, Aegeus, but his forgetfulness caused Aegeus to kill himself. Theseus, a great hero, had sailed to Crete as one of 14 young people to be sacrificed to a flesh-eating minotaur. (Theseus refers to the "bull of Crete" in this scene.) He told his father that if he were successful in killing the beast, he would change the ship's black sails to white ones when returning. However, he forgot. When the black-sailed ship sailed into Athens harbor, Aegeus, thinking his son was dead, drowned himself in the sea, which became known as the Aegean Sea. Their histories may explain why neither Amphitryon nor Theseus judges Heracles harshly.

Just as Amphitryon epitomizes familial love, Theseus embodies friendship. He has come to Thebes because, after returning to Athens from Hades, he learned that Lycus had overthrown Creon and taken his crown. He didn't wait to be asked; he came simply out of friendship for Heracles. Upon arriving he learns that Heracles has just slaughtered his wife and children. Rather than being horrified and heaping blame on Heracles, he shows nothing but concern and understanding. He even insists that Heracles return with him to Athens and accept a gift of half of Theseus's property and wealth. In helping Heracles stand and walk, Theseus touches him. Others might have avoided physical contact so as to keep the stain of guilt from transferring to them. But Theseus does not believe in such outdated ideas as that. Euripides expresses this notion using blood to represent guilt. Theseus's generosity and unflinching support contrast dramatically with the actions of Heracles's former Theban friends, who deserted them when Lycus took power.

Theseus works hard to talk Heracles out of killing himself, which is not surprising since the Greeks frowned on suicide. The corpses of suicides were buried at night after having their right hands cut off. Most of Theseus's arguments, such as Heracles not having meant to kill his family, fall on deaf ears. However, one argument hits home. Theseus tells Heracles that "any common fellow" might commit suicide. Heracles, he makes clear, is not a common man. He is a courageous hero. Theseus calls Heracles "the much-enduring" and "man's benefactor, his chiefest friend." He points out that the gods commit all sorts of horrible acts but do not kill themselves. Instead, they continue to "inhabit Olympus and brave the issue of their crimes." It is this argument—an appeal to Heracles, the hero, to show courage—that convinces him. Heracles says that he does not want to "be branded as a coward for giving up [his] life" and accepts Theseus's help. Courage and heroism are much discussed in the play, but this is a new aspect of their definition.

During the Exodos, stichomythic exchanges (characterized by brief, intense lines of dialogue) keep emotions high and emphasize the themes. The scene begins with an almost amusing encounter between the chorus and Amphitryon. The chorus is bent on sympathizing with Amphitryon and expressing their horror at what has happened. Amphitryon, however, is only concerned with getting them to back off and be quiet. He doesn't want them to wake Heracles. To wake him would be to risk another assault on their family. Gradually, their sentences grow longer, and the mood grows calmer. Then Heracles wakes. Soon, he is firing questions at Amphitryon, who eventually tells him about the deaths of Megara and their children. The stichomythia heightens both the urgency of Heracles's questions and his horror as he realizes what he has done to his family. The next such conversation occurs when Theseus plies Amphitryon with questions. When Heracles uncovers his head, he and Theseus also engage in a passionate exchange, arguing about guilt and suicide. Their conversation includes the nature of courage and heroism. Later, as Theseus grasps Heracles's hand and pulls him close, stichomythia again intensifies this proof of their friendship. The final instance takes place between Heracles and Amphitryon as they part. Here the topic returns to family. Amphitryon assures Heracles that he will bury Megara and the children, and Heracles assures his father that he will return to take Amphitryon to Athens.

Like most of the play, the Exodos features dramatic irony. However, the irony does not derive from the audience's knowledge of the Heracles myth. In the first instance Heracles wakes, expecting to find himself surrounded by a happy family. Instead, he is surrounded by their murdered corpses. In the second instance Theseus arrives thinking he will find a battle for the city occurring. Instead, that battle has already been won with little bloodshed. What he finds is a much more horrific scene. In both cases, the audience knows what has happened before the character learns it. The two characters' separate exposure to the news allows the audience to observe each one's response individually and consider the horror and ramifications of the murders again.

At the end of most of his plays, Euripides resorted to a technique known as deus ex machina. This Latin expression means "god from the machine." It refers to the use of the crane-like flying machine to bring in a god to save the day for the main character. The main character is someone who has gotten themselves into a tragic predicament. In Heracles this tendency is reversed. Rather than swooping in to save the day, the gods arrive in Episode 4 to destroy Heracles's life. They create the tragedy. In the Exodos, rather than a god, it is a human being—Theseus—who arrives to salvage what is left of the hero's life. And rather than by crane, he arrives on foot.

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