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Heracles | Study Guide


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Heracles | Motifs


Old Age

In the first monologue of the play, Amphitryon mentions his "useless age." He returns to this notion again and again, as do the members of the chorus. In fact, in the Parodos—the chorus's entry dance—they characterize themselves as "palsied with age, yet meaning kindly." Their age makes them unable to offer the family any aid. In Episode 1 Amphitryon repeats the same description when talking of himself: "My limbs are palsied with age, and my strength is decayed." He is angry with his age-related weakness. It makes him unable to defend the city from Lycus and makes him unable to protect Megara and the children from execution.

In Stasimon 2, after Heracles has returned and his family's safety seems assured, the chorus once again complains about being old. They call old age "a burden heavier than Aetna's crags, casting its pall of gloom upon my eyes." Aetna (Etna in later usage) is a volcano on the island of Sicily. It was believed to be where Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, worked. The words "pall of gloom" refer to its volcanic smoke and ash. The notion of a "pall of gloom" is echoed when the chorus then says, "Old age is gloomy and deathly; I hate it." Their song becomes quite whimsical at this point, suggesting that the gods should have granted worthy people "youth twice over."

The old characters in Heracles are never allowed to forget that they are no longer young. Amphitryon consistently greets the chorus as his "aged friends," and Heracles consistently refers to Amphitryon as his "aged sire." Thus, the motif runs from the Prologos to the Exodos, when Heracles, as he leaves for Athens, takes his leave from Amphitryon by saying, "Farewell, my aged sire!"


Euripides's tragedies commonly show how people's lives can quickly change, either through an error in judgment or the impulse of the gods. Thus, reversals of fortune plague most of the characters in Heracles. Amphitryon, Megara, and Heracles's sons begin the play under threat of execution. In Episode 2 they are saved by Heracles's return from Hades. In Episode 4, however, Madness infects Heracles with a murderous frenzy that will make him kill his wife and children. Lycus also experiences a reversal of fortune. He begins the play as the new ruler of Thebes but is soon killed by Heracles.

Other characters suffer role reversals. Heracles arrives and becomes his family's savior, only to become their murderer after Madness infects him. He begins the play as a husband and father but ends it as a single man with no children. When Heracles returns from Hades, he explains that he was delayed because he was rescuing Theseus. Thus, he was Theseus's savior. At the end of the play, Theseus is Heracles's savior. Theseus talks Heracles out of killing himself and invites him to live in wealth and honor in Athens. This reversal means that Heracles begins the play as a Theban and ends knowing he will soon be an Athenian.

Heracles's Labors

A significant part of the Heracles myth is his completion of 12 Labors as ordered by his cousin, the Greek high king Eurystheus. This topic is introduced directly in the Prologos of Euripides's Heracles when Amphitryon says Heracles undertook the tasks as "a mighty price" for Amphitryon's release from exile. This bit of explanation was necessary because, while it supports the plotline, it also differs from the traditional myth. Traditionally, Heracles undertook the Labors as atonement for killing his family. However, in the play the murders follow the completion of the Labors. It is Heracles's 12th Labor that keeps him away from home long enough for Lycus to take over Thebes and threaten Heracles's family.

In the course of the Labors, Heracles cleared the country of many monsters and dangerous beasts, earning himself the gratitude of people throughout Greece. Various characters return to the topic again and again during the play. Lycus puts his own spin on them when he belittles Heracles in Episode 1. The chorus recounts the Labors in Stasimon 1. They explain, for example, how he acquired the lion skin he always wears. They also tell how he killed a hydra and dipped his arrows in its poisonous blood, making them all the more deadly. Finally, they mention his most recent escapade in Hades, which is rumored to have claimed his life. These Labors have a particular influence on the plot and are referenced frequently. In Episode 2, for instance, Megara refers to the club with which Heracles killed the lion, the lion skin itself, and Heracles being in Hades. In Episode 4 the goddess Iris tells the chorus that Hera was forbidden from harming Heracles as long as he was engaged in his Labors.

Most of the characters in the play praise Heracles for completing the Labors, seeing them as service to Hellas, or Greece. Heracles himself, however, feels differently. After returning to Thebes in Episode 2, he blames himself for staying away from home to complete them. He believes that he should have been in Thebes to defend his children. "Farewell my Labors!" he says, "for it was in vain I accomplished them rather than succored these." In the Exodos it becomes clear that no one agrees with him. Theseus feels that he owes a debt to Heracles because Heracles rescued him from Hades. Thus, Theseus's arrival in Thebes can be traced directly to the 12th Labor. Moreover, it is highly likely that Theseus is referring to the Labors when he calls Heracles "man's benefactor, his chiefest friend." By completing his Labors, Heracles had made Greece safer for everyone.

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