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Heracles | Study Guide

Euripides

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Heracles | Prologos | Summary

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Summary

Outside Heracles's palace in Thebes is an altar to Zeus. On the steps leading up to the altar sit Heracles's family: his stepfather, Amphitryon; his wife, Megara; and Heracles's three sons. Amphitryon tells of his history, explaining how he "shared a wife with Zeus" and became a father to Heracles. Because Amphitryon accidentally killed his uncle Electryon, king of Mycenae, Amphitryon was exiled to Argolis. To win his freedom, Heracles offered to "free the world of savage monsters." Eurystheus, the Greek king, accepted this offer, and Heracles has completed the many "toils" Eurystheus set for him. The last one took Heracles to Hades, and he has not returned.

Meanwhile, "a stranger from Euboea," named Lycus, has killed Creon, the king of Thebes and Megara's father. Lycus has "seized the government" at a time when it has been "weakened by dissension" (disagreement). Now "this illustrious monarch Lycus" intends to kill Heracles's family so they cannot avenge Creon's murder. The family is praying for assistance from "Zeus the Savior" because no one else can help them. Some of their friends have been exposed as insincere. Other friends want to help, but they do not have the power to do so. Amphitryon prays that his real friends won't have to prove themselves in this "never-failing test of friendship!"

Megara addresses Amphitryon. Her speech includes the observation, "How uncertain are God's dealings with man!" Then she discusses how her children wonder where their father is and keep asking Megara when he will return. She tries to comfort them but is just as anxious for Heracles's return as they are. And she hopes that Amphitryon has a plan to save them. He responds that all they can do is hope Heracles returns in time. Megara replies, "It boots not to expect the unexpected." The brave, Amphitryon tells her, rely on hope, "but despair is the mark of the coward."

Analysis

The Prologos introduces the setting, the main characters, and their predicament. In doing so, it also introduces the main themes of the play—the importance of family, the nature of friendship, and heroism and courage.

Amphitryon begins by explaining who he is, how he is related to Heracles, and Heracles's lineage. This explanation is necessary because Euripides diverges from the traditional Heracles myth as well as develops and expands Amphitryon's character for the stage. Amphitryon speaks of himself as Heracles's father, even though Zeus is Heracles's father. Heracles was conceived when Zeus tricked Amphitryon's wife, Alcmena (usually spelled Alcmene), into sleeping with him. Amphitryon also offers an unfamiliar reason for why Heracles undertook his Labors. Traditionally, Heracles completes the Labors to atone for having killed his wife and children. Amphitryon gives another reason: to win Amphitryon's freedom from exile. Heracles's sacrifice indicates how important family is to him. The list of Heracles's accomplishments sheds light on his courageous and heroic character.

Megara's role illustrates family and heroism from another angle. She sees Heracles's first obligation as being to his children. Heracles will embrace Megara's perspective by the end of the play. Unfortunately, his insight will come too late.

Amphitryon goes on to explain the grave situation facing him, Megara, and the children. They are in this predicament because Lycus considers them potential political enemies. When Amphitryon calls their situation a "never-failing test of friendship," he introduces the theme of the nature of friendship. Here he describes what friendship is not. People who protect themselves by deserting others in times of need are not true friends. Amphitryon also serves as an example of what true friendship is when he prays that his real friends won't be put to the test. It would likely cost Amphitryon's friends their lives to interfere with Lycus's plans to execute Heracles's family.

Megara reveals herself from the start to be a pragmatist—someone whose approach is practical. She believes in facing the facts head-on. While Amphitryon clings to hope, Megara prepares for the inevitable. She tells her father-in-law, "It boots not to expect the unexpected," in other words, there is no advantage in expecting the unexpected. That is, in her opinion, there is nothing to be gained by expecting something miraculous, such as Heracles returning in time from Hades, to happen when it is unlikely. She will repeat this sentiment several times throughout the play.

Even as Amphitryon and Megara discuss their impending execution, Euripides's audience would have known it likely wouldn't happen. Heracles was perhaps the most famous hero of Greek mythology and, according to their religion, the only human to have become a god. Every person in Euripides's audience knew the details of Heracles's heroic life. Therefore, the audience knows what the characters do not. They know that Heracles will return from Hades. They know that he will kill the person threatening his family. They know that Heracles himself—under the influence of madness sent by Zeus's wife, Hera—will kill Megara and the boys. When the audience knows something the characters do not, it is known as dramatic irony, and the play is packed with it. Dramatic irony adds suspense and intensifies the pathos, or anguish, underlying its text.

Euripides also uses verbal irony in the play. Verbal irony happens when someone says the opposite of what they mean. When Amphitryon is explaining Lycus's actions, he calls Lycus "this illustrious monarch." Amphitryon does not really consider Lycus "illustrious" (glorious). He finds him contemptible. Verbal irony adds humor, but in Heracles that humor tends to be dark.

The family huddles on the steps of the altar of "Zeus the Savior," which, Amphitryon tells the audience, Heracles built. The family has close ties to Zeus, so it is understandable that they might expect his help. However, their reliance on Zeus is an instance of dramatic irony since the audience knows already that Zeus will not stop Lycus from executing Heracles's family or Heracles from killing his wife and children at the end of the play. Zeus keeps out of the situation entirely even though Heracles's sons are his grandchildren. For a modern audience, Zeus's failure to appear might be considered situational irony. Situational irony occurs when something that is expected to happen does not. As Megara observes, "How uncertain are God's dealings with man!"

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