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Heracles | Study Guide

Euripides

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Heracles | Stasimon 1 | Summary

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Summary

The chorus sings a song in praise of Heracles. Whether he should be called the "son of Zeus or of Amphitryon" makes no difference to the chorus. Then the chorus describes Heracles's many heroic Labors. In one he killed a lion. Now he wears the lion's skin. In another he tamed Diomedes's man-eating horses. The chorus describes how the horses "greedily champed their bloody food at gory mangers with jaws unbridled, devouring with hideous joy the flesh of men." In still another, Heracles killed the hydra and "smeared its venom" on his arrows. In another Labor, he "slew ... a monster with three bodies." They lament that Heracles has now sailed to "Hades' house of tears," never to return. They address Heracles, saying that they would defend his children if they could but that they are too old. When they see Megara and Amphitryon returning with Heracles's sons "clad in the vesture of the grave," the old men weep.

Analysis

The choral ode about Heracles's Labors is rich with sensory language—that is, descriptions using words that call on all the senses. For example, the chorus describes Heracles's eighth Labor, which was taming Diomedes's horses. Diomedes was a barbarian king who fed his horses human flesh. The chorus describes how the horses "greedily champed their bloody food at gory mangers with jaws unbridled." The words create a vivid image but also make it easy to imagine the sound of the horses' "champ[ing] ... jaws."

The chorus does not mention why Heracles kept the lion's skin, but his contemporary audiences would have known. The lion's skin could not be pierced. After knocking the lion out with his club, Heracles used one its own talons to slit the skin, which he then removed. After that he wore the skin like protective armor, enabling him not to be injured by weapons such as arrows or spears. It is this lion skin that Megara will refer to in the next episode.

The hydra—one of the monsters Heracles killed—was a snakelike, immortal being with many heads. Whenever one of its heads was cut off, it would regrow. To prevent the heads from growing back, whenever Heracles lopped off a head, he cauterized the wound. That is, he sealed the wound with extreme heat. (When the chorus mentions a "brand," they are referring to the cautery.) After Heracles's battle with the beast, he dipped his arrows in its poisonous blood, making any wound from his arrows fatal. Heracles's poisoned arrows will become relevant later in the play.

The audience would have been familiar with all of Heracles's deeds, making this scene likely one of their favorites. Euripides builds suspense by making the audience wait until this point in the narrative for the recitation of Heracles's Labors. Like the high-speed car chase or the shoot-out in the warehouse in contemporary action movies, such descriptions, even when familiar and oft-repeated, create a sense of excitement and heighten the tension. Heracles's past acts of bravery set the scene for the final showdown, in which he will save his family from the evil Lycus. Of course, Euripides is a complex tragedian and continues to develop Heracles's character and fate beyond that final act.

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