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Heracles | Study Guide

Euripides

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Heracles | Stasimon 4 | Summary

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Summary

The chorus sings out their horror at the murders taking place. They watch as "a tempest rocks the house; the roof is falling with it."

A messenger arrives and tells the chorus that Heracles's sons are dead. It happened after Heracles killed Lycus. The family was beginning a ceremony to purify the house when suddenly Heracles seemed to have a fit and started hallucinating. Thinking he was on the way to Mycenae, he gathered his weapons to kill Eurystheus. Then, believing they were Eurystheus's children, Heracles picked off his sons one by one. The first he shot with an arrow. The second he clubbed to death. The third was in Megara's arms, and his arrow killed them both. Heracles was about to kill Amphitryon when the goddess Pallas appeared. She threw a rock at Heracles, knocking him against a fallen pillar and putting him into a deep sleep. The remaining people in the palace tied Heracles to a fallen pillar, which is where he is now, still fast asleep.

The chorus recalls two other famous Greek child murders: one "by the daughters of [King] Danaus" in Argos and the other by the Athenian princess Procne. However, they say, Heracles's murder of his children is worse.

Analysis

Stasimon 4 presents the climax of the play, which is Heracles's murder of his family. The chorus relates two notorious instances of child murders: one committed in Argos by the daughters of King Danaus and one committed by Procne in Thrace. Danaus was a king of Argos who had 50 daughters. His twin brother, Aegyptus, had 50 sons. The sons arrived together in Argos and forced Danaus to allow them to marry his daughters. Angry, Danaus ordered his daughters to kill their new husbands on their wedding night. All but one did so. The remaining couple became the ancestors of the royal house of Argos, which included Heracles. Procne's story involves only one murder but is somewhat more gruesome. Procne was an Athenian princess who married the king of Thrace, Tereus. They had a son, Itys. When Procne's sister came for a visit, Tereus raped her. To avenge her sister, Procne killed Itys, boiled his body, and fed him to his father. When Tereus finished eating, she revealed what she'd done. There is a significant difference, however, between these murders and Heracles's killings. Both Danaus's daughters and Procne had reasons for killing their victims. Heracles, in contrast, has murdered his sons for no logical reason at all. The chorus finds his random action even worse.

The fourth stasimon is particularly long because it includes narration by a messenger. Since murder scenes were not permitted to occur onstage, they had to be narrated. The chorus narrates some of the action, but they can only describe what they can see. They see the palace being damaged, for example. The damage occurs because Heracles's frenzy is echoed in a massive earthquake. The structural damage, however, is not visible to the audience. The skene, which doubles as the palace, remains intact. For this reason, the chorus must tell the audience what they see. However, despite the damage to the palace, they do not see every detail of events inside it. That's why someone who has witnessed the murders must come out and tell the chorus—and the audience—what has happened. The messenger does so in detail.

Euripides heightens the emotional intensity of the messenger's appearance through the stichomythic exchange between him and the chorus. No new information is given in their conversation. Its purpose is purely expressive.

In killing his children, Heracles used the two weapons most closely associated with him. Both have been mentioned earlier in the play. Audiences were reminded in Stasimon 1 that after killing the hydra, Heracles dipped his arrows in its poisonous blood. Therefore, any wound from one of his arrows was deadly. With just two arrows, he killed two of his sons and their mother as well. He clubbed to death the second son—the one to whom, Megara said in Episode 2, Heracles used to give his club in play.

The messenger relates that Heracles would also have killed Amphitryon if Pallas had not stopped him. Pallas is another name for the war goddess, Athena, Zeus's daughter. She was born from Zeus's head and so had no mother. Among all Zeus's children, Pallas Athena was his favorite. Pallas was so mighty that no other goddess could control her. This power enabled her to come to her half-brother Heracles's aid regardless of Hera's feelings. Over time, Athena became closely associated with Athens. This association is mirrored in the final scene when the king of Athens, Theseus, helps Heracles.

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