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Heracles | Study Guide

Euripides

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Heracles | Themes

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In Heracles the themes center on the individual's obligations to others. The first relates to responsibilities to family. The second theme addresses obligations to friends. The third—heroism and courage—has to do with service to society.

Family

The plot of Heracles centers on Heracles and his immediate family: Amphitryon, Megara, and Heracles's sons. From the start the words and actions of Amphitryon, who considers himself Heracles's father, speak to the importance of family. In the Prologos, for instance, he brings up the "mighty price" Heracles paid to free Amphitryon from exile—agreeing to "free the world of savage monsters." These Labors have kept Heracles away from his family and, it is believed, have ultimately left him stranded in Hades among the dead.

In the play, as well as according to Greek mythology, Heracles's biological father is Zeus, the father of the gods. Yet it is Amphitryon who raised him, who demonstrates his fatherly love for him, and whom Heracles calls his true father. While Heracles is away on his Labors, it is Amphitryon who remains in Thebes with Megara "to tend and guard [Heracles's] children in his house." Amphitryon's unshakable defense throughout the play of the family and Heracles stands in stark contrast to Zeus's apparent indifference. After all, Megara is Zeus's daughter-in-law, and the children are his grandsons. Still, despite the family's desperate prayers, Zeus doesn't lift a finger to save them from Lycus or Hera.

Megara's character raises some interesting questions about a person's obligation to their family. In the Prologos she talks about her children constantly asking where their father is. She has to lie to them and give them excuses to explain his absence. In Episode 2 she talks of "the expectation once formed from [Heracles's] words" and how "bitterly" she has been "disappointed." Instead of the inheritances and marriages she and Heracles had planned for them, the defenseless children must take "for brides the maidens of death." When Heracles unexpectedly returns from Hades, he is just in time to save his family from execution. However, he realizes that his Labors were "in vain" and that he should have been putting family first all along. "For whom ought I to help," he asks, "rather than wife and children and aged sire?" The leader of the chorus adds emphasis to his point by agreeing in very similar words: "'Tis only right that parents should help their children, their aged sires, and the partners of their marriage."

Friendship

In Heracles Euripides explores the nature of friendship by first describing false friendship and then illustrating true friendship. Beginning in the Prologos, Euripides shows what friendship is not. In Amphitryon's opening monologue—a lengthy speech by one character—Amphitryon tells the audience that he, Megara, and Heracles's sons need help. They have no food, drink, or shelter while they huddle on the steps to Zeus's altar awaiting execution. Yet none of their so-called friends come to their aid. Amphitryon calls their predicament a "never-failing test of friendship!" This test has enabled him to categorize their friends into two camps—the "insincere" and the powerless. The chorus of old men falls into the latter group. They are simply too weak to help. The rest of their former friends have turned traitor and sided with Lycus, who has murdered the king and taken the throne. When Heracles returns in Episode 2, he asks Megara, "Was I so poor in friends in my absence?" She counters with another question: "Who are the friends of a man in misfortune?" The friends that the family had counted on turned out to be fair-weather friends. They were there for the family only as long as the family needed nothing from them. That, Euripides makes clear, is no friendship at all.

After discussing false friendship, Euripides introduces Theseus, who embodies true friendship. Heracles was delayed returning to his family because after completing his Labor, he stayed in Hades to rescue Theseus. He was being a friend to "a man in misfortune." The two then parted, Theseus going home to Athens and Heracles to Thebes. However, upon reaching Athens, Theseus learns of Lycus's takeover in Thebes. Theseus immediately assembles a company of warriors and hurries to Thebes to help Heracles fight the usurper. That is Theseus's first act of friendship, and it starkly contrasts with the actions of Heracles's false friends in Thebes, who switched sides to save themselves. When Theseus turns up in the Exodos and learns that Heracles has slaughtered his wife and sons in a demon-induced frenzy, his empathetic support is immediate. Without hesitation, Theseus works to talk his friend out of suicide. At no point does Theseus express horror or even distaste for Heracles. Instead, he offers Heracles a life of wealth and honor in Athens. Theseus goes so far as to take Heracles's hand and help support him, completely unconcerned that any criminal taint might "wipe off" on him. Heracles marvels at the depth of Theseus's friendship, saying that he considers Theseus "a son." He remarks to Amphitryon that Theseus is "the kind of man to make a friend." Theseus has remained a faithful friend despite the extreme misfortune that has overtaken Heracles. It is Heracles who utters the last word on friendship: "Whoso prefers wealth or might to the possession of good friends, thinketh amiss."

Heroism and Courage

Much is made of Heracles's heroism by Amphitryon and the chorus. In the Prologos Amphitryon describes how Heracles undertook his Labors to end Amphitryon's exile. In Stasimon 1 the chorus details many of his Labors. These deeds are great because they benefited humankind. For instance, he killed a lion and a hydra that were causing death and mayhem and whom others had been unable to kill. His heroism is in service to Greece (called Hellas in the text). He does it to help others, not to glorify himself.

For this reason, Heracles is happy to use tricks and caution when completing his tasks. Lycus mocks Heracles's methods when talking with Amphitryon about this in Episode 1. He points out that Heracles has made his reputation in "contests with beasts" rather than in battle and calls the bow a "coward's weapon." A few lines later, however, Lycus says of himself that he killed Creon, the former Theban king, and took his throne. To keep the throne, he plans to kill three small children, their mother, and an old man. The contrast with Heracles's selfless yet dangerous acts, which benefitted many common people, is pointed. Amphitryon defends Heracles and disparages Lycus and his "coward terror of a brave man's descendants."

In the Prologos Amphitryon brings up another definition of courage. He says, "The bravest man is he who relieth ever on his hopes, but despair is the mark of a coward." Theseus returns to this notion in the Exodos when he identifies a type of courage that has nothing to do with battle—the courage to overcome misfortune. He implies that with heroism comes obligation. After slaughtering his wife and children, Heracles has decided to kill himself. Theseus, however, views suicide as an act of cowardice. "Any common fellow," he says, might talk of committing suicide. Heracles, however, is a courageous hero. As "man's benefactor, his chiefest friend," Heracles cannot kill himself. Hellas, or Greece, would not allow it. Heracles says that he does not want to "be branded as a coward for giving up [his] life" and changes his mind. He will accept Theseus's help and move to Athens. The audience knows that after his family's deaths, Heracles continued his heroic deeds in service to the Greek people.

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