[Final Note: August 8, 2006: I have yet to tidy the post up, apart from one typographical error in the first paragraph. This was my first post on a classical play, and I was blown away by the wonder of what I found in the play. Better, more focussed blog posts on other Euripidean works appear on my new blog, Seoul Hero. (Search for "Ion," "Iphigenia," and "Helen" to find the posts in question). At some point, I may come back to this post, as Heracles is easily my favorite piece of literature in the western canon.]
[Note: I'll probably tidy up this post from time to time. Comments, critical or otherwise, are, as always, welcome. Even as an undergraduate paper it would be pretty sloppy (and of course all my linguistic tools are at home), and as a blog post it may be too long, but I hope people will read and enjoy it.]
Heracles, written by the Greek playwright Euripides, is a thoughtful, probing play concerning the nature of the universe, and how humans can live in it. The basic story of Heracles is well known, and so consequently this paper will omit those details. What Euripides did, however, was to throw in some new, unusual elements.
The story is told from the perspective of Amphytryon, the human father of Heracles, who, along with Heracles's wife, Megara, and their three sons have sought sanctuary at the altar of Zeus the Deliverer, where they pray to avoid death at the hands of the usurper of Thebes: Lycus. There they wait for the return of Heracles from Hades, where he had gone on one of his labors. The scene is one of supplication to the divine.
Like many Greek myths, there is both a human and a divine element to the story. Euripides, however, keeps the action, with one significant exception, on earth. (Note: the italics that follow are all mine)Indeed, the first line asks "Is there anyone on earth who does not know of the Argive Amphitryon, who shared his wife's bed with Zeus?" The turn of phrase, according to the translator, is as shocking in the Greek as it is in English, and sets the stage for human questioning of the usual pious theodicies.
The three motifs of misfortune, father-son relationships, and friendship are sounded by Amphitryon at the very beginning of the play:
"My son left me here in the house to watch over his home and guard his children, when he began his journey into the earth's black gloom. I have tried to save the sons of Heracles from death by joining their mother in supplication at this altar of Zeus the Deliverer.... As for friends, some I see are not to be relied on, while those deserving of the name are powerless to assist. So it is when men encounter misfortune. I pray that no friend of mine, even a mere acquaintance, may have this experience; there is no surer test of friends."So we come, then, to the basic theme of the play: "What is the nature of this cruel universe, and how should one live in it?" To this question, the play offers a resounding affirmation of the power of friendship, and the father-son relationship, to create meaning in the life of the individual. For such an ancient play, the agnostic, humanistic, and questioning tone seems incredibly modern, even postmodern.
The Moral Nature of the Universe
The universe, according to tbhe Greek mythology familiar to Euripides' audience, is peopled with humans and gods. The origin of humans, or at least of those of Thebes, the city where all the action takes place, is not unusual in the ancient world: the first humans are descended from the slain body of a monster. In this case, there is already a human, Cadmus, associated by tradition with Tyre. Cadmus kills a dragon, and sows his teeth on the earth. From those teeth rise up the first "earthborn" warriors of Thebes, who take immediately to fighting and killing each other. "Those allowed by Ares to live" are the ancestors of the Thebans. For a similar mythological origin of humanity, compare the Mesopotamian tradition where humans are created from the blood of an evil monster, Kingu, to be servants for the gods. For the earth as the giver of human life, compare also the second biblical creation account beginning in Gen. 2, where man ('adam) is formed, like pottery, out of the earth ('adamah).
The phrase concerning Ares seems to be both a figure of speech (war being signified), and a literal reference to the will of a god. The gods are not understood in the same way by all the characters in the play, but the feeling that they are mysterious is common to many of the characters, including Amphitryon, who even as Heracles' own (earthly) father still is ignorant of the reason for his famous labors: "It may have been Hera's cruel jealousy or else the decrees of fate that forced these labours on him, no one knows." The story of Hera's jealousy and rage against the bastard offspring of her unfaithful husband is, of course, well-known. Fate, to which the gods themselves were subject, was another explanation for the why's of the universe, that would have been familiar to Euripides ancient audience. So for every action in the world, there are as many as three kinds of parties to keep in mind: humans, gods, and fate. It's a complicated universe.
The nature of the gods is the subject of much discussion in the play. Active in the myths, they are notably absent when Amphitryon and his family are waiting at the altar. Instead, Amphitryon hopes for a change of fate, Murphy's Law not having being invented yet:
"Men's misfortune's diminish and stormy winds blow out at last; Fortune does not smile on her favorites forever, for all things give place to something else. The true man is he who trusts in hope from first to last; to abandon hope is to be a coward."Essentially, the protagonist is saying to his daughter-in-law, Megara, "don't give up!" Yet after Lycus's lies about Heracles being in the realm of the dead forever, Amphytrion and his family do give up. He then rails against Zeus, his "partner in marriage":
"You were less a friend to me, its seems, than I had supposed. I have behaved more honorably than you, though you are a great god and I a mere mortal, for I have not betrayed the sons of Heracles. You knew how to steal into another man's bed and enjoy his wife, though no invitation was given, but you do not know how to protect your own family from harm. Either you are a stupid sort of god or you have no sense of justice."Megara, for her part, blames Fortune for the change which saw her royal family on death row. Speaking to her sons, she mentions how their father, Heracles, had "laid his plans with a proud and confident heart." Her part was to arrange the marriages of her sons, but "Fortune changed and gave you fiends instead of brides, while to me in my misery she gave tears as the ritual water I must carry." Resigning herself to death, and agreeing with Lycus that they will all die quickly, she avoids torture for herself and her family. In one last burst of energy, she implores Heracles to return, "even as a phantom." Immediately, as if in answer to her prayer, her loving husband returns. After being apprised of the situation, he kills Lycus, and resumes his leadership. The chorus, the old, but powerless friends of Amphitryion, is jubilant. The epithet "the Deliverer," or "Savior," is again appended to the name of the king of the gods. At this point the Antistrophe sings a very strange song arguing for two lives for good people: "If the gods possessed understanding and wisdom such as men have, a second youth would be the prize for those whose lives bore clearly the stamp of virtue." Ironically, this has already been fulfilled: first Heracles returned from the depths of Hades, the realm of death, and second, his family, considered "dead" before, are now alive. It is interesting that the language is reminiscent of the writer of Romans: "and you, who were dead in your trespasses and sins, are now alive with Christ," another well-known Savior.
At this point, jubilation breaks out, and all the actors in the play attribute the death of Lycus to divine "Justice! Hail the tide of fate that flows from Heaven!" The Antistrophe continues: The gods, the gods concern themselves with men, unjust as well as pious, so that they take heed of them. No one dares cast his eyes back on the track but, passing by the law and giving rein to lawlessness, he smashes prosperity's dark chariot." Put in biblical terms, we have moved from the accusations of Job and the troubled psalms to the consolations of Job's friends and the happier psalms.
And then comes the most peculiar deus ex machina in all of literature, as the gods descend not at what will be the end of the play, but in the middle. Iris, messenger of Hera, and Madness, appear, striking panic in the hearts of all, and madness in the mind of Heracles, newly returned from the dead. Heracles, laboring under a delusion, kills his children and his wife. His patron, Pallas Athena, throws a stone at him to prevent him from doing further damage, knocking him unconcious.
The songs of rejoicing give way to recrimination and accusation directed heavenward once more. It is interesting in this context that Euripides chose to put into the mouth of Madness moral reservations about harming Heracles, while Iris, messenger of Hera, had to remind her to do her duty. Blaming Hera was nothing new, but in making Madness sympathetic to the plight of her prey, Euripides showed significant insight into human nature.
As for the scene of the slaughter of the children and their mother by Heracles, that is called a "destruction from heaven" by the Chorus. Later, the Chorus leader will ask "O Zeus, why did you feel such strong hatred for your son? Why did you launch him upon this sea of woes?" For his part, Amphitryon does not blame his son, answering the newly recovered Heracles's question about who killed his family: "You and your bow, whichever heavenly power was to blame." In fact, Amphitryon once says that Heracles has been stricken by Fate, while later he cries to the king of the gods: "O Zeus, do you see this from where you sit on Hera's throne?"
Finally, Heracles himself has some thoughts about the nature of the universe, not all of them necessarily coherent. Like Job, he laments that his "life should never have been. First, I am this man's son; he married ... my mother, though he had killed her father and was tained by his blood. When a family's foundations are not soundly laid, misfortune must befall its sons." Here we are not far from the theodicy of Job's friends and the earlier Chorus, who offer to us a world in which bad is always punished in a most mechanistic fashion.
Heracles procedes to blame both Zeus and Hera, while recognizing his true father: "Then Zeus, whoever Zeus is, sired me to become the target of Hera's emnity (no, old man, don't be angry; I count you as my father, not Zeus). While I was still a baby at the breast, Zeus' consort put fierce-eyed serpents in my cradle to cause my death." It is then that the great hero contemplates suicide, from which he is saved by the love of his friend, and to a lesser extent by his father.
How to Live in this Universe
The first thing is to live. This is made possible through live-giving relationships, in this case friendship and sonship. When Heracles would give up, afraid, like Cain, of the curse of bloodguilt which would make him a perpetual outlaw, Theseus, the king of Athens, whom he had brought up from Hades, returns to comfort him. Heracles had covered his face in a black sack. Theseus asks of Amphitryon, upon seeing the bodies of the slain, along with Heracles beside them, "Hera was at work in this; but who is that man among the dead, old man? Amphitryon responds, "He's my son, my son, the man of many labours, who once marched to do battle with the giants." In his hour of need, Heracles is not disowned by his divine father, but accepted by his true one (one might compare the literary character of Jesus while on the cross, forsaken by his Father, but not by his earthly mother). Nor is he disowned by his friend, who asks why he hides his head. The dialogue that follows is one of the most moving scenes in drama:
Theseus: Why does he hide his poor head in his cloak?
Amphitryon: He is ashamed to meet your eye, ashamed before your love as his kinsman, and the blood of his own sons.
Theseus: But what if I come to share his pain? Uncover him.
Amphitryon: My son, take the cloak away from your eyes, throw it down, reveal your face to the sun!
Amphitryon then wrestles with Heracles, and cries, trying to persuade his son to take off the cloak from his face. Theseus then speaks to Heracles
Now then, you who sit there in misery [a phrase reminiscent of the Psalms and Deutero-Isaiah!], I bid you reveal your face to a friend....Why do you shake your hand at me, showing fear? Are you afraid that I may be [ritually] polluted if I speak to you? It does not trouble me if your friendship brings me bad luck; there was a time when it brought me good....I hate a friend whose gratitude fades with age, or one who wants to enjoy your success, but not share your voyage when storms arise. Stand up, uncover your wretched head, and look at me!Heracles does so, and asks why Theseus has uncovered his head, given his ritual bloodguilt. Theseus anticipates Shakespeare in his response: "You ask that? You are mortal; you cannot pollute what is divine....No avenging curse passes from friend to friend."
Then Theseus hears out Heracles, who tells him of his desire to die. Theseus empathizes with his friend, and weeps for his misfortune. However, he calls Heracles back to his true nature, encouraging him to be brave and face life. Heracles and Theseus have a back-and-forth at this point, with the former accusing the latter of criticizing him. Theseus responds with a question, again, trying to call Heracles back to his potential: "Are these the words of Heracles, the all enduring?" Heracles counters that he is facing too much sorrow. Noting the death of his sons, he parodies the hymns of salvation common in the ancient world: "Let the glorious wife of Zeus now dance for joy and make Olympus shake with her footsteps. She has achieved her will; she has cast down from on high the formost man of Greece." Those with a biblical background here will hear again the voice of Job, who also turned upside down hymns of praise. It is then that Heracles asks a pointed question:
What man would utter prayers to such a goddess? Because of jealousy of another woman's bed, to spite Zeus, she has destroyed the benefactor of Greece, though he was innocent of wrong-doing!"Like Amphitryon, and the Antistrophe, Heracles questions the justice of the gods.
Theseus responds that even the gods themselves suffer the blows of fortunes, "if poets' tales are true." He offers to take Heracles to Athens, cleanse him of bloodguilt by offering sacrifices there, and name the plots of land that are his own after Heracles, to be memorials to him after the latter's own death. It is at this point that Heracles looks up, offering a different view of the gods:
Ah, these honours do not meet the severity of my woes. I do not believe that the gods indulge themselves in illicit love or bind each other with chains. I have never thought such things worthy of belief and I never will; nor that one god treats another as his slave. A god, if he is truly a god, needs nothing; these are the wicked tales of poets."And with a single blow the great hero of mythology thus topples the entire pantheon of gods from Olympus's crown.
Still bemoaning the blows of Fortune, and weeping over his dead wife and sons, he accepts the offer of asylum in Athens--and is faced with a dilemna. Does he keep his bow, the "architect of my victories," the bow that killed his family? Though their very presence will remind him of what he has done, he takes them, rather than suffer a shameful death at the hands of his enemies.
Still requiring the exhortations of Theseus to get up, Heracles is reluctant, wishing he could be turned into a rock, "oblivious to suffering." Theseus insists on taking his hand, bloodguilt though there be. Heracles then exlaims "I have sons no more, but in you I have a son." Refusing to further exhort Heracles to bravery when he is suffering so much, Theseus puts his arm around Heracles, the latter noting, "A yoke that binds friends, but one is no friend of fortune. [To Amphitryon] Father, this is the sort of man to have as a friend!" Turning back, he embraces Amphitryon, saying in simple language comparable to the story of the Binding of Isaac, "Farewell, Father!"
"Farewell, my son!" "Bury the children, as I said." "Who will bury me, my child?" "I will." "When will you come?" "When you die, father. Now, take my children's bodies inside--a grevious burden, hard to bear. I, who have devastated my house with deeds of shame, will follow Theseus, utterly ruined, like a boat towed by a ship. If any man desires the benefits of wealth or power more than worthwhile friends, he is a fool."
The law of Thebes requires Heracles to leave the city, and Amphitryon must stay. Nonetheless, Heracles, in offering to bury Amphitryon at the time of his death, is acknowledging Amphitryon to be his true father. For his part, Amphitryon had always acknowledged Heracles as his son, Zeus or no Zeus.
And so ends this magnificent, humanistic play. The nature of the universe isn't really defined for us any more clearly than it was before. It's mysterious, and complicated. Suffering is attributed to various deities throughout the play by all the characters, only to be rebuffed at the end by Heracles' insight. Who are the gods? We don't know. The only thing we can know is the divine right here in our midst, the divine friendship of the mortal Theseus and the mortal Heracles, the love of Amphitryon and Heracles for each other. From the supplication of the people at the altar of Zeus the Deliverer, we have come to a focus on human love and friendship. Although someone might attribute the friendship and help of Theseus as ultimately coming from Zeus, the play does not do so, although as noted there are a few ironies there.
It is interesting to compare the material in this play with the biblical material that corresponds to it. In the book of Proverbs we definitely don't come close to the wisdom of Euripides. Job poses the same questions, but does so through a fairly monotheistic framework. The problem of evil is even harder for monotheistic religions to answer than for polytheistic or pantheistic ones. Of course, Job ultimately ends with the rebuking of the Voice from the Whirlwind, a demonstration of divine power and mystery which still leaves all the questions unanswered. Heracles ends at the human level, also leaving all the questions unanswered, save one. I find Heracles at every level superior to the biblical material. In the Bible, "those who sat in darkness have seen a great light." Of course, in the ancient world the sun is associated with justice (cf. Ps. 19, and the stela of Hammurabi, and J. Glen Taylor's monograph on Yahweh as a solar deity, for examples). Here, however, in this play, the sun is demythologized, a term biblical critics commonly employ when discussing the Hebrew Bible(!), and it is the friendship of Theseus which will bring light into the heart of the stricken Heracles.
The last sentence, spoken by Heracles, ends, at least in English, with the word "fool." The last sentence of the Chorus bemoans the loss of their now exiled "friend." Between these two words the meaning of life, perhaps, is to be found.
This blog post is dedicated to my loved ones and friends--you know who you are!