Heracles First Marriage In His Play Heracles. Essay, Research Paper
Euripides treatments of the myth of Heracles first marriage in his play Heracles.
The Heracles of Euripides is innovative in its treatment of the Heracles myth. Heracles is perhaps the greatest hero of the ancient Greek world. Stories about Heracles are varied and abundant however, the traditional nature of the myth does logically place many constraints upon the playwright. Some events had to occur or be assumed to occur in any account of a story. Euripides, however, interpreted the Heracles myth and gave it his particular view and treatment. Euripides decided where to begin his play and which events to include or exclude. Euripides reshaped the myth in many ways, altering it for his own dramatic purposes and innovating certain details. The most striking alteration of the pre-existing tradition myth is Euripides treatment of the myth of Heracles first marriage. According to the traditional myth, the murder of the children and first wife preceded the labors of Heracles and provides the motivation for them. In Euripides version of the myth the murders follow the labors. One must ask what Euripides motivation for this alteration of the myth was and how it affects both the audience and the remaining traditional aspects of the Heracles myth.
In the opening scene, the audience learns the background information of the drama. Amphitryon, who delivers the prologue speech (1-59), explains that Heracles is in Hades, finishing the last of his labors, while a man named Lycus has staged a coup and holds the family of Heracles in peril. Euripides new innovative account of the myth necessitates a new motivation for the labors of Heracles. In the pre-existing tradition of the myth the labors were commonly described as a punishment or purification for Heracles murder of his family. Heracles is forced to undertake various labors and after the completion of these labors, Heracles eventually undergoes an apotheosis and becomes an Olympian god himself. In Euripides version Amphitryon explains (17 21) that because he is in exile from his native home Argos, Heracles undertook the labors in order to ease his misfortunes and win his own return to his homeland. A great quest for purification and apotheosis has, in Euripides version, become a quest for self, as Heracles labors are an effort to reclaim his origins. This seems to somehow distance Heracles from his divine heritage. Heracles sides with his mortal father and labors for their mutual benefit. Whereas the pre-existing myth focused on Heracles heroic quest to gain immortal status, his quest for reclaiming his and his fathers homeland shows only mortal concerns. By altering the Heracles myth, Euripides has turned the divine hero into a moral man and someone the audience can relate to on a new and intimate level.
The character of Lycus is also an innovation to the myth of Heracles. Lycus is an invention of Euripides and is of obvious dramatic importance because of the threat he posses to the family of Heracles. In the play, Lycus is responsible for the death of Megaras father (165-169) and now hold power over the children of Heracles and Megara. Lycus intends to kill all those who may avenge the murder of Megaras father and he believes that he can do so because of his belief that Heracles will not return from the underworld. Lycus is incorrect in his assumption and is slain by a returning Heracles (754-760). During the initial sequences of the play, Euripides implies that Heracles is indeed dead. The chorus sings of Heracles labors and they imply to the audience that he is dead (356-366). This song has several other implications most importantly it shows Heracles as a beneficial individual through his heroic exploits. Heracles subdued the terrorizing Centaurs (364-374), calmed the seas (400-402) and performed many other astonishing feats. All of these feats were beneficial to society and further humanity. Again Euripides make Heracles a more appealing and intimate character as his exploits now also seem to benefit mankind. Lycus also, by threatening the family of Heracles, allows Heracles to show his deep concern for his family. Euripides is attempting to build a relationship between Heracles and the audience. Previously Euripides endeavored to adapt the demi-god status of the hero Heracles into a more human character. Now, through the use of Lycus, Euripides has succeeded adapting Heracles further into a character that the audience feels a bond with.
As stated earlier, the most striking alteration of the pre-existing tradition myth is Euripides treatment of the myth of Heracles first marriage. According to the traditional myth, the murder of the children and first wife preceded the labors of Heracles and provides the motivation for them. However, in Euripides version, Megara is alive to welcome her husband home from his final labor. This is a unique situation as the audience is permitted to see actual interaction between Heracles and his ill-fated wife. In her initial dialog Megara gives a personal account of the situation. She paints a vivid picture of the anxiety she and her children feel as they await the return of Heracles. She believes that Heracles is dead and will never return from Hades.
Megara also believes that death at the hands of Lycus is inevitable and she believes that she should seek death with honor (309 311). Euripides exploits the dramatic potential of Megaras existence when Heracles finally does return from Hades. Euripides draws out this entrance and displays Megara s confusion, disbelief and joy. The audience witnesses Heracles vow vengeance for the situation Lycus placed his family in (565-573). Heracles is in fact so overwhelmed by the situation that he under emphasizes his completed labors and places greater emphasis on his defense of his family. Euripides now has succeeded in giving Heracles a quest that the audience can relate to. Few could possible fathom a quest into the underworld or subduing a fabulous beasts like the Nemean Lion but all viewers can relate to philos and the defense of ones family. Through the innovation of Euripides the defense of his family become the test of heroism for Heracles (578-586).
By adapting the myth of Heracles, Euripides has adapted Heracles himself different individual. Heracles is no longer the aggressive and superior half-god, but he is instead the compassionate half-mortal. Heracles has become a character whom, although still not equal to the common man, now treads the same ground as the common man with the same desires and similar drives. Due to this new audience identification towards Heracles, it is likely that the audience shares more closely in the experiences of Heracles; they share triumphant episodes as well as the failures. With this innovation to the Heracles character it is likely the murder of Megara by Heracles affects the audience deeply. This change of Heracles is necessary, as this play does not dwell on the feats of Heracles or on his heroic exploits. Euripides intends The Heracles to be regarded as a drama. He understood that in order for any dramatic work to be successful the audience must feel for the characters. Through one alteration of the pre-existing myth Euripides has altered the audiences perspective of Heracles and creates a character the audience can indeed feel for. Euripides succeeds in creating a powerful drama by making a near immortal man mortal and uses the audiences identification with the character of Heracles to make the previous pre-existing events of the myth far more powerful.
Euripides. The Heracles. Trans. Michael R. Halleran. Newburyport MA:
Focus Information Group, 1993.
Apollodorus. Apollodorus, The Library, Trans. Sir James George Frazer.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1921.
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