Context: In 1871 Browning began to explore classical mythology and to cultivate it diligently. The first result of this work was Balaustion's Adventure, an offshoot from Euripides with Alcestis for its theme. Browning was particularly fond of Euripides, who was currently being neglected by scholars and critics in favor of Aeschylus; hence, Browning wrote a number of works that attempted to vindicate his favorite. The second of these, Aristophanes' Apology, is a sequel to Balaustion's Adventure. Its form is Browning's usual grouping of monologues to form a drama; in this case the poem is an extended conversation in which the Greek classic dramatists are discussed by some of their contemporaries. To prove a point, one of the speakers reads a dramatic piece by Euripides, entitled Herakles, to the others. When the play opens, Herakles (Hercules) has completed all but one of the twelve great labors assigned to him by Eurystheus. Eight of these tasks have involved the capture, or the slaying, of fabled animals; in addition, he has cleaned the Augean stables, taken a girdle belonging to the Queen of the Amazons, and gained the golden apples of the Hesperides. Now he has departed on the final task. To fulfill it he must descend to Hades and return, bringing the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the infernal regions, back with him. His father, Amphitruon, keeps vigil at the altar of Zeus in Herakles' absence; he is worried because Lukos wishes to destroy Herakles' wife Megara and her children. Lukos had killed Megara's father Kreon, and now holds his seat: if the children grow up, they will be a danger to him. He tells Amphitruon and Megara as much, and implies that Herakles is not really a great fighter; only a coward would rely on the weapons of the archer–the real warrior wears armor and wields a sword. Amphitruon replies indignantly:
Amphitruon. As to the part of Zeus in his own child,Let Zeus defend that! As to mine, 't is meThe care concerns to show by argumentThe folly of this fellow,–Herakles,Whom I stand up for! since to hear thee styled–Cowardly–that is unendurable.. . .Go ask at Pholoé, vilest thou of kings,Whom they would pick out and pronounce best man,If not my son, "the seeming-brave," say'st thou!But Dirphus, thy Abantid mother-town,Question her, and she would not praise, I think!For there's no spot, where having done some good,Thy country thou might'st call to witness worth.Now, that allwise invention, archer's-gear,Thou blamest: hear my teaching and grow sage!A man in armor is his armor's slave,And, mixed with rank and file that want to run,He dies because his neighbors have lost heart.Then, should he break his spear, no way remainsOf warding death off,–gone that body-guard,His one and only; . . .