There is so much awkwardness in the structure of The Children of Herakles that critics have suggested that important scenes must be missing or that it was not intended as a tragedy but as a substitute for a satyr play. Another suggestion is that since The Children of Herakles was presented in the early years of the Peloponnesian War and glorifies the virtues of the Athenian city-state, Euripides depended upon the high patriotism of the play to carry it.
The Children of Herakles has been generally more criticized than praised. One critic sees it as “all in all the least attractive of Euripides’ plays,” although others have approved of its rapid pace, which moves inexorably toward the powerfully ironic, even satirical ending. The content of the play cannot be divorced form its political context: the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which had just begun at the time it was produced, probably in 430 or 429 b.c.e. Eurystheus’s promise to defend the city of Athens at the end of the play may be connected with the Spartan invasions of Athenian territory in 431 and 430 b.c.e. Likewise, the illegal execution of Spartan envoys at Athens in the winter of 430-429 b.c.e. may have inspired Euripides to explore the themes of supplication and refuge in a tragedy. These ambassadors were put to death without trial, in flagrant violation of the custom that such persons are not to be harmed.
The play draws upon the large body of myth surrounding Herakles, a hero whose career is marked by misfortune and subjection to the will of sundry gods and mortals. Persecuted by Hera and her agent Eurystheus, Herakles ended his life in agony on a funeral pyre. After his death, his children become the target of Eurystheus, who hunts them down with the same determination that drove him on against their father. Euripides fashions from these traditional elements a play about suppliants seeking asylum, which enables him to make pronouncements about Athenian policy in the war and about war in general.
Plays about suppliants are quite common in Greek drama. They tend to follow a pattern: The suppliants arrive seeking asylum, the pursuer attempts to seize them, the local authorities hear their appeal for sanctuary, a struggle ensues between the providers of asylum and the pursuer, and the suppliants are eventually saved. This pattern can also be seen in Aeschylus’s Hiketides, 463? b.c.e. (The Suppliants, 1777), about the daughters of Danaus, or in Sophocles’ Oidipous epi Kolni, 401 b.c.e. (Oedipus at Colonus, 1729), in which the Athenians grant asylum to the outcast king of Thebes. In such stories, the city that provides asylum is rewarded by blessings.
The action of the play is fast and furious, giving an impression of the bustling city-state at war. Decisions are made rapidly, and there is always some new crisis looming. No character remains the center of attention for very long. The children of Herakles themselves, although they are named in the title, do not say anything; they are silent observers of the action throughout. They represent the helpless victims of war, whose voices are not heard and who are powerless to influence events.
The play turns on the issue of right versus might: Demophon takes a stand against the threats of Copreus and decides to protect the suppliants, whatever the cost may be. He does so partly out of duty to Zeus and partly because his father Theseus was indebted to Herakles. Moreover, the reputation of Athens as a free and honorable city has to be upheld. The treatment of...
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the captured Eurystheus at the end of the play, however, undercuts the glorification of Athens: He is brought before Alcmene to be humiliated, physically abused, and sentenced to death. She has exchanged places with him and is now herself the incarnation of vengeful violence. Eurystheus, by contrast, seeks protection from Athens. The city that earlier took a brave stand against the pursuer to protect the pursued now abandons the suppliant to his fate. The speech that Eurystheus makes in his own defense reveals him to be courageous in the face of death, generous in his praise of Herakles, and even understanding of Alcmene’s position. The chorus, who represents the Athenian state, urges Alcmene to let Eurystheus go, but is not prepared to stand in her way when she works out a means of killing him while ensuring that Athens suffers no harm from the murder. In other words, Athens acquiesces in an unjust act. It has failed the test when it comes to dealing with a prisoner of war, just as it did when it killed the Spartan envoys. In time of war, the poet seems to be saying, it is the spirit of Alcmene—vengeful, cruel, and irrational—that prevails. The play can thus be seen as a protest against the Peloponnesian war and a warning to Euripides’ fellow Athenians that the war should be brought to an end as soon as possible.
The sacrifice of Macaria, demanded by the gods to ensure victory for Athens over Argos, recalls the sacrifices of Iphigeneia in Aeschylus’s Agamemnn, 458 b.c.e. (Agamemnon, 1777). It symbolizes the heroic gesture made by a noble soul in time of war. It is significant that women are the sacrificial victims in such stories: It is as if the killing of so many men on the battlefield requires a concomitant sacrifice by the women of the city. It is interesting therefore that the play also contains the miraculous rejuvenation of the male warrior Iolaus. Macaria’s death also symbolizes the victimization of the innocent by war. The attention that Euripides pays to the women Macaria and Alcmene in this play is typical of his work; it illustrates his concern with the subject of how men and women are to live harmoniously together in the same city.
The myth of the Return of the Children of Herakles provides a coda to the action of the play and also has some political ramifications. After the death of Eurystheus, the children made their way down through the Peloponnese, conquering Argos, Sparta, and other cities. The myth has been linked by some with the invasion of southern Greece by Dorian tribes in the prehistoric era. The aristocrats of the Peloponnese at any rate regarded themselves as descendants of Herakles, and so, when the king of Sparta led his army against Athens, he was marching against the city that had granted asylum to his ancestors. This is the kind of ironic twist that Euripides could well appreciate.