Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776
Empedocles (ehm-PEHD-eh-kleez), the legendary philosopher and savant, portrayed as a healer and magician intent on committing suicide for different reasons, depending on which of the three versions of the text is under discussion. Two versions focus on his tragic flaw of hubris. In the first, Empedocles has the powers of the magician to heal and to move the elements, but his desire to be reunited with the gods causes him to disregard his people’s pleas that he return to them from exile, and ultimately to commit suicide. In the second version, before the action of the play begins, Empedocles wishes to share his understanding of the universe with his people. He realizes that his solitude is a result of his own exceptional powers as well as of his hubris in believing himself to be much closer to them than he ought. His first speech shows him imploring the gods and the forces of nature to consider him in his solitariness. In contrast to these versions, in which Empedocles’ death is a personal matter, in the fragmentary third version and the author’s notes to it, his death becomes universal. He is embittered, but he realizes that his death is necessary for the revival of the civilization of which he has been a part. Initially a tragic hero who falls through hubris, he is transformed into a Romantic hero with superhuman powers who is willing to merge with the elements for the good of humanity.
Hermocrates (hur-MAHK-ruh-teez), a priest of Agrigentum who advocates and participates in the downfall of Empedocles. He opposes Empedocles because of the radical nature of Empedocles’ religious vision as well as his own fears of Empedocles’ abilities to influence the people in the realm of religion and belief. In the second version, he changes from the flat character of the evil adversary to a relatively sympathetic character who has some capacity for understanding and empathy. He believes that Empedocles has inappropriately disclosed to the people divine secrets not meant for the masses. It is for this reason that he takes part in Empedocles’ fall. Hermocrates curses Empedocles and anyone who would befriend him, and he is instrumental in Empedocles’ exile.
Kritias, the representative of secular authority. He is the archon, the ruler of Agrigentum. His fear is that through their adulation of Empedocles and their reliance on his powers, people have come to ignore their own laws and customs.
Mecades, who is in the second version a revision of Kritias, although younger and less worldly. As in the first version, in discussing the stature of Empedocles among the citizenry of Agrigentum, Mecades, as representative of secular authority, and Hermocrates, as representative of religious authority, agree that Empedocles has overreached.
Strato (STRAY-toh), a significant addition to the third version of the drama, the king of Agrigentum and brother of Empedocles. He is representative of an amalgamation of religious and secular authority set in opposition to Empedocles and his influence over the masses. His introduction increases dramatic tension through the tension between brothers.
Pausanias (paw-SAY-nee-uhs), a student of Empedocles who follows him into exile as a great supporter and admirer. When Empedocles shares with him his understanding of his own downfall, Pausanias bids him to take courage and exclaims that he refuses to allow it. He is overwhelmed by Empedocles’ pessimism as well as his will. In the third version, he follows Empedocles into exile and is twice called by him the “too loyal” one. In the third version, Pausanias glorifies Empedocles in his decision to commit suicide.
Panthea, who expresses the dichotomy between the gods and nature, proclaiming that it was nature rather than the gods who gave Empedocles his lofty soul. She supports Empedocles in his decision to take his own life. With his death, Panthea moans, the hearts of humanity draw away from nature and from “the holy all.” She closes with the comment, “For we who are blind/ Needed a miracle once.”
Delia, who in the third version provides the impetus for questioning the moral implications of Empedocles’ suicide. In the second version, she comments on the death of Empedocles in lines that bemoan the transitory nature of existence. In anguish, she implores, “O Nature, why do you/ Make it so easy/ For your hero to die?”
Manes (MAY-neez), who appears in the third version only. He is the former teacher of Empedocles who forces Empedocles to come to terms with the moral importance and implications of his suicidal plans. He informs Empedocles that only a rare kind of individual, in only cosmically significant circumstances, can legitimately take his own life.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280
George, Emery E., ed. Friedrich Hölderlin: An Early Modern. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972. Shows how Hölderlin’s work presages treatments and techniques that developed later in the nineteenth century.
Hamburger, Michael. “Hölderlin.” In Contraries: Studies in German Literature. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970. Contains a significant discussion of Hölderlin’s interpretation of the notion of the poet as seer and the place of The Death of Empedocles in this tradition.
Hölderlin, Friedrich. “The Ground for Empedocles.” In Friedrich Hölderlin: Essays and Letters on Theory. Translated and edited by Thomas Pfau. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988. Discusses The Death of Empedocles and the nature of drama, as well as the opposing principles of the rational consciousness and the irrational forces of nature.
Pike, Burton. “The Idealist Element in Hölderlin’s Empedokles.” Germanic Review 32, no. 1 (February, 1957): 178-185. Shows Empedocles as a figure who embodies the most idealistic aspects of Hölderlin’s worldview.
Stahl, E. L. “The Dramatic Structure of Hölderlin’s Empedokles.” Modern Language Review 62, no. 1 (January, 1967): 92-97. Discussion of the dramatic structure and the projected execution of the fragments.
Stahl, E. L. “Hölderlin’s Idea of Poetry.” In The Era of Goethe: Essays Presented to James Boyd. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1959. Discusses Hölderlin’s aesthetic notions in the context of those of his contemporaries.
Unger, Richard. Friedrich Hölderlin. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Accessible chapter on The Death of Empedocles examines the changes from version to version.
Unger, Richard. Hölderlin’s Major Poetry: The Dialectics of Unity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975. Places Hölderlin’s work in the framework of his notion of the oneness of the universe.