Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1314
First produced: c. 420 b.c.e.
First published: c. 420 b.c.e.
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of work: Remote antiquity
Amphitryon, married to Alcmene, the mother of Herakles
Megara, wife of Herakles and daughter of Creon
Lycus, usurper of Kingdom of Thebes
Herakles, son of Zeus and Alcmene
Theseus, King of Athens
Iris, messenger of the gods
Chorus Of The Old Men Of Thebes
HERAKLES MAD, one of the most puzzling of Euripides' plays, begins with a stereotyped situation and weak characters, builds to a powerful climax in the mad scene of Herakles, and is followed by one of the most moving tragic reconciliations in all drama. Some critics see in Euripides' treatment of Herakles the suggestion that he has been deluded all his life and has never really performed his twelve great labors; others have suggested that the madness comes not from Hera, but from Fate. In either case he reaches heroic and tragic stature when, after murdering his wife and children in a fit of madness, he refuses to commit suicide and decides to face whatever life has in store for him.
Amphitryon, who together with Megara and the sons of Herakles had sought sanctuary at the altar of Zeus, lamented the fact that while Herakles was in Hades performing one of his twelve labors Lycus had murdered Creon and seized the throne of Thebes. The murderer was bent upon consolidating his position by killing Megara and her children, whose only hope lay in the protection of Zeus until Herakles returned. Lycus came to taunt them with the charge that Herakles was a coward who used a bow and killed only animals and that, in any case, he was dead in Hades and would never return.
Amphitryon, retorting that Lycus was the coward in seeking to kill an old man, a woman, and innocent children, begged that they at least be allowed to go into exile. Enraged, Lycus sent his servants fetch oak logs in order to burn the relatives of Herakles alive in their sanctuary. The chorus of old men vowed that the would fight with their staves against such a horrible sacrilege.
Megara, however, counseled that it was folly to attempt to escape destiny; Herakles could not emerge from Hades to save them and since they must die they ought to do so without being burnt alive. Amphitryon then begged that he and Megara be killed first so that they would not have to witness the massacre of innocent children, and Megara pleaded for the privilege of dressing the children in the proper funeral robes. Lycus haughtily granted both wishes. As the group left the sanctuary for the palace, Amphitryon cursed Zeus for being a senseless and unjust god. In their absence the chorus chanted an ode on the glories of Herakles and the sadness of old age.
Returning with the children, Megara woefully recounted the marvelous plans she had made for her sons. Meanwhile, Amphitryon fervently prayed to Zeus for deliverance. Suddenly they were startled by the spectacle of Herakles approaching. The great joy of their meeting was darkened by the fearful tale Megara had to tell her husband. Furious with rage, Herakles swore that he would behead Lycus and throw his carcass to the dogs; but Amphitryon cautioned him to curb his reckless haste, for Lycus had many allies in his treachery. Though deeply moved by the fear that made his children cling to his robes, Herakles agreed to plan his revenge carefully and led his family into the palace. The chorus of ancients once again lamented their old age and praised Zeus for sending deliverance in the person of Herakles, his son.
Lycus, upon encountering Amphitryon emerging from the palace, commanded that he bring Megara with him, but Amphitryon refused on the ground that such a deed would make him an accomplice in her murder. Intent on dispatching Megara, Lycus angrily stormed into the palace. Amphitryon followed to watch Herakles' revenge. As the chorus hailed the death cries of Lycus, the specters of Madness and Iris appeared from above. Iris, the female messenger of the gods, pronounced that although destiny had preserved Herakles until he had finished his twelve labors, Hera had decreed that he must now suffer lest the powers of man seem greater than those of the gods. She commanded that Madness force Herakles to murder his own wife and children. Reluctantly, Madness sent out her power and described the horrible seizures of Herakles within the palace. When the two specters disappeared, a messenger emerged from the palace to tell how Herakles in a frenzy of madness had murdered his wife and children, believing them to be the kin of his former master, Eurystheus. Amphitryon was saved only by the intervention of Athena, who put the possessed hero to sleep and had him tied to a pillar.
The doors of the palace were opened, revealing Herakles, now awake and puzzled by the awful scene about him. Informed of what he had done, Herakles crouched in shame and wailed in anguish.
Theseus, who had been rescued from Hades by Herakles, arrived with an army for the purpose of aiding his old friend against Lycus. Crushed by the weight of his dishonor, Herakles could not face his friend, and he announced his intention to commit suicide. His compassionate friend Theseus pleaded with him to live and accept his fate; he offered to take Herakles to Athens where, after being purified of his pollution, he would be given great estates and high status. Though he preferred to grow into a stone oblivious of his horrid deed, Herakles reluctantly agreed to harden his heart against death and rose with profound gratitude to accept his friend's offer. As he left, he urged the sorrowful Amphitryon to bury the dead and to follow him to Athens, where they would live out the remainder of their lives in peace.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
Euripides has deliberately reversed the tradition that Herakles was forced to perform his labors to atone for the murder of his family, thereby achieving ultimate greatness. There is no evidence to assume that in this play Herakles had not actually performed the labors, as has been suggested; nevertheless Euripides has demeaned them as mere feats of strength and cunning by demonstrating the greater strength of soul which Herakles must summon from the depths of his misery. True nobility requires that the hero persevere against the uncontrollable whims of immortals, in this case Hera, who is virtually abstracted into Tyche, or Fortune. Herakles' nobility of soul is contrasted with the wealth and might of his antagonist Lycus ("Wolf"), and his killing of this inhuman creature may be seen, then, as merely a "thirteenth" labor.
The first half of the drama is, therefore, appropriate to the variety of Herakles' glories. Note the ironic dependence of Herakles' family on the hero who will save them by killing Lycus to bring about a "happy ending" to the melodrama; but this glorious figure will promptly be transformed into the pathetic wreck that must be restored in the "tragic" half of the drama (compare lines 631 and 1424).
The fact that Madness seizes the innocent hero without cause shows that man must be prepared for any event in this life ruled by unconcerned or unfriendly external forces. Man's only hope or resolution is to turn to his own kind, not to the gods; this is exemplified by Amphitryon's complaint against Zeus and by Theseus' role in giving aid to his former savior. This friendship, philia, is Euripides' answer to the cruel and brutal blows of Fortune, epitomized by the rapid succession of horrors unequaled in any Euripidean play. When man's world is violently turned about, humanity must triumph over inhumanity. This realistic rather than nihilistic philosophy prevents life from becoming absurd.