Herakles (HEHR-uh-kleez), the Greek hero who passes, through suffering, from the courage of outward physical strength to internal courage raised against intolerable necessity and based on true friendship. During the first third of the play, he does not appear, but Amphitryon, his father; his wife, Megara; his small sons; and the Chorus attest his heroism and express the increasing fear that he is dead. He has gone to Hades to capture Cerberus, the last of his labors to be performed. He appears suddenly, just before Lycus, usurper of the throne of Thebes, returns to kill Herakles’ father, children, and wife. He determines, sure of his physical strength, to march against Lycus and his forces, but Amphitryon persuades him to enter his house and wait for Lycus. He does so. Lycus returns, enters the house to drag out Megara and the children, and is killed by Herakles. Suddenly, Iris and Madness appear to carry out the will of Hera, the queen of the gods and persecutor of Herakles, to make him murder his children in a fit of insanity. The murders, described by a messenger, are terrible. Herakles believes his own children to be those of Eurystheus, and he kills them and Megara. When he turns on his father, however, the goddess Athena appears and knocks him unconscious with a rock. As he awakens, Theseus, the king of Athens, rescued from Hades by Herakles, appears. He has come to aid Herakles against Lycus. Herakles speaks of suicide, but Theseus’ taunt that it is a “boorish folly” worthy only of cowards causes him to renounce self-death and to accept Theseus’ offer of refuge and honor in Athens. Herakles’ last words are that it is a sad error to seek “wealth or strength” rather than fine friends.
Amphitryon (am-FIHT-ree-ehn), the father of Herakles. His opening monologue provides the background and states the plight of Herakles’ kin. His defense of his son before Lycus is vigorous and overshadows his plea for exile rather than death. He curses the gods because the plea is not granted, but he then prays to them for deliverance. He tempers Herakles’ desire for wholesale vengeance against Lycus and his followers. At the end of the play, he is left to bury Megara and her children.
Megara (MEHG-ah-rah), the wife of Herakles. Driven to hasty refuge by Lycus, she still has hope that her husband is alive and accepts Amphitryon’s plea for a delay of death. When Lycus threatens to burn the suppliants, she reveals her true dignity as Herakles’ wife: They must willingly accept death, now inevitable, and not beg from Lycus. She requests that she be allowed to enter the house of Herakles and clothe herself and her children for death. When Herakles appears, Megara reveals the circumstances and enters the house with him. She is killed by Herakles in his madness.
Theseus (THEE-see-uhs), the king of Athens. He appears at the close of the play with an army to help Herakles against Lycus. He is the model of what a friend should be. Because he cannot fight for Herakles, he offers to share his sufferings, unafraid of the pollution that contact with a murderer was thought to bring upon an innocent person. He warns Herakles against suicide and offers him refuge, wealth, and honor in Athens. The two leave together.
Lycus (LI -kuhs), the usurper of the throne of Thebes. He had killed Creon, the father of Megara, and taken the throne. A tyrant, he feels it necessary to destroy the...
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family of Herakles. His belief that Herakles is dead contrasts with the remaining hope of Megara and Amphitryon. He is killed by Herakles when he enters the latter’s house to drag Megara from the altar.
Iris (I-rihs), the messenger of Hera, queen of the gods. She is sent to carry out Hera’s wrath against Herakles as well as her own, and she sees to it that Madness does not rebel against her task.
Madness, who rebels against divine vindictiveness, but to no avail. Although she must obey the goddess’ command, she calls on the sun to witness her reluctance. In carrying out her task, she is madness incarnate.
The Chorus of old men of Thebes
The Chorus of old men of Thebes, friends who are sympathetic to the plight of Megara. They are helpless because of age. In spite of their weakness, they threaten Lycus and attempt to intervene, but his show of force makes them realize there is nothing they can do.
A messenger, who reports Herakles’ madness and the murder of Megara and the children.