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.
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