Euripides’ play Heracles, coming maybe from 414 b.c.e., begins with Amphitryon, the father (?) of Heracles (Heracles doubts the story that Zeus is his father), introducing himself and Heracles’ wife Megara. Heracles is on the last of his labors currently: he has gone to Hades to retrieve Cerberus. Meanwhile, Lycus has taken rule of Thebes and has become a murderous tyrant. He wants to kill Hercules’ three sons for fear they will grow up and seek revenge for other family murders. Megara and a Chorus of Theban elders commiserate.
Lycus taunts them with assertions that Heracles has been a successful fighter only against animals such as the Nemean lion. He declares the bow a “coward’s weapon” (158). Amphitryon counters the insults and Lycus decides to kill these five remaining members of Heracles’ family. Amphitryon requests that he and Megara be killed first so they don’t have to listen to the kids’ screams. (Selfish bastard!)
The Chorus recounts Heracles’ labors: killing the Lernean hydra, and all. The others prepare to die. Heracles arrives in time, and Megara fills him in on recent events. Heracles is determined to level Lycus’ house, to “Cut off his head, and throw it out for dogs to tear” (170). And he’ll club to death other Theban traitors. He thinks his famous labors a waste of time while his own family has suffered (171). He reports that he “beheld the holy Mysteries” in the Underworld, and has extra strength. Sorry it took him so long to get back, because he rescued Theseus from the Underworld too. After a brief final appearance, Lycus goes offstage and is slain by Heracles. The Chorus comments.
Iris and Madness appear above the palace, like y’do, and now that Heracles’ labors are done it’s open season. Hera wants blood-guilt on him, so the plan now is to make him kill his kids. That’s why Madness is along, ‘ case you were wondering.
A messenger recounts Heracles’ fit of insanity and his murder of each of his kids and his wife. A phantom looking like Athena eventually knocked him down and out. He sleeps now, bound to a pillar, and looks adorbs. Amphitryon commiserates with the Chorus. Heracles comes to and gradually realizes that he killed his family. Theseus arrives and proves a true friend. Heracles claims to “defy divinity” (192) and wants to commit suicide. Theseus tries to talk him out of it, meanwhile casting doubt on the poets and the stories of the gods. Heracles notes now a love/hate relationship he has with his bow: “This bow / Is anguish to me, yet I cannot part with it…. Could I but stay here / Changed to a rock that feels no sorrow” (197). Amphitryon must perform the funereal rites. He and his son part, and Heracles exits with Theseus.
“In 416 B.C., the island of Melos revolted and tried to leave the Athenian empire. The Athenians crushed the uprising, killed every adult male in Melos, and enslaved the women and children. Euripides’ play – if it was staged after 416, as many think – may refashion an old myth to dramatize the horror of this contemporary event” (Powell 356).
Euripides. Heracles. Trans. Philip Vellacott. Medea and Other Plays. Baltimore: Penguin Classics, 1963. 153-199, 204-205.
Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.