HERACLES: TWO TRAGIC PORTRAITS
BY SOPHOCLES AND EURIPIDES
by Larry A. Brown
Professor of Theater
Heracles was a popular figure in Greek drama. Due to the general success of his legendary exploits, he appeared in satyr-plays and comedies more often than in tragedies, and in the latter, he usually portrayed the role of last-minute rescuer rather than the central tragic hero (see Alcestis, Philoctetes, and the lost Prometheus Unbound). Euripides may have been the first to write a tragedy about Heracles, although he freely created most of his story to do so. If Sophocles’ treatment of the death of Heracles came later, as many critics assume, then the elder playwright may have offered his version as a correction, following more closely the traditional events. Whatever the chronology, the differences in these plays are characteristic of the unique concepts of tragedy that distinguish these two tragedians from each other.
Beginning with the more “orthodox” treatment, we find Sophocles’ Women of Trachis less than satisfactory in structure when compared to Aristotle’s paragon of dramatic unity, Oedipus the King. The story divides into two parts, focusing primarily on the hero’s wife Deianira, with Heracles entering only during the final quarter of the play. One might assume, as many critics have, that the tragedy is actually Deianira’s. She is a more developed and sympathetic character than Heracles, and she initiates the events that cause the demise of both characters. However, because all of her thoughts and actions point toward the return of her husband from his mighty labors, we are mindful of Heracles throughout the entire play.
The first scene opens, in a manner similar to Euripides, with a narrative prologue by Deianira (the fact that the nurse is on stage with her hardly qualifies this speech as a dialogue). She begins with a proverbial maxim: “You cannot know a man’s life before the man has died, then only can you call it good or bad.” A similar statement comes at the conclusion of Oedipus the King, but here the play commences on this foreboding note. Deianira explains her melancholy state by telling a story of her past, how she narrowly escaped marriage to the monstrous river-god Achelous whom Heracles defeated in battle. Since that time her married life has been no less fearful, as she has worried constantly over her husband’s safety during the completion of his labors. Beside being an uncharacteristic way for a Sophoclean drama to begin, the narration of this detail of grotesque mythology seems intrusive in this otherwise domestic setting. The incident appears unrelated to the present story, except in pointing to a connection between Deianira and Iole as rewards of Heracles’ conquests. His past reputation with women makes Heracles’ war with Eurytus for the sake of passion a credible development later in the play and foreshadows the characteristic that indirectly seals his doom.
Deianira is distressed because she has had no word of her husband’s whereabouts, or even if he still lives. A tablet he gave her at his last departure encourages her to fear the worst, but its contents are not revealed to us at this time. The nurse suggests that she send one of her sons to find news of his father, and with all the speed that dramatic convention allows, Hyllus appears with the latest rumors of Heracles’ campaign against the city of Eurytus. This information conforms to the mysterious oracle on the tablet which told that, at the completion of this task, Heracles would either die or spend the rest of his life in peace. Hoping for the latter result, Deianira urges her son to go to his father to help him if he can. The chorus of women tell Deianira to have faith in Zeus, who is not careless with his children. She answers that only those who suffer can understand suffering.
A messenger appears with advance news of Heracles’ latest victory, preceding the arrival of the official herald Lichas. The old man’s presence may appear redundant at this time, but he offers a crucial perspective on the truth of Lichas’ report. The entrance of the captive women places a somber tone on the herald’s victory message. Deianira immediately has pity for these wives and daughters of conquered men, especially noting the beautiful and mysterious Iole. She has no way of knowing that her fate is wrapped up with this particular young girl. Lichas boldly relates the details of Heracles’ war of vengeance against the man who condemned him to slavery, but becomes strangely evasive when Deianira inquires about the identity of the attractive, silent Iole. After Lichas exits with the captives, the old messenger reveals that Deianira has not heard the whole truth. This girl is not merely another spoil of war, but the cause behind it. Heracles destroyed the city of Eurytus in order to steal Iole from her unyielding father. She comes to this house not as a slave but as Heracles’ mistress. Under protest, Lichas confirms this side of the story that he withheld, hoping to protect Deianira’s feelings.
Deianira’s response to this news reveals a noble and understanding heart. Her husband’s wanton nature comes as no surprise to her: “One man and many women — Heracles has had other women before.” She does not blame Iole, admitting that fighting against love is a losing battle. She sees both Iole and Heracles as victims of a passion even the gods cannot resist. However, so strong a character as Deianira cannot give up her man so easily. She announces to the chorus a scheme to win back her husband’s love. She knows a magic potion made with the blood of Nessus the centaur, who revealed the secret to her before he died.
Unlike Medea who sends a similar deadly cloak to destroy her rival, Deianira intends no harm with her gift, but in her passionate haste she foolishly trusts the dying words of a creature whom Heracles had slain. Greek audiences were always wary of the dangers involved in any use of magic. Her actions would not have gone unnoticed. Ironically, if her love for Heracles had been any less intense, she would not have attempted such a desperate and ultimately disastrous ploy.
Lichas takes the garment dipped in the magic solution as a gift from a loving wife to her victorious husband, and the die is cast. Too late does Deianira suspect that Nessus used her as his means of revenge. Even before she hears from her son the awful results of her good intentions, she determines to kill herself rather than live without her beloved. When Hyllus comes with the news, we understand the meaning of Deianira’s silent exit. No defense from her would change the fact that she had killed her husband. Such a hold has the hero on her entire existence that she must precede him into the afterlife. The marriage bed, symbol of their union in life, becomes the place for their reuniting in death.
Finally, when Heracles arrives on stage, howling in pain, we meet an awe-inspiring but unsympathetic character. Sophocles gives the remainder of the play to him; Deianira is hardly mentioned again. However, Sophocles deliberately contrasts her appealing, compassionate nature with his self-centered arrogance. Heracles has always lived for himself, depending on no one. Now that he feels weak and “helpless as a woman,” due to the “treachery” of a woman (a great humiliation to him), he still thinks only of himself. He insists that Hyllus endanger his own life to aid his father: “‘My son, come to me . . . even if you must die with me.” He makes Hyllus swear to marry Iole so that no other man will possess what is rightfully his. When he learns that Nessus’ trickery was actually the cause of his pain, he shows no remorse for Deianira’s death but only bemoans his own cruel fate. Finally, unable to endure his suffering, he seeks to purge his pain through a fiery death.
Unlike Oedipus who learns humility through his ordeal and submits to Creon in his blindness, Heracles refuses to accept his helplessness, ordering others around as if he still commanded an army. His pride remains unabated; to the end he challenges Zeus himself for torturing him. He learns nothing except that even the great must one day be cut down. Yet, his fate resembles other Sophoclean heroes in two ways. His weakness for women, coupled with his arrogance in sending his mistress to live with his wife, could be considered the tragic error (Aristotle’s hamartia) that indirectly is responsible for his death. Also he dies “by nothing that draws breath but by someone dead, an inhabitant of Hell.” This principle of the dead killing the living occurs frequently in Sophocles. Teucer speaks of the dead Aias, having killed himself with Hector’s sword: “Did you not see how at last, even from the grave, Hector was to destroy you?” (Aias 1027) In Electra the Chorus says, “Men long dead draw from their killers blood to answer blood.” (1420) In this way Sophocles illustrates the working of dike [pronounced dee-kay], which poorly translates as justice but refers more to a universal system of balance and moral order. Heracles will pay for his slaying of Nessus, for the gods guarantee that justice will be done. In the words of the Bible, a man reaps what he sows. For this reason Hyllus can say at the close of the play, “There is nothing here which is not Zeus.”
If Sophocles splits the focus of his Women of Trachis, the Heracles of Euripides seems fractured into three pieces, according to some critics. The first action, completely the invention of the author, depicts the plight of Heracles’ family threatened by the tyrant Lycus (beside the hero, none of the characters in this play is in Sophocles’ version). Lycus has usurped the throne of Thebes, killing Megara’s father and brothers. Now he demands the death of Heracles’ sons, lest they someday rise up in vengeance against him. Their only hope lies in the return of Heracles from his journey to Hades, but they fear that even he cannot escape the land of death. Megara resigns herself to their doom, dressing her children in funeral garments, but Amphitryon encourages her not to give up hope while life remains. Finally, however, Amphitryon himself surrenders to despair, accusing Zeus of injustice and indifference toward his children.
Then, just in the nick of time, the “cavalry” arrives, as Heracles is seen in the distance. Megara interprets his timely appearance as the answer to their prayers, an act of divine intervention: Heracles “comes to rescue us and Zeus comes with him.” As soon as he learns of their situation, he regrets that his labors ever took him away from his first duty, the protection of his loved ones. Of all his mighty deeds the defeat of his family’s persecutor will be the greatest proof of his valor.
When Lycus returns, he is lured into the house where Heracles awaits him, and is dispatched forthwith. The chorus sings praises to the justice of the gods who “raise the good and scourge the bad.” The chorus affirms Zeus as the true father of Heracles, for only a divinely-begotten son could escape Pluto’s halls. Then without warning, two frightening apparitions appear above the house, silencing the chorus in terror. They are Iris and Lyssa (Madness), sent by Hera to strike down Heracles in the midst of victory. Lyssa protests that this mighty warrior, servant of men and gods, does not deserve this fate. Against her will, she enters Heracles’ mind, causing him in an insane rage to slaughter Megara and his three sons whom he had just saved from the sword of Lycus. Only Amphitryon survives to tell of the unthinkable, senseless horror.
In the final third of the play, Theseus, whom Heracles had rescued from Hades, arrives with the Athenian army, having heard of the rebellion in Thebes. He finds his friend chained to a pillar surrounded by the bloodied corpses of his family. Heracles exclaims that he wishes only to die; being cursed by the gods, he will pollute all those he touches. He disowns his parentage by Zeus and threatens to strike at heaven if he could, for he fears no worse punishment than what has already befallen him. In sympathy but knowing the man to whom he speaks, Theseus persuades his friend that to seek escape from misery through death is the desire of ordinary men. One as noble as Heracles must show his strength in his hour of greatest weakness: “This is courage in a man; to bear unflinchingly what heaven sends.” He convinces Heracles to come with him to Athens where he may cleanse himself of his moral stain and live in peace. They leave behind Amphitryon to bury the unfortunate dead.
On first reading, several items may strike one as peculiar. If measured by the standards of Aristotle’s Poetics (which of course Euripides did not know), this tragedy is definitely substandard. The hero suffers from no observable error (hamartia) which causes his doom. Hera strikes him down through no fault of his own, but out of jealousy over Zeus’ affair with Heracles’ mother. According to the Poetics the punishment of a guiltless man outrages all sense of justice. Furthermore, the dramatic principles of cause and effect are violated in that the appearance of Iris and Lyssa is not a probable or necessary action derived from the previous events in the play (nor for that matter is the arrival of Heracles or Theseus). Since Euripides freely invents the incidents preceding the madness scene, one would think that he could have created a more unified, logical pattern of events.
However, Euripides seems to have wanted to create a disturbing, illogical chain of actions in order to present an entirely different tragic vision from that of Sophocles. In the plays of Sophocles, the gods represent cosmic forces of order that bind the universe together into a cause-and-effect system, even though its workings are often beyond mortal understanding. Euripides did not have such faith in divine providence, seeing more evidence for the rule of chance and chaos than order and justice. In Hecabe, Talthybius asks, “O Zeus! What is the truth? Do you behold men’s lives? or is all our belief in gods a myth, a lie foolishly cherished, while blind chance rules the world?”
Euripides intends for his audience to be puzzled and outraged by the irrational and unjust act of Hera against an innocent Heracles. He wants them to question the presupposition that divine beings are capable of such evil. If his audience says, “The gods shouldn’t behave like that,” Euripides responds, “Exactly! and who invented the idea of such gods?” He turns the spectator’s accusation against the plausibility of his drama into self-reflection on their own religious beliefs.
This strategy explains his revision of the legendary sources. To emphasize the unfairness and ruthless brutality of Hera’s crime, he alters the context of the madness scene. According to tradition, Heracles took on his labors as punishment for killing his children. In Euripides’ version this destruction comes at the completion of his tasks and at the height of his triumphs. Euripides purposely raises Heracles’ fortunes to the pinnacle before dashing him to the ground, for the greater the fall, the greater the tragedy, and the more despicable the divine action that caused it.
Heracles himself expresses doubts about any theology that allows gods to be so capricious. Bitterly he remarks, “Let the noble wife of Zeus begin the dance . . . For she accomplished what her heart desired, and hurled the greatest man of Hellas down in utter ruin. Who could offer prayers to such a goddess?” Trying to bolster his friend’s courage, Theseus reminds him that, according to the poets, calamities happen even to the gods, who commit crimes just as men do. Heracles hotly responds, “I do not believe the gods commit adultery, or bind each other in chains. I never did believe it; I never shall; nor that one god is tyrant of the rest. If god is truly god, he is perfect, lacking nothing. These are poets’ wretched lies.”
Some critics take these words as a cue to dismiss the divine intervention portrayed in the play as merely symbolic. However, Euripides is working on two levels. He presents a dramatic world in which gods do indeed strike out in unreasonable anger at innocent humanity, reducing a theological premise to its absurd conclusions. In this dramatic world Heracles still believes himself a victim of the goddess even after doubting her existence. On a second level the playwright forces his fifth-century spectators to re-examine their own beliefs and to question the credibility of the dramatic world and its representation of reality. The play self-destructs, stepping outside of its own narrative to criticize its own fictional world and the religious presuppositions of the society that created it.
Because he is portrayed as an innocent victims and a loving father, the Heracles of Euripides comes across as much more sympathetic and admirable that the inconstant lover of Sophocles’ drama. With the help of Theseus, the Euripidean Heracles learns to accept his terrible curse and to stand more nobly in the face of heaven’s onslaught, whereas the Sophoclean Heracles cannot bear his burden of pain and seeks escape in death. However, Sophocles endows his characters with a humanness and a psychological reality that makes both Heracles and Deianira more assessable than the more abstract, mythological hero which Euripides presents. Both plays have their strengths and weaknesses, but neither can be compared with the other or truly be appreciated without recognizing the differences in the tragic visions each portrays.
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The Women of Trachis. Sophocles, vol. 2. The Complete Greek Tragedies. Ed. Grene and Lattimore. U Chicago P, 1957.