A prose paraphrase version by Larry A. Brown
(Occasional numbers indicate line numbers in the original Greek for reference)
Amphitryon, father of Heracles
Megara, wife of Heracles
Lycus, usurping king of Thebes
Iris, messenger of the gods
Theseus, king of Athens
Chorus of old men of Thebes
AMPHITRYON: Is there anyone alive today who does not know of me – Amphitryon of Argos, who shared his bed and wife with Zeus himself? Son of Alcaeus, grandson of Perseus, and father of Heracles, I have lived here in Thebes where long ago dragon-teeth were sown in the earth from which men grew. From them Creon, our late king, descended. This is his daughter, Megara, whose wedding music all Thebes played when the legendary Heracles brought her home as his wife. Here he left his family in my care when he set out to retake Argos, my homeland from which I was exiled. To achieve this goal, he promised Eurystheus to civilize the world through his mighty labors. (Whether Hera or fate tempted him to do this, who can say?) He has finished all but the last, and has now descended into Hades to bring back Cerberus, the three-headed dog. From the land of death he has not returned.
Meanwhile, the usurper Lycus, taking advantage of the civil strife in Thebes, attacked our city, killed our king, and seized the throne. Now, this tyrant, bold in Heracles’ absence and fearing that they might someday seek revenge, plans to kill the sons of Heracles along with their mother and myself, an old, helpless man. My son, before he entered the Hadean realm, left his loved ones in my protection. For this cause we have come to the altar of Zeus the Savior as suppliants (50). Here we sit, without food, without clothes, without shelter, without hope. Some friends have proven themselves unworthy of the name, while our true companions are powerless to help. Misfortune is the strictest test of friendship. I wish on no other man our fate.
MEGARA: Old man, who once led Thebes in victorious battle, how dark are the ways of the gods to men. I was born into a prosperous family. Creon’s wealth was the envy of all, and he blessed me by giving me in marriage to Heracles. But now this life of splendor has ended with his death, and we shall soon join him along with these young sons of Heracles. They do not understand where their father is; they ask, “Mother, where has he gone? What is he doing? Will he come back soon?” I tell them stories to quiet their impatience, but whenever they hear the gate open, they run to see if it is he. So now, I ask you, what hope do we have? How have you thought to save us? We cannot escape the watchful eye of the guards posted along every road. No hope from friends remains. Do you have a plan, or are you resigned to death?
AMPHITRYON: Child, at such times, I cannot give good advice. We are weak, and weakness can only wait.
MEGARA: Why wait for what must be a worse fate?
AMPHITRYON: Because while I live, I cling to hope.
MEGARA: One can hope only for what is possible.
AMPHITRYON: Patience may bring an unforeseen salvation.
MEGARA: But the time in between brings its own torture.
AMPHITRYON: Who knows, a fairer wind may soon blow us safely to shore. My son, your husband, may yet return. Calm your fears, and dry the tears from your children’s eyes. Tell them tales to pass the time (100), and believe that misfortune cannot continue forever. Change is the way of life, and evil must someday yield to good. The coward despairs, but the brave man holds to whatever hope exists.
CHORUS: Slowly but surely we have come to this sacred place, relying on our staffs for strength. Because of the feebleness of age, we offer only the comfort of our voices. We appear as mere shadows of our former selves; there was a time when we did not disgrace our city by such inaction. Look at these young children, so much like their father lost in Hades. How handsome they are, and how unfortunate! O land of Hellas, what great warriors you will lose if Lycus succeeds in his murderous plan. But look, here comes the tyrant now, approaching the palace.
Enter Lycus with his guards
LYCUS: You, father and wife of Heracles, may I ask a question? Of course, I may; I am the king. How long do you plan to sit here, hoping without hope that your lives might be spared? What can possibly save you? Do you still think that Heracles will come back from the dead? I’ve heard your boasts – that you, Amphitryon, aided Zeus in your son’s conception, and that you, Megara, were worthy of bedding with a hero (150). These boasts are as meaningless as your husband’s – claiming he killed the hydra and strangled the Nemean lion with his own hands. Why should I spare the children of such a coward, one who fights only animals, and uses a bow, the coward’s weapon, instead of fighting face to face with sword and shield? Do not think of my threat to these boys as wickedness but as wisdom. Because I killed their grandfather for his throne, they may someday want revenge.
AMPHITRYON: O Heracles, let Zeus act now to defend his son’s honor. I can only speak in your behalf to correct this slander. For slander it is for anyone to call you cowardly. Ask Zeus who drove his heavenly chariot in battle against the giants, or ask the centaurs who among men is the bravest? Who are you, tyrant, to challenge the character of my son? Even in your homeland, no one remembers you for any act of valor. And while you sneer at the bow, I’ll teach you what a marvelous weapon it is. If a man loses his sword in battle, he has no other defense but his comrades, who may act cowardly and offer no protection from the enemy’s death blow. But the man with a bow and a thousand arrows may strike many times without putting himself in harm’s way (200). This is how battles are won: by killing the enemy before they kill you.
Your argument for taking the lives of these children is equally worthless, although it does not surprise me that a coward would fear a true hero’s offspring. Why should we die to prove your cowardice? It is you who should die, if Zeus would bring justice in this case. If you intend to keep the Theban throne, then you’d better send us into exile. By shedding blood, you will risk your own when the wind of the gods blows the other way.
O Thebes, why do you not rise up to protect the sons of the champion who freed you from the Minyans? All of Hellas should march with fire and sword on behalf of Heracles in gratitude for his mighty labors. Poor children, neither Thebes nor Hellas has come to your aid. I alone stand by you, whose only weapon is a sharp tongue. But in my youth I would have taught this villain a lesson with more than mere words.
CHORUS: Well spoken, friend. A brave heart gives eloquence even to the mouth of the weak.
LYCUS: Eloquence perhaps, but a tower of words will not protect you from my deeds. Go, soldiers, and gather wood for this altar to which they cling in vain. Set them all ablaze, and let us see which burns brighter, the glory of Lycus or of the dead Heracles. Old men of Thebes, you weep now for these children, but soon you will weep for yourselves until you accept your fate as slaves (250).
CHORUS: O Thebans, born of dragon’s teeth, lean not on your staffs but raise them against this foreigner who shames us! Do not think that we will serve you, or that you will profit from our labors. If our right hands could again hold a spear, you would not live long to boast of your mastery. We would protect this family, for we have not forgotten the one who now dwells in Hades.
MEGARA: Thank you, old friends; your indignation proves your loyalty, but I fear that your words may involve you in suffering as well. Amphitryon, hear me out. I love my children – I gave them birth – and truly fear for their death. But it is foolishness to fight against the inevitable. If we must die, does it have to come by fire, mocked by the laughter of our enemies, which would be worse than death itself? Our noble family deserves better. Heracles’ sons must not die ignobly and neither should you, a valiant warrior of old. Consider your last remaining hope, that your son will return. Who do you know who has ever come back from Hades? And do not think that you may turn the heart of Lycus with your pleas (300). If we beg for their lives, what would they earn but exile and poverty? No one loves a beggar. No, if death must come, let us face it bravely on our terms as ones of noble blood. It is folly to challenge the way of the universe. What must be, will be.
AMPHITRYON: I am no coward, nor do I love life so much that I would not face death bravely. I live only to protect these children of my son. But it seems I am a man in love with impossibility. Here, Lycus, cut my throat, or toss me from a high cliff. I have but one dying wish – that you kill us before the children. To hear their cries for mercy would be unbearable.
MEGARA: One more request; let me go and dress my sons in funeral attire worthy of their heritage.
LYCUS: As you wish. Unlock the doors! Prepare yourselves for a long journey, for where I send you, none return.
MEGARA: Come, children, follow me into your father’s house. While others have taken his treasures, we still possess his name.
Exit Lycus, Megara, and children
AMPHITRYON: What benefit is it, O Zeus, to have shared my son with you? I thought you my friend. You are less powerful than you pretend, and I, a mortal, have proven myself more noble than you! I did not betray the sons of Heracles. You were able to find a way into my wife’s bed, but you could not find a way to save those who depended on you. What kind of god are you – ignorant, unjust, or both?
CHORUS: We sing a woeful song of praise to the one who has gone below (350). Whether he was born of Zeus or Amphitryon, we honor him for his mighty labors. First he slaughtered the lion which hunted in the grove of Zeus. Next, he slew with his arrows the menacing race of centaurs. Then he took the golden horns from the head of the spotted stag and gave them to Artemis, the huntress. He tamed the four man-eating horses of Diomedes, and slew the monstrous Cycnus. He stole the golden apples, killing the dragon which guarded the tree. He made safe the seaways for navigation (400), and upheld the world for Atlas. He led Hellas into battle against the Amazons and won from them the golden girdle as a trophy. He seared the countless heads of the hydra, and used its poisoned blood to defeat the three-bodied Geryon. For his crowning achievement he traveled to the land of death, but from this task he has not returned. Heracles, your loved ones look to you for salvation, but you do not come. We cannot help but weep, seeing these poor children wearing the garments of the grave, along with their mother and grandfather (450).
Enter Megara, the children, and Amphitryon
MEGARA: Where is the priest with the sacrificial knife? The victims are ready, having prepared themselves for the journey. What a strange group of travelers – young, old, parent, child – all embarking together for the land of darkness. How miserable our fate! Ah, my children; I brought you into this world only to be humiliated and slaughtered at the hands of a ruthless enemy. How I was deceived by hope, hearing your father’s promises: “You will be ruler of Argos someday; you will sit on the throne of Thebes; and you, littlest one, will have the land of Oechalia.” Three sons, three kingdoms, and for each a bride the envy of all Hellas. Such bright hopes are gone, and now you must marry the daughters of Death.
Oh, who shall I hug first? who next? For all of you it will be the last time. Beloved husband, if any words can pass from this world to the next, hear me! Your sons and father will die; I, too, who once was called blessed. Come and save us! Even your ghost would be enough to defeat this cowardly villain who kills women, children, and old men!
AMPHITRYON: My daughter, you pray to those below, while I raise my hands to petition the gods above. O Zeus, hear our cry! If you intend to help us, act now before it is too late (500). My prayers have been many, but to no avail. We cannot escape our doom. My old friends, life is brief. Find what happiness you can, for time will hurry about its business and soon be gone. Remember that I too had good fortune once, but as the wind will snatch away the feather, so will fly wealth and fame. Farewell; you will see me no longer.
MEGARA: Father, look! Look there! Can it be Heracles, my husband?
AMPHITRYON: I can’t say. I am afraid to speak.
MEGARA: I feared that he was dead. Is it possible?
AMPHITRYON: It is Heracles – unless we are dreaming.
MEGARA: No dream, father, but Zeus himself, our savior! Run, children, grab your father’s robes and never let him go!
HERACLES: I greet you, my home! How happy I am to see you again in the light of this living world. Why, what is this? My sons in funeral attire, my wife and father in tears? What has caused this distress?
MEGARA: O my dearest husband!
AMPHITRYON: O son who brings back the daylight!
MEGARA: You are alive, and here to rescue us!
HERACLES: What has happened? Are you in danger?
MEGARA: He would have killed us! Forgive me, father, for speaking first, but women speak freely of their grief, and my children nearly lost their lives.
HERACLES: By Apollo, how dreadfully your tale begins.
MEGARA: My father and brothers are dead.
HERACLES: But how? Who would have dared?
MEGARA: Lycus, the new king of Thebes.
HERACLES: Did he attack the city, or overthrow from within?
MEGARA: There was a civil war; by this means he took the seven gates.
HERACLES: And how were you and father threatened?
MEGARA: He planned to kill us all.
HERACLES: For what reason did he fear the helpless and innocent?
MEGARA: Someday they might take revenge for Creon’s murder.
HERACLES: But why are you, who still live, dressed in burial robes?
MEGARA: We put them on in preparation for death.
HERACLES: And he would have killed you, my dearest ones! (550)
MEGARA: No friends were left to help us, and we thought that you were dead.
HERACLES: Why did you think that?
MEGARA: Eurystheus sent messages of your death.
HERACLES: I see. Why did you leave the protection of the house?
MEGARA: We had no choice. He dragged your father from his bed.
HERACLES: Has he no respect for old age?
MEGARA: Lycus does not worship the goddess of decency.
HERACLES: Where were my friends while I was gone?
MEGARA: Who can be called a friend in times of trouble?
HERACLES: They thought so little of my valor during the Minyan wars?
MEGARA: As I said, trouble knows no friends.
HERACLES: Come, throw off these dreary robes. See the light of day. The night is past, and death threatens you no more. I have work to do – a palace to burn and a tyrant’s head to sever. Then I shall see to those who once accepted my aid but now offer none in return. How can I do mighty deeds and not defend my wife, my sons, and my father? Farewell, labors! For you I have neglected more important things. My boys would have died because of me; rather that I should die for them. How can I attain honor by killing the hydra and the lion while leaving my family unprotected? From now on, no one should call me Heracles the Conqueror.
CHORUS: It is only proper to defend one’s family.
AMPHITRYON: How like my son to love his family and hate his enemies. But be careful. Do not act in haste.
HERACLES: Does my desire for action seem rash to you?
AMPHITRYON: The king has henchmen who for money cause trouble in Thebes and stir up the people. You were certainly seen coming here. Beware; these men are ruthless. Do not underestimate their strength.
HERACLES: What do I care if the entire city has seen me? But don’t worry. An omen warned me that there might be trouble, so I entered Thebes secretly.
AMPHITRYON: Good. Now go into your house which welcomes you back (600). The king will come here himself to see to our deaths. You need not go into the city for him. Leave the others for later.
HERACLES: You offer good advice, which I will heed. I must honor the household gods who brought me back from the sunless caves of Hades.
AMPHITRYON: Tell me, did you actually descend into the land of death?
HERACLES: Yes; I’ve brought back the three-headed Cerberus as proof.
AMPHITRYON: . . . Why were you so long underground?
HERACLES: I also rescued Theseus whom Hades held captive.
AMPHITRYON: Where is he now?
HERACLES: Gone to his home in Athens, rejoicing in his freedom. Now come, children, with me into the house, no more a fearful place. Do not cry and worry any longer, dear wife. I will not leave you again. There is no need to hold me so tightly; I will not fly away. Look how they grasp my clothes even more – did death frighten you so? Here, take my hands, and like little boats I’ll pull you safely to shore. All men are equal in one thing: they love their children and will do anything for them.
Exit Heracles, Megara, Amphitryon, and children
CHORUS: O how I wish to be young again! What would I give for youth? An Asian throne and palace full of gold would be a meager price to pay. Old age is misery, too near to death (650). If the gods were truly wise, they would offer a return to youth as the reward for righteous living. The wicked would die, but the good would live again in young bodies. As it is now, there is no way to distinguish between the two.
Let us praise our youthful savior, Heracles, son of Zeus, who has earned by his courage honor far beyond his birth. But quiet now, Lycus returns (700).
Enter Lycus as Amphitryon emerges from the palace
LYCUS: You’ve taken plenty of time to adorn yourselves for death, Amphitryon. Call out your daughter and grandsons. Willingly you agreed to accept your fate.
AMPHITRYON: Must you be so harsh to us in our misery? Even a king should take care not to offend the dead. If we must die, then we are ready. Do as you will.
LYCUS: Where are Megara and her children?
AMPHITRYON: I believe that she kneels at the altar inside . . .
LYCUS: If she asks for life, her prayers are worthless.
AMPHITRYON: . . . imploring her husband to come.
LYCUS: That is truly hopeless. He will never return.
AMPHITRYON: Not unless the gods raise him from the dead.
LYCUS: I grow impatient; go now and get them.
AMPHITRYON: If I do, then I become an accomplice in her death.
LYCUS: Very well. I, not sharing your scruples, will go myself. I shall enjoy completing this task. Men, follow me.
AMPHITRYON: Go, Lycus, go and meet your fate. I believe someone is waiting inside to welcome you. Expect to be treated as you have treated others. My friends, our enemy has fallen into the trap and will soon feel the sword. I will go and watch his body fall. How sweet to see justice prevail after all.
CHORUS: Rejoice! The roles of victim and oppressor are reversed, for now the tyrant stands before the gates of Hades. He will pay a heavy price for his iniquities which have cost our people much. Hail the justice of Heaven and the balancing power of Fate!
LYCUS: [from within] O Help! Help!
CHORUS: Listen; the first notes of the song we long to hear (750). Lycus, sing the prelude to death, for it is near.
LYCUS: [from within] O land of Cadmus, by treachery I die!
CHORUS: You must die as others by your hand have died. This is justice. Who among us was it who blasphemed and denied the power of the gods? Let dancing and feasting begin, for our sorrow has turned into joy! The usurper has traded places with our new king, recently returned from Hades. Heracles, our savior, our hope beyond all hope! The gods indeed answer the prayers of men. They exalt the righteous and strike down the wicked. Those who drive the chariot of unlawful power are blind to the curves of the road ahead. They swerve too late and crash against the rocks of Fate.
O bless the marriage bed where two husbands with Alcmene lay! (800) One a man, the other a god. Beyond all doubt, O Zeus, you have proven your part in Heracles’ conception. His strength is truly divine. He has conquered death itself and returned from Hades’ halls. Now he has won the right to be our king. His victory with the sword proves that the gods favor a just cause.
Two goddesses, Iris and Madness, appear above the palace roof
O terror! Look, look! Is it a vision, or do we all see the same horrible sight? Run, escape, don’t stand there staring at them, run! Apollo, save us!
IRIS: Elders, do not be afraid. Before you stand Madness, daughter of Night, and me, Iris, servant of the gods. We bring no danger to your city. Against one man alone our war is waged, the son of Alcmene and Zeus, so they say. While he pursued his dreadful labors, fate protected him, and Zeus would not allow me or Hera to touch him. But now that he has fulfilled his commitment to Eurystheus, Hera decrees that he be tainted with innocent blood. So come, child of blackest Night, remove all pity from your heart, and descend on this man; confuse his mind and enrage his soul so that in an insane fury he will slaughter his own children! He must learn the depth of hatred Hera and I hold for him. If he escapes, the gods are nothing.
MADNESS: By birth I am noble, my parents being Ouranos and Night. I do not take pleasure in my appointed task, nor do I delight in destruction. I plead with you and Hera lest you do something foolish. This man, the object of your wrath, has won the respect of both gods and men (850). His mighty works have benefited the earth, and he alone worshipped us when all others fell away. I implore you to renounce your evil plans.
IRIS: Spare us your advice; Hera and I are in agreement on this.
MADNESS: I offer you an alternative, good rather than evil.
IRIS: The Queen of Heaven has not sent you here to think.
MADNESS: O Sun, as my witness, I must act against my will. I go, at Hera’s command, into the heart of Heracles, and no hurricane, no earthquake or thunderbolt will match my fury! In his madness he will kill his own sons, not knowing what he does. Look now! See how he tosses his head wildly, rolling his eyes. He breathes and snorts like a bull about to charge. He screams to wake the dead, and dances to the pipes of terror! Iris, fly off to high Olympus. I now descend unseen into the house of Heracles.
Exit Iris and Madness
CHORUS: O wail, Thebes, wail! Your choice flower is cut down. Your savior, son of Zeus, dances to the fatal flutes of Madness. How quickly fortune from the gods changes. How terrible for sons to die at father’s hands!
AMPHITRYON: [within] O horror!
CHORUS: Zeus, have pity on your son! He destroys his own!
AMPHITRYON: [within] Run, children, save yourselves!
CHORUS: The music of madness is terrible, driving him to destruction. What unbearable suffering! How we weep for Amphitryon and Megara to witness such carnage! (900) Look out! A whirlwind, shaking the house! The roof falls! O goddess of Night, what have you done?
A servant appears from the palace
SERVANT: O sirs! Horror!
CHORUS: We fear to hear you speak.
SERVANT: What I must tell is truly unspeakable!
CHORUS: Already we believe you.
SERVANT: The children . . . are dead!
CHORUS: It is as we feared – how terrible!
SERVANT: Terrible indeed for a father to kill his sons!
CHORUS: Tell us, if you can, the painful story. What did you see?
SERVANT: Around the hearth they stood, preparing a sacrifice to cleanse the house, for Heracles had killed the tyrant and thrown his body to the dogs. The three boys, their mother, and grandfather – ah, what a beautiful picture! All were quiet as Heracles lifted the holy torch and started to dip it in the water. Suddenly, he hesitated, frozen, a strange expression on his face. His sons noticed the change and stared at him. His eyes, bloodshot and bulging, began to roll, and he foamed at the mouth. Then laughing madly, he cried out, “Why, father, should I cleanse the house now, before my work is complete? I have yet to kill Eurystheus! Once I have his head, I’ll sacrifice for his blood as well as for Lycus. Throw out this holy water, and bring me my bow and club. I’ll attack the walls of Mycenae today!” Then, believing he rode a chariot, he ran frantically around the house.
The servants did not know whether to laugh or to be afraid (950). “Is he playing a game,” one asked, “or is he really mad?” Throughout the house he raced, back and forth, until he thought he had reached his destination. He seemed to eat at a feast, then stripped naked and wrestled with the air, in the end proclaiming his victory over no one. As he shouted again in challenge to Eurystheus, his father grabbed his mighty hand and said, “What sort of madness is this, my son? Has Lycus’ blood deranged you?” But instead of Amphitryon, Heracles saw the father of Eurystheus, pleading for his son’s life. Heracles pushed him aside, and aimed his arrows at his own sons, thinking they were his enemy’s.
Terrified, they began running in all directions, trying to hide, one behind his mother’s robes, another in the shadows, the third under the altar. Megara screamed, “What are you doing? These are your own children!” His father and the servants pleaded as well, but to no avail. He chased the one in the shadows around and around the pillar, until with deadly aim he pierced his heart with an arrow. His little body fell, staining the floor with blood. Jubilant, Heracles shouted, “The first of Eurystheus’ cubs has paid for his father’s hatred!” He took aim at the second, crouched under the altar. The boy rushed out, grabbing his father’s knees: “I am your son, father, not Eurystheus’, yours! Do not kill your own son!” But his father’s eyes were glazed over like a gorgon’s, and raising high his club, he crushed the boy’s skull. With two sons dead, he started for the third, but Megara seized her child and ran into the other room, locking the door. With incredible strength he pried open the door and pierced both mother and child with one arrow (1000).
Then he turned toward his father and would have killed him too, but a phantom, looking like Athena, appeared and hurled a boulder against his chest, knocking him down unconscious. He slumped against a pillar which had broken in two when the roof fell. We came from our hiding places and helped the old man fasten his son to the pillar with strong ropes, lest he awake and cause more destruction. Now he sleeps but unhappily, a man who has murdered his wife and children. Of all mankind I know of no one as cursed as he.
CHORUS: Murder has been done in Hellas before, but never was blood shed like this! Procne killed her own son, but she had only one, while you, poor Heracles, had three, butchered in your mad rage. What words can we sing for death? What song will suffice?
The palace doors open, revealing the bloody victims, Heracles tied to the pillar, and Amphitryon grieving over them
Look! Within the palace, all lie asleep beside their father, but for the children, it is the cold sleep of death. See how he is bound to the pillar, dreaming what murderers dream.
AMPHITRYON: Be silent, elders of Thebes. Let him forget his sufferings in sleep.
CHORUS: We weep for you, Amphitryon, and for these children, and for the man we once crowned as victor.
AMPHITRYON: Stay away! (1050) Mourn in silence. If he awakes and breaks his bonds, he will destroy us all!
CHORUS: We cannot hold back our tears. The blood of his wife and children cries out in accusation.
AMPHITRYON: Hush, be quiet! He stirs. He wakes! I must hide!
CHORUS: Take heart, night is still upon him.
AMPHITRYON: I do not fear for my life – what do I have to live for? But if he murders me, he will add more grief to an already unbearable burden. Quickly, old friends, escape while you can. Away from this madhouse. Once he wakes, he will murder all of Thebes!
CHORUS: Did you hate him so, O Zeus, that you would cast your own son onto this sea of suffering?
HERACLES: What has happened? I live, I breathe, I see the sky above me, but something seems amiss. My mind is strangely troubled. What’s this? My chest and arms lashed to a broken pillar, and I appear to be surrounded by the dead, their bodies pierced with my arrows (1100). Have I returned to Hades? What has occurred here? I do not understand. Is there anyone, a friend, who can tell me where I am?
AMPHITRYON: Shall I go to him, my friends?
CHORUS: Yes, we will accompany you and share your grief.
HERACLES: Why do you keep your distance, father? What do your tears mean? Do you no longer love your son?
AMPHITRYON: Yes, no matter what you have done, you are still my son.
HERACLES: Why? What have I done to make you cry so?
AMPHITRYON: Not just I, but the gods themselves are crying out.
HERACLES: So terrible? You have not told me what crime I have committed.
AMPHITRYON: It is there for you to see, if your mind would let you see it.
HERACLES: Has this disaster happened to me?
AMPHITRYON: Tell me first if you are thinking clearly now.
HERACLES: These ominous questions! I fear the worst.
AMPHITRYON: I still doubt that the madness is gone.
HERACLES: Madness? I do not recall being mad.
AMPHITRYON: Friends, should we unbind him? What should I do?
HERACLES: Who bound me thus? Only an enemy would disgrace me so.
AMPHITRYON: Ask no more questions. Your troubles are enough.
HERACLES: I must know. No more mysteries. Tell me.
AMPHITRYON: O Zeus, do you see what Hera has done to my son?
HERACLES: So this trouble was sent by Hera?
AMPHITRYON: Do not think of her; concern yourself with your own miseries.
HERACLES: You have not told me what these miseries are.
AMPHITRYON: Look closely. Do you see the bodies of the children around you?
HERACLES: O gods! What awful sight is this?
AMPHITRYON: The casualties of your dreadful war.
HERACLES: What war? What enemy killed these boys?
AMPHITRYON: No enemy, but you and your bow and whatever god decreed it.
HERACLES: I did this? What a terrifying tale you reveal!
AMPHITRYON: You were driven insane – O what pain to tell you this!
HERACLES: And my wife? Did I kill her too?
AMPHITRYON: All this before you is your handiwork.
HERACLES: O night of endless pain!
AMPHITRYON: Now you understand my tears.
HERACLES: Did my fury destroy my entire house?
AMPHITRYON: I only know that your entire life is in ruins.
HERACLES: But when did this frenzy come upon me?
AMPHITRYON: You were at the altar, purifying your home.
HERACLES: Then why do I still live? Let me avenge my children’s murder. Let me hurl myself off a precipice, or drive a sword through my heart (1150), or with fire burn away this guilt which stains me. But who do I see? Theseus, my friend and kinsman, comes, interrupting my thoughts of death. He will see me covered in blood, defiling his sight. What shall I do? O for wings to fly away! To keep him from pollution, I must hide my head in shame beneath my robes.
THESEUS: I have come, Amphitryon, bringing the armies of Athens to fight alongside your son. We heard that Lycus had invaded the city and seized the throne. And so, in gratitude to Heracles for saving me from Hades, I have come and offer my aid, if you need it. But what do I see? Corpses already litter the ground. Are we too late? Young boys do not fill the ranks of Theban armies. This is not the result of war but of some wickedness. Who killed these children and that woman?
AMPHITRYON: O lord of olive-crowned Athens . . .
THESEUS: Even your first words are heavy with grief.
AMPHITRYON: Grief that comes from Heaven.
THESEUS: Whose children are these?
AMPHITRYON: My own son gave them life and gave them death.
AMPHITRYON: But horribly true.
THESEUS: What a frightening tale!
AMPHITRYON: All, all is lost!
THESEUS: Explain how this could happen.
AMPHITRYON: Madness drove him to fire the arrows dipped in hydra’s blood.
THESEUS: Madness! sent by Hera, I suppose. Who lies there by the bodies?
AMPHITRYON: That is he, my most unhappy son.
THESEUS: What mortal has ever been cursed like this?
AMPHITRYON: In all the world no suffering could equal his.
THESEUS: Why does he hide his face?
AMPHITRYON: He is ashamed to face you, stained by his sons’ blood (1200).
THESEUS: I have come to his aid and will share his grief.
AMPHITRYON: My son, uncover your face. A friend has come to balance loyalty against sorrow. Be persuaded not to think of your own death.
THESEUS: Look at me, friend. Your suffering is too great to stay hidden. Why do you wave me off? Will merely hearing your words pollute me? I am not afraid to share your curse, for you once broke the curse on me by rescuing me from death. I hate friends whose gratitude fades, who will travel with you in good times but not in bad. Come, uncover yourself and look at me. This proves a man courageous: that he endures without flinching the fate that heaven decrees.
HERACLES: Theseus, have you seen the evidence of my crimes?
THESEUS: I have heard the story, and I see.
HERACLES: Then how can you make me face the sun?
THESEUS: You cannot pollute what is divine.
HERACLES: I am unclean. Keep away!
THESEUS: Friendship is not affected by such curses.
HERACLES: Thank you; I chose wisely when I gave you assistance.
THESEUS: You gave me life; I can only offer sympathy.
HERACLES: Can one feel sympathy for the murderer of his sons?
THESEUS: Yes. Out of gratitude I weep for you.
HERACLES: Have you ever seen a man more miserable?
THESEUS: Your sorrows tower above the earth and touch heaven.
HERACLES: I shall touch heaven myself; there I will strike!
THESEUS: What do the gods think of men’s threats?
HERACLES: True; heaven is proud. But so I am.
THESEUS: Quiet; your boasts may bring more trouble.
HERACLES: I am full already; there is no room for more.
THESEUS: What will you do now? Where run your thoughts?
HERACLES: To death. I will return to Hades and make it my home.
THESEUS: These are the words of an ordinary man, not a hero.
HERACLES: Do you who know no pain preach to me?
THESEUS: Is this the Heracles who endured so much? (1250)
HERACLES: Never as much as this. Endurance has its limits.
THESEUS: Are you Heracles, the benefactor of all mankind?
HERACLES: What help are men when Hera is your enemy?
THESEUS: Hellas will not allow you to die a cowardly death.
HERACLES: Here is what I say to your noble advice. I should never have been born. My life was cursed from the beginning. My father was a murderer too; he killed his father-in-law. On such a bloody foundation was I built. They say that Zeus begot me which aroused Hera’s jealousy. (I mean no offense, Amphitryon; I claim you as my father, not Zeus.) While still in my cradle, I strangled the serpents which Hera had sent. Later my strength grew legendary – but need I recount my famous labors? Lions, giants, centaurs – I killed them all, and even captured the hell-hound Cerberus. And now, my crowning achievement! I have slaughtered those I sought to protect!
I have no choice. I cannot stay in Thebes and defile my friends, even if they would have me. No temple will accept my offerings. Where can I go? Argos has banished me. No other city will welcome one who is known as “the son of Zeus who killed his wife and sons.” For one who has prospered, change is a bitter thing. Once known through all the earth, now earth itself will cry out wherever I place my foot, and the seas will roar if I sail. It is best that Hellas see me no more (1300). Why should I live? What can come of a life so polluted?
The wife of Zeus must be dancing for joy right now. She has accomplished her heart’s desire in bringing down the greatest man of all Hellas. Who can worship such a goddess? Because of her jealousy over Zeus’s affair with a mortal woman, she has ruined the savior of his people, one who had done no wrong.
THESEUS: None other but the Queen of Heaven is to blame here. In that you are correct. But listen to my advice. Continue to live and bear your suffering with patience. No man escapes his brush with Fate, and neither do the gods, unless the poets lie. Do not the gods commit adultery? Have they not taken power by force and thrown their fathers into chains? Even with such sins, they still live on Olympus. How then can you, a mere mortal, protest your fate, when the gods do not?
So, obey the law and leave Thebes, but follow me to Athens. There I will purify your hands of blood and will share my home and my wealth, all that was given to me when I defeated the minotaur. You may have your choice of many plots of land, and when you die, we shall erect a monument in your honor. My city will become known as the benefactor of Heracles. All this I give in gratitude for what you once did for me.
HERACLES: Your speculations on theology are hardly relevant. I do not believe that the gods commit adultery or put each other into chains. I never did and never shall. Nor do I think that one god rules the rest. To be a god means to be perfect, needing nothing. These are merely the poets’ miserable lies.
Even as you spoke, in my agony I questioned whether suicide would not be a coward’s response; for if one cannot withstand his own fate, he will fear any man (1350). I have decided. I will wait with patience for death to come; meanwhile, I will accept your generous offer and go with you to Athens. During all my labors, Theseus, I never wept – until now. But now, I see that I must serve necessity.
Father, I am exiled from Thebes. You must now do for my murdered sons the service I, their murderer, am forbidden to render them. Lay them in their mother’s arms and honor them with your tears. Live in Thebes and bear the legacy of our sadness for me. O my sons, I who gave you life have taken it away! You will inherit none of the glorious treasures I have won for you. And you, dear wife, this cruel ending is your only reward for years of faithful waiting. O wretched parting!
Here’s my bow, partner in so many victories, and yet a bitter reminder of my greatest defeat. If I continue to carry it, with every step I take, its knocking at my side will say, “With me you killed your wife and children.” And yet, shall I leave it behind and surely die in shame at the hands of my enemies? No, as much as it pains me, I must carry it. O people of Thebes, mourn with me for my children. Mourn for us all, the dead and the living. For all of us share in death, struck down by Hera’s hateful blow.
THESEUS: No more tears, my noble friend; arise.
HERACLES: I cannot move; I am rooted to this spot.
THESEUS: Then fate has broken even the strongest of us.
HERACLES: Would I were a stone that can feel no grief!
THESEUS: Be quiet now, and give me your hand.
HERACLES: Careful; my touch will pollute you.
THESEUS: Pollute me then. I do not care (1400).
HERACLES: My sons are dead; you are now my son.
THESEUS: Lean on my shoulder; I will support you.
HERACLES: We form a yoke of friendship. Father, choose men such as this for friends.
AMPHITRYON: The land that gave him birth breeds noble men.
HERACLES: Theseus, let me turn back and see my sons.
THESEUS: Will this sight ease your grief?
HERACLES: I want to embrace my father as well.
AMPHITRYON: And I you.
THESEUS: Come; have you forgotten all that you endured in your labors?
HERACLES: All those combined would not equal what I now face.
THESEUS: Men will despise you for showing weakness.
HERACLES: You scorn me? Once you did not.
THESEUS: You invite scorn. Where is the Heracles I once knew?
HERACLES: Did you have courage in Hades?
THESEUS: No, there I was the least courageous of men.
HERACLES: But now you ridicule me for my grief?
THESEUS: No longer. Lead on.
HERACLES: Farewell, father. Bury my children.
AMPHITRYON: But who will be left to bury me?
HERACLES: I will return and bring you to Athens. Now give my sons’ bodies to the earth while I, a wrecked ship, am towed by this mighty barge. Anyone is mad who prefers wealth or power to a true friend.
CHORUS: With grief and tears we depart, losing such as you, our greatest friend.