David Sarkies's Reviews > Herakles

Herakles by Euripides
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Mar 04, 12

bookshelves: tragedy
Read in January, 2006

Like pretty much all of the Greek tragedies this play utilises the unities of time and place. The entire action in the play takes place in a single day outside a palace in Thebes. Once again, pretty much all of the action takes place off stage and in narrated to the audience by one of the characters, and as in other plays, the background and the events leading up to the play is also narrated to us the audience. It appears, with Greek drama, that the bulk of the play actually deals with the climax, and many of the events leading up to this climax are narrated. One thing, with action, such as the killing of one of the characters, could not take place on stage, so whenever a character dies, it is always off stage (though in many cases screaming can be heard).
Herakles is a little different from the other plays though in that the gods actually appear half way through (in the form of madness) and there is also a major plot twist. The play opens in Thebes with Herakles completing is final task, capturing Cerebrus from the pit of Hades, and Herakles' human father Amphytryon, and his wife and children, waiting for him to return. However, Lycas has usurped the throne of Thebes, with the help of a group of failed businessmen, in an attempt to cancel their debts. To secure his position Lycas proposes to kill Herakles' father and children, particularly since he no longer believes that Herakles is alive. As such the first part of the play is one of waiting, waiting for Herakles to return to right the wrong that has fallen upon Thebes.
I am going to use a bit of Christian imagry in this play, namely because there is actually a lot there. It was not intentional, this play was written 400 years before Christ, and it is clear from surviving Greek literature that knowledge of the Jews appeared to be non-existent, however we have what appears to be Christian allegory, not one, but twice, in this play. The first involves the waiting for Herakles' return. In a way this relfects the Christian's wait for Christ's return, with the Christian being linked with Amphytryon (the father of Herakles, and in a way reflective of the faithful Jew) and Herakles' wife and children (the Christian church). Lycas, in many ways, is the mocker and the God-hater, who mocks Herakles as being a fake hero, and being dead. However, Herakles does return, and redeems his family from the tyrant.
It seems that once Herakles has killed Lycas, all is said and done, and the play should end, but it doesn't. Instead, Herakles goes mad and kills his wife and children. It seems strange, and almost out of place for the events to suddenly make this turn, and it is also suggestive that there is no reason for this. However, there is. First of all, to those familiar with the topic (as the Greeks would have been) Herakles was cursed by Hera, who was furious that Zeus was a randy panda who would have sex with every beautiful human he saw, and give birth to a race of god-men. Interesting, very, very interesting. We see a lot of the God-born humans on Greek mythology, and a lot of reasons as to how it happened, such as Leda and the swan, or the golden shower (no, not that sort of Golden Shower), however we have two instances of the birth of god-men in the bible. The first is clearly Christ, however, unlike Greek mythology, there is no sexual innuendo arising from the impregnation of Mary. In fact the bible goes to great length to imply that sex did not play a role. However, there are also the Nephalim, men of hold, heroes of renown, who where the birth products of the sons of God coming to the daughters of men. Some argue that it is the race of the sinners and the saved coming together (unlikely, and a bit of a cop-out as far as I am concerned, in the same way that there are two Isaiahs as people can't handle predictive prophecy, especially over hundreds of years), or they are demons impregnating human woman (possible, but heaps cooler in my opinion).
The other Christian aspect is that of redemption, and we see this twice in this play. At first it is Amphytryon and co who are seeking redemption, to be freed from slavery and certain death under Lycas. The second aspect of redemption comes from Herakles himself. Herakles does indeed redeem them, however he is human, all to human. Human flaw plays a major role in Greek literature, and the concept of hybris (arrogance) is one of the greatest flaws. Herakles is no humble, and we are told that he forgoes a cleansing ritual after killing Lycas, so he may kill his other enemies. This is all Hera needs, and strikes him with madness. Thus the redeemer suddenly himself needs redemption.
This is where Theseus comes in. Now notice one other thing about the redeemer figures in this play, both have returned from the underworld, the kingdom of the dead. Herakles travels into the underworld as a part of his cleansing ritual to redeem his father, and while he is there, he redeems Theseus, who has been imprisoned there. Once again, redemption, travelling into the kingdom of the dead to bring back to life that which has died. However, Herakles is now stained with the guilt of his crime, a reflection of sin, and he is now the one that needs redemption, and thus in comes Theseus. This is the climax of the play, as Theseus agrees to take Herakles with him, and support him and comfort him in his moment of grief.
It is this part of the play that we see another Christian element, and that is the concept of substution of sin. He became sin for us so that we might be holy before God. Strange in that Herakles recoils from Theseus' touch for fear of polluting him with his sin. However Theseus not only allows Herakles' touch, he is willing to take Herakles' sin upon him, and carry his burden. This all wraps up in the neat conclusion that gold and glory in the end mean nothing, and that ones most valuable possession is the love of a good friend.
Unlike other plays, we aren't told what happens after the play. All we know if that Herakles goes off with Theseus to Athens to rebuild his shattered life. However, those of us that know the story of Herakles knows that he goes on to receive both gold and glory. He goes on to give birth to many more children, the Heraclidae, who then go on to populate the Peloponese, and in turn give birth to the Spartan nation. In a way, it could be that the Dorians who 'invaded' Greece between the Mycenaen period and the Classical period could quite have well has arisen up internally rather than coming from the north. The one thing that I do remember from Classical Studies is that there is actually no evidence that Greece was invaded by the Dorians, as there is no evidence of large scale warfare from that period.
As I glanced at some of the versions of this play (and others) I have noticed that there has been further writings on these plays since the oil wars began. Herakles (and indeed many of Euripides' plays) were written during the Peloponesian War, which is probably why a number of people are beginning to see connections between the wars of Euripides' days and the wars that we are fighting now. In fact, as well explore the causes and the actions of the Peloponesian War we begin to see more connections with the foolish adventures of our own time.
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