Heracles as Tragic Hero

Download Heracles as Tragic Hero

Post on 09-Dec-2016




7 download

Embed Size (px)


<ul><li><p>Heracles as Tragic HeroAuthor(s): Loukas PapadimitropoulosSource: The Classical World, Vol. 101, No. 2 (Winter, 2008), pp. 131-138Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of the Classical Association of the AtlanticStatesStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25471934 .Accessed: 18/09/2013 19:37</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp</p><p> .</p><p>JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.</p><p> .</p><p>The Johns Hopkins University Press and Classical Association of the Atlantic States are collaborating withJSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Classical World.</p><p>http://www.jstor.org </p><p>This content downloaded from on Wed, 18 Sep 2013 19:37:26 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p></li><li><p>Heracles as Tragic Hero ABSTRACT: Despite differences in subject matter, plot construction, and </p><p>character, the two Heracles plays may have a similarity in the conception </p><p>of divine action (divine determinism) and in their formal structure. The </p><p>hero suffers from an internal/internalized conflict between divine and human </p><p>spheres. The unity of these coexistent spheres is broken by an outburst of the </p><p>hero's own bestiality, which leads to the (temporary or permanent) reduction </p><p>of his status. Nevertheless, his fall entails a personal victory which involves </p><p>the painful realization of human limits. </p><p>Heracles was probably the most contradictory of all the Greek heroes. His famous twelve labors established him as the civilizer par excellence and as the great benefactor of humanity. And yet his behavior repeatedly transgressed the bounds of human modera tion, as his overwhelming vitality led him to actions that violated the norms of civic, familial, and religious institutions. He was the </p><p>offspring of a divine father, Zeus himself, and of a mortal mother and, therefore, condemned to confront the continual wrath of Hera. His birth granted him an ambivalent status: he was both a hero and a god.1 Consequently, his ghost is in Hades, like anyone else's who is mortal, while his self takes joy in feasting among the immortal </p><p>gods by the side of Hebe, eternal youth, his wife.2 On the other hand, he is honored by sacrifices and worship that are proper both for heroes and gods.3 </p><p>Certain scholars presume that this kind of ambivalence deterred tragic poets from dramatizing his sufferings and that the two extant </p><p>tragedies concerning Heracles may be the only ones produced by the end of the fifth century b.c.4 Even so, Heracles' persona is dramati </p><p>cally exploited in quite different ways by Sophocles and Euripides. This results from the fact that they have two different notions of </p><p>tragic. The Trachiniae focuses both on Heracles' sufferings caused by the poisonous robe sent by his wife Deianeira in order to win him back and on his recognition of the truth about the oracles sent by Zeus. The power of the erotic desire, the transition from igno rance to knowledge, and the fulfillment of the divine oracles can be considered as the main thematic threads of the play.5 On the other hand, Heracles concentrates on the hero's manic killings of his own </p><p>family, his subsequent despair, and the arrival of Theseus, who averts Heracles' plan to commit suicide and offers him the refuge </p><p>1 Pindar calls him ypux; Beog in Nem. 3.22. 2 Od. 11.601-604. Heracles' postmortem existential dichotomy is explicitly pre </p><p>sented in the same line (eY$</p></li><li><p>132 LOUKAS PAPADIMITROPOULOS </p><p>of his city, Athens. The dark atmosphere of the play created by the gods' seemingly incoherent action is brightened only by Heracles' decision not to kill himself and by the final emphasis put on human friendship; these three elements constitute the central idea of the Euripidean tragedy.6 </p><p>On a first reading the two tragedies do not seem to have anything in common. On the one hand, Trachiniae has no central character; the role of the protagonist is shared between Heracles and Deianeira, </p><p>who are presented antithetically and represent different worlds: Heracles, the self-centered man with divine liaisons, is astonishingly inhuman7 and stands distant from us. Deianeira, with her human fal libility and her human capacity for compassion, is more familiar to us and immediately gains our sympathy. The two never meet; they only communicate through the robe which exemplifies the disastrous consequences of bestial lust motivated by both sides: as Winnington Ingram has aptly remarked, "this is a tragedy of sex."8 On the other hand, the Euripidean hero is the protagonist, the dominating figure of the play; he is more human and caring for his family and he also possesses a mortal father. The contrast of this tragedy derives not from an antithetical presentation of two persons but from the existential dichotomy of the same tragic hero: Heracles the savior is </p><p>immediately followed by Heracles fur ens. The result is the fall to the status of a human who afterwards finds the courage to endure life </p><p>through the help of friendship. The divine course of action appears incoherent to mortals. </p><p>In fact, the conception of divine action seems to be the cardinal difference between the two plays. The action in Trachiniae begins with the fulfillment of oracles known at the outset to the characters of the play. Moreover, everything leads to Heracles' deification, although it is not referred to on stage. As in the case of Euripides' </p><p>Hippolytus, the comprehension of the meaning of the play is dependent on the audience's knowledge of the hero's forthcoming apotheosis. But besides the fact that a direct mention of the hero's postmortem divinization would be quite untragic, Sophocles' intention is to close his play by once again stressing the human incapacity to conceive the entirety of divine action; this is exactly what Hyllus' final words </p><p>explicitly show. The audience knows that the alleged "ungratefulness of the gods" (Becov ayvcotioo-vvr), 1266), at least as far as Heracles is </p><p>concerned, is the product of Hyllus' ignorance, whose final phrase (Kovdev tovtcov on pbrj Zevg, "and none of these things is not Zeus," </p><p>1278),9 however, expresses in the most epigrammatic way the play's </p><p>6 Compare G. W. Bond, Euripides: Heracles (Oxford 1981) xxii-xxiii. </p><p>7 Notice especially the incident of Lichas (772-782), his demand on Hyllus to </p><p>bring Deianeira to him, so that he can torture her (1066-1069), and his subsequent complaint that her suicide deprived him of the joy of killing her himself, as it should have been (ux; expyv, 1133). </p><p>8 R. P. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles: An Interpretation (Cambridge 1980) 75. 9 All translations of the Greek in this article are my own. </p><p>This content downloaded from on Wed, 18 Sep 2013 19:37:26 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p></li><li><p>HERACLES AS TRAGIC HERO 133 </p><p>theology: divine determinism. On the other side, Heracles, in a double reversal?the unexpected arrival of Heracles from Hades that brings about the salvation of his family and the arrival of Iris and Lyssa that causes his family's slaughter by Heracles?seemingly shows the dissolution of theodicy. According to Bond, the projected image of the gods is incoherent, as they are successively presented as negligent (339-347), provident for the just (763-780), vindictive (822-873), permissive (1315-1316), and self-sufficient (1341-1346); that divine instability and irrationality make the Euripidean tragedy "mainly agnostic and negative in tone."10 I believe, however, that there may be another, more implicit interpretation of the divine action in that particular tragedy: Heracles' detachment from his mortal oikos by way of his manic killings, for which Zeus is clearly responsible, aims finally at the bestowal?in this case from Theseus?of the hon ors that befit him and that equate a kind of postmortem apotheosis (1331-1335). In this case, however, deification does not exclusively promote a hero's grandeur, but is at the same time framed by the emphasis given to the bonds of the community. But as in the Tra chiniae, Zeus' alleged plan for his son is nowhere hinted at. If my conjecture is correct, then there is a distinct similarity in the theodicy of the two Heracles plays. </p><p>Consequently, despite fundamental differences in subject matter, plot construction, and character, that similarity in the conception of divine action should make us more inclined to ask whether the two deviating tragic perspectives create a unifying image of the suffering hero. Is there a shared conception of Heracles as tragic hero between the two dramatists? In order to answer this question we must notice the similarities between the two plays. In examining the similarities I </p><p>will try to apply, in certain cases, a psychoanalytic methodology.11 From the beginning of each tragedy Heracles is presented as a </p><p>glorious hero. In Trachiniae he is introduced by Deianeira as "the famous son of Zeus and Alcmene" (6 KXeivoq . . . Zyvoq 'AXK^v^q re </p><p>iraTg, 19). Deianeira also calls him "the noblest of all men" (tiavrcov apiarov (?a)Tog, 177). The chorus imagines him returning home "bear </p><p>ing the trophies of all valor" (i:a(ra</p></li><li><p>134 LOUKAS PAPADIMITROPOULOS </p><p>divine status by calling him "the true son of Zeus" (tw Aiog avrotraiBi, 826), despite the fact of his imminent death. In Heracles the hero is characterized as "famous" (/cAe/vos, 12) by his mortal father, who, furthermore, defends his reputation against the accusations of the tyrant Lycus by enumerating his feats, the most important of them being that he fought on the side of the gods against the giants (178-180). In an extended ode the chorus celebrates his numerous labors (347-435). Finally, when Heracles arrives unexpectedly on stage, Megara urges her children to cling to his robes, "since to us he is not at all inferior to Zeus the savior" (e7re/ Aiog / trcjT^pog viiiv ovSev e</p></li><li><p>HERACLES AS TRAGIC HERO 135 </p><p>describes Heracles' estrangement from his usual self and implies the action of another, hidden one. Furthermore, Gregory notes that both Lyssa and Heracles have gorgon-like attributes (868, 999), they are both bacchantes (898, 1119, 1122), and they both use chariots (760, 880) and goads (882, 949), while Silk maintains that the application of the word cfriXog to Heracles by Lyssa (846) evokes "a parallel image of Heracles striving to fight off the madness in himself."13 </p><p>Moreover, the violence of the metaphors used by Lyssa to describe her action (867-871) and, especially, of the simile of Heracles as a </p><p>roaring bull ("like a bull ready to attack, he roars horribly," ravpog cog eg etifioXyv, I hivd (jbVKarai Se, 869-870), suggests that Heracles' subconscious self is bestial or approaches bestiality. Consequently, it appears that bestiality is the common denominator of the forces that cause Heracles' fall. </p><p>In the exodus, Heracles is presented as weak and deprived of his divine power and heroic glory. In the Trachiniae he is carried on stage asleep by his son Hyllus and some attendants. When he wakes up he suffers from pains caused by the poisonous robe (1004-1016), cursing Deianeira whom he considers responsible for his present pre dicament, longing to kill her whose guile (SoXcomg, 1050) has brought him to the point of crying and behaving like a woman (1070-1075). He enumerates all his toils in order to conclude that his power has been defeated by blind disaster (rvcjyX'rjg \jrf drrjg, 1104), he who was saluted as the son of Zeus among the stars (6 rov klxt atrrpa Zyvog avSrqdeig yovog, 1106). In Heracles, too, the hero awakens,14 but when he learns the truth about the mad killing of his own family, the only thing he desires is to commit suicide (1146-1152). He lies down cov ered in darkness and affirms to Theseus his resolution to die (1247). Then he enumerates his toils in order to discover that the killing of his children was in fact the peak of his excessive life,15 which was then and is now unlivable (afiitorov, 1257). He now finds himself in a stalemate: no city will accept him, he will be an outcast. Hera succeeded in her plan, as she turned upside down the first man of Greece (av</p></li><li><p>136 LOUKAS PAPADIMITROPOULOS </p><p>because of his kinship with Zeus; after the end of his labors inner and outer forces cause his fall, which in turn results in the loss of the hero's divinity. Schematic as it may appear, I suggest that the axis divine-human-bestial can provide a satisfactory interpretative model for the similarities that underlie the two Heracles plays, as well as demonstrate their ideological link.16 Heracles' state of birth determines his fundamental ambiguity: he is both human and divine. Two different spheres coexist in a single person and provide him with an ambivalent status which proves to be potentially dangerous for himself as well as for his family. In Trachiniae his lust for Iole causes Deianeira's suicide, while his son Hyllus is forced to marry her. In the Euripidean tragedy his fit of madness brings about the death of Megara and their children. There is a violent rupture of these coexistent spheres in Heracles by an outburst of his bestiality, which is part of his divine inheritance.17 This rupture leads to the reduction of Heracles' status to a weak man who behaves like a woman.18 From </p><p>this we could draw the conclusion that Heracles' persona embodies the internal conflict between human and divine. This tragic notion is included in both Sophocles' and Euripides' tragedies and I believe it </p><p>prevails over their differences. But what is the outcome of that conflict? Does the hero end up </p><p>defeated? Despite the reduction of his status and for all his suffer </p><p>ing, Heracles ends up by winning a personal victory. In Trachiniae as soon as Heracles hears from his son the name Nessus, he forgets everything about Deianeira and finds the missing link which permits him to interpret the divine oracles. "You can only be defeated by the dead" was the prediction given to him by Zeus long ago (1159-1160); and that dead was Nessus, who had persuaded Deianeira to use his blood mixed with Hydra's venom as a love charm for Heracles. That oracle fits with old prophecies (roTg traXat ^vv^yopa, 1165) that </p><p>promised him release from labors, a promise which signified his death rather than his happiness (1169-1173). Heracles, now armed with his knowledge about the meaning of his past, binds Hyllus with an oath and gives him the orders about his funeral pyre. There is an </p><p>aetiological relation between Heracles' realization of the "illuminat </p><p>ing" truth and the orders that he is prepared to give to his son about his transfer to the pyre, which is established by the clause TaiV ovv </p><p>16 For a useful su...</p></li></ul>