Heracles as Tragic Hero

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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 19:37Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp .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. .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.http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from on Wed, 18 Sep 2013 19:37:26 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and ConditionsHeracles as Tragic Hero ABSTRACT: Despite differences in subject matter, plot construction, and character, the two Heracles plays may have a similarity in the conception of divine action (divine determinism) and in their formal structure. The hero suffers from an internal/internalized conflict between divine and human spheres. The unity of these coexistent spheres is broken by an outburst of the hero's own bestiality, which leads to the (temporary or permanent) reduction of his status. Nevertheless, his fall entails a personal victory which involves the painful realization of human limits. 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 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 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 Certain scholars presume that this kind of ambivalence deterred tragic poets from dramatizing his sufferings and that the two extant 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 cally exploited in quite different ways by Sophocles and Euripides. This results from the fact that they have two different notions of 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 family, his subsequent despair, and the arrival of Theseus, who averts Heracles' plan to commit suicide and offers him the refuge 1 Pindar calls him ypux; Beog in Nem. 3.22. 2 Od. 11.601-604. Heracles' postmortem existential dichotomy is explicitly pre sented in the same line (eY$132 LOUKAS PAPADIMITROPOULOS 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 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, 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 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 through the help of friendship. The divine course of action appears incoherent to mortals. 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' 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 explicitly show. The audience knows that the alleged "ungratefulness of the gods" (Becov ayvcotioo-vvr), 1266), at least as far as Heracles is concerned, is the product of Hyllus' ignorance, whose final phrase (Kovdev tovtcov on pbrj Zevg, "and none of these things is not Zeus," 1278),9 however, expresses in the most epigrammatic way the play's 6 Compare G. W. Bond, Euripides: Heracles (Oxford 1981) xxii-xxiii. 7 Notice especially the incident of Lichas (772-782), his demand on Hyllus to 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). 8 R. P. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles: An Interpretation (Cambridge 1980) 75. 9 All translations of the Greek in this article are my own. This content downloaded from on Wed, 18 Sep 2013 19:37:26 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and ConditionsHERACLES AS TRAGIC HERO 133 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. 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 will try to apply, in certain cases, a psychoanalytic methodology.11 From the beginning of each tragedy Heracles is presented as a glorious hero. In Trachiniae he is introduced by Deianeira as "the famous son of Zeus and Alcmene" (6 KXeivoq . . . Zyvoq 'AXK^v^q re iraTg, 19). Deianeira also calls him "the noblest of all men" (tiavrcov apiarov (?a)Tog, 177). The chorus imagines him returning home "bear ing the trophies of all valor" (i:a(ra134 LOUKAS PAPADIMITROPOULOS 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 eHERACLES AS TRAGIC HERO 135 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 Moreover, the violence of the metaphors used by Lyssa to describe her action (867-871) and, especially, of the simile of Heracles as a 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. 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 (av136 LOUKAS PAPADIMITROPOULOS 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 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 prevails over their differences. But what is the outcome of that conflict? Does the hero end up defeated? Despite the reduction of his status and for all his suffer 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 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 aetiological relation between Heracles' realization of the "illuminat 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 16 For a useful summary of this interpretative model, promoted by French struc turalists, see Segal (above, n.l2) 13-42. 17 There is an implicit connection between Heracles' bestiality and divinity. His bestial desires in Trachiniae, notably his lust for Iole, are satisfied in a godlike man ner by the destruction of everything that stands in his way, even of a whole city. On Heracles' godlike nature, in general, see further C. M. Bowra, Sophoclean Tragedy (Oxford 1944) 136-37. On the other hand, the bestial madness of the Euripidean hero belongs to the realm of the gods, in which he himself participates. Silk (above, n.4) 130 asserts that lines 1335 and 1337 demonstrate that "the difference between Heracles sane and Heracles mad is 'the god', divinity, separate from him." 18 See Soph. Trach. 1070-1075 and Eur. HF 1412. This content downloaded from on Wed, 18 Sep 2013 19:37:26 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and ConditionsHERACLES AS TRAGIC HERO 137 eTteity XapbTipd trvtifiaivei ("so now these are clearly being fulfilled," 1174). His whole sequence of thoughts creates the impression that he consciously commands his burning as if he is aware of his immi nent apotheosis, which is not, however, explicitly referred to during the play.19 But now Heracles realizes that only fire can purify him of Nessus' bestial blood, mixed with the Hydra's venom, that runs through his veins and consumes him; only fire can purify him of his own bestiality and restore his identity as a civilizing hero with a divine affinity. Heracles heads towards his final toil victorious and subconsciously aware of his coming deification.20 The Euripidean hero, on the other hand, wins a more human victory. The mere existence of Amphitryon sharply differentiates him from his Sophoclean counterpart, whose only father is Zeus. On the contrary, the Euripidean Heracles' double parentage creates a con stant oscillation between mortal and divine spheres.21 Furthermore, the changes that Euripides has brought to the traditional mythical material, notably the different motivations of Heracles' labors (17-19, 1368-1370), his appearance as a family defender against the usurper Lycus,22 and his promised burial at Athens by Theseus, contribute to the humanization of Heracles' myth and persona.23 The Euripidean Heracles, therefore, is in need of the human support of friendship, and, when Theseus offers him refuge at Athens, along with other presents and honors, he finds the moral strength to endure his life (ejKapTepriLTco jMorov, 1351), which he had previously judged as un livable. Moreover, his decision to endure his present misfortunes is closely linked with the reaffirmation of his heroic past; it is based on the repulsion of a hypothetical charge of cowardice (b^eiXiav, 1348) that would incur after his suicide. In addition, he views endurance as another labor and enframes it in the conditions of battle that he was so accustomed to (1349-1350). Finally, Heracles decides to maintain his bow, a constant reminder of his mad killings though it may be, both because he connects it with his heroic past ("of the weapons 19 For the arguments in favor of the references to Heracles' apotheosis, see Segal (above, n.l2) 99-101 and P. Holt, "The end of the Trachiniae and the fate of Herakles," JHS 109 (1989) 75-76. Segal stresses that the emphasis on the oracles and on the pyre would be meaningless if they did not refer implicitly to Heracles' forthcoming divinization and that three of the other existing Sophoclean plays refer to events that occur after the dramatic action. Holt maintains that the references to Mount Oeta as a sacred place and the change we see in Heracles after he has heard the name of Nessus contribute to the idea that Sophocles is, in fact, foreshadowing Heracles' imminent apotheosis. 20 Deification can be another apt interpretation of the oracles, for only gods do not suffer from toils. 21 Note especially 353-354, where the chorus expresses a certain perplexity on what to call Heracles. 22 Note especially 574-582, where Heracles joyfully bids farewell to his labors (xcup6vT(ov ttovoi, HE 575) and considers fighting for his family preferable, which is a drastic departure from his traditional heroic image. 23 Compare D. J. Conacher, Euripidean Tragedy (Toronto 1967) 82. This content downloaded from on Wed, 18 Sep 2013 19:37:26 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions138 LOUKAS PAPADIMITROPOULOS with which I achieved the finest things in Greece," ottXcdv I ^vv oJg tcl koXXivt' e^etxpa^ h 'EXXafii, 1382-1383) and because it will prevent him from a shameful death at the hands of his enemies. In both tragedies Heracles, after his existential crisis, manages to reconstruct the true content of his life, to gain knowledge either by interpreting the two separate divine oracles (Trach. 1159-1173) or by realizing the link between his toils and the mad killing that both appear to be a part of his ambivalent status (HF 1256-1280). That knowledge is also a painful awareness of human limits. Only when he hears the name of the centaur can the Sophoclean hero discover the true meaning of the prophecies, although they had been given to him long ago (traXai, 1159); but now he cannot escape the disas trous consequences of their fulfillment as he suffers immeasurable pain from Nessus' robe. This is the culmination of the motif of late learning that is featured throughout the whole play, underlining hu man incapacity for complete and timely knowledge.24 The Euripidean hero, on the other hand, presents an ideal image of the gods, whose main characteristic is self-sufficiency (1345-1346). That proclama tion betrays the hero's divine aspirations that are consonant with his hitherto solitude in the pursuit of his glorious feats. But his present helplessness compels him to accept Theseus' friendly support and, consequently, admit his human neediness. In conclusion, although the existent differences in plot and character between the two Heracles plays are by no means negli gible, I believe that the divine determinism which characterizes the theology of both plays should urge us to attach more importance to distinct similarities in formal structure that converge into a common actantial model: the potentially dangerous god-man, suffering from an internal/internalized conflict between divine and human spheres. The unity of these coexistent spheres of influence is broken by an outburst of the hero's own bestiality, which can also be provoked by the complicity of divine forces. This rupture inevitably leads to the reduction (temporary or permanent) of the hero's status to merely human. Nevertheless, his fall entails a personal victory which involves the painful realization of human limits. We can now real ize why both Sophocles and Euripides presented Heracles as having finished his labors: because the hero's most difficult labor remained to be accomplished, whether the final direction was toward divinity (Mount Oeta) or towards humanity (Athens).25 Hellenic Open University LOUKAS PAPADIMITROPOULOS Classical World 101.2 (2008) zachos28@yahoo.com 24 On the recurrent motif of late learning in Trachiniae, see C. H. Whitman, Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism (Cambridge, Mass., 1951) 107 and n.9. 25 I would like to thank the anonymous referees of CW for their helpful sug gestions. This content downloaded from on Wed, 18 Sep 2013 19:37:26 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and ConditionsArticle Contentsp. 131p. 132p. 133p. 134p. 135p. 136p. 137p. 138Issue Table of ContentsThe Classical World, Vol. 101, No. 2 (Winter, 2008), pp. 129-280Front MatterHeracles as Tragic Hero [pp. 131-138]Sadder than Simonidean Tears: Cornificius and Simonides in Catullus 38 [pp. 139-157]The Scent of Language and Social Synaesthesia at Rome [pp. 159-171]Boudica's Speeches in Tacitus and Dio [pp. 173-195]Female Gladiators in Imperial Rome: Literary Context and Historical Fact [pp. 197-209]Kurt von Fritz and Ernst Kapp at Columbia University: A Reconstruction According to the Files [pp. 211-249]Announcements [pp. 251-252]ReviewsReview: untitled [pp. 253-254]Review: untitled [pp. 254-255]Review: untitled [pp. 255-256]Review: untitled [pp. 256-257]Review: untitled [pp. 258-259]Review: untitled [pp. 259-260]Review: untitled [pp. 260-261]Review: untitled [pp. 261-262]Review: untitled [pp. 263-264]Review: untitled [pp. 264-265]Review: untitled [pp. 265-266]Review: untitled [pp. 267-267]Review: untitled [pp. 268-269]Review: untitled [pp. 269-270]Books Received [pp. 273-278]Back Matter