Heracles in Euripides: Hero or Villain?
Heracles, in Euripides, is a hero. His is a familiar name in Greek mythology. Generally, he is famous for doing great things that required wisdom. He is a character in a play written by Euripides. The play is a tragedy revolving around his family and a tyrant named Lycus. The general opinion is that Heracles is a hero who brings peace and order everywhere he goes. The 12 Labors he completes further reinforce the feeling that he is a hero. However, the tragedy Heracles written by Euripides shows another side of Heracles that might depict him as not being “hero-like”. Despite the misdeeds he commits in the play, Heracles is still a hero. Heracles is rumored to have a god as a father. In the beginning, he returns to Thebes after completing the 12 Labors. Only a hero could have completed these tasks. Just like other heroes, he has a noble character. He shows mercy to others, he is just and is remorseful for his mistakes. The murder of his wife and three sons in the play does not undermine his status as a hero. In fact, the murder of his family further reinstates his status as a hero. He kills his family as a result of opposition from his enemies.
Heracles is believed to have a divine origin. The play starts with a line that suggests that the father of Heracles is Zeus.
“What mortal has not heard of the one who shared a wife with Zeus, Amphitryon of Argos?” CITATION Phi02 l 1033 (Vellacott)Another fact that leads many to believe that his father was the King of the gods was the fact that Hera, Zeus’ wife, loathed Heracles from the day he was born. His pseudo-father, Amphitryon also suspects that the murder of Heracles’ family was a plan made by Hera.
“Whether it was that Hera goaded him to submit to this” CITATION Phi02 l 1033 (Vellacott)Heracles had great strength. His strength enabled him to complete the 12 Labors and return to his family. The last one, in particular, involved going to the Underworld to capture Cerberus. The source of strength to capture this beast is believed to have come from the fact that his father was Zeus.
Heracles, just like other heroes, completes tasks that are not humanly possible. The 12 Labors that were assigned to him were hard. For any normal human being, they were virtually impossible to complete. For example, in order to complete the last labor, he had to go to the Underworld and capture Cerberus. He is a creature with three heads and a serpent for a tail. His main task was to ensure that no dead person escaped from the Underworld and no living person entered. For any rational person, this would have been the most dreadful task to complete. Heracles was able to defeat the beast and even imprison it elsewhere. He returned home and saved his wife and three sons from where they sort refuge, the altar of Zeus. This proves that he was a hero.
Heracles has a noble character. Heroes are known for their unshakable character which stands firm for truth and the greater good. Throughout the play, Heracles displayed character traits common in heroes. First, he showed his merciful side when he saved Theseus from the Underworld as he completed his last labor. It is for this reason that Theseus is grateful to him and helps him in the end. Another trait Heracles shows is wisdom. Rather than face Lycus and fight him in a fit of rage immediately after his return, he first ensures that his family is safe. He then faces Lycus in a fight where he kills his enemy. Heracles is remorseful. After killing his wife and sons, he feels sorry for what he has done and even contemplates committing suicide. All these traits show a man with a capacity to reason and help others in need in whatever possible.
A person reading or watching the play might wonder if Heracles is still a hero after the murder of his family. In my opinion, the fact that he kills his family does not undermine his status as a hero given the circumstances. The murders reinforce his status as a hero. Every hero gains enemies along the way. Unfortunately for Heracles, his enemies were very powerful. One formidable enemy was Hera. Hera was the wife of Zeus. She did not like the fact that Heracles was the son of Zeus with another woman. Therefore, she used Madness to make Heracles kill his family. Madness plunged Heracles into a state of delirium where he thought that his wife was Eurystheus. He also thought that his sons were the enemy. Were he a villain, he would have rejoiced in the deaths of his loved ones. However, when he came to his senses, he was saddened by the sight of his loved ones dead bodies before him. He felt deep remorse and wanted to kill himself. This event shows Heracles being a victim of his enemies’ animosity rather than being a villain CITATION Tha05 p 46 l 1033 (Papadopoulou 46).
In conclusion, Heracles in Euripides is a hero. He has a god for a father, completed tasks hard for any human being and had a noble character. Despite the fact that he killed his wife and children, he is still a hero because he did not intend to do it. Furthermore, he was remorseful for his actions. His is a story of doing good and having loved ones pay the price.
BIBLIOGRAPHY l 1033 Papadopoulou, Thalia. Heracles and Euripidean Tragedy. Cambridge, GBR: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Vellacott, Philip. Medea and Other Plays : Medea; Hecabe; Electra; Heracles. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1963.