Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Evil has changed sides; he who was erst a mighty king is now turning his life backward into the road to Hades." Euripides drives Heracles mad.

All hail the marriage! wherein two bridegrooms shared; the one, a mortal; the other, Zeus, who came to wed the maiden sprung from Perseus; for that marriage of thine, O Zeus, in days gone by has been proved to me a true story beyond all expectation; and time hath shown the lustre of Heracles' prowess, who emerged from caverns 'neath the earth after leaving Pluto's halls below. To me art thou a worthier lord than that base-born king, who now lets it be plainly seen in this struggle 'twixt armed warriors, whether justice still finds favour in heaven.

The spectres of MADNESS and IRIS appear from above. The CHORUS sees them.

Ha! see there, my old comrades! is the same wild panic fallen on us all; what phantom is this I see hovering o'er the house? Fly, fly, bestir thy tardy steps! begone! away! away! O saviour prince, avert calamity from me!
"Heracles" splits wide open in the middle of the play: the returned hero is driven mad by a goddess sent from Hera, right at the moment of Heracles' triumphant reunion with his family. A minute later, the bodies of the wife and sons whom Heracles has just saved from assassination are dragged onstage, the mad Heracles having killed them himself. Just like that, with a snap of Euripides' fingers, the hero's fortune is reversed. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad, you know.

An interesting detail is that the goddess Madness acts under Hera's orders, but only grudgingly. Still, a craftsman takes pride in her work:
I call the sun-god to witness that herein I am acting against my will; but if indeed I must forthwith serve thee and Hera and follow you in full cry as hounds follow the huntsman, why go I will; nor shall ocean with its moaning waves, nor the earthquake, nor the thunderbolt with blast of agony be half so furious as the headlong rush I will make into the breast of Heracles; through his roof will I burst my way and swoop upon his house, after first slaying his children; nor shall their murderer know that he is killing his own-begotten babes, till he is released from my madness. Behold him! see how even now he is wildly tossing his head at the outset, and rolling his eyes fiercely from side to side without word; nor can he control his panting breath; but like a bull in act to charge, he bellows fearfully, calling on the goddesses of nether hell. Soon will I rouse thee to yet wilder dancing and sound a note of terror in thine ear.
Madness takes to the task once started; you see her getting carried along by her own enthusiasm. The first audience for this play had no idea what was coming. The appearance of Madness and Iris atop Heracles' palace the moment the chorus of old men is celebrating the hero's return must've been quite a jolt. I imagine it was something like the storm in "King Lear."
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
Heracles gets nothing so fine as that speech from Shakespeare's king. The best Euripides gives him comes when he awakens from his madness, to find himself lying bound, a captive:
Aha! my breath returns; I am alive; and my eyes see, opening on the sky and earth and yon sun's darting beam; but how my senses reel! in what strange turmoil am I plunged! my fevered breath in quick spasmodic gasps escapes my lungs. How now? why am I lying here, made fast with cables like a ship, my brawny chest and arms tied to a shattered piece of masonry, with corpses for my neighbours; while o'er the floor my bow and arrows are scattered, that erst like trusty squires to my arm both kept me safe and were kept safe of me?


  1. I am thinking a lot about your posting, but -- in a detour -- I want to impose upon you by letting you know about this:

  2. A learned friend of mine who knows Greek tells me that Heracles' speech on awakening is among the great highlights of Greek drama. I can only guess at how much is lost in translation.

    Euripides has always struck me as irreligious - maybe it's just me seeing my own reflection in these works. Throughout, he seems to emphasise the gratuitous cruelty of the gods. As I remember, the gods here have no motive to destroy Heracles and his family: it is utterly gratuitous.

    Yes, I know - I'm seeing these works through modern lenses, aren't I?

    1. I've spent a little more than a week in Paris, doing a lot of looking at art and architecture from times past, and I begin to think that really the best we can do--and maybe the best we should do--is take careful note of the effect artifacts have on us, rather than pretending that we can accurately make sense of how the makers of these artifacts actually felt and thought. Who can say what sort of lenses the ancients actually wore, eh?