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an analysis of the play by Euripides

The following essay on Hercules Furens was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 298-300.

The plot of the Hercules Furens is briefly as follows. Lycus, the tyrant of Thebes, has resolved to extirpate the family of Hercules, in order to secure himself from retribution for his misdeeds. Wherefore, taking advantage of the absence of Hercules on the last of his twelve labours, he orders his wife and children to be put to death. They fly for refuge to the altar; but their refuge failing, they are on the very point of being slaughtered, when Hercules appears, saves them from destruction, and revenges himself on Lycus. But in the midst of all the joy at his triumphant return he is smitten suddenly with madness by Hera, his implacable enemy, and slays his wife and children whom he had just rescued. On recovering consciousness he at first surrenders himself to despair. Then Theseus appears, offers him a safe asylum at Athens, and finally persuades him to abandon the thought of self-destruction, and submit with courage to his destiny.

The freedom with which, in this tragedy, Euripides has handled the customary traditions, and imparted a new moral to the legend, is remarkable. The story about Lycus appears to be an invention of his own. The introduction of Theseus, and the final retirement of Hercules to Athens, are further novelties, plainly inserted for patriotic reasons. But the most striking innovation is that connected with the madness. According to all previous tradition, the madness of Hercules, and his murder of his wife and children, preceded the twelve labours, which were generally supposed to have been inflicted as a punishment. But Euripides has transferred this calamity to the close of his life. He represents him as one who has successfully accomplished all his tasks, and vanquished his enemies both at home and abroad; but in the very moment of triumph, when he is at length about to reap the fruits of victory, his evil destiny prevails, and his happiness is for ever ruined. In this way the legend acquires a new significance, as an example of pathetic and unmerited suffering, and of stubborn endurance in the face of calamity.

The greatness of the play admits of no question. It has often been censured, however, for lack of unity, on the ground that the rescue of Megara and her children has no connection with the subsequent madness of Hercules. But the objection in this case is of a formal character, without much validity. There is an inner connection of the most tragic kind between the two parts of the play, which effectually prevents any break or cessation in the interest. Although in the earlier scenes it is the wife and children whose lives are threatened, we feel all the time that the happiness of Hercules is at stake. Our thoughts are continually directed towards him, owing to the despair caused by his absence, and the fervent prayers expressed for his return. The predominant feeling is, will he come in time? His arrival just at the critical moment, and his narrow escape from what appears to be the last of all his troubles, adds infinitely to the pathos of the subsequent disaster, in which his hopes are finally annihilated.

As to the time of composition there is very little evidence, and none of the supposed references to contemporary events are sufficiently clear to warrant any inference. But certain expressions in one of the choruses appear to prove that the play was written in old age; and the use of the trochaic tetrameters, and the general character of the versification, are in favour of placing it between the Andromache and the Troades. The year 416 [B.C.] may therefore be taken as an approximate date.

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