49 pages 1 hour read



Fiction | Play | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Heracles is an ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides (circa 480-406 BCE), usually thought to have been composed around 415 BCE. There is no definite information about the context of the play’s production, but it was presumably performed, like Euripides’ other tragedies, at the annual festival known as the Great Dionysia. The play dramatizes the myth of Heracles’s unintentional killing of his family, exploring themes such as Perseverance in the Face of Suffering, the Meaning of Heroism, and the Nature of the Gods and their Role in Human Life. The play has inspired notable adaptations by Seneca, Robert Browning, and many others.

This study guide refers to William Arrowsmith’s translation of the play from the third edition of the University of Chicago Press series The Complete Greek Tragedies (2013).

Content Warning: The guide discusses violent events, including the violent deaths of a mother and her children.

Plot Summary

The play begins with a Prologue in which Amphitryon, Heracles’s foster father, provides the background to the story: He tells of Heracles’s parentage; the circumstances behind the family’s relocation from Argos to Thebes; Heracles’s marriage to the Theban princess Megara; the famous labors that Heracles performed for the Mycenaean king, Eurystheus, to secure his family’s return to Argos; and the tyrant Lycus’ takeover of Thebes in Heracles’s absence. Now, with the rightful Theban king Creon murdered, Lycus is determined to kill Heracles’s family—that is, his father Amphitryon, his wife Megara, and his three children, who are now seated as suppliants at an altar of Zeus the Savior located in front of the palace. Megara interjects and there is a dialogue between her and Amphitryon, in which Amphitryon expresses hope that Heracles will return to save his family while Megara, assuming that Heracles is dead, argues that hope is pointless and that they should accept their deaths.

The Chorus, which is made up of old men of Thebes, arrives on stage. They sing their first choral song, the parodos, in which they sympathize with the cruel fortune of Heracles’s family. They lament their old age, which renders them too weak to provide assistance.

In the first Episode, Lycus enters with his attendants. He debates Heracles’s heroism with Amphitryon, arguing that the much-lauded Heracles is in fact a coward. Lycus commands that the suppliants be burned alive. As the Chorus protests, Megara states that she is ready to die honorably. Lycus allows her and her children to enter the palace to dress themselves for death. Lycus, Megara, and the children exit; Amphitryon, meanwhile, criticizes Zeus for conceiving Heracles through adultery with his wife and subsequently abandoning his children, and then exits as well.

The Chorus, left alone on stage, sing the first stasimon, describing Heracles’s labors and assuming that Heracles is now dead. As the song ends, Megara and Amphitryon reenter with the children. They both deliver speeches in which they despair of being saved. As they do so, Heracles enters, having just completed his final labor successfully. When he learns of the situation, he leads his family back inside the palace, resolved to kill Lycus. The Chorus sings a song praising youth, strength, and Heracles’s courage.

In the brief third Episode, Lycus reenters. He is searching for Megara and the children, whom he is impatient to execute. He goes back into the palace to find them, where he is ambushed and killed by Heracles. The Chorus rejoices as Lycus’s dying cries are heard coming from inside the palace. The Chorus then sings the third stasimon, thanking the gods for bringing about the return of Heracles and the downfall of the tyrannical Lycus.

The Chorus is interrupted by the abrupt entrance of Iris, the messenger of the gods, and the personification of Madness. Iris announces that Hera, queen of the gods and enemy of Heracles, commands Madness to drive Heracles mad so that he kills his family. Madness does not want to do this, but acknowledges that she has no choice but to carry out her orders. The Chorus, realizing what is about to happen, sings a lament, punctuated by Amphitryon’s cries from inside the palace. A Messenger enters and gives a detailed description of how a sudden bout of hallucinations caused Heracles to kill his wife and children. Only Amphitryon escaped, says the Messenger, because Athena knocked Heracles out before he could kill him. Now Heracles, having been restrained, lies unconscious inside the palace. As the Messenger exits, the Chorus reflects in the fourth stasimon on the myth of Danaus’s daughters, who killed their husbands on their wedding night, and the myth of Procne, who killed her own son—crimes, they say, that are less terrible than the one Heracles has just committed.

The exodus begins with the palace doors opening to reveal Heracles bound and unconscious, surrounded by the bodies of Megara and his children. Heracles awakes. Speaking with Amphitryon, he gradually pieces together what he did. Heracles despairs and considers killing himself. Theseus enters and the two exchange speeches in which they debate the nature of the gods and duty. Heracles finally chooses not to kill himself but to continue living with the burden of his grief and shame. He accompanies Theseus to Athens to seek redemption.