Euripides’s much overlooked play, Heracles, begins in a familiar way, and ends in an unexpectedly gruesome fashion. It tells the tale of Heracles’s family – his wife Megara, his children, and his father Amphityron – as they are imprisoned by the tyrant, Lycus, who has unlawfully claimed the throne of Thebes. Heracles is away, completing his final labor, capturing the three-headed Cerberus who guards the gate of Hades. Lycus has ordered their deaths – all, including the children. As Heracles’s family dresses in robes, preparing for death, they spot Heracles approaching from a distance. He explains his reason for being away so long in Hades – rescuing Theseus of Athens and bringing him back to the land of the living, along with the famous capture of the Cerberus. When Heracles hears of the overthrow of Creon and the actions of Lycus, he vows revenge.
He slaughters Lycus shortly thereafter in the palace, but before the Chorus can begin rejoicing, Iris, a messenger of the gods appears with Madness. Hera has devised a scheme as revenge upon Heracles – to drive him to madness so that he kills his own family. The plot is created out of Hera’s jealousy for Heracles’s strength and birth by her husband, Zeus. Upon awakening from his fit of madness, Heracles realizes what he has unwittingly done and wants to commit suicide, but his friend Theseus has arrived wishing to help him overthrow Lycus. Theseus embraces Heracles as a friend persuades him to come away to Athens, rather than kill himself. Here the play concludes.
What does this tragedy reveal to us? Unlike in other Greek tragedies, wherein the hero befalls some grave misfortune as a result of his own hubris, the downfall of Heracles occurs through no fault of his own. He has no observable hamartia, or fatal flaw inevitably leading to his downfall. He is brought low: beginning from the triumphant portrayal of a hero, finally to a cowering victim on the floor beneath his robes, unable even to greet a friend. Here, Euripides thrives in conveying the frail humanness of the heroic archetype. Man is forever a victim of fate, and to be a hero, like Heracles, is to earn the spurn of the gods. Heracles’s fate is necessarily tragic in Euripides.
Heracles’s homecoming is unique in the play. Recall the moment of return for men returning home from the Trojan War: Odysseus and Agamemnon. Like Odysseus, Heracles returns home initially in disguise, however unfortunately like Agamemnon, he comes home to a grave travesty in waiting. Heracles’s vengeance exacted upon the tyrant, Lycus, could have ended the play with a return to justice, however a disjointed and disconnected second part of the play begins when the gods unexpectedly appear, seemingly without cause, and cause the true crux of the tragedy, Heracles’s murderous acts against his wife and children (though not against his father, which is prevented by Athena).
For these reasons, its disjointedness and lack of Aristotelian classical structure for a tragedy, the play has received criticism, and justly.
For this reading I used the William Arrowsmith translation.