Behind the Scenes
The classical education I never had: Herakles
I don’t know balls about the Greeks or antiquity, friezes or columns. I sort of remember reading Antigone in school, but don’t remember being all that interested in the degenerate offspring of Oedipus. Still, knowing the difference between the major Greek playwrights, or even just a workable understanding of the mythology, seems one of the marks of an educated person, and I find myself in the possession of two collections translated by the wonderful Anne Carson. The one, a collection of four plays by Euripides, is called Grief Lessons. Here, my internship begins with Herakles—Euripides’ take on the half-human son of Zeus, once ably portrayed by television star Kevin Sorbo. I wonder, was anything lost between the fifth century BC and mid-nineties USA programming?
Our hero is nowhere to be seen when the play begins. In fact, his earthly father Amphitryon, his dutiful wife Megara and all his mini-Herc’s are about to be neutralized by the usurper, Lykos, who killed Megara’s father Kreon and is concerned about the offspring of Herakles. He asks:
You people!—Herakles’ people,
if I may, a question,
and since I am master here,
yes! you must answer.
How long do you think to prolong life?
What hope do you have? What defense do you see?
Or do you believe
he will come back from Hades?
This was back in the time before Jesus made coming back from the dead fashionable, so Lykos probably thought he was in the clear. Of course, the Roc egg is all over his face when Herakles punches his way out of Hades and returns home. When told of Lykos’ homicidal intentions, Herc bellows:
Throw off those wreaths of death!
Look to the light! No shadows now,
it’s time for me to change things!
First I’ll raze this upstart tyrant’s house,
cut off his unholy head
and toss it to the dogs.
Then all those men of Kadmos who made good off of me
will fall beneath my bow of victory—
watch the arrows fly!
Until the river is thick with corpses
and the fountains run red with blood!
Gruesome! No liberal despot-coddling for the Greeks! He kills Lykos with extreme dispatch. Unfortunately, Herc has, while accomplishing his many famed labors, incurred the wrath of the goddess Hera, who sends down a divine madness on our hero, who then flips his shit and slays his wife and kids. Is there anyone this guy won’t kill? He eventually comes to his senses, and is hungover with grief. As he wallows, his old friend Theseus (he of the Borges-beloved minotaur maze) arrives and convinces Herakles not to forsake life, but to join him on an adventure in Athens! After some introspective mulling, the son of Zeus cuts his losses and agrees. Awesome.
Next week: Hekabe