For Aristotle in the Poetics, the most important element of drama is plot, “the arrangement of incidents”: plot more than character, plot more than theme, plot more than diction. What makes a good tragic plot? After impatiently dismissing what he calls “episodic” plots (“the worst…the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence”), Aristotle goes on to speak about the kinds of plots he likes. These, he says, evolve organically—subject to the “law of probability or necessity”—and can be either “simple” or “complex.” A simple plot straightforwardly traces a character’s “change of fortune,” metabasis. Such changes could be from happiness to misery or vice versa: of the extant corpus of thirty-three tragedies that survive from Athenian antiquity, a number have “happy” endings—metabases that turn out well, that look “up,” as it were. Another, more familiar technical term from antiquity for the climactic change of fortune in a play is katastrophe: literally, a “downward turn.”
In Aristotle’s complex plot, the change of fortune is accompanied by either (or, preferably, both) of two elements: anagnorisis, an unexpected “recognition” by one character of another, and peripeteia, a “reversal.” “Recognition” is straightforward. As an example, he cites the heart-stopping passage in Euripides’ Iphigenia Among the Taurians in which Iphigenia, trapped far from her Greek home, dictates a homesick letter to a young man who’s returning to Greece, unaware that he is her long-lost brother, Orestes; as she tells him what to write he is made aware of her identity, and a beautiful reunion takes place.
By “reversal,” our first drama critic meant something quite specific: not “reversal of fortune” (as peripeteia is sometimes rendered) but “reversal of intention,” in which an action planned by a character turns out to have a result that—either horribly or triumphantly, depending on which way the metabasis goes—is the exact opposite of what he had intended. (So, for instance, a messenger in Sophocles’ Oedipus, seeking to alleviate the king’s fear that he might marry his mother—who, Oedipus thinks at this point, is the queen of Corinth—informs him that he was, in fact, adopted; a piece of information that eventually leads to the revelation that Oedipus’s biological mother was Jocasta—his wife.) For Aristotle, even the most surprising tragic recognitions and reversals had to seem “probable or necessary,” too. It goes without saying that he didn’t think much of the deus ex machina.
Of the three canonical Athenian tragedians, no one fooled around with plot more than Euripides did: suggestively twisting the story lines of received myth (it is he who had Medea kill her children), opening up new spaces in canonical legends, blithely deploying the deus ex machina as one might fling a bedspread over an unmade bed. And no Euripidean play has a plot that looks more improbable, unnecessarily convoluted, and plagued by seemingly arbitrary, metastasizing peripeteiai—there are no less than three—than does that of Herakles, a drama about a disaster that befalls the legendary hero, which the playwright composed when he was in his sixties, in the mid-410s BC.
The date is not without significance. By that point, the Peloponnesian War was in its second decade, and the Athenian state seemed to be characterized, more and more, by moral incoherence and political convulsion. The sense of a world unhinged, untethered to traditional ethics or reason, is, indeed, reflected in other of the dramatist’s plays of the same period, in wildly divergent ways: in The Trojan Women (415), for instance, with its stark tableaux of wartime suffering unalleviated by pity, but also in Helen (circa 412), a bitter fantasy in which it turns out that the beautiful title character, the cause of the Trojan War, never eloped with Paris after all: that the war was fought, quite literally, for a phantom.
It is tempting to think that a desire to represent an Athens that had sunk from its once-lofty ideals, that had become unrecognizable to itself and others, is what motivated Euripides to compose his Herakles, a drama whose protagonist—the demigod son of Zeus who epitomizes Hellenic heroism, the avatar of physical perfection whose Labors made the world safe for civilization—becomes, in the course of the play, unrecognizable to his family, friends, and himself. The work, in fact, has a suggestive alternate title: Herakles Mainomenos, “Herakles Gone Mad.” The added modifier refers to the play’s central, shocking, and seemingly most arbitrary plot twist: halfway through the drama, Herakles is driven mad by the vengeful goddess Hera—perennially enraged at the hero, the product of a liaison between her husband Zeus and the wife of a king called Amphitryon—and, in a deluded frenzy, slaughters his own wife and sons. Few katastrophai represented on the Athenian stage can have been as dreadful to watch as that one.
And yet the slaughter, for the average Athenian playgoer, was not the shocking part. Herakles’ murder of his family was a standard element of the myths about the hero and his Labors: in them, the demigod, deranged by Hera, murders his family and then, as a god-ordained atonement for his crime, performs his twelve awesome tasks, ridding the world of monsters as an expiation for his own monstrous act. Undergirding this account is a comprehensible moral scheme: guilt is acknowledged and expiated, inhuman atrocity is balanced by civilizing exploits.
What was shocking about Herakles was that Euripides reversed the order of events, so that the murders follow the Labors; in fact, they come just as Herakles returns from the last of his exploits. (He goes down to Hades to capture the three-headed monster Cerberus; while there, he rescues Theseus, king of Athens.) In Euripides’ new chronology, it is as if Herakles is being grotesquely punished for his splendid Labors on behalf of mankind. Brought low by the arbitrary whim of the jealous Hera, the hero is pointlessly transformed into a villain, the Labors are emptied of any ethical significance, and greatness is rewarded with horror—a senseless peripeteia in a world empty of moral structure.
In the play this is a true peripeteia because Herakles’ intention was, in fact, to save his family. As the play opens, we learn that, during his long absence from home performing his feats, his adopted city of Thebes—the home of his wife, Megara—has been taken over by a usurper, the evil Lykos (“Wolf-Man”), who wants to wipe out the absent hero’s family. In terror, Megara and the couple’s three sons, along with Amphitryon, Herakles’ aged mortal father, have fled for sanctuary at the altar of Zeus. This set-up constitutes a variation on a standard type of tragic plot: the “suppliant drama,” in which a request for assistance by an oppressed person (or people) who have taken sanctuary at an altar forces the ruler of the land where the altar is located to choose between religious obligation (protecting the suppliants) and political expediency (by taking up arms against whoever is pursuing the suppliants, these tragic rulers often risk unpopularity with their own people).
It’s typical of Herakles that the play invokes the conventions of the suppliant drama while emptying it of its usual meaning: here, the cruel pursuer and the local king are the same person—a conflation that shifts any real ethical choice from him to the suppliants. For Lykos blithely informs Herakles’ family that he holds the power, that their position is hopeless, and that death is their only option. (In theory, as long as they maintained physical contact with Zeus’s altar, their persons were inviolable.) Given his resolve to kill them—even if it means burning them out of the altar, which he declares that he’s willing to do—the only choice they have is the not inconsiderable one of how to die.
Megara, Herakles’ wife, insists that they die bravely, not deigning to grovel and procrastinate; as in many tragedies of this kind, she assumes a masculine, “heroic” rhetoric in the absence of a bona fide hero. Amphitryon, by contrast, seems foolishly optimistic, and advocates procrastination. “I rejoice in life and cherish hope.” (“Hope” is a crucial word throughout the text.) Megara eventually prevails. By that point even Amphitryon has abandoned any hope that innocence will be protected, that the cosmos is morally ordered: he ends by cursing Zeus himself, in one of the play’s most strikingly irreligious utterances: “You are ignorant and lack a sense of justice.”
It is at this lowest point, against all expectations, that Herakles suddenly returns home, slays Lykos, and rescues his family and city. Hope has been vindicated; there has been a katastrophe from despair to success; the chorus of Theban elders sings a song of triumph in which they proclaim as irrefutable Herakles’ divine parentage. His timely return and rescue of his family seem like proof of the benign operation of the gods in human affairs.
All this, as I have mentioned, constitutes the action of many a Greek drama in its entirety; but here it is merely Part I—the first of several dizzying reversals. Suddenly, as if to rebut the chorus’s conclusion, Iris, the messenger of the gods, appears onstage, accompanied by Lyssa—Madness personified, a rather Grand Guignol figure. Hera has sent them, Iris reports, because “she wants to attach the guilt of kindred blood” to Herakles: the final and most horrible element in her persecution of this most famous product of her husband’s philandering. A long messenger speech vividly describes the horror that Madness wreaks: as Herakles appears at the household altar to ritually cleanse the palace of Lykos’ blood, he becomes deranged, his eyes rolling, foam spurting from his mouth, and slays each child in turn, the last one while still in its mother’s arms, both killed by a single arrow. Here are a second katastrophe—rescue turned to murder, happiness to grief—and a second peripeteia: instead of purifying his home, Herakles has irreparably defiled it.
But even here the whirling plot of Herakles doesn’t come to a stop. In the aftermath of the murders, a shamed Herakles decides to kill himself: as with the eponymous protagonist of Sophocles’ Ajax, who is similarly maddened by a god and commits a grotesque crime in his delusion, he sees suicide as the only way out of disgrace. And yet whereas the older, more pious Sophocles granted his character an ending that honored the values of traditional heroism and its imperative that death is better than life in disgrace, Euripides, in a final reversal, pulls his hero back from suicide and rehabilitates him. Just as suddenly as Iris and Madness had materialized earlier, so now does his old comrade Theseus appear, eventually persuading Herakles to abandon his fatal if ostensibly “heroic” plan and promising that the bond between them will be stronger than the blood-taint, miasma, that now attaches to Herakles. Friendship will substitute for kinship; hope has been restored; in a final peripeteia, Herakles’ intention to die is transformed into a newfound will to live.
If the play’s first, failed rescue plot ended with a celebration of Zeus’ godhead, the second, successful one ends with a celebration of human values such as friendship, philia. This elevation of the human and the corresponding denigration of the divine is encapsulated in Herakles’ disgusted closing dismissal of traditional religion as mere myth, “the wretched stories made up by poets.” The passage certainly bears out the ancient biographical tradition that Euripides was a friend of Socrates: the latter’s objections to traditional depictions of the gods as the immoral invention of poets, reported by Plato in the Republic and other works, are remarkably similar to Herakles’ words here.
An earlier generation of classicists, more often than not, saw in Herakles a hopeless mess. But we moderns (and postmoderns) are perhaps better equipped to see the point in the apparent pointlessness of the action, in the fragmentation, in the hollowing out of convention. Precisely because it so starkly uncouples action from intent, because it shows a world in which goodness (Herakles’, his family’s) as well as evil (Lykos’) is brutally punished by death, because it abandons Heaven and suggests that morality is more likely to reside with us flawed humans, the play suggests a vision defined by a negative unity, a nonstructured structure meant to make us feel how coldly random the cosmos actually is, how alone we are without one another.
Indeed, until its final, upbeat peripeteia, Herakles comes close to the brink of what George Steiner once called “tragedy, pure and simple” or “absolute tragedy”—drama whose worldview is that life is an “affliction”:
Men and women’s presence on this earth is fundamentally absurd or unwelcome,…our lives are not a gift or a natural unfolding, but a self-punishing anomaly.*
The poignancy of the play’s final peripeteia—the rescue that restores the possibility of meaning to human life—cannot come alive unless we feel the terrifying, icy “absurdity” of what precedes. It is this strange drama’s final, unexpected rescue of its characters from the abyss, the sense of life as an unexpected “gift,” after all, that makes it one of this iconoclastic artist’s most powerful works.
* “Tragedy, Pure and Simple,” in Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond, edited by M.S. Silk (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 536. ↩
“Tragedy, Pure and Simple,” in Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond, edited by M.S. Silk (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 536. ↩