The Suffering Heracles: An Analysis of Heracles as a Tragic Hero in The Trachiniae and the Heracles

Rom, Daniel (2016-03)

Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2016.


ENGLISH SUMMARY: This thesis is an examination of the portrayals of the Ancient Greek mythological hero Heracles in two fifth century BCE tragic plays: The Trachiniae by Sophocles, and the Heracles by Euripides. Based on existing research that was examined, this thesis echoes the claim made by several sources that there is a conceptual link between both these plays in terms of how they treat Heracles as a character on stage. Fundamentally, this claim is that these two plays portray Heracles as a suffering, tragic figure in a way that other theatre portrayals of him up until the fifth century BCE had failed to do in such a notable manner. This thesis links this claim with a another point raised in modern scholarship: specifically, that Heracles‟ character and development as a mythical hero in the Ancient Greek world had given him a distinct position as a demi-god, and this in turn affected how he was approached as a character on stage. Heracles‟ potential as a suffering, tragic hero on stage was largely unacknowledged by Greek playwrights before and during the early fifth century BCE. The ultimate reason for this, as this thesis claims, is that Heracles‟ involvement in tragedy, unlike the other mythical heroes of Greece, would remain affected by his distinctive, complicated nature as a demi-god, until the time when The Trachiniae and the Heracles would be written. This thesis also demonstrates exactly why these two plays are so important for understanding the nuanced character of Heracles. Where this thesis expands upon these existing theories is to organise them in a cohesive, systemic order, where the links between these claims, and also the links between Greek heroes, Greek tragedy and Heracles, are firmly established. This thesis first examines in brief the origin and nature of Ancient Greek heroes as a whole. This is done in Chapter 2, following the Introduction. At this stage, a link is already established between Greek heroes and the tragic element. Heracles is then described, and the ways in which he differs from other heroes is explored, with specific focus placed on his demi-god status as being a defining element of him. An overview of how Heracles was conceived and placed within Greek society up until the fifth century BCE is also undertaken at this point. Chapter 3 proceeds to examine the world of the tragic theatre, the essential elements of tragedy, and Heracles‟ place on stage up until the time of The Trachiniae and the Heracles. Chapter 4 is an in-depth study of both of these plays, in order Stellenbosch University to see what aspects of The Trachiniae and the Heracles develop the characterisation of Heracles, specifically as a tragic suffering hero. Chapter 5 contains the conclusions reached by this thesis: that Heracles‟ complexity as a mythical figure owes a great deal to his conception as both man and god in different contexts for the Greeks, and that in this way; he remains one of the only true demi-gods of the Ancient Greek world. Furthermore, this thesis concludes that The Trachiniae and the Heracles are exceptional, not because they force tragedy upon Heracles without cause, but because they precisely explore this important element of his character, and rather than simplify the issue, they draw it out to its logical, tragic conclusion. And in return, we are able to gain a deeper appreciation for the figure of Heracles in this role, that of The Suffering Heracles.

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