183. Hercules Furens (Hercules Mad) by Seneca (c. 54 AD)

Plot:  While Hercules is away capturing Cerebrus, the triple headed hound that guards the Underworld; Lycus kills King Creon of Thebes and usurps the throne. To try and legitimise his rulership, he demands Megara, daughter of Creon and wife to Hercules, marry him instead. Hercules returns from the last of his twelve labours in time to kill Lycus, but Juno is still furious with him, and drives him temporarily insane, so that he believes his own wife and children are enemies as well.

My version was from Seneca, The Complete Tragedies, published by University of Chicago Press and edited by Shadi Bartsch (Vol. 2, ISBN 9780226013602)

My thoughts :  Seneca continues retelling the Greek tragedies of Euripides, and this one seems to stick pretty close to the earlier version. Seneca does stress different parts of the story, so we have the first Act with Juno/Hera ranting over the failures of the various monsters she has sent against Hercules, only to have their very defeats magnify his fame and praise, instead of being his downfall. Now she decides to make Hercules himself his own undefeatable enemy and destroy him psychologically, by having him murder his loved ones in a fit of induced madness.

Other versions of Hercules’ life say that his twelve labours for King Eurystheus were in penance for these murders. Fetching Cerebrus was the final labour which is what Hercules is doing immediately prior to the events in this play. This could have led to a cosmic circular life of torture, looping back to the start of the labours again and again – Juno should have thought of that!

I am finding Seneca’s versions more dramatic than Euripides, and also enjoying the poetic nature of his descriptions; although many critics over the centuries didn’t rate him highly. You would also have to wonder how a Stoic philosopher could write tragedies : obviously he wanted something different to do on his days off.

In Hercules Furens, we also appear to have the violence depicted on stage for the first time, rather than communicated by a messenger, giving it immediacy that previous tragedies have lacked.

Favourite lines/passages:

Theseus describes the road into Hell (not apparently paved with good intentions)

“the path does not at first start in blind darkness; a faint glow from behind of light relinquished and a doubtful glimmer of the stricken sun fade and trick the sight … from there spread broad zones with empty spaces, where the entire human race can sink down and enter. To go is not laborious: the road itself leads down… within calm Lethe flows, its gulf immense, with placid shallows, ousting cares. Lest too great an opportunity for return lies bared, she coils her sluggish stream with many bends”

but soon the horror and despair arises..

“bleak Famine lies there with emaciated jaws, and tardy Shame conceals its guilty face. Fear and Terror, Death and gritting Pain and black Grief follow, shivering Sickness, Wars girt in steel; secluded at the end slow Age assists its steps with walking stick.”       Act 3, lines 668-696

and there’s more

“A foul old man, horrid in dress and mien, guards this river and ferries the fearful ghosts. His unkempt beard is straggly, a knot constricts his ugly cloak, his gaunt eyes glint; the ferryman himself directs his bark with a long pole. Bringing to shore his boat empty of load, he seeks more shades.”                                                      Act 3, lines 764-770.

Personal rating:  7/10

Kimmy’s comment:  enjoyed the description of Cerebrus (sort of)

“Here the fierce Stygian dog that guards the realm alarms the shades, tossing its triple heads with awesome noise. Snakes lick the head, filthy with slime: its mane bristles with vipers and a long reptile hisses at its coiled tail.”            Act 3, lines 784-788.

Other reading:   Started Isaac Asimov’s robot stories as collected in The Complete Robot.

Next :  Lets have a look at Seneca’s less dramatic side with his Dialogues and Essays.

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