"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

28 October 2014

The Children of Heracles, by Euripides

Chorus: They are suppliants and strangers
            Who look to our city for help.
            To reject them is to defy the gods.

Chorus: My lord, their hard lot wins my pity. Never yet
            Have I seen nobleness so vanquished by mischance.

Macaria: Then you need no more dread the attack of Argive spears.
            Before you bid me, Iolaus, I am myself
            Ready to die, and give my blood for sacrifice.
            What could we say, when Athens is prepared to face
            Great peril for our sake, if we ourselves, who laid
            This burden on their shoulders, having it in our power
            To bring them victory, draw back and shrink from death?
            Never! We should command not sympathy but scorn
            If we, who sat here weeping as suppliants to the gods,
            Demonstrate that a father such as Heracles
            Can beget cowards!

Chorus: I believe that no man becomes prosperous,
            No man falls into disaster,
            Except by the will of heaven;
            Nor does good fortune always attend
            The same house, but differing fortunes
            Follow close upon one another.
            Fate brings low those that were high;
            The unhonoured fate makes prosperous.
            To evade destiny is forbidden;
            Not by wisdom shall a man resist it;
            He who attempts this will spend
            His length of life in fruitless struggle.

Well, The Children of Heracles is definitely not one of Euripides’ stronger plays. It feels a bit like a propaganda piece on behalf of Athens, which seems uncharacteristic of Euripides, who was frequently willing to critique and criticize the city. But really I think the reason this is such an unsatisfying play is that the danger never seems particularly threatening. I mean, there are some momentary setbacks in this play, but then within a few lines the problems are resolved pretty arbitrarily.

For instance, when Demophon—king of Athens—learns that the only way for Athens to defeat the Argive army is to sacrifice the virgin daughter of a king to Demeter, he refuses to sacrifice his child or any of the Athenians’ children. So Iolaus’ initial reaction is to despair. But then—for no particularly convincing reason—Macaria, Heracles’ daughter, comes out of the temple and is all like, “Well, I want to be sacrificed so my brothers can live,” and while initially Iolaus isn’t exactly on board, he is swayed pretty quickly to let her be sacrificed. But I guess it doesn’t matter that much because she’s a girl, and in Attic drama getting sacrifice to save the men in one’s family tends to be about the best fate a girl can have (Iphigenia in Iphigenia at Aulis makes a similar statement).

I want this play to be doing something interesting and critical, I want it to confront Athenian ideology and prejudice, because that is how I think of Euripides. The only way I see this play potentially fitting into that larger critical project is if the play is purposefully so bad and so blandly slavish in its praise of Athens that this is the critique—Euripides parodies Athenians’ high opinion of their city making it ridiculous and banal. But I don’t know if I find this reading totally convincing.

The other thing that troubles me about this play is that it is generically amorphous. It isn’t a comedy because it’s not funny and it doesn’t have any of the structural elements of comedy. It isn’t really a tragedy because there is no noble person brought low, and the people we are most inclined to identify with all have a positive result. It might be a romance, because the admirable characters go from being in peril to safety and there is a kind of odd reconciliation at the end, when king Eurytheus of Argos promises that burying his body in a certain place will bring Athens luck and protect them from future enemies. But there is not love story, which I feel is a crucial component of a romance. But that may be a prejudice I impose on the classical genre based on the modern usage of the genre name “romance,” I’m not sure whether a love plot is absolutely necessary for a romance in the ancient sense. (None the less, I’m listing this as a romance for my own categorization purposes).