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HERACLEIDAE (CHILDREN OF HERACLES)

an analysis of the play by Euripides

The following essay on the Heracleidae was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 291-2.

The versification of the Heracleidae (Children of Heracles) marks it as a composition of an early date; and the subject of the plot, in which Athens is represented as threatened by a great Peloponnesian city, and doubtful about the policy of resistance, offers a close parallel to the condition of affairs at the commencement of the Peloponnesian War. Moreover, the solemn reference to an invasion of Attica by the descendants of Hercules appears to have been suggested by the Spartan inroads in 431 [B.C.] and the following years. Hence there is much probability in the conclusion that the play came between the Medea and the Hippolytus, and that it was exhibited in 430 or 429.

The Heracleidae is essentially a patriotic work. It depicts the most glorious of the legendary achievements of Athens, exalting the piety and unselfishness of the Athenians, and throwing a poetical glamour over their local monuments and traditions. Though hardly a great play, it possesses many fine qualities. The style is less rhetorical and sententious than usual, and a certain archaic dignity of tone, and a general similarity in the situation, remind us of the Supplices of Aeschylus. The central scene, also, is one of great dramatic power. The fate of the fugitives hangs in the balance, and their safety can only be procured by the sacrifice of a maiden; but no victim is to be found, and there is a pause of anxious anticipation. At length Macaria comes forward and devotes her life in a speech of noble and touching eloquence. As a whole, however, the Heracleidae suffers from the same defect as the Andromache, owing to the abrupt transference of the interest in the concluding part. Iolaus and Demophon, after rousing the emotion of the spectators, disappear from view, and their place is taken, during the rest of the play, by Alcmene and Eurystheus, who form a poor substitute. Alcmene, in particular, with her violence of character, her insatiate thirst for revenge, and her indecent joy over the fate of her victim, excites more repulsion than sympathy. There are signs, too, of haste and carelessness in the conclusion of the tragedy. When Macaria leaves the stage we hear nothing further about her; the messenger, in describing the result of the battle, is silent on the subject of her sacrifice, and Alcmene, her own mother, never even asks the reason of her absence.

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