by Dustin Anderson (drama student)
In the midst of a conversation about this class (with someone not in the course), I found myself summarizing the four plays by Euripides that we’ve read: Medea, Hippolytus, Herakles, and the Bacchae. In doing this I realized that all four of these plays (and if I remember correctly, none of the works by other playwrights) involve a main character killing his or her children. I don’t know why I hadn’t previously noticed that all of the kid-killing tragedies were by the same author, and I don’t know enough about Euripides to know why this would be the case. But I thought I’d examine the circumstances surrounding said kid-murders, to see how they affect the storytelling around them. For this post I’ll compare Herakles and Bacchae, which both feature a parent killing children while controlled by a god-induced frenzy.
In Bacchae, the murder of Pentheus by Agave is very much an outgrowth of the plot. From the very beginning of the play we are warned (by Tiresias) that Dionysus will not take well to Pentheus’ defiance. When the Stranger is first captured, he tells Pentheus that “as a punishment for these insults Dionysus will pursue you–the very god you claim doesn’t exist” (516-17). And when Pentheus goes into the palace to dress as a woman, the Stranger proclaims that Agave will be the one responsible for his death (858). In Herakles, on the other hand, the plot twists very suddenly. When all seems right for Herakles, Iris and Lyssa arrive to proclaim that he will kill his kids. Then he does.
This difference has a pivotal effect on the moral fabric of these plays. Because Pentheus’ death is foreshadowed so much, the audience can identify his errors as he makes them, watching his murder become more and more inevitable. We therefore associate his fate with the events leading up to his fate. There is a very clear causal relationship: bad-mouth Dionysus and the things he stands for –> die by dismemberment at the hands of mother. To the extent that there’s a useful moral lesson here, it’s very hard-wired into the structure of events, making it a (relatively) unambiguous message once you decide on exactly what Dionysus does “stand for”. As for the murder itself, the fact that Agave commits the crime is simply Dionysus’ way of sweetening the deal for himself: now he has an excuse to exile the entire family of the one who belittled him. It also shows that only Dionysus is really responsible for the murder, as evidenced by the amount of time it takes Agave to realize what she’s actually done.
Then there’s poor Herakles, who starts shooting arrows at his children at the very height of his success. He’s finished his labors after many long years, he’s come to the rescue of his family, and then suddenly he’s struck with madness and has to kill his wife and kids. There’s little to no foreshadowing of this, and prior to the arrival of Iris and Lyssa, the Chorus is singing a triumphant victory song that might as well just have ended the play then and there. Since this happens from out of the blue, we don’t see a causal arrow between Herakles’ past deeds and his ultimate fate, like we do for Pentheus. Herakles doesn’t seem to deserve what came to him; he doesn’t insult any gods or try to lock them up. In fact, he’s been working his butt off for the past several years for the benefit of those on Olympus. This runs against our intuition which says that a character should deserve what he/she gets, or if that doesn’t happen, then his/her failure should at least be instructive. Here, instead of the causal “____ THEREFORE ____”, we get here the very different “____ AND THEN ____”, which provides less of a “moral” to the story.
It’s interesting what this does to our interpretation and discussion of the Herakles as compared with the Bacchae. For Bacchae we focused our discussion around what exactly Dionysus represents, because that’s really the crux of the play’s meaning. In Herakles, meanwhile, we entertained more overarching abstract concepts like “the triumph of humanism” in our analysis of the moral or philosophical foundations of the play. The tragic event (i.e. the killing of children) is less interwoven with the events of the plot, so we can’t pin much contextual meaning to it, and instead have to invoke higher levels of abstraction in order to really comprehend it.