Hercules Insane





Quem deus vult perdere prius dementat

(those whom a god wishes to destroy he first drives mad)


I recently stumbled across the collected works of Seneca (the Younger); one of the few extant Latin tragedians. He was a dramatist and philosopher and served as tutor to young Nero. His father is appropriately referred to with the sobriquet of Seneca the Elder, a father who instituted within his son a strong Roman education befitting a man of equestrian station, a social class just below the prestigious senatorial class. Seneca (the Younger) who just managed to extricate himself from the tyrannical grips of the debased Caligula—the young boy emperor who demanded his execution. Eventually, however, Seneca met his untimely end after having been implicated in an assassination attempt on the then reigning Nero (whether such accusations were legitimate or not is entirely up for speculation).

Seneca’s plays are very much deeply entrenched in themes of gruesome revenge, desire, and madness. His works are of incredible psychological insight. Of particular interest is the treatment of madness and rage within the alarmingly and intriguingly entitled work, “Hercules Insane”.

Zeus’s wife Hera (in Roman mythology, Juno) loathed Hercules, and his very existence produced an indescribably potent outrage. Hercules literally translates to the “Glory of Hera”, a very sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek taunt to the mother goddess. His very existence serves as a reminder of her husband’s infidelity with Alcmene.

Juno, in her rage, devises a plot to finally destroy Hercules, a saga of failed attempts, since every monster sent to Hercules is either subdued or killed with ease.  She expresses dismay at the ease by which Hercules overcomes the creatures of the darker realms and frets over the destructive path he has forged in his labours: “Behold, he has uncovered the Stygian world below! He has laid bare the path to hell’s abyss, and now the sacred, unknown world of dread death lies open for all to see!”

She eventually succeeds in bringing about the demise of Hercules by setting up the perfect trap through madness. At last, Hercules must face his most powerful adversary, himself.

The story unfolds as follows:

Hercules’ wife Megara waits in the kingdom of Thebes with his mortal father Amphitryon and their 3 sons. They await his return from Tartarus (the underworld) where he has nearly completed his twelve tasks alongside his friend, Theseus. One day, Lycus, a usurper to the Theban throne assassinates the King, and insists on Megara marrying him in order to legitimate his claim to the throne. Megara, as the good wife, dutifully refuses his propositions and Lycus tries a more supplicating tone:

Fine, then tell me what kingly gift I could give you for our new marriage.

She replies:

Your death—or mine!

Megara invokes the rage of Hercules, praying for him to “rip open the earth and return through that gaping hole, even it means releasing all that lurks beneath the dark night of hell!”

And then again: “Now, too, break through an impassable barrier, the one that separates the living from the dead”

At last, Hercules and Theseus burst out from the bowels of the underworld. Rather than embrace his wife and children, after having just heard of Lycus’ intentions with the kingdom, Hercules immediately sets off to do combat with the aforesaid villain.

He returns with the blood of Lycus on his hands. He then makes an offering to his father (Zeus) and the Gods—his hands still caked in Lycus’ blood. A bad portent.

Herein begins the apotheosis of madness. Hercules, inexplicably begins to hallucinate. Injustice reigns as darkness sets in

“Why do so many stars fill the heavens in daylight hours?”

He begins to see distortions in the constellations, the Lion mauling the Bull—he senses that “The Giants in all their destructive power are stirring for war!” Finally he sees the offspring of Lycus. He picks up one of the boys, swings him around, and smashes his brains against the wall of the house. He shoots an arrow at another of one Lycus’ sons and kills him as well. Megara rushes up to Hercules to soothe his wrath only to be bludgeoned and decapitated. The babe in her arms dies in fright. Derived from Michel Foucault’s book “Madness and Civilization”, we have here a quote that “Madness is no more than the derangement of the imagination”. He has imagined these children to be the sons of the enemy, when in fact they are, but without the self-awareness that the enemy is in fact himself.

He rages against Olympus and the gods, particularly Juno—he offers these killings in her name, thinking in his madness that he is spiting her through these sacrificial offerings—unknowingly supplying her with exactly what she sought after. He threatens to overthrow the heavenly realm of Olympus and reign as the sole demi-god—thus destroying the order of Nature and the Universe as such.

By destroying the barriers between death and life, by bringing the 3-headed Cerberus, the hound of hell into the realm of the living he has disrupted the order of things. Internally, his destructive rage has rent the barriers between sanity and madness. At last, it becomes all too clear that his weakness lay within his strength. And in the words of Foucault, “The world sinks into universal Fury. Victory is neither God’s nor the Devil’s : it belongs to Madness”.

After falling into a state of sleep he eventually awakens. No longer transfixed in a hallucinogenic state, his rage turns inward. As Amphitryon state

He vents his rage against himself, the unmistakable symptom of madness.

Guilt suffuses Hercules’ spirit and he contemplates suicide, only to be prevented from doing so by both Theseus and Amphitryon.

“If I live, I have committed crimes. If I die, I have suffered them.”, he reasons.

An entreaty to bring forth the old indomitable spirit of Hercules is announced by Theseus:

“Now call up that spirit of yours which can overcome any hardship. Now is the time to exercise your great heroism: forbid Hercules from giving in to his anger.”

Amphitryon makes a startlingly insightful and deeply psychological statement:

“Only your madness keeps you free from guilt, for next to innocence is ignorance that you have sinned.”

At last, after having completed the twelve impossible tasks set before Hercules—a test of his physical fitness, prowess, ingenuity, and intelligence, he was unable to wrestle that one true powerful trait that he possessed, his fury.

The play concludes with his willing descent to Tartarus, to end his days like an inverted Prometheus, chained in darkness to be consumed by his own guilt in lieu of an eagle.