Heracles: A Tragic Hero in Constant Struggle

Heracles, Greece’s greatest hero, is a demigod whose mortal life is dominated by a series of successes due to his tremendous strength and failures due to his excessive passions. While, ostensibly, his passions cause him pain and bring about misfortune, he ultimately gains eternal glory through the hardships he endures. Through images of unnecessary conflict and violence, Heracles is directly and indirectly characterized as tragically flawed by a lack of self-control, indicating the necessity of proper judgment and intelligence to offset brute force.

Heracles’s just inclination to self-inflict punishments in contrition for his avoidable misdeeds ironically becomes one of his greatest sources of suffering and thus one of his greatest sources of fame. Though “without his consent he could not have been punished by anyone” (227), he shows a “greatness of soul” (227) by always going above and beyond to make up for his wrongdoings. Unfortunately, this would often result in his punishing “himself when others were inclined to exonerate him” (227), subjecting himself to extremes no other human could withstand. For example, in order to purify himself for killing his “children and Megara” (229), he completes “the Labors of [Heracles]” (232), a series of daunting tasks which include feats like killing “the lion of Nemea” (232), driving away the “Stymphalian birds” (233), and bringing “Cerberus, the three headed dog, up from Hades” (234). Furthermore, in his regret for disrespecting his friend Admetus’s house during a time of mourning, he heaps “blame upon himself” (241) and resolves to wrestle Death and “bring Alcestis back from the dead” (241). Though he is successful in all his tasks, he is never truly “tranquil and at ease” (236), meaning that the suffering he endures is futile to healing his emotional state. Heracles, the ideal Greek who is depicted as sternly devoted to repentance to the point of self-detriment, highlights the importance Greek culture places on proper reconciliation for one’s actions, no matter one’s status in life.

Heracles’s great power, giving him the guise of invincibility, overshadows his vulnerability to lapses in judgment and accidental misuses of strength, which cause not only himself but also those around him great suffering. Heracles is often “conspicuously absent” (226) and does not apply his intellect into much of what he does. Instead, his emotions are “quickly aroused and apt to get out of control” (226). For instance, when he was a child, he “disliked his music master” (229), so he “brained him with his lute (229), dealing “a fatal blow without intending it” (229). Another time, “with a careless thrust of his arm” (237), he accidentally kills an innocent boy who is serving him. Furthermore, wrongly motivated by his sexual appetite for Deianira, Heracles fights “the river-god Achelous” (236) although Achelous has “no desire to fight [Heracles]” (236). Heracles’s belligerent actions may hint at the Greek belief that the best way to resolve issues is through conflict rather than through negotiation.

Heracles’s tragedy is the irony of juxtaposing his cunningness during battle with a lack of decision-making skills and self-restraint outside of battle that reveals his apparent blessing, his great strength, as a curse that limits his success to situations involving conflict. Despite his inability “not to get roaring drunk” (242) in a house of mourning, he is smart enough to defeat Antaeus, a Giant who is invincible as long as he “[touches] the earth” (236) by “holding him in the air” (236) and strangling him. In spite of his “simplicity and blundering stupidity” (242), he is clever enough to trick Atlas into taking the sky back by pretending that he wants to put “a pad on his shoulders to ease the pressure” (234). Even after death, it is hard to imagine Heracles “contentedly enjoying rest and peace” (244), suggesting that this curse forces him into an endless cycle of violence. The fact that Heracles’s mistakes and shortcomings do not detract from his standing as the greatest Greek hero is highly indicative of the Greek culture’s greater reverence for physical strength than for intellectual ability.

In his role as both a hero and a victim, Heracles ironically distinguishes himself as both the inflictor and alleviator of suffering, emphasizing the importance of directing physical prowess using prudence. Otherwise, a person’s life will mirror the tragic life of Heracles and be subject to endless conflict, needless suffering, and uncontrollable impulses. Heracles, despite his inimitable strength, is still human, showing that although it may not be apparent at first, even the greatest of beings are capable of the simplest mistakes.