Hercules.   Amphitryōn.   Thēseus.  


HER.      Quis hic locus, quae regiō, quae mundī plaga?

ubi sum? sub ortū sōlis, an sub cardine

glaciālis Ursae? numquid Hesperiī maris1140

extrēma tellūs hunc dat Ōceanō modum?

quās trahimus aurās? quod solum fessō subest?

certē redîmus: unde prōstrātā domō

videō cruenta corpora? an nōndum exuit

simulācra mēns īnferna? post reditūs quoque1145

oberrat oculīs turba fērālis meīs?

pudet fatērī: paveō; nescioquod mihi,

nescioquod animus grande praesāgit malum.

ubi es, parēns? ubi illa nātōrum grege

animōsa coniūnx? cūr latus laevum vacat1150

spoliō leōnis? quōnam abît tegimen meum

īdemque somnō mollis Herculeō torus?

ubi tēla? ubi arcus? arma quis vīvō mihi

dētrahere potuit? spolia quis tanta abstulit

ipsumque quis nōn Herculis somnum horruit?1155

libet meum vidēre victōrem, libet —

exsurge, virtūs. quem novum caelō pater

genuit relictō? cuius in fētū stetit

nox longior quam nostra?

Hercules wakes up from his rampage, disoriented and unaware of what he has done. He begins to describe the scene of devastation in his house but thinks he may still be in the Underworld. Still confused, he calls out for his family members and demands to know what has happened to his weapons. He assumes he has been defeated by a greater opponent and desires to meet him. The insistently repeated question words (quis, quae, ubi, an, etc.) convey his confusion.

Act 5 Essay

After a few exchanges with Amphitryon and Theseus, he comes to recognize that he is in his palace and notices the blood on his hands which confirms that he has murdered his own family. He accepts responsibility for the murders, and his thoughts immediately turn to exile or suicide as appropriate punishment for his crime. The problem with exile is that the whole world knows him because of the fame of his Labors, and so he would still be recognized even in the world’s most remote places. Over the remainder of the Act, Amphitryon successfully talks him down from suicide by arguing that he would be unable to survive if his son Hercules died. Theseus offers Hercules refuge in Athens, which was a sanctuary for family murderers such as Orestes and Oedipus in Greek mythology.

read full essay

Through the argument between Hercules and Amphitryon over suicide, Seneca examines one of Stoicism’s characteristic tenets: that it is better to take your own life rather than to compromise your virtue. This romanticization of suicide is of course one of the many ways in which the ancient world differs from our own, and offers dangerously misguided “lessons” for modern life. Hercules’ threat of suicide directly recalls Megara’s similar threat in Act 2 to avoid marriage with Lycus. Megara promised suicide to avoid oppression; Hercules contemplates suicide to avoid guilt. Absolution by his father and friend help to alleviate the guilt and so allow him to live on. Through this conclusion, Seneca advances another central tenet of Stoicism: that we must endure life’s hardships rather than make cowardly efforts to avoid them (e.g. Moral Letters 78.1-2). As in Prodicus’ fable, Hercules once more becomes an allegorical figure of endurance.

The opening of the scene once more provided inspiration for a Shakespearean play. Like Hercules, King Lear similarly attacked his child: his exile of his dutiful daughter Cordelia has nearly caused her death, and the instability he has caused in his kingdom will result in both of their deaths. Also like Hercules, he collapses after an episode of madness during which he wanders in a terrible storm. When Lear awakens, he is at first unaware of his surroundings or what has happened; his doubt that his hands are his own is a further evocation of Hercules. But he then finds himself reunited with his daughter and sees she still loves him. The scene is one of Shakespeare’s most moving:


Lear: You do me wrong to take me out o’ th’ grave:

Thou art a soul in bliss, but I am bound

Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears

Do scald like molten lead.


Cordelia: Sir, do you know me?


Lear: You are a spirit, I know. Where did you die? . . .

Where have I been? Where am I? Fair daylight?

I am mightily abused. I should ev’n die with pity,

To see another thus. I know not what to say.

I will not swear these are my hands . . .

Methinks I should know you, and know this man;

Yet I am doubtful, for I am mainly ignorant

What place this is . . .

Do not laugh at me,

For as I am a man, I think this lady

To be my child, Cordelia.

(Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 4, Scene 7)

Lear and Cordelia will be dead a few scenes later, but their enemies’ malice cannot remove this moment of reconciliation from them. The contrast with Hercules’ narrative—equally guilty, but unable to find reconciliation with his victims—lends further emotional power to the Shakespearean scene, and increases the pathos of the characters’ impending deaths. As one Shakespearean scholar has written, this adaptation offers “an experience of grace and forgiveness beyond anything that Seneca’s fundamentally malevolent cosmos has to offer” (Gorden Braden, “Heracles and Hercules,” Theater and Society in the Classical World, 1993: 260.).

1138 locus … regiō … plaga: supply est.

1139 ortū sōlis: i.e., the east. cardine: “the (north) pole” (LS cardo I.B.2)

1140 glaciālis Ursae: Ursa Major, or the Great Bear, a poetic way of referring to the north. 1140–41: Prose order: numquid extrēma tellūs dat hunc modum Ōceanō Hesperiī maris? “Can it be that the farthest land places this limit on the Ocean of the western sea?” Hercules thinks he might have traveled west all the way to the limit of the ocean that surrounds the inhabited world—a place he was familiar with, since his labors took him to the far west and gave the name “Pillars of Hercules” to the Strait of Gibraltar. numquid: introduces a question where a negative answer is anticipated: “Is it really possible that …?” “Surely …. not.”

1142 quās trahimus aurās: “what air do I breathe?” i.e., “what land am I in?” We recall that he has traveled the entire world. fessō: dative, “‘for a tired man.”

1143 prōstrātā domō: ablative absolute (AG 419)

1145 simulācra … īnferna: accusative plural. Hercules wonders whether he is seeing reality or an Underworld vision.

1146 oculīs … meīs: “before my eyes,” locative ablative (AG 429.4)

1147 pudet: an impersonal verb that governs a complementary infinitive (AG 454): “it is shameful [for me] to confess.”

1149 grege: depending on the adjective animosa: “proud of her flock.”

1151 spoliō: ablative of separation (AG 400) after vacat. abīt: = abī(v)it, pf. indic. > abeō.

1152 somnō … Herculeō: “for Hercules’ sleep.” Latin poets often use an adjective in place of a genitive, for metrical reasons and to elevate the style. mollis … torus: his lion skin served as both defensive armor and a bed. Notice the carefully arranged pattern of nouns and adjectives.

1153 ubi … ubi: as in line 1138, supply the relevant forms of esse. vivō mihi: dative of separation, “from me while I [still] live.”

1156 libet: an impersonal verb that governs a complementary infinitive (AG 454): “it pleases [me] to see.”

1157 pater: Jupiter.

1157–58 caelō … relictō: ablative absolute

1158–59 cuius in fētū: Hercules refers to his own conception, when Jupiter extended the night to triple its length. He assumes a more powerful son of Jupiter would require an even longer night.

plaga –ae f.: tract, region

ortus ortūs m.: rising, beginning; sunrise, the East 

cardō –inis m.: hinge

glaciālis –e: icy

ursa –ae f.: she-bear; Ursa Major 

numquid: in a direct question, a strengthened num

Hesperius –a –um: of the west; western

Ōceanus –ī m.: Oceanus

subsum subesse —: to be under, be behind

prosternō –āre: to lay low, strike down

cruentus –a –um: bloody, blood–stained

exuō exuere exuī exūtus: to take off

simulācrum simulācrī n.: likeness

īnfernus –a –um:  of that which is below, infernal

reditus reditūs m.: return

oberrō oberrāre : to wander

fērālis –e: pertaining to the dead

pudet pudēre puduit/puditum est: to makes ashamed

paveō –ēre –uī: to tremble, fear

nescioquis nescioqua nescioquid: someone or other other; I know not who/what; to some degree, a little bit

grandis grandis grande: full–grown; large

praesāgiō –sāgīre: to perceive beforehand

grex gregis m.: herd, flock

animōsus –a –um: bold, spirited, proud

coniūnx coniugis f.: spouse, wife

laevus –a –um: left

spolia –ōrum n.: plunder; hide (of an animal), arms

leō leōnis m.: lion

quōnam: whither? to where?

tegmen (tegumen) –inis n.: means of covering; skin

Herculeus –a –um: of Hercules; Herculean

torum –ī n. (alsō torus –ī m.): bulge; muscle, knot, bank, cushion

arcus arcūs m.: bow, arch

dētrahō –ere –trāxī –tractum: to take away from, remove, withdraw

spolia –ōrum n.: plunder; hide (of an animal), arms

Herculēs –is m.: Hercules

horreō horrēre horruī: to shake, dread

exsurgō –ere –surrēxī: 0

caelus –ī m.: sky (old form of caelum)

fētus fētūs m.: bearing or breeding; the young; the new swarm

Text Read Aloud
article Nav