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The Use of Storytelling in Euripides’ Heracles

Olga Faccani

University of California, Santa Barbara

Towards the end of Euripides’ Heracles, the hero has a sudden, and unexpected, change of mind about committing suicide. While at 1146ff. Heracles was steadfast in wanting to end his life, after murdering his family in a fit of madness caused by Hera, at 1351 he declares that he will “firmly persist in living,” and agrees to follow Theseus to Athens. I argue that the reason for Heracles’ change of mind is to be sought in the exchange of narratives between Heracles and Theseus at 1255-1339. Theseus prompts Heracles’ autobiographical storytelling at 1255ff., in which Heracles reflects on his past crimes, transfers the blame fully on Hera, and re-considers the idea of committing suicide, while not yet abandoning it. At 1313ff., Theseus responds to Heracles’ autobiographical storytelling with an account that suggests Heracles’ genealogy and guides the hero towards a better sense of himself and ultimately towards rejecting his suicidal desire.

A broad range of scholarship has considered Heracles’ change of mind about committing suicide, in what is one of the most debated passages in the play (Romilly 1980; Yunis 1988; Yoshitake 1994; Holmes 2008). Scholars have celebrated the healing power of friendship (Shelton 1979; Hartigan 1987) or, more recently, reflected on Heracles’ actions in light of modern diagnostic criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Papadopoulou 2005; Meineck and Konstan 2014; Torrance 2017). In this paper, I offer a different interpretation of the passage and focus on Euripides’ use of storytelling in the final scenes of the Heracles. For this purpose, I analyze Heracles’ and Theseus’ exchange at 1255-1339 through the lens of narrative as psychotherapy.

Firstly, I analyze Heracles’ autobiographical narrative at 1255-1310, in which he turns grief into frustration, and self-deprecation into invective. I draw from psychotherapy and from the effects of autobiographical storytelling (Schütze 1984; Rosenthal 2003) to examine Heracles’ behavior in the passage. In his monologue, Heracles reflects on the traumatic events that occurred throughout his existence, and on his future. I argue that Heracles’ autobiographical storytelling is therapeutic because it allows him to exonerate himself and transfer the blame for his crimes fully on Hera, thus weakening his resolve to die.

Secondly, I offer my interpretation of Heracles’ change of mind about committing suicide after listening to Theseus’ storytelling at 1313-1339. I draw from Adriana Cavarero’s theory of narrative (Cavarero 2000; Cavarero and Roncalli 2015) to articulate the process that leads Heracles to achieve a better sense of himself and choose life over death, through Theseus’ storytelling. Cavarero calls on the concept of “narratable self” to illustrate the way individuals discover themselves through someone else’s narrative, and to explain the ordinary human desire for hearing one’s life story recounted by another. I argue that, by hearing Theseus’ account of Heracles’ genealogy and past actions, the hero discovers himself and changes his mind about committing suicide. Euripides uses storytelling to dramatize the process that leads Heracles to accept his crimes, achieve a fuller understanding of himself, and ultimately choose life over death.

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Greek Tragedy (2)

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