I an presently teaching Drama in the New Haven public school system. I do not have a regular classroom, but rather come into a classroom for a certain amount of time for a certain number of sessions. Sometimes a teacher will ask for Drama to be tied into a subject she is working on, such as map skills, language arts, social studies, storytelling or metaphors. More often than not, it is left up to me to decide what to do and in what way to tie into the curriculum. Since I am working with children from kindergarten through high school, I’m interested in developing a unit that can be adapted to different ages and abilities.
This unit uses Heracles—The Super Hero as an overall theme, concentrating on his Twelve Labors. These stories or myths reveal a great deal about the world of Ancient Greece, its geography, values, religion, and customs. They are also adventure stories and are a good hook to connect students to a different time and place as well as being dramatic. Drama in the classroom is used to bring some children out and to channel others’ energy into useful forms. I hope to develop children’s ability to express themselves verbally and physically, to connect their thoughts and actions to others and to see larger connections to the culture and world around them. Discussing yourself, your thoughts and fears is difficult and too revealing for most of us, including children. Heracles and his life can be the cover for these thoughts and feelings.
I have chosen Heracles as a subject for this unit for a number of reasons. He was the most popular Greek hero, a hero who became a god. His fame as a hero and his worship as a god spread across the ancient world and outlasted most of the other Greek gods. Although the stories vary somewhat and the emphasis changes over hundreds of years, he has been remarkably endurable in popularity from ancient times to today. The contradictions in his nature as seen in the stories about him not only leave him open to personal interpretations through the years, but encourage us to perceive the contradictions in ourselves, societies, men and women, beliefs, needs, governments, laws etc. Men in ancient times and men today still struggle with chaos, attempting to order themselves and their world, to find meaning or knowledge. It is apparent that we haven’t succeeded. Perhaps we never shall, but our continuing struggle to know and order our world, to right wrongs and champion the people are bonds that link us to both past and future.
While the contradictions in the stories may account for their longevity, an action-packed story has always been a popular favorite. Action is easy to remember and remembering can lead to thought and analysis. I’m not sure it always works the other way around. Before discussing some of these contradictions, the teacher and students should know something about the Gods, demigods and characters encountered in The Labors of Heracles. At the end of this unit you will find a glossary and a guide to pronunciation.
Heracles: Man and God—Super Hero
Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmena, who was married to Amphitryon. Zeus announced just before the birth that a son of his was about to be born who was fated to be lord of his people. Hera retarded the delivery of Heracles in Thebes, and brought about the premature birth of Eurytheus in Tiryns, thus forcing Heracles to be subject to Eurytheus during his life and aborting his destiny as lord of his people during his earthly life. His assumption to Olympus as an immortal god on his death and his heavenly marriage to Zeus and Hera’s daughter Hebe, fulfilled his fated destiny as “lord of his people”.
Greek heroes and comic book Super Heros like the X-Men and Superman share certain characteristics. They have a characteristic gift (strength in the case of Heracles) that sets them apart from the average man. They also have human qualities and frailties which cause them to misuse or not totally understand their gifts. These heros or super heroes are out of balance. They are also unique, one-of-a-kind, always different from their fellow mortals, although like them, subject to the Gods. They are often hot-tempered, vengeful, arrogant, generous, depressed and subject to madness. In short their natures are exaggerated and unresolved. Their superior gifts make it impossible for human beings to control or discipline them and they must master self-control over their powers with their human limitations. In Heracles’s case, he has a jealous goddess Hera to deal with. She is not disciplinary but malevolent.
Heroes and super heroes usually have a physical or sensual strength. Their reasoning and thinking capacities are usually on a mortal level. Few of them are stupid. They are often clever and wiley, but foresight and reason are not usually present. For example; Heracles agrees to hold the heavens for Atlas, if Atlas will get the golden apples of the Hesperides for him. When Atlas returns with the apples, he suggests that he would be glad to deliver them and leave Heracles holding the heavens. Heracles cleverly agrees, but asks Atlas to hold the heavens for a few moments while he gets a pad for his shoulders. Atlas takes back the heavens and off goes Heracles (Giants aren’t very smart). On the other hand, his lack of reasoned behavior is shown in his treatment of Iphitus. Heracles was angry with King Eurytus because he wouldn’t let him marry his daughter Iole, although he had won her in a match. Eurytus claimed, with some justification, that Heracles had killed his first wife and sons and that one couldn’t be sure that he might not do the same thing again. Some of Eurytus’ cattle disappeared and Eurytus suspected Heracles. Eurytus’s son Iphitus refused to believe that Heracles would do this and went to Heracles to ask for help in finding the cattle. Heracles wined and dined Iphitus in his home. After dinner, without warning he threw him from the roof of his house, killing him. Iphitus admired and trusted Heracles and as a guest was entitled to complete protection from his host. He was punished for his behavior. He developed a terrible skin disease that physically incapacitated him. He went to the oracle. He was told that he must allow himself to be sold into slavery if he wanted to be free of his disease. He served Omphale, a queen of Lydia for three years and was cured.
Brawn and Brain
Brawn and brain: their distribution and merits pose questions and subjects for discussion. Is strength (might makes right) what we want or trust? Is physical superiority something that does and/or should attract us? Does mental superiority guarantee strong or good leadership? Do we entirely trust people who are stronger than those around him? What constraints can or should we impose on our leaders, our friends, ourselves?
Good and Evil
Good and evil, or rather good versus evil, are constants in mythology, folklore and life. How do we distinguish one from the other? Are we predisposed to one or the other? How do we know what is good? What is evil? Should we do or suffer things for the common good at the expense of our own happiness? Are there forces beyond our control which dictate what is to come? These are questions which can and should be explored in discussion and drama.
The Gods of the ancient Greeks were not dictators of morality. Their behavior was a heightened version of man’s behavior. They were not necessarily better, but they were much more powerful, and immortal. The Gods did punish, but often capriciously and offerings were made to them as bribes to win their favor. The Gods could side with or against you depending on whim, love, jealousy etc. As time went on the Greeks conquered or colonized other surrounding areas. The ancient myths remained dominant, but other cultures and changes in life patterns produced many variations and shifts of emphasis. Some characters were added in, some were left out. The contradictions in the myths of Heracles and others continued and perhaps encouraged the spread of the Heraclean cult. Stories and myths about the Gods and heroes were believed in literally as actual fact by most ancient Greeks. The Greek Gods were incorporated by the Romans with their own, but with the expansion of Christianity the myths and stories became just that, no longer a religious belief.
Good and evil are the cornerstone of Heracles’s character. Heracles comes back from his adventures to his wife Megara and three children. They are overjoyed to see him. He goes insane and kills at least two of his sons, two of his nephews and possibly his wife and youngest son. He regains his sanity and remembers nothing. When he sees and hears what he has done, he is overcome with remorse and wants to kill himself. His friend Theseus takes him to his home and convinces him to live. The great must not only suffer for others and for capricious gods and natural forces, but must live and suffer through their own faults and crimes. Knowledge is won through suffering.
Was Heracles responsible for his actions? Was he insane, a victim of Hera, or conscious of his actions when he killed his family or threw Iphitus from his roof? Hera pursues Heracles and brings on his madness. To what extent is he liable? What are our current laws on pleading insanity?
The Labors are his fate: Hera’s trick at his birth makes him subject to his cousin Eurytheus. But the murder of his children and his subsequent trip to the oracle at Delphi confirms that for his crime he must serve Euystheus for ten years. Heracles kills many during his labors and adventures. Some are monsters or tyrants. He kills some through misunderstanding (Hippolyte, the Amazon Queen), and some in rage (Lichas and Iphitus). Most importantly, Heracles is working to restore order, to further the common good. He destroys monsters that threaten the crops and herds, rescues the populace from cruel rulers and pirates, establishes his friends or just leaders to rule, overcomes tremendous physical odds and conquers unknown territory, all to organize and consolidate the world into order and deliver it from chaos.
If we consider death as evil, then certainly his triumph over death is enough to establish Heracles as a super hero. Not only was he immortalized in his death, but he twice rescued mortals from death. Admetus’s wife Alcestis agrees to die in his place. Heracles wrestles with death at her tomb and brings her back. His twelfth labor was to bring to Eurytheus the dog Cerberus who guards Hades. He not only accomplishes this, but rescues his friend Thesus who has been entrapped in Hades in the chairs of forgetfulness.
His labors for order and the good of man are always in contrast with his egotism, jealousy, vengefulness and madness. How do we measure this behavior? Are we always interested in hearing or reading about unusually good people? Do we find danger and/or evil exciting? Why? Do we justify questionable behavior or change facts to prove our point?
Many of the later plays or retelling of the Heracles myths play down his contradictory and human behavior when it became more important to deify him and attribute moral superiority to the Gods.
Public and Private Life
Heracles’s private life was in sharp contrast to his public life. He had two mortal wives, Megara and Deianeira, and many lovers. He fathered fifty children by the fifty daughters of Thespius when he was seventeen or eighteen. There were many more to come. His children populated and settled the lands he conquered or traveled to. It doesn’t appear that he knew any of them very well. None seem to have journeyed with him. His eldest son by Deianeira, Hyllus, prepares his father’s funeral pyre but is unable to set it on fire. He agrees to marry his father’s newest love Iole, a deathbed request. Heracles’s sons and daughters seem to follow their father’s orders (a super hero is hard to deny). Although from time to time he befriends a young follower (Iolaus, Lichas, Hylas, Telamon and Iphitus), two were killed by Heracles, one almost killed and two perish from his neglect. Heracles was given Megara as a reward from Creon, king of Thebes after he slew the Cithaenan Lion that was ravaging Creon’s and Amphitrion’s herds. Although he was young (seventeen) at the time, he seems to have had little to do with her. He went off on his journeys, fathered three children and either killed her in a fit of madness or married her off to his nephew Iolaus. He married Deianeria at the request of her brother Meleager, whom he met in Hades on his twelfth labor. It seems to have been for duty and also because he won her in a wrestling match against a river god, Achelous, a creature who could change shape at will. He fathered children by her, but quickly left on further exploits, fathering many other children by various princesses and creatures. His lusts for food, wine and sex were a legendary part of his character.
Are there problems inherent in being a major public person? Do rock stars and heroes have problems with their private lives? What are the advantages and disadvantages in being a hero, a star or leader?
Heracles subdued by force and strength of character the known and unknown world and by example showed man his potential for forming order out of chaos through trial, suffering and strength. The mythological strivings of man to be a god, to be immortal and to overcome death is realized in this super hero. In ancient times and today he represents our contradictions and our striving for control over ourselves and our world, despite our failures and shortcomings and our ultimate desire for immortality and meaning.
I hope that some of the issues raised so far will interest you enough to discuss them with your students. Discussion and analysis are a part of drama in the classroom. Discussion and analysis should proceed and follow dramatization or interpretation i.e. story writing, drawing etc. The Labors of Heracles can be found in a number of books which you and the students can read. I have suggested some questions and contradictions that have occurred to me; there are of course many more that teachers and students will think of. The material that follows includes a brief synopsis of The Twelve Labors of Heracles, a glossary and five lesson plans using drama and visual arts.
Although I am a drama teacher, this unit is meant to be of general use. When I am teaching in a classroom with a cross section of children, my aim is obviously not to teach them how to be actors, directors or playwrights. The broader aim of drama is communication—to express thoughts, feelings and convictions verbally, physically and visually. Drama is the art form you can’t do alone. A case might be made for monologues, but even then you need an audience, someone to listen. Drama forces you to think about human behavior, to think about how you are like or different from others and to work with others to express and communicate stories and ideas.
Heracles is a hero on a grand scale. His character and the stories about him mirror our own world on that grand scale. The Hydra is not just a multi-headed monster of mythology, but a symbol of the monsters and frustrations we must each overcome in our own lives. When we discuss Heracles’s contradictory behavior, we are talking about our own behavior or others we know. When we write or act out his stories, we are writing or acting out our own version of the story and our own vision of the world, how it is and should be. In a world with many heroes we know nothing of and others defined by money, surrounded by evils we fear we can’t control, it is important to study our mythic roots and get to know a hero greater and bigger than the super heroes of our current comics. A hero who has stood the test of time. “Ladies and Gentlemen! May I present, Hercules! Oh, excuse me! The original . . . Heracles!”