Kathleen Riley

The Reception and Performance of Euripides’ Herakles

The Reception and Performance of Euripides’ Herakles: Reasoning Madness

Oxford University Press
Published 2008
ISBN: 9780199534487

Euripides’ Herakles, which tells the story of the hero’s sudden descent into filicidal madness, is one of the least familiar and least performed plays in the Greek tragic canon. Kathleen Riley explores its reception and performance history from the fifth century BC to AD 2006. Her focus is upon changing ideas of Heraklean madness, its causes, its consequences, and its therapy. Writers subsequent to Euripides have tried to ‘reason’ or make sense of the madness, often in accordance with contemporary thinking on mental illness. She concurrently explores how these attempts have, in the process, necessarily entailed redefining Herakles’ heroism.

Riley demonstrates that, in spite of its relatively infrequent staging, the Herakles has always surfaced in historically charged circumstances – Nero’s Rome, Shakespeare’s England, Freud’s Vienna, Cold-War and post-9/11 America – and has had an undeniable impact on the history of ideas. As an analysis of heroism in crisis, a tragedy about the greatest of heroes facing an abyss of despair but ultimately finding redemption through human love and friendship, the play resonates powerfully with individuals and communities at historical and ethical crossroads.


Table of Contents


  • List of illustrations
  • Introduction: Reasoning madness and redefining the hero
  • Chapter 1: ‘No longer himself’: the tragic fall of Euripides’ Herakles
  • Chapter 2: ‘Let the monster be mine’: Seneca and the internalization of imperial furor
  • Chapter 3: A peculiar compound: Hercules as Renaissance man
  • Chapter 4: ‘Even the earth is not room enough’: Herculean selfhood on the Elizabethan stage
  • Chapter 5: Sophist, sceptic, sentimentalist: the nineteenth-century damnatio of Euripides
  • Chapter 6: The Browning version: Aristophanes’ Apology and ‘the perfect piece’
  • Chapter 7: The psychological hero: Herakles’ lost self and the creation of Nervenkunst
  • Chapter 8: Herakles’ apotheosis: the tragedy of Superman
  • Chapter 9: The Herakles complex: a Senecan diagnosis of the ‘Family Annihilator’
  • Chapter 10: Creating a Herakles for our times: a montage of modern madness
  • Appendix 1. Heraklean madness on the modern stage: a chronology
  • Appendix 2. The Reading school play
  • Bibliography
  • Index



  • ‘Kathleen Riley takes on the monster task of mapping the reception of Euripides’ Herakles from its premiere to the present day, and in 398 pages of careful scholarship, she triumphs in the labour. The book is both rigorous and readable, and a clear contribution to the field of reception studies in Classics.’ – Rosie Wyles, Hermanthena
  • ‘This substantial study ably demonstrates the value of classical reception studies both as a “culturally revealing” tool, shedding light on the various milieux concerned, and in inspiring a re-evaluation of the original material. … The study is relevant to anyone with an interest in Euripides or Seneca, the staging of classical drama, the reception of Greek myth, the history of ideas about madness, modern debates about masculinity, and the nature of the hero. In short, it should be read by a wide audience.’ – Emma Stafford, Classical Review
  • ‘Offer[s] a great deal about a dizzying range of subjects.’ – Phoenix
  • ‘Riley’s account is absorbing, her material richly varied.’ – Malcolm Heath, Greece and Rome

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