Shakespeare's Myths

Hercules, also Ercles, Hercles


Related Entries
 Antaeus, Cerberus, Hercules Furens, Hesione, Hesperides, Hydra, Lichas, Nemean Lion, Nessus, Omphale


Hercules is the son of Jupiter and Alcmena: the offspring of a god and a mortal, he is born a demigod. His many feats make him the epitome of strength and valour, and he is the most famous hero of classical mythology. Most of his deeds were initiated through Juno’s jealous interference. She first tried to kill Hercules by putting snakes in his cradle, but the baby strangled them single-handedly. Later she drove him into a fit of madness, which led him to kill his children and his wife Megara. In some accounts, this is why he came to serve King Eurystheus for several years, as a penance. In this period he performed his twelve Labours, which (in their most traditional version) include killing the Nemean lion and the Hydra of Lerna, capturing the Erymanthian boar and the hind of Ceryneia, killing the Stymphalian birds, cleaning the Augean stables, capturing the Cretan bull and the mares of Diomedes, obtaining the girdle of Hippolyta, capturing Geryon’s oxen, mastering Cerberus, and bringing back the apples of the Hesperides—during this last mission he temporarily relieved Atlas of his load and carried the earth on his shoulders. Among other adventures, Hercules rescued King Laomedon’s daughter Hesione from a deadly sea monster; he fought the Centaurs; slew the giant Antaeus in a wrestling match; and was a member of Jason’s expedition with the Argonauts. The myth also includes sexual episodes, such as Hercules’ impregnating the fifty daughters of King Thespius, or his becoming the slave of Queen Omphale. Hercules is also known for choosing the difficult path of Virtue over the easy way of Pleasure at an allegorical crossroads; and for placing two pillars inscribed with the motto “non plus ultra” (“nothing beyond”) at the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar. Hercules died because of a tragic misunderstanding, when his wife Deianira gave him a shirt dipped into the poisonous blood of the centaur Nessus, which she thought would work as a love potion. The tunic burnt Hercules’ skin, causing such pain that he decided to burn himself alive on his funeral pyre. The dead hero was rewarded with apotheosis when the gods took him to Olympus and made him one of them.


Hercules is sometimes called Alcides after Alcaeus, the father of Alcmena’s husband. He is depicted holding a club (his favourite weapon), and wearing a lion’s skin—which is generally considered as the hide of the Nemean lion, but sometimes associated with another lion, which Hercules killed as a youth. 

How to cite

Charlotte Coffin. "Hercules."  2009.  In A Dictionary of Shakespeare's Classical Mythology (2009-), ed. Yves Peyré.

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