Shakespeare's Myths

In Robert Kilburn Root’s Classical Mythology in Shakespeare, first published in 1903, the entry on Hercules reads:


If Shakespeare’s allusions to Hercules are extraordinarily numerous, his definite knowledge of the myth is exceedingly scanty. This knowledge consists: first, of general impressions gathered from conversation and miscellaneous reading; second, of more accurate knowledge gained from Ovid’s incomplete versions of the myth, and possibly from the English translation of Seneca. ... Thus a large proportion of the allusions refer to Hercules merely as a type of valor and strength ... The twelve labors are referred to in a general way ... but there is no allusion to Eurystheus, nor to the reason for their imposition. Of the labours only four are alluded to in detail (p. 71).


Despite his obvious contempt for Shakespeare’s so-called lack of education, Root has a point: combing through classical, Renaissance, mythographical and literary sources, I was struck by their apparent irrelevance to Shakespeare’s allusions. There is no doubt that Hercules is a major mythological reference in Shakespeare’s drama, where his name is quoted 48 times (plus the uncertain number of potential or implicit allusions), in 18 different plays—that is, about half the corpus. The allusions span Shakespeare’s entire career, from The Taming of the Shrew to The Two Noble Kinsmen, and comparisons help define more than 20 male characters, from Petruccio to Arcite. But in most cases, Hercules is evoked in a general way, as the exemplum of the hero; specific episodes are not expounded, and rarely referred to; and the meaning seems quite straightforward, either epic or grotesque, depending on how the speaker (or the addressee) compares to the demigod. Thus a major function of the myth seems to be to set a landmark, to provide a fixed, prestigious, and well-known, reference for heroism, by comparison to which all would-be heroes can be evaluated.


Those were the findings of my initial research on Hercules, in a section of my PhD on mythological exchanges in Shakespeare’s drama, which I would like to complete on two different levels. First, by using the resources of this dictionary, which allow closer comparisons with other treatments of the myth. Beyond the apparent discrepancy noted by Root, what is at stake is the transfer of myth from mythographical catalogues to literary texts: how is mythology reappropriated? And second, by enlarging my initial readings and descriptions of how Shakespearean characters stand in relation to Hercules to a broader view of Shakespeare’s questioning of heroism.


Narrative content: a simplified Hercules
Texts vs images
Mythographical interpretations
A theatrical approach
Assessing heroes
The questioning of heroism
1.  Politics
2.  Gender
3.  Language


Narrative content: a simplified Hercules


The typical allusion to Hercules in Shakespeare’s plays (the poems contain no reference to the myth) is a general one, mentioning him as a well-known figure, rather than referring to a specific adventure or labour. The most frequent epithet is “great”, which conveniently combines the abstract and material dimensions of “valiant” and “strong”, two other recurrent terms. The demigod literally embodies valour, illustrates the concept of courage through his muscular body. Muscles are the foregrounded part of his anatomy, rather than a particular limb: the play texts mention his “brawns”, “sinews” and “strong-knit limbs”. The club and lion’s skin figure as the hero’s essential attributes, those that are sufficient to identify the myth without ambiguity. By way of comparison, it may be noted that his bow is not mentioned in Shakespeare, whereas some mythographers define it as his favourite weapon—but other heroes have bows too. Another keyword is the non-specific reference to “labours”, which at the same time is specific enough in that it applies to only one classical hero.


A few individual episodes are also mentioned, though they are far less numerous than might have been expected from the wealth of classical and Renaissance sources. The list includes four of the twelve Labours (Cerberus, the Hesperides, the Nemean lion, and Hydra—though never in relation to Hercules), the strangled serpents, the battle against the Centaurs, the Atlas episode (which is connected to the Hesperides mission, but mentioned quite separately in Shakespeare), the rescue of Hesione, Hercules’ rage, and his sexual humiliation at the hands of Omphale. Taken together, they suggest a profusion of adventures; but Shakespeare does not recount them in detail. Root notes that the allusions, brief as they are, sometimes contain mistakes, such as the notion that Hercules killed Cerberus, whereas the mission was to master him and drag him to the surface of the earth, or the idea that he picked the apples of the Hesperides himself, instead of sending Atlas to do it for him. Clearly, Shakespeare is not concerned with comprehensiveness, or accuracy. His is a selection of materials, which can be explained not just by the accessibility of sources, but also by the different types of text.


In classical Antiquity, Apollodorus and Diodorus Siculus wrote lengthy accounts of Hercules’ innumerable adventures—but these are Greek sources, hardly available to Shakespeare. By contrast, Ovid’s account is much simplified, and if it does provide, as is usually thought, Shakespeare’s main source, this accounts to some extent for his generalizing view of the hero. In book IX of Metamorphoses, the main focus is on the fight between Hercules and Achelous and the labours are mentioned in a brief enumeration and sketchy recapitulation. The “rage” episode is covered in some detail: it is also mentioned with some degree of precision and development in Shakespeare, especially in Antony and Cleopatra—Seneca here is another obvious Latin source, widely available in the Renaissance. Finally, the story of Hercules and Omphale is unfolded in the Fasti and Heroides. Thus the greater accessibility of Latin sources and the emphasis on reading Ovid in Elizabethan grammar-schools (in carefully studied excerpts rather than whole books) contribute to explaining why some episodes were selected over others. But it is also a question of genre. The information provided by Greek mythographers was taken up in Renaissance secondary sources, and some of them, like Conti’s Mythology, are both detailed and widely circulated. My sense is that, in the theatre, Shakespeare needs efficiency rather than precision, and immediacy rather than development. Thus I would argue that the generalizing view of “great Hercules” owes more to iconography than to mythography.


Texts vs images


In their very simplicity, and in their combination of one mental trait with one physical characteristic and a limited number of visible attributes, many of Shakespeare’s allusions suggest vignettes, clichés, not just in the English sense of a trite phrase, but also in the French sense of a photographic image, an instantly produced and instantly recognized image of Hercules. If we look at representations of Hercules in 16th-century England, we cannot but notice the recurrence of one particular staging of Hercules: the semi-naked hero, bearded and wearing a lion’s skin, raises his arms and brandishes his club in the minute before he strikes his adversary. This is the vision emblematized in the 1550 edition of Alciati on “the twelve labours of Hercules” and reproduced two pages later to illustrate the entry “on bastards”. The layout is significant in that it places an enlarged representation of Hercules raising his club at the centre of the page, and leaves other possible visualizations in the background. The posture is so recurrent that it becomes typical: for instance, it makes it possible to identify the archaic representation in The Deceit of Women, which might as well have served for a knight in armour fighting a dragon (the curved scimitar is the other element pointing towards medieval images of Hercules; see Seznec 1995, 154-156, 185-186). Another telling example is the more sophisticated Sheldon tapestries, in the margins of which Hercules’ gesture is repeated whatever the adversary. In the series of engravings by Cornelis Cort, copied from drawings by Frans Floris, which was used to design the tapestries, the postures were more varied. Two explanations have been contemplated: either the craftsman did not have all the engravings, and he filled in the gaps himself, or he deliberately reused one drawing, introducing greater uniformity in the tapestries and, thereby, a degree of cost-effectiveness (Wells-Cole 1997, 223). While there would have been an economic interest in repeating the same picture again and again, the induced familiarity undoubtedly encouraged further repetition. I would contend that, by the time Shakespeare’s plays were performed, the mere mention of Hercules immediately brought forward the conventional image of the fighting hero in the audience’s mind. The “general” view of the hero makes for an efficient allusion, which instantaneously recreates a familiar figure, complete with major characteristics, both physical (muscles) and mental (valour). This latter, abstract dimension is reinforced by books of emblems, in which images are accompanied by brief, easily memorized interpretations. In emblem books, pictures and texts rest on conventional representations. While their obscurity was once celebrated by critics, they are now viewed as compilations of commonplaces. The commentary is mainstream, and the picture chosen is more often than not recycled from an earlier book (Whitney’s collection is a case in point), contributing further to the elaboration of familiar vignettes, which may spring to mind at the mention of a name. If we look at emblems of Hercules, they seem closer to Shakespeare’s vision of the demigod than mythographical narrations, both in their brevity and in their sketching of simple interpretative categories. Peacham’s emblems Major Hercule” [Greater than Hercules] and “Vis Amoris” [The power of Love] are particularly relevant in their binary opposition of Hercules’ heroical successes and his amorous defeats. The idea that the hero vanquished everything, only to be vanquished by love, encapsulates the major tension between Hercules the hero and Hercules the lover, between a serious, epic, approach and a playful, even grotesque, outlook, which can be felt in contemporary drama, and very clearly in Shakespeare.


Mythographical interpretations


The “Secondary Sources” section provides indications of how Renaissance mythographies made sense of the story of Hercules. Given the mythographers’ taste for profusion and accumulation, it is not possible to recount all the sophisticated hypotheses elaborated in the vein of historical, natural, moral, and allegorical interpretation. I have tried instead to outline the major ones. The English texts often provide concise judgements encapsulating the main impact of the myth, which are closest to the meaning conveyed by the brief allusions in the plays. One thinks of Golding’s statement that Hercules embodies “true manliness of heart”, Cooper’s opening remark that “Hercules seemeth to be a general name given to men excelling in strength all other of their time”, and Fraunce’s notion that “Hercules is the type of a valiant, constant, and resolute hero”. In the more detailed explorations, what seems most relevant to Shakespeare is the contrast that is perceptible (in Boccaccio or Ovide moralisé for instance) between the heroic and the sexual episodes in the demi-god’s life. One may also note the prosaic, even playful details recorded in Conti and Cartari, hinting at a comic version of Hercules which the playwright exploited. Sandys is emblematic of all the others in his twofold exegesis: in a historical, euhemeristic perspective, Hercules is the great warrior who freed people from the oppressive power of tyrants; in a moralizing perspective, he is the embodiment of Virtue. The former approach strives to reduce the fantastic elements of myth to factual data, going as it were downwards from fiction to a more pedestrian level; the latter moves toward the higher and broader level of allegory. The two movements are symmetrical and complementary, and they are characteristic of mythographic writing. None of those meanings are to be found (explicitly) in Shakespeare. The purpose of mythography is to bring the myth to another level, whether lower or higher, but never to remain at the level of the fable, that is, in Hercules’ case, a major hero with unsurpassable strength, who was nevertheless defeated by a woman. I would argue that this is the level which literature places itself at, as it makes sense of the story within the story, by using elements and patterns of the fiction itself rather than pointing towards something external to it.


At this point, my contention is that some mythographical comments on Hercules may be relevant to Shakespeare’s texts in a broad sense, because they open political (e.g. his pacifying and civilizing role, in Conti), linguistic (e.g. Cartari's emphasis on Hercules as eloquence) and comic (bawdy and grotesque) axes of exploration; but also that literary, and more specifically theatrical texts are closer to his own reappropriation of myth.


A theatrical approach


The several thousand references to Hercules in the period ranging from 1473 to 1642 appear to fall in two major categories, according to whether he is mentioned for his heroic feats, or for his sexual misadventures. Thus the section on contemporary allusions follows the storythe content of the myth, rather than an interpretative distinction between serious and playful allusions, since heroism is also parodied (comic adaptations of the myth can be traced back to ancient Greek drama: see Galinsky 1972, 81-100). Beyond subtle mythographic interpretations, Hercules is first and foremost the type of the hero, and in a more local but much-quoted perspective, an unfortunate lover, whose sexual defeat contrasts with his epic victories. This is the tension present in the legend, and it is the major pattern at work in contemporary literature, especially in the theatre. Looking at the first category, “Hercules the hero”, one finds that, although Hercules is evoked as the model for the actions of later heroes, a wealth of theatrical references tend to destabilize this archetypal vision. In the theatre, the allusion is often based on hyperbole—a double-edged figure, which easily conveys parody rather than praise. It is not always clear, at first glance, whether the reference is epic or parodic. What is perceptible is its recurrent functioning, based on overbidding rather than mere equality: the hero is more valiant than Hercules, he will perform more labours, etc. This is heroic in Clamydes’ assurance that “though the dangers should surpass stout Hercules his toil”, he would go on performing his mission (Clyomon and Clamydes, c. 1570-1583). It is comic in Gremio’s vow, “let it be more than Alcides’ twelve”, where the labour relates to Kate (The Taming of the Shrew, c. 1590-1604)—the comparison implicitly turns her into a monster, like Cerberus or Hydra, thus allowing mythology to resonate with popular discourses on shrewish women. More importantly, the subversion of the heroic Hercules is related to the influence of a theatrical tradition coming from Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus. Many of the characters compared to the demigod are braggarts and the comic effect rests on the discrepancy between their inflated rhetoric of mythological feats and their evident cowardice on stage. As the selection shows, this type of reference is particularly common in Shakespeare’s time, and it is profoundly theatrical. Sometimes, the bragging comes directly from the coward, as in Soliman and Perseda (c. 1589-1592), or Love’s Riddle (c. 1633-1636)—dates show that the tradition remains alive throughout the period. In other cases, a friend or servant brags of his master’s exploits, comically humouring and gulling him, like Mathew Merrygreek in Ralph Roister Doister (1552-1554?). In Love’s Riddle, the miles gloriosus motif is reinforced by another cliché associating braggarts and Spaniards: Hercules’ name is comically taken up and transformed into “Don Hercules Alcido de secundo”, while Alupis’ comment, “A brave Castilian name”, has a sarcastic, almost oxymoronic quality. This idea of the Spanish braggart claiming a link with Hercules is found earlier in Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1595), where Armado takes Hercules as a precedent and justification for his own lapses (I.ii.61-70, 167-69). He also refers to the Nemean lion in a love-letter (IV.i.87-88), and his indignation in V.i suggests he would most willingly perform the part of Hercules in the final show. Another case in point is Falstaff’s remark in 1 Henry IV (c. 1596-1597): “Why, thou knowest I am as valiant as Hercules; but beware instinct. The lion will not touch the true prince—instinct is a great matter. I was now a coward on instinct” (II.v.273-76). The reference to Hercules is in keeping with Falstaff’s boastful character. Its meaningfulness is also reinforced by his physical appearance: the huge Falstaff is a comic version of great Hercules, where the size may be similar but the muscles have turned to fat, recalling perhaps, or distorting, the mythographical comments about Hercules’ eating and drinking capacities. The allusion is thus fully efficient. But it is also slightly displaced, because of Falstaff’s own acknowledgment of cowardice. Usually, the miles gloriosus disguises his lack of courage behind bragging hyperboles. Here, the mythological amplification is immediately followed by an acknowledgement of cowardice. What is highlighted is the effort of the braggart trying to negotiate his awkward status, to reconcile the contradictions between his words and actions.


Whereas the insistence on the tension between epic and parodic allusions appears to be specifically theatrical, because of the miles gloriosus tradition, the comic exploitation of Hercules the lover is more evenly distributed among genres. The Omphale episode is recurrently mentioned, in ways similar to Shakespeare’s several references. Iconography, including Peacham’s emblems, further testifies to the popularity of the episode, and to its conventional, playful, interpretation. On the other hand, the playwright does not mention an episode which is very common in contemporary literature: that of the 50 daughters of King Thespius. The passage in The Malcontent (1602-1604), where Pietro rectifies Malevole’s mistake (50 daughters instead of 40) shows how familiar the story was, and the number of references is extraordinary. While it does not appear in Shakespeare’s plays, it contributes to creating a bawdy version of Hercules, one that emphasizes the demigod’s sexual appetites. In Much Ado About Nothing (1598), Borachio alludes to “the shaven Hercules in the smirched, worm-eaten tapestry, where his codpiece seems as massy as his club” (III.iii.131-32): the hypertrophy of the genital parts is more easily understood in the light of this cultural background. Beyond the comic effect, such references might also lead to a more serious reflection on the notion of virility and how it participates in the definition, or questioning, of the hero.

On the whole, it seems to me that the treatment of the Hercules myth in contemporary literature, and more specifically in contemporary theatre, rests on two major tensions: between hero and braggart, valour and cowardice; and between hero and lover, epic victories and sexual defeats. The interpretation comes from the narration itself, from the way it is organized or presented. There is no need for a further level of meaning. By this, I do not mean to diminish the potentialities for polysemy, but to underline the efficacy of those allusions. Its theatrical efficacy: on stage, those simple patterns effectively and rapidly convey meaning. I would argue that the theatre uses the Hercules myth for its narrative tensions, its potential for reversal. This creates a dynamism which contributes not only to the praise of a hero, but also to a critical evaluation of his valour. Simple patterns like this do not preclude other levels of investigation, but in themselves, they function well on stage. Though mythology does reverberate in the audience’s imagination, I think it also provides patterns of understanding that are both simple and efficient, and quickly reveal the contradictions at work in a character or a situation.


The other categories in the selection of contemporary allusions bear less similarity to Shakespeare’s plays, though the recurrence of certain uses seemed noteworthy. The very serious use of Hercules’ name in praises of historical and kingly figures is, contrary to theatrical references, non-problematic; but it reminds us of the political dimension of the mythological comparison. Hercules is a reference for princes, and as such he is mentioned in official celebrations: the myth does not merely point towards an ancient archetype, it is incorporated into Elizabethan and Jacobean political concerns.


Assessing heroes


Discussing the various subdivisions in the entry has enabled us to sketch a cultural context for Shakespeare’s references, and to show how they stand in relation to contemporary texts and images. Now I wish to take a closer look at those Shakespearean allusions, and show that it is necessary to go further than the efficient, pragmatic uses I have just underlined, in order to appreciate the destabilization and critique at work in almost every reference. While Shakespeare takes up conventional patterns, the comparisons he draws up are recurrently, and deliberately, flawed. If Hercules is the compulsory reference for every hero, it appears that none actually attains his ideal.


One approach to the numerous Herculean references in Shakespeare’s plays consists in classifying them according to the degree of the comparison, literally considering that a protagonist is compared to the mythic figure, measured against the classical archetype. This leads one to establish a range of allusions, sketching the rank of various heroes, would-be heroes, and anti-heroes on a common scale. At the top, one finds the epic protagonists of the history plays, both British and Roman: characters like Talbot, York, Antony and Coriolanus. In the middle, Hamlet is the epitome of the ambivalent hero, who uses the reference but seems reluctant to conform to his model. Other instances include Orlando, Bassanio, and less famous warriors such as Arcite in The Two Noble Kinsmen, Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, the Bastard in King John. Finally, the lowest point would designate grotesque versions of and comments on Hercules, exemplified in Much Ado About Nothing and Love’s Labour’s Lost. This was the approach I developed a few years ago. I would like to take up the classification and shift the emphasis, in order to show that, whatever the degree, the comparison is always faulty: the common point between all allusions is their problematic dimension. I will not perform a complete survey here, but quickly underline a few examples.


Although the early history plays stage two impressive types of the epic hero, Talbot and York, those fearful warriors (who are bound to have great presence on stage when the plays are performed, embodying Hercules in the most spectacular way) are not compared with the demigod when they are at the height of their valour, but rather, in situations of vulnerability, or downright defeat. In 3 Henry VI, the allusion is made by the Messenger announcing York’s death to his sons. The situation of enunciation creates a tension between an effort at mythological praise, associating Hercules and Hector in order to reconstruct the hero’s image and ensure his posthumous fame, and the confession of failure and death. The choice of a proverb frequently mentioned in contemporary texts is significant: “But Hercules himself must yield to odds” (II.i.53). A similar, though less definitive, tension is felt in 1 Henry VI when the Countess of Auvergne mentions Hercules, only to reject the comparison:


I thought I should have seen some Hercules,

A second Hector, for his grim aspect

And large proportion of his strong-knit limbs.

Alas, this is a child, a seely dwarf. (II.iii.18-21)


Again the situation is crucial: the audience has witnessed the warrior’s displays of physical strength, but his enemy refuses to acknowledge the presence of mythical valour. While the association of Hercules with Hector is in keeping with contemporary lists of wonderful heroes, the Countess’ sarcasm, at a moment when she is holding the warrior prisoner, destabilizes the epic references. The next allusion is reminiscent of 3 Henry VI, though it is spoken by an ally: like the Messenger, Lucy is talking about a dead hero—but he doesn’t know it, hence the ironic significance of his question, “But where’s the great Alcides of the field, Valiant Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury…” While the enthusiastic praise might read, like the Messenger’s, as a funeral elegy, establishing the hero’s posthumous fame, Joan’s scathing comment brutally deflates it: “Him that thou magnifi’st with all these titles / Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet” (IV.vii.75-76). The absent corpse in the messenger’s speech is now present, and forcefully so. Celebration and criticism are telescoped as the epic reference is made to jar with the physical failure of the hero, and the movement from “magnifi’st” to “flyblown” substitutes one kind of inflation for another.


I would contend that those two plays are representative of how the myth works in Shakespeare: whether the allusion is short and anecdotal, or recurrent and structural, it is always displaced, “off the beat”, in some way. Among the plays where the myth is further developed, a famous example is Antony and Cleopatra, which gave rise to much critical literature (see Bibliography). In I.iii, the characterization of Antony as a “Herculean Roman” would recall the historical Antony’s claim that he was descended from the demigod, except that Cleopatra’s playful comment downgrades the comparison, from epic praise to lovers’ bickering. This dimension is reinforced by her later allusion to the Omphale episode, where Antony is reduced to a drunken and erotically passive Hercules. Grammatically and symbolically speaking, he is an object:


That time—O times!—

I laughed him out of patience, and that night

I laughed him into patience, and next morn,

Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed,

Then put my tires and mantles on him whilst

I wore his sword Philippan. (II.v.18-23)


In a military context, the soldier’s allusion in III.vii is not more affirmative, since the man swears by Hercules at the moment when he disagrees with his leader, as if the demigod were no longer on Antony’s side—a notion which is made perceptible in IV.iii, in a scene where supernatural music is interpreted as signalling the departure of Hercules: “’Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved, / Now leaves him” (IV.iii.11-15). This passage is, I believe, significant of Shakespeare’s treatment of the myth. While there were several representations of Hercules on stage, Shakespeare never shows him to the eyes of his audience, except in a grotesque procession of the Nine Worthies in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and in this paradoxical scene in Antony and Cleopatra, where the demigod leaves a stage which he never entered. He remains invisible and disembodied, an enchanted music played in the space beneath the stage, as if he could not find an appropriate representation in the theatre—as if there were no such a thing as a true Herculean hero? What Antony finally retains from his classical model is a less-than-heroic feature, the blind rage induced by the shirt of Nessus. Contemporary references to Hercules’ death tend to emphasize Deianira’s role and turn the story into a cautionary tale for lovers, warning them against women’s deceits. Thus the episode is linked to the “lover” dimension in Hercules rather than to his heroic quality—though Coates’s analysis sees this passage as a step towards purification and redemption (see Coates 1978). In this respect, I do not mean to say that Antony is systematically deemed unheroic, but rather that the references to Hercules help underline the contradictions between his martial skills and his sexual appetites, between his past feats and his present failings. The fact that some of the tensions are inherent in the mythical narrative makes things more fecund: failing the heroic model does not preclude being like Hercules, in another sense. As Waith remarks about Antony at the end of the play: “If in some respects he is no longer Herculean, in others he is more so than ever” (Waith 1962, 115); beyond the Omphale story or the rage episode, he means that Antony retains an essential Herculean trait, both in his comic and heroic versions—excess.


Among the intermediate, or would-be heroes, I would briefly mention Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, citing Hercules at the moment when he acknowledges the uselessness of physical strength and the need for astuteness; or his rival Bassanio, whom Portia enthusiastically equates with Hercules—not realizing that the episode she evokes is less than glorious: Hercules saved Hesione in the hope of getting a reward, not out of disinterested love. This discrepancy reinforces the undertones present in another mythological comparison, whereby Bassanio presents himself as a new Jason, setting out to conquer the Golden Fleece (I.i.161-76). While beautiful Portia has golden hair, she is also an heiress; classical precedents do not so much give epic grandeur to their story as they betray the economic concerns at work in the play, not just in the Jew’s strategy, but also in the lover’s behaviour. Another telling example is in King John, where the use of a lion’s skin as a prop makes the Herculean reference stronger, but where the Bastard does not live up to the mythological ideal. His speech suggests that Richard Lionheart was the true Hercules, and as an illegitimate son he is just a pale reflection of his two models. Secondary and literary sources emphasize the fact that Hercules was a bastard, thus authorizing the reference; but his own claim to Herculean glory remains implicit, when he promises to “take that burden from your back, / Or lay on that shall make your shoulders crack” (an allusion both to the Nemean lion’s skin, and to the terrestrial globe, from the weight of which Hercules relieved Atlas), and the insistent use of animal (Aesopian) imagery, more prosaic than myth, degrades the attempt at epic hyperbole. Though he is illegitimate like Hercules, the Bastard is too marginal a character for the comparison to be fully appropriate.


Displacement, discrepancy, subversion: I think those are the keywords, since the Hercules reference is always inadequate to some extent in these plays. Perhaps the clearest instance of this, apart from Antony’s contradictions, is Hamlet’s ambivalence. His first allusion designates Claudius as “My father’s brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (I.ii.152-53). While the four-term comparison praises the father at the expense of the uncle, it also separates Hamlet from Hercules, the obvious model for a Renaissance prince who was brought up in the humanist tradition, with a classical education as well as a swordsman’s training. It creates an ominous equation between Claudius and Hamlet, who are at similar ends of the comparison, and posits the double reference of Hercules and father as unattainable. Two scenes later, when Horatio tries to prevent him from meeting his father’s ghost, Hamlet exclaims:


                        My fate cries out,

And makes each petty artere in this body

As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve. (I.iv.58-60) 


In front of his Herculean father, Hamlet identifies with a victim of the demigod: though he is displaying his courage at that moment, it is as if he could not make the heroic claim we would expect from him—Peyré emphasizes the subversion of Herculean values implicit in the identification with the lion, a symbol of wrath in mythographies (Peyré 2000, 127-28); I would also underline the situation, where the presence of the father may trigger the symbolic displacement, as if the glory of the father made it impossible for the son to claim a true heroic identity. Hamlet’s last reference to Hercules is cryptic: after an aborted confrontation with Laertes, he states “Let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew, and dog will have his day” (V.i.288-89). This might mean that Laertes is the Herculean character here, and that Hamlet will have his revenge despite his emphatic declarations (bombast was one characteristic of the comic Hercules on stage, as illustrated in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or in Robert Greene’s Greene’s groats-worth of wit); or that Hamlet is Hercules, but that despite his efforts he cannot achieve his purpose. The enigmatic formulation contributes to the uncertainty surrounding Hercules and possible comparisons with him. On the one hand, the demigod is an obvious reference for a Renaissance prince like Hamlet, and he himself seems compelled to refer to the myth; on the other hand, the recurrent displacements and discrepancies underline his inadequacy to the Herculean ideal, and crystallize the tension at work in the play between the need for revenge, and Hamlet’s constant postponing of action: though he has the necessary physical training (as the final duel proves it), he does not respond on the Herculean mode.


Reverting to the idea of graduated heroism, one finds the comedies at the bottom of the scale, with their grotesque mention of Hercules’ codpiece and submission to Omphale, or their description of seduction as a new labour (both in The Taming of the Shrew and in Much Ado About Nothing). Here the parody of heroic values is obvious, while Shakespeare does not so much create antithetical versions of the myth, as use those comic features that are present within the legend: as I pointed out, one interesting element for the playwright is that the potential for subversion is present within the myth.


On the whole, the references sketch the various degrees of “herculeanism,” from epic to comedy; and they show that the comparison stresses reversals and uncertainties, rather than glorious affirmation. This evaluation of Shakespearean heroes and anti-heroes, however, has its limits. What I outlined here is a series of contradictory portraits, where the figure of Hercules is multiplied as if in a kaleidoscope of variations. The focus is on the characters and how they conceive themselves, or are considered by others. And the impression is one of dissemination. On the other hand, the very idea of a graduation suggests an underlying continuity. Modern criticism tends to distinguish between anecdotal references to Hercules and structural ones; and between comedies and tragedies (see Jones-Davies 1994 and Truax 1993). The predominant view is that Shakespeare uses the Hercules myth fully in the tragedies, for an exploration of the tragic hero. This assumption underlies studies of Antony and Cleopatra (Coates 1978, Waith 1962), Hamlet (Peyré 2000), Coriolanus (Waith 1962), and even Othello (Miola 1990) and Macbeth (Truax 1993, Zimmermann 2006), where the myth is not explicitly mentioned but where Seneca’s Hercules Furens makes a convincing subtext for the tragedy (and, in the case of Macbeth, the choice at the crossroads). Though I agree that the broader significance of Hercules is to put the notion of heroism into question, I would like to argue that this process is at work both in comedies and tragedies, and that it in fact provides the coherence behind discrete comparisons.


The questioning of heroism


If the reference to Hercules helps one define oneself as a hero, the pervasive inadequacy of the comparison suggests a questioning of the very notion of heroism: on the Elizabethan stage, in the early modern context, the classical ideal does not work. I think that in his recurrent use of the myth through a twenty-year theatrical career, Shakespeare transforms the conventional model into a critical tool. What is at stake is not just individual definition, but a general enquiry into the status of the hero, and his place within society. This, I believe, is the common point between comedies and tragedies. And I wish to suggest three dimensions in this Shakespearean exploration: politics, gender, and language.


While those axes relate to fundamental aspects of human life and social behaviour, they also relate to some well-known interpretations of Hercules which are common in mythographies, though they seemed absent from Shakespeare. As I suggested, there may still be latent implications in the plays. It is, at any rate, tempting to see a link between their recurrence in the cultural context, and the concerns of several of Shakespeare’s works. Politically speaking, Hercules was considered as the vanquisher of tyrants, one who brought peace and freedom to oppressed people. This invites us to consider him not as an isolated warrior, but to take into account his function in, and impact on, his social environment. Sexually speaking, Hercules is both an embodiment of virility, because of his feats and of his impressive libido, and a striking example of effeminacy, when he dons Omphale’s clothes and attributes. Linguistically speaking, Hercules was an emblem of eloquence—an interpretation which is developed not just in learned mythographies like Cartari’s, but also in widely circulated dictionaries such as Cooper’s. There is an implicit tension there, when one recalls that warlike heroes are repeatedly said to be men of action, unskilled in rhetorical combat. Thus three interpretations of the myth outline three fields of enquiry, and offer up three problematic tensions to the playwright and audience’s exploratory work.


1.  Politics


Among the tragedies, Coriolanus stands as a landmark, because it so manifestly focuses on heroism and its limits. While in An Apology for Actors, probably composed the same year, Heywood develops an unambiguous praise of Hercules and the epic drama which he stands for, Coriolanus’ feats are less conducive to enthusiasm. His initial display of fighting skills in Act I does recall Heywood’s celebration of battling Hercules constantly on the move, and is in keeping with his hyperbolic praise of bloody heroes. But Coriolanus’ warlike manner is out of place once peace has been settled. The Herculean model seems inappropriate in Rome, where the warrior is expected to renounce his martial attitude and adopt political concerns. As Aufidius puts it, Martius is unable to adapt, “not moving / From th’ casque to th’ cushion” (IV.vii.42-43). But we saw that there is more to Hercules than just muscles. While Coriolanus lives up to his ideal in terms of physical prowess, his individualism is a reductive version of the myth. He is the type of the lonely fighter, to the point of invading Corioles on his own. Far from fighting tyrants, like Hercules, he is suspected of wanting to become one, and though the text does not confirm this criticism of the manipulative tribunes, the hero does openly protest against the advent of democracy. Finally, he turns against his own country, in a striking reversal of alliances which definitely runs counter to Hercules’ liberating and pacifying mission. Here, my impression is that the two references to Hercules open up not just an epic vision of Coriolanus’ extraordinary feats, but a reflection on his political role—his refusal, precisely, to play one, his opting for the part of aggressor rather than liberator, and his difficulty throughout in finding a place within a social group. The second allusion in particular is made at the moment when tribunes and patricians hear that Coriolanus is leading the enemy against Rome; the slightly grotesque evocation of Coriolanus as an agitated Hercules, “shak[ing] down mellow fruit” ( may imply the discrepancy between the model and his successor, the civilizing role of the former, and the destructive part of the latter.


Coriolanus is not the only play where the status of the military hero is questioned. In a comedy like Much Ado About Nothing, the male characters are also out of their natural element, and have trouble finding a new place in society. As the play opens, Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick are returning from “wars”, some indistinct “action”, where they are said to have performed well. Despite the Messenger’s assurances of the contrary, Beatrice immediately portrays Benedick as a braggart, “Signor Montanto”, a friend of “squarer[s]” or boisterous quarrellers (I.i.29, 77). War is thus dismissed and mocked even as it is mentioned, but it still provides the backdrop for the play. As they come back from the field, Claudio, and particularly Benedick, whose physical appearance is closer to the muscular, bearded Hercules, have to find a new social status: former soldiers, they are now in the position of courtiers. They move on from physical fight to courtly games, witty dialogues and fancy dress balls. Of course the situation is very different from Coriolanus, but I would argue that the soldier is destabilized in the comedy too. Benedick finds himself the victim of Beatrice’s sarcasms; he undergoes a physical change to seduce her, going so far as to shave his beard—a sign that he is abandoning the rustic ways of the soldier for the refinement of the courtier (see Crichton 1975) but also, as we shall see later, that he accepts a degree of effeminacy. The fact that all the allusions to Hercules are parodic does not prevent them from being meaningful. When Don Pedro declares that he “will in the interim undertake one of Hercules’ labours, which is to bring Signor Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th’one with th’other” (II.i.341-44), the degradation of Herculean deeds into a mere trick, a piece of marivaudage, also indicates the displacement which these men undergo—with Don Pedro, their leader, now reduced to imagining courtly stratagems instead of launching great battles. Borachio’s comment on “the shaven Hercules in the smirched, worm-eaten tapestry” (III.iii.131-32), very materially suggests that Herculean heroics are old-fashioned, out of date.


The social and political situation also reflects on Hercules in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The King of Navarre and his three companions embark on a three-year retreat from society, intending to abstain both from political and sexual commitments and dedicate their entire time to intellectual study. War is not a concern, or it is reduced to parody, the only soldier in the play being Armado, a type of the Spanish braggart. Indeed, war is considered no longer in its physical, but in its allegorical, dimension: “Therefore, brave conquerors—for so you are, / That war against your own affections / And the huge army of the world’s desires…” (I.i.8-10). This might actually be reminiscent of allegorical interpretations that present Hercules as an emblem of virtue, and his feats as so many victories against vice. The play would then displace the question of warlike heroism, and rephrase it in higher terms. But the retreat eschews political responsibility, until matters of state forcefully reappear at the end of the play, when the announcement of the King of France’s death triggers the sudden departure of the newly made Queen. The immediate change of the prefix, from “Princess” to “Queen”, and Navarre’s address to “your majesty” (V.ii.718-19), reinforce the belated affirmation of political priorities, even though the men are still free to enjoy a full year of secluded study. Moreover, the whole play is about the four companions not respecting their initial oath, with its commitment to chastity. There is an element of the comic Hercules here, as if the demigod’s sexual appetites reasserted themselves in those men; and the breaking of the oath further distances them from the model of the epic Hercules and their own virtuous ambitions—the association of Hercules and faithfulness is made, if parodically, both in Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well. In this context, I would argue that the parodic staging of Hercules in V.ii has a political relevance, and offers a criticism of Navarre and his friends. The theatrical representation of the Nine Worthies was a popular show in Elizabethan England and Hercules, though not present in the initial list of historical and legendary figures, was often included. The parody can be seen, from a cultural point of view, as a sign that the spectacle was by then old-fashioned. It can also be understood as a reflection of the aristocrats’ distorted values. The title of the show is a telling detail: are Navarre and his friends “worthy”? Can they compare to the grand figures offered as their models? Heywood’s contention is that heroic fiction, presented on stage, triggers heroic deeds in reality: “Why should not the lives of these worthies, presented in these our days, effect the like wonders in the Princes of our times?” (Apology, sig. B3v). If the show in Love’s Labour’s Lost is obviously uninspiring, it seems to me that its exhortation is of a subtler nature, inviting us to reflect on the worthy or unworthy nature of the aristocrats whom we have seen breaking oaths, putting up stratagems and disguises, and never accepting their responsibilities. Of course this is a comedy, and the focus is on the love story. Nevertheless, there is a questioning at work here, not so far removed from that in Coriolanus, where the word “worthy” is constantly repeated and challenged, until the hero is declared “worthy / Of present death” (III.i.211-12). What is it that makes a man worthy within his society? If the popular motif of the Nine Worthies is latent in other uses of the word, the objective is ambitious, connoting great models, and a desire to reach long-lasting fame—another clear concern in Coriolanus. But to revert to Love’s Labour’s Lost, the critique of the aristocrats’ valour and values finds an expression in the choice of the serpents episode, where Hercules is only a baby. The staging contrasts the grotesque image of a smallish, thin page, agitating fake serpents, with a hyperbolic commentary on “great Hercules”. As Armado points out during the rehearsal, there is a blatant, visual contradiction between the requirements of the role, and the choice of the page (V.i). This would in itself provoke laughter, and would only be reinforced by Holofernes’ awkward attempt at justification (V.ii). But the speech opposing “Great Hercules” and “this imp”, insisting on a “babe, a child, a shrimp”, and rhyming “minority” with “apology”, may also suggest that Navarre and his companions are shrimps by comparison with the princes’ Herculean ideal (asserted in contemporary praises of real, historical figures), that they are immature heroes for whom one needs to apologize, and that one can only hope that the sobering departure of the women and their new oath will bring them the necessary sense of responsibilities.


There is no room here for a complete discussion of all the plays concerned, but it seems clear enough that the social and political role of the hero is also investigated in Hamlet, with the prince hesitating to take action, and preferring secluded study in Wittenberg both to martial feats—as Peyré points out, the adjective lacertus, by which Ovid recurrently refers to Hercules’ muscular arm, is translated and applied not to Hamlet, but to the military conqueror, Fortinbras (Peyré 2000)—, and to political commitment as his uncle’s “chiefest courtier” (I.ii.117). In Antony and Cleopatra, the hero is called back to Rome and reminded of the responsibilities which his Egyptian love affair made him forget. While his warlike capacities are also questioned, the bigger issue is political. It seems to me that mentions of Hercules do not just celebrate the feats of an individual hero, but invite one to think beyond that, of the prince’s or general’s responsibilities towards his own community. Herculeanism is obsolete if it refers merely to martial prowess; but it is a critical instrument if it conveys a broader political mission.


2.  Gender


The celebration of the epic Hercules entails an affirmation of his triumphant virility. The hero is male, and very much so; in the Renaissance, the myth was also used as a pretext for anatomy studies, detailing the fully developed muscles of the fighter’s body (see Goltzius’ engraving for example). This dimension is taken up, in a parodic mode, in Borachio’s comment about the tapestry of Hercules, “where his codpiece seems as massy as his club” (Much Ado About Nothing, III.iii.132-33): the assertion of virility is grotesquely visualized in the evocation of a hypertrophied penis. The comparison between the codpiece and the club provides a link between sexual identity and warlike activity, and draws attention to the phallic significance of the club, which might have been only latent in traditional imagery. The physical hypertrophy also suggests sexual appetite: as we have seen, Hercules is famous in contemporary literature for impregnating 50 women in one night—the other, less frequent version, is that he slept with a different woman every night, for 50 nights; but this was not spectacular enough for contemporary playwrights… However, this particular episode is never mentioned in Shakespeare, who favours the much more destabilizing episode of Omphale. This is another way of putting the hero into question, by challenging his sexual identity and capacity; it is to be found both in comedies and tragedies.


The parodic nature of Borachio’s allusion in Much Ado About Nothing is itself a sign of critical exploration. On the part of the character, who is another version of the comic Hercules, with impressive drinking abilities (his name is Spanish for drunkard), sexual appetites (he is the one whom Claudio sees having sex with Hero’s servant), and usually on stage, a large body, the grotesque allusion is just meant to trigger his audience’s laughter and impress them—another Herculean trait is his powerful, though comic, eloquence. But the adjective “shaven” undermines the sexual assertion. It is unclear whether the term refers to hair, or to Hercules’ beard. The first option would echo the story of Samson, who is often mentioned in connection with Hercules, and whose loss of hair at the hands of Delilah entailed a loss of physical strength, a clear instance of symbolic castration. The second also suggests a questioning of virility, insofar as the beard in an early modern context is a sign of masculinity. In an enlightening analysis of beards in Much Ado About Nothing, Crichton relates this allusion to the move of Benedick, who shaves his beard in an attempt to please Beatrice (III.ii). His article shows that the discussing of beards in the play is related to a destabilization of the men’s sexual identity, once they have left the military field. In the court of Messina, the beard becomes a sign of soldierly rusticity, and Beatrice rejects it. On the other hand, she also mocks Claudio’s lack of a beard, indicating his youth and sexual immaturity. The solution is to take a bearded hero and shave him, as Benedick does, thereby successfully negotiating his evolution from soldier to courtier. As Crichton puts it: “The degree of a man’s beardedness, within the larger pattern provided by the Herculean myth, functions first to identify those who have achieved manhood and then, conversely, to index the gradual refinement of the virile male” (Crichton 1975). But before he comes to this conclusion, Benedick feels sexually threatened by Beatrice’s sarcasms. He is the one who, after being outwitted by her, compares Beatrice  to Omphale: “She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire, too” (II.i.236-38). While the mythical narrative stresses cross-dressing, this rewriting conveys a more destructive image of emasculation. Moreover, the distortion of the episode lays the emphasis on social subversion, with Hercules acting as the lowest servant in the house. This reminds us that the Omphale myth is not just about effeminization, but also about subordination. Here the social and sexual issues are joined, and the Hercules allusion underlines how difficult it is for the Renaissance hero to negotiate his status in a princely court.


The Omphale episode reappears, again in an implicit but easily recognizable form, in Antony and Cleopatra, where the Egyptian Queen relates an erotic episode to her servant:


That time, O times!

I laughed him out of patience, and that night

I laughed him into patience, and next morn,

Ere the ninth hour, I drunk him to his bed,

Then put my tires and mantles on him whilst

I wore his sword Philippan. (II.v.18-23)


The exchange of clothes and attributes is reminiscent of the myth, and the “sword Philippan” replaces the Herculean club, with the same phallic connotations. This allusion is at the heart of a pervasive questioning of Antony’s abilities. From the Roman point of view, his Egyptian life is effeminizing him, diminishing his male virtus. Our modern “virtue” is etymologically connected to vir, the Latin for man: in Rome, masculinity is at the root of heroism and both imply strict discipline. On the other hand, Antony’s sexual appetites, and his indulging in sumptuous feasting and heavy drinking (as this passage reminds us), are other Herculean features, which in their way also convey virility—except when Omphale intervenes. The allusion functions as a knot where several signs and interpretations join, showing the ambiguities of sexual identity.


A third, veiled allusion to Omphale is to be found in The Two Noble Kinsmen, where mentions of Hercules seem rather more straightforward than usual, insistently celebrating Arcite’s fighting skills. But before those, the first allusion to the demigod recounts a moment of weakness, where in front of the First Queen’s beauty on the day of her marriage,


Hercules our kinsman,

Then weaker than your eyes, laid by his club.

He tumbled down upon his Nemean hide

And swore his sinews thawed (I.i.66-69)


The situation does not entail any cross-dressing or sexual transgression: Theseus only means to flatter the Queen, thus focusing not on the predatory woman, but on Hercules’ powerlessness before love. A telling detail, though, is the formulation of this powerlessness in terms of “thawing muscles”: after what we have seen about Hercules’ rigid muscles and upright club, this easily suggests a loss of masculinity. It is reminiscent of Beatrice’s concern that “manhood is melted into courtesies”, another hint of the underlying anxiety in Much Ado About Nothing about the possibility of a courtier-hero (IV.i.319-20). Might it also echo Hamlet’s fantasies that “this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” (I.ii.129-30)? There is also sexual anxiety in the play, which often leads stage directors to portray Hamlet as an effeminate character, sometimes to the point of caricature. But to revert to The Two Noble Kinsmen, this initial vision of a sexually weakened Hercules might destabilize later, more assertive, allusions. Mentions of the demigod help give a separate identity to Arcite, whose main difference from his alter-ego Palamon is that he gives himself over to physical fight and takes Mars as his patron-god; thus he wins the final joust, and appears as the true heroic figure. But a sudden accident causes his death and results in Emilia marrying Palamon instead of his unlucky cousin. The initial allusion might announce this final reversal, or it might make more complex the apparent distinction between warriors and lovers: Hercules was both. But the play seems to state the impossibility of joining sexual and martial victory, thus providing perhaps the most pessimistic comment on Herculean heroes’ sexuality, and their capacity to find a satisfying social and sexual identity—the great warrior’s sudden death definitively evacuates him from society, in Shakespeare’s last play.


The Omphale myth might also be lurking in other plays, such as Coriolanus and Hamlet (and possibly Macbeth, which I do not study here because the myth is never mentioned, but where the perversion of the model of the warlike hero has similar political and sexual resonance; see Truax 1993 and Zimmermann 2006). It is tempting to draw a series of parallels between heroes dominated by women: Benedick and Beatrice, Coriolanus and Volumnia, Hamlet and Gertrude, Antony and Cleopatra. In all cases, a man with heroic aspirations, and the skills to fulfil them, finds himself in a submissive position towards a woman. There is a comparable questioning of their virility, and of their social power. When the woman is the mother, her influence seems all the more castrating. In Coriolanus, Volumnia’s domination over Coriolanus often leads directors to present him as a frustrated child, a notion supported by the mother and son’s bickering in III.ii. The idea that young Martius is displaying “[o]ne on’s father’s moods” when he chases butterflies and tears them up with his own teeth (I.iii.68) ironically reflects back on Coriolanus, suggesting his own immaturity. Not only is Volumnia the only one who has power over her son’s actions, but she is the one who prevents him from acting, who persuades him not to attack Rome. Coriolanus cries as he takes the decision, a literal “melting” of his resolution which echoes other allusions to sexual weakness. This moment provides Aufidius’ most powerful attack on the hero: “thou boy of tears” (, the phrase that triggers Coriolanus’ fury and his death. While his martial feats and his desire for complete autonomy are in keeping with an affirmation of masculinity, his submission to his mother can be related to the Omphale episode, and betrays two different but related anxieties, about sexual immaturity and about effeminization.


Unexpectedly, Coriolanus might find a counterpoint in Love’s Labour’s Lost, where we already noticed a questioning of the men’s political maturity. As it turns out, the issue can also be phrased in terms of sexual development. With Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labour’s Lost is the other Shakespearean comedy that repeatedly uses the figure of Hercules. Actually, one might spot in the title of the play an indirect reference to the demigod: “labour” is the distinctive word for Hercules’ feats in the service of Eurystheus. Here, it is as if the word were displaced and applied to another agent, Love, an abstract notion or a common name for Cupid in the Elizabethan period. With the aristocrats renouncing their political role, breaking their oaths, and dedicating their time to the wooing of princesses, the play does seem to recount the feats of Cupid, and to illustrate the well-known notion that heroes are powerless against love, that Hercules is overcome by Cupid. One mythical figure is substituted for the other, as in Biron’s plea:


For valour, is not love a Hercules,

Still climbing trees in the Hesperides? (IV.iii.316-17)


If we read Love with a capital letter, the vision that results is that of young Cupid in the place of Hercules (as in Peacham's emblem “Major Hercule” [Greater than Hercules]). Interestingly, the Hesperides allusion is a common point with Coriolanus, where we noticed the somewhat prosaic (and inaccurate) mention of the hero “shak[ing] down mellow fruit.” Here the description means to be lofty, but the verb “climbing” suggests a naughty child, playing and pinching apples: it has a similar comic dimension. In Coriolanus, the movement is downward, expressing the hero’s destructive frenzy; in Love’s Labour’s Lost, the movement is upward and might suggest virile erection. But the figure of Cupid cannot take on the same masculinity as that of Hercules. I think the final show proves that point with its distorted presentation of Hercules as a child: while the serpents episode is rare in contemporary iconography, Cupid is probably the most commonly represented child in Elizabethan culture (in secular images). Alerted by the title of the play, and by the substitution in the Hesperides allusion, the audience may well identify Cupid in the appearance of the small page, Mote. The show would present Cupid’s effort to replace Hercules… and his miserable failure: the grotesque performance is again a criticism aimed at the aristocrats, denouncing not just their political faults, but their sexual immaturity. Like Mote, and like Coriolanus to some extent, they are “boys”, sexually infantile. By moving away from the Herculean ideal and pledging allegiance to Cupid, they made it impossible to achieve Hercules’ virility, and the women in the play are not satisfied with them. The play, contrary to other Shakespearean comedies, does not end with a series of marriages, but imposes a year’s delay, giving the four men time to mature sexually.


What does not appear in Love’s Labour’s Lost is the connection between sexual questioning and the domination of the mother. This is taken up in the tragedy of Hamlet, where one finds again evidence of a latent but long-lasting interrogation about heroes’ sexual identity. The common point with Coriolanus is the fear of the weakening of one’s masculine capacity through the influence of the mother. Hamlet’s mother is unconsciously responsible for his constant delayings of action, and for his refusal to marry. Oedipian troubles in both tragedies could be rephrased in the terms of the Hercules and Omphale episode, stressing the fear of masculine subordination to feminine desires. Finally, Hamlet might also ring a distant echo to King John, where the Hercules allusion is uttered by the character designated throughout as “Bastard”. Alciati takes Hercules as the emblematic figure of bastardy, calling him “chief of their line” (139, “In nothos” [On bastards]). The association is frequently made, in a playful way, in contemporary texts. Perhaps this is one Herculean dimension from which Hamlet wishes to distance himself, in his anguished consideration of Gertrude’s love life. As Alciati puts it, bastards can only achieve great deeds if they are somehow acknowledged and made legitimate; this would explain the Bastard’s incapacity to fulfil his Herculean ambition, or even formulate it in purely mythical terms. An obvious common point with Hamlet is the embarrassing fame of the glorious father, which paralyzes the son and hampers him in his own quest for masculine affirmation. But if there were an underlying anxiety about bastardy in Hamlet, then the four-term equation, distancing Hamlet from the father’s model, and siding him with Claudius, would find yet another meaning. While there is no need to extrapolate, this suggests the complexity of sexual issues and of the hero’s efforts to find sexual identity and maturity. In a Renaissance context, when traditional physical feats seem somewhat obsolete in courtly life, heroism has to be redefined, including in its sexual dimension of aggressive maleness. Several types of sexual anxieties emerge throughout Shakespeare’s plays, including loss of virility, infantilism, and uncertain familial and conjugal status.


3.  Language


The last point I would like to underline, though more briefly, is the question of the hero’s relationship to language. A subpart of the myth, called “Hercules Gallicus”, the French Hercules, turns the demigod into an emblem of eloquence. This would be true of Antony and Hamlet, with striking illustrations in the former’s address before Caesar’s body in Julius Caesar, and in the latter’s many soliloquies. Both use a fluid, copious style. Another instance is, if one accepts the presence of a Herculean subtext, Othello’s linguistic abilities: he courts Desdemona with words, with a narrative of his adventures so fascinating that Brabantio refuses to recognize the power of eloquence and suspects the use of magic. Yet the warrior says that he has little familiarity with words:


Rude am I in my speech,

And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace,

For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith

Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used

Their dearest action in the tented field[.] (I.iii.81-85)


His adding that he can only speak of battles, which he did with Desdemona, seems to dismiss the contradiction. But it points to a tension between the topos that warriors are little skilled with words, and some heroes’ linguistic skills. The topos suggests that a fighter’s arguments are his weapons, that words are less direct, and less virile: in Richard II, Mowbray exclaims against “the trial of a woman’s war, / The bitter clamour of two eager tongues” (I.i.48-49). But when peace is settled, how is the hero to talk as he reintegrates a social community?


According to his family and friends, and some critics, Coriolanus is the epitome of the reluctant orator. While Plutarch described him as eloquent, Shakespeare erased this element and wrote for him speeches full of ruptured constructions, outbursts, and insults. His warrior identity is the excuse people repeatedly put forward for his less than polished language. As Volumnia states:


Thou art their soldier and, being bred in broils,

Hast not the soft way which, thou dost confess,

Were fit for thee to use as they to claim,

In asking their good loves[.] (III.ii.81-84)


Menenius uses the same argument in front of the people: “he has been bred i’th’ wars / Since a could draw a sword, and is ill-schooled / In bolted language” (III.i.322-24, lines reminiscent of Othello’s), and again “Consider further / That when he speaks not like a citizen, / You find him like a soldier” (III.iii.53-55). An opposition is drawn between citizen and soldier, which underlines the inability of the soldier to become a citizen, and find a place in society. It is certain that Coriolanus rejects copious rhetoric, which he repeatedly associates with bragging. His reluctance to play the braggart’s part may hint at the Hercules myth, and its common association with the miles gloriosus. While eloquence is Hercules’ gift, bragging would signify a distortion of Herculean values, as is also suggested in Much Ado About Nothing: “He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it” (IV.i.319-23). Both Coriolanus and Beatrice lament a discrepancy between words and actions, though in different contexts. Beatrice’s situation is ironic, since she would have Benedick take heroic action and behave at court as one in the field, thus reversing the displacement which is at the root of the play. In Coriolanus’ case, he is asked to talk, to transform his past actions into present words, and finds it impossible because of his distrust of hyperbole. His anxiety seems to be that he would fall into the trap, brag in spite of himself, and that no language is appropriate for the hero.


Yet, I would contend that Coriolanus has greater linguistic skills than he is usually given credit for. His is not the fluid eloquence of Antony or Othello, but the more critical agility of Benedick, or other comedy characters. In other words, he is good with puns. His constant irony in II.iii, when he pretends to ask for the people’s votes, each word having a double meaning, could be compared with the witty exchanges in Much Ado About Nothing. It seems to me that the pun is another type of eloquence, with no epic status, but with a critical power: by playing on words, one exposes hidden meanings, and latent issues. In Coriolanus, it is the incisive language of the comedies that surfaces in the protagonist’s discourse and helps formulate some key concerns, like the ambivalent meanings of “noble”, “worthy” and “deserts”. 


We have come a long way from the Herculean vignette, with its conventional fighting posture. While Shakespeare’s allusions make use of a common mythological culture and participate in the circulation of its conventions, they also contain a strong critical dimension. Beyond the well-known figure, the powerful images, and the efficient dramatic patterns, the Hercules myth is also the focal point for a 20-year exploration of the hero—on the tragic as on the comic mode. Shakespeare’s plays repeatedly raise the question of the inadequacy of a reductive Herculean ideal, based solely on military prowess. Though it has spectacular qualities, celebrated by Heywood, and probably embodied by a number of Shakespearean figures like York, Talbot, Antony, or Coriolanus, it is restrictive in its isolation of Hercules from society. I would contend that Shakespeare’s use of the myth challenges this individualistic vision of the hero and repeatedly raises the question of the hero’s place in society, of his status once war is over, of his political role, linguistic abilities and sexual identity. This definitely relates to an Elizabethan context where warlike heroism was becoming obsolete and a new status was to be negotiated. The lives and troubles of some contemporaries like Sir Philip Sidney or the Earl of Essex would provide interesting contextual elements here. My purpose, however, is not to offer a full study of heroism in early modern England (for further analysis I will refer the reader to the publications of Christine Sukič, in particular “Le Héros baroque anglais: Comment avoir été et être?”  Bulletin de la Société d'Études Anglo-Américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe Siècles 54 (June 2002): 15-25 and Le héros inachevé: éthique et esthétique dans les tragédies de George Chapman (1559?-1634)  [Bern: Peter Lang, 2005], whose focus on George Chapman rather than Shakespeare provides complementary insights). I only hope to have shown some of the complexities in the Hercules myth and its reappropriations, and in particular, to have shown that elements overlap and interact in spite of traditional separations between the epic and comic Hercules, and between comedy and tragedy. While myth is anthropologically conceived as an explanatory narrative that seeks to make sense of a disturbing reality, I would say that Shakespeare uses it less for explanation than for exploration. Perhaps that is why the pillars of Hercules, marking the end of his heroic journey, are never mentioned in the plays?

How to cite

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

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