Shakespeare's Myths


1 Henry VI (1590), II.i.18-21:

Countess: 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.


1 Henry VI (1590), IV.vii.60-65:  

Lucy: But where’s the great Alcides of the field,

Valiant Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury,

Created for his rare success in arms

Great Earl of Wexford, Waterford, and Valence,

Lord Talbot of Goodrich and Urchinfield,

Lord Strange of Blackmere, Lord Verdun of Alton … 


3 Henry VI (c. 1591, 1591), II.i.50-53:

Messenger: Environèd he was with many foes,

And stood against them as the hope of Troy              [Hector]

Against the Greeks that would have entered Troy.

But Hercules himself must yield to odds;


King John (1590-1591, 1591), II.i.139-46:

[The Bastard is threatening the Duke of Austria, who killed his father, Richard Lionheart; the Duke is wearing a lion’s hide on stage.]

Bastard: I’ll smoke your skin-coat an I catch you right—

Sirrah, look to’t—i’faith I will, i’faith!

Blanche: O, well did he become that lion’s robe

That did disrobe the lion of that robe!

Bastard: It lies as sightly on the back of him

As great Alcides’ shows upon an ass.

But, ass, I’ll take that burden from your back,

Or lay on that shall make your shoulders crack.


The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-1604, 1592), I.ii.257-58:

 Gremio: Yea, leave that labour to great Hercules,

And let it be more than Alcides' twelve.


Titus Andronicus (1594), IV.ii.92-95:

Aaron: I tell you, younglings, not Enceladus

With all his threat’ning band of Typhon’s brood,

Nor great Alcides, nor the god of war       [Mars]

Shall seize this prey out of his father’s hands.


Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1588-1597, 1595), I.ii.61-70:

Armado: I think scorn to sigh. Methinks I should outswear Cupid. Comfort me, boy. What great men have been in love?

Mote: Hercules, master.

Armado: Most sweet Hercules! More authority, dear boy. Name more—and, sweet my child, let them be men of good repute and carriage.

Mote: Samson, master; he was a man of good carriage, great carriage, for he carried the town-gates on his back like a porter, and he was in love.


Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1595, 1595), I.ii.167-69:

Armado: Cupid’s butt-shaft is too hard for Hercules’ club, and therefore too much odds for a Spaniard’s rapier.


Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1595, 1595), IV.ii.77-79:

Holofernes: Mehercle, if their sons be ingenious they shall want no instruction; if their daughters be capable, I will put it to them. [The Latin oath “Mehercle” (“By Hercules”) is frequent in the comedies of Plautus and Terence. It is appropriate to Holofernes’ comic pedantry.


Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1595, 1595), IV.iii.161-68: 

Biron: O, what a scene of fool’ry have I seen,

Of sighs, of groans, of sorrow, and of teen!

O me, with what strict patience have I sat,

To see a king transformèd to a gnat!

To see great Hercules whipping a gig,

And profound Solomon to tune a jig,

And Nestor play at pushpin with the boys,

And critic Timon laugh at idle toys! 


Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1595, 1595), IV.iii.316-17:

Biron: For valour, is not love a Hercules,

Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?


Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1595, 1595), V.i.118-34:

Nathaniel: Where will you find men worthy enough to present them?

Holofernes: Joshua, yourself; myself, Judas Maccabeus; and this gallant gentleman, Hector. This swain, because of his great limb or joint, shall pass Pompey the Great; the page, Hercules.

Armado: Pardon, sir, error! He is not quantity enough for that Worthy’s thumb. He is not so big as the end of his club.

Holofernes: Shall I have audience? He shall present Hercules in minority. His enter and exit shall be strangling a snake, and I will have an apology for that purpose.

Mote: An excellent device! So, if any of the audience hiss, you may cry ‘Well done, Hercules, now thou crushest the snake!’—that is the way to make an offence gracious, though few have the grace to do it.  


Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1595, 1595), V.ii.582-88:

Enter Holofernes the pedant as Judas, and the boy Mote as Hercules

Holofernes: Great Hercules is presented by this imp,

   Whose club killed Cerberus, that three-headed canus,

And when he was a babe, a child, a shrimp,

   Thus did he strangle serpents in his manus.

Quoniam he seemeth in minority,

Ergo I come with this apology.

(To Mote) Keep some state in thy exit, and vanish. 

[On the whole of V.ii, see Analysis.]


A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596), I.ii.24-37:

Bottom: Yet my chief humour is for a tyrant. I could play ’erc’les [Hercules] rarely, or a part to tear a cat in, to make all split.

The raging rocks

And shivering shocks

Shall break the locks

    Of prison gates,

And Phibus’ car             [Phoebus]

Shall shine from far

And make and mar

    The foolish Fates.

This was lofty. Now name the rest of the players.—This is 'erc'les' vein, a tyrant's vein. A lover is more condoling.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596), IV.i.111-13:

Hippolyta: I was with Hercules and Cadmus once

When in a wood of Crete they bayed the bear

With hounds of Sparta.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594-1598, 1595), V.i.44-47: 

Lysander: (Reads) "The battle with the centaurs, to be sung

By an Athenian eunuch to the harp."

Theseus: We’ll none of that. That I have told my love

In glory of my kinsman Hercules. 


The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598, 1596), II.i.31-38:

Morocco:                    But alas the while,

If Hercules and Lichas play at dice

Which is the better man, the greater throw

May turn by fortune from the weaker hand.

So is Alcides beaten by his rage,

And so may I, blind Fortune leading me,

Miss that which one unworthier may attain,

And die with grieving. 


The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598, 1596), III.ii.53-60: 

Portia:                         Now he goes,

With no less presence but with much more love

Than young Alcides when he did redeem

The virgin tribute paid by howling Troy           [Hesione]

To the sea-monster. I stand for sacrifice.

The rest aloof are the Dardanian wives,

With blearèd visages come forth to view

The issue of th' exploit. go, Hercules.


The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598, 1596), III.ii.83-86: 

Bassanio: How many cowards whose hearts are all as false

As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins

The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,

Who, inward searched, have livers white as milk?


1 Henry IV (c. 1596-1597, 1597), II.v.271-76:

Sir John: Why, hear you, my masters. Was it for me to kill the heir-apparent? Should I turn upon the true prince? 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.  


The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597), I.iii.4-7:

Sir John: Truly, mine Host, I must turn away some of my followers.

Host: Discard, bully Hercules, cashier. Let them wag. Trot, trot.  


Much Ado About Nothing (1598), II.i.236-38:

Benedick: She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire, too.   


Much Ado About Nothing (1598), II.i.341-44: 

Don Pedro: I 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.


Much Ado About Nothing (1598), III.iii.126-33: 

Borachio: Seest thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is, how giddily a turns about all the hot-bloods between fourteen and five-and-thirty, sometimes fashioning them like Pharaoh’s soldiers in the reechy painting, sometime like god Bel’s priests in the old church window, sometime like the shaven Hercules in the smirched, worm-eaten tapestry, where his codpiece seems as massy as his club? 


Much Ado About Nothing (1598), IV.i.319-23: 

Beatrice: But manhood is melted into courtesies, valour into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones, too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it.


As You Like It (1598-1600, 1599), I.ii.188-89, 198-99:

Charles: Come, where is this young gallant that is so desirous to lie with his mother earth?

Rosalind: (to Orlando) Now Hercules be thy speed, young man!

[An allusion to the fight between Hercules and Antaeus is sometimes identified in the lines quoted above.]


Hamlet (1600-1601, 1601), I.ii.151-53:

Hamlet:                       —married with mine uncle,

My father’s brother, but no more like my father

Than I to Hercules;


Hamlet (1600-1601, 1601), II.ii.361-63: 

Hamlet: Do the boys carry it away?

Rosencrantz: Ay, that they do, my lord, Hercules and his load too.


Hamlet (1600-1601, 1601), V.i.288-89: 

Hamlet: Let Hercules himself do what he may,

The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.


All’s Well That Ends Well (1603-1604, 1603), III.iv.12-17: 

Reynaldo (reads the letter): "His taken labours bid him me forgive;

    I, his despiteful Juno, sent him forth

From courtly friends, with camping foes to live,

    Where death and danger dogs the heels of worth.

He is too good and fair for death and me;

Whom I myself embrace to set him free."


All’s Well That Ends Well (1603-1604, 1603), IV.iii.251-57: 

Interpreter: Therefore once more to this Captain Dumaine. You have answered to his reputation with the Duke, and to his valour. What is his honesty?

Paroles: He will steal, sir, an egg out of a cloister. For rapes and ravishments he parallels Nessus. He professes not keeping of oaths; in breaking’em he is stronger than Hercules.  


Antony and Cleopatra (c.1606-1608, 1607), I.iii.83-85:

Cleopatra:                   Look, prithee, Charmian,

How this Herculean Roman does become                       

The carriage of his chafe.


Antony and Cleopatra (c.1606-1608, 1607), II.v.18-23: 

Cleopatra: 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.

[It is commonly thought that this passage refers to Hercules and Omphale]


Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606-1608, 1607), III.vii.67:

Soldier: By Hercules, I think I am i’th’ right.


Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606-1608, 1607), IV.iii.11-15: 

First Soldier:               Music i’th’ air.

Third Soldier:                         Under the earth.

Fourth Soldier: It signs well, does it not?

Third Soldier:                                            No.

First Soldier:                                                   Peace, I say!

What should this mean?

Second Soldier: ’Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved,

Now leaves him. 


Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606-1608, 1607), IV.xiii.43-47: 

Antony: The shirt of Nessus is upon me. Teach me,

Alcides, thou mine ancestor, thy rage.

Let me lodge Lichas on the horns o’th’ moon,

And with those hands that grasped the heaviest club

Subdue my worthiest self. The witch shall die.


Coriolanus (1608), IV.i.16-20:                                 

Coriolanus: I shall be loved when I am lacked. Nay, mother,

Resume that spirit when you were wont to say,

If you had been the wife of Hercules

Six of his labours you’d have done, and saved

Your husband so much sweat. 


Coriolanus (1608), 

Cominius (to the tribunes): He’ll shake your Rome about your ears.

Menenius: As Hercules did shake down mellow fruit.  [Hesperides]


Cymbeline (c. 1608-1611, 1609), IV.ii.114-18:

Guiderius: This Cloten was a fool, an empty purse,

There was no money in’t. Not Hercules

Could have knocked out his brains, for he had none.

Yet I not doing this, the fool had borne

My head as I do his.


 Cymbeline (c. 1608-1611, 1609), IV.ii.310-14:

Innogen: A headless man? The garments of Posthumus?

I know the shape of ’s leg; this is his hand,

His foot Mercurial his Martial thigh,               [Mercury], [Mars]

The brawns of Hercules; but his Jovial face—             [Jupiter]

Murder in Heaven! How? 'Tis gone.


The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613-1614, 1613), I.i.66-69:

Theseus:                      Hercules our kinsman—

Then weaker than your eyes—laid by his club.

He tumbled down upon his Nemean hide             [Nemean lion]

And swore his sinews thawed.

[Theseus is talking about the First Queen’s beauty on her wedding day.]


The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613-1614, 1613), II.v.1-4: 

Theseus [To Arcite]: You have done worthily. I have not seen

Since Hercules a man of tougher sinews.

Whate’er you are, you run the best and wrestle

That these times can allow.


The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613-1614, 1613), 

Palamon:                                Stop,

As thou art just, thy noble ear against us;

As thou art valiant, for thy cousin’s [Hercules] soul,

Whose twelve strong labours crown his memory,

Let's die together, at one instant, Duke.


The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613-1614, 1613), V.v.118-20: 

Theseus [about Arcite]:            His behaviour

So charmed me that, methought, Alcides was

To him a sow of lead.

How to cite

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

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