Shakespeare's Myths

I.  General meanings
1.  Hercules the hero: epic and parodic references
a.  Recurrent terms and episodes
b.  Isolated references
c.  References to the whole cycle of Hercules’ labours
2.  Hercules the lover
 a.  Recurrent terms and episodes
b.  Isolated references
c.  Detailed references
II.  Specific applications
1.  Hercules and historical or political figures
2.  The writer’s Herculean Labour
III.  Hercules on stage


I.  General meanings
1.  Hercules the hero: epic and parodic references
a.  Recurrent terms and episodes


[Hercules is most frequently mentioned as the epitome of valour. Recurrent epithets are “stout”, “mighty”, “strong”, “great”. The labours are often referred to in a general way, and the most common episodes are those of Hydra, Cerberus, the Hesperides and the pillars.

Hercules is repeatedly associated with other heroes, in lists including Hector, Achilles, Pompey, Alexander, and perhaps most frequently, Samson.

Finally, the proverb “Ne Hercule contra duos”, or “Hercules himself cannot deal with two”, is quoted (with variants) in many texts, particularly in plays.]


b.  Isolated references


Nicholas Udall. Ralph Roister Doister (1552-1554?, 1552) (STC 24508), I.ii, sig. A4r-B1v:

Ralph Roister Doister:

What is he that durst have put me in that heat?

He that beateth me, by his arms, shall well find

That I will not be far from him nor run behind.

Mathew Merrygreek:

That thing know all men ever since ye overthrew,

The fellow of the lion which Hercules slew.             [Nemean lion]

But what is it then?


Ralph Roister Doister:

Yes, each where they gaze all upon me and stare.

Mathew Merrygreek:

Yea, Malkin, I warrant you, as much as they dare.

And ye will not believe what they say in the street,

When your ma’ship passeth by, all such as I meet,

That sometimes I can scarce find what answer to make.

Who is this, saith one, sir Lancelot du Lake?

Who is this, great Guy of Warwick? saith another.

No, say I, it is the thirteenth Hercules’ brother.

Who is this? noble Hector of Troy, saith the third?

No, but of the same nest, say I, it is a bird.

Who is this, great Goliah, Samson, or Colbrand?

No, say I, but it is a Brute of the alye [ally?] land.

Who is this, great Alexander? Or Charlemagne?

No, it is the tenth Worthy, say I to them again:

I know not if I said well.


Anon. (Thomas Preston?). Clyomon and Clamydes (c. 1570-1583, 1570) (STC 5450a), sig. A4r:


Ah Lady, if case these travels should surmount, the travels whereby came

Unto the worthies of the world, such noble bruit and fame,

Yea, though the dangers should surpass stout Hercules his toil,

Who, fearing nought the dogged fiend, stern Cerberus did foil,

Take here my hand, if life and limb the living Gods do lend,

To purchase thee, the dearest drop of blood my heart shall spend.


Christopher Marlowe. 2 Tamburlaine (1587-1588, 1588), IV.iii.1-23:


Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia:

The headstrong jades of Thrace, Alcides tam'd,

That King Egeus fed with human flesh,

And made so wanton that they knew their strengths,

Were not subdued with valour more divine

Than you by this unconquered arm of mine.

To make you fierce, and fit my appetite,

You shall be fed with flesh as raw as blood,

And drink in pails the strongest Muscadell:

If you can live with it, then live, and draw

My chariot swifter than the racking clouds:

If not, then die like beasts, and fit for nought

But perches for the black and fatal Ravens.

[It was Diomedes, and not King Egeus, who fed his mares on human flesh. See The Taming of a Shrew, below.]


SHAKESPEARE1 Henry VI (1590)


SHAKESPEARE.  3 Henry VI (c. 1591, 1591) 


Thomas KydSoliman and Perseda (c.1589-1592, 1592), II.ii.82-83:

Basilisco: I tell thee, if Alcides lived this day,

He could not wield my weapons.


SHAKESPEARE.  King John (1590-1591, 1591)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-1604, 1592)


Anon. The Taming of A Shrew (c.1592-1594, 1592) (STC 23667), sig. D3v:


Were she as stubborn or as full of strength

As were the Thracian horse Alcides tamed,

That King Egeus fed with flesh of men,

Yet would I pull her down and make her come

As hungry hawks do fly unto their lure.

[It was Diomedes, and not King Egeus, who fed his mares on human flesh. See 2Tamburlaine, above.]


 W. S.  Locrine (c. 1594, 1594) (STC 21528), I.ii, sig. B3r:


Wert thou as strong as mighty Hercules,

That tamed the hugy [huge] monsters of the world, ...


W. S.  Locrine (c. 1594, 1594) (STC 21528), III.ii, sig. E3v:


The Hun shall die, had he ten thousand lives:

And would to God he had ten thousand lives,

That I might with the arm-strong Hercules

Crop off so vile an Hydra’s hissing heads, ...


W. S.  Locrine (c. 1594, 1594) (STC 21528), III.iv, sig. F4r:


The arm-strong offspring of the doubled night,

Stout Hercules, Alcmena’s mighty son,

That tamed the monsters of the threefold world,

And rid the oppressed from the tyrants’ yokes,

Did never show such valiantness in fight,

As I will now for noble Albanact.


SHAKESPEARE.  Titus Andronicus (1594)


SHAKESPEARE.  Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1588-1597, 1595)


SHAKESPEARE.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598, 1596)


SHAKESPEARE.  1 Henry IV (c. 1596-1597, 1597)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)


SHAKESPEARE.  Much Ado About Nothing (1598)


Thomas Dekker. The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1599), I.i.161-68:


Tawsoone, my fine Firk, tawsoone! Peace, scoundrels; see you this man, captains? You will not release him? Well, let him go, he's a proper shot, let him vanish! Peace, Jane, dry up thy tears, they’ll make his powder dankish. Take him, brave men, Hector of Troy was a hackney to him, Hercules and Termagant scoundrels, Prince Arthur’s Round Table, by the Lord of Ludgate, ne’er fed such a tall, such a dapper swordsman; by the life of Pharaoh, a brave resolute swordsman. Peace, Jane, I say no more, mad knaves.


See, see Hodge, how my master raves in commendation of Ralph.


SHAKESPEARE.  As You Like It (1598-1600, 1599)


SHAKESPEARE.  Hamlet (1600-1601, 1601)


SHAKESPEARE.  All’s Well That Ends Well (1603-1604, 1603)


John Marston. The Insatiate Countess (c.1607-1608, 1607) (STC 17476), IV, sig. G4r:


What danger durst you hazard for my love?

Don Sago:

Perils that never mortal durst approve.

I’ll double all the works of Hercules, …


SHAKESPEARE.  Antony and Cleopatra (c.1606-1608, 1607)


Anon. The Hystorie of Hamblet (translated from François de Belleforest) (1608) (STC 12734.5), chapter 7, sig. G4v:

In reading of this history, it seemeth Hamlet should resemble another Hercules, sent into divers places of the world, by Eurystheus (solicited by Juno), where he knew any dangerous adventure, thereby to overthrow and destroy him, or else Bellerophon set to Ariobatus to put him to death [“Ariobatus” stands for Iobatus, to whom Bellerophon was sent to be put to death: Apollodorus, Library, II.iii.2], or (leaving prophane histories) another Urias by King David appointed to be placed in the forefront of the battle, and the man that should be first slain by the Barbarians.


SHAKESPEARE.  Coriolanus (1608)


Samuel Rowlands. “To the Noble English Nation”, in The Famous History of Guy, Earl of Warwick (1609) (STC 21378), sig. A3v:

He was a prodigal of life and limb,

And bade all welcome, came to fight with him.

Were it a Giant like to Gogmagog,

Or Cerberus, that triple headed dog,

Or he that often did Olympus climb,

And was the only club-man of his time,

Great Hercules, if he had breathed on ground,

When English Guy of Warwick liv’d renown’d,

There would have been a combat t’wixt them two,

To try what stout Alcides’ force could do;

Or Hector, whose applaud the world doth know,

Or fierce Achilles, fearful to his foe.

Had all these liv’d together in an age,

They had been combatants, the earth their stage ...


Anon. Morindos (1609) (STC 18108), chapter 4, sig. C3r:

Upon these strict conditions, or rather Herculean labours, these three gallants without any further reply, departed each one his several way, striving which of them should accomplish the task proposed unto them; where we will leave them for a while, travelling strange countries, diligently seeking to bring these their strange labours to an end, and speak of the woeful miseries that the heaven afflicted this proud Lady withal.


SHAKESPEARE.  Cymbeline (c. 1608-1611, 1609)


Thomas Heywood. An Apology for Actors (1612) (STC 13309), sig. B3r-v:

... it may be imagined, had Achilles never lived, Alexander had never conquered the whole world. The like assertion may be made of that ever-renowned Roman, Julius Cæsar. Who
after the like representation of Alexander in the Temple of Hercules standing in Gades, was never in any peace of thoughts, till by his memorable exploits, he had purchased to himself the name of Alexander; as Alexander, till he thought himself of desert to be called Achilles; Achilles, Theseus; Theseus till he had sufficiently imitated the acts of Hercules; and Hercules till he held himself worthy to be called the son of Jupiter. Why should not the lives of these worthies, presented in these our days, effect the like wonders in the Princes of our times, which can no way bee so exquisitely demonstrated, nor so lively portrayed as by action...


Thomas Heywood. An Apology for Actors (1612) (STC 13309), sig. B4r:

To see, as I have seen, Hercules in his own shape hunting the Boar, knocking down the Bull, taming the Hart, fighting with Hydra, murdering Gerion, slaughtering Diomede, wounding the Stimphalides, killing the Centaurs, pashing the lion [Nemean lion], squeezing the Dragon, dragging Cerberus in chains, and lastly, on his high pyramids writing Nil ultra, oh, these were sights to make an Alexander.


Nathan Field and John Fletcher. The Honest Man’s Fortune (1613) (Wing B1581), I, sig. Ttttt2r:


Longueville, thou bringst a cheerful promise in thy face.

There stands no pale report upon thy cheek,

To give me fear or knowledge of my loss, ’tis red and lively.

How proceeds my suit?


That's with labour sir, a labour that to those of Hercules

May add another; or (at least) be called

An imitation of this burning shirt:

For ’twas a pain of that unmerciful

Perplexity, to shoulder through the throng

Of people that attended your success:

My sweaty linen fixt upon my skin,

Still as they pulled me, took that with it; 'twas

A fear I should have left my flesh among 'em:

Yet I was patient, for (methought) the toil

Might be an emblem of the difficult

And weary passage to get out of Law.

And to make up the dear similitude,

When I was forth seeking my handkercher

To wipe my sweat off, I did find a cause

To make me sweat more, for my purse was lost

Among their finger.


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


Abraham CowleyLove’s Riddle (c.1633-1636, 1633) (STC 5904), III, sig. D1v:


Alcides freed the earth from savage monsters,

And I will free the heavens and be called

Don Hercules Alcido de secundo.


A brave Castilian name.


’Tis a hard task,

But if that fellow did so much by strength,

I may well do’t arm’d both with love and fury.


Of which thou hast enough.


Farewell, thou rat.

The cedar bids the shrub adieu.



Don Hercules Alcido de secundo.

If thou scar'st any, ‘twill be by that name.

This is a wonderful rare fellow, and

I like his humour mightily—who’s here?


James Shirley. The Gamester (1633) (STC 22443), III, sig. E3r:

Old Barnacle:

You know not how my Nephew is improv’d

Since you last saw him, valiant as Hercules,

He has knock’d the flower of Chivalry, the very

Donzal del Phebo of the time, and all

The blades do reverence him; I’ll say no more,

Name but the man whom you do frown upon,

And let me send my Nephew to him.


James Shirley. The Gamester (1633) (STC 22443), IV, sig. G2r:


... extend thy paw, thou

Invincible epitome of Hercules, and let thy servant

Kisse it.


Richard BromeThe Antipodes (1636-1638, 1638) (STC 3818), II.ii., sig. D3r:


Trouble not you your head with my conceit,

But mind your part. Let me not see you act now,

In your scholastic way, you brought to town wi’ ye,

With seesaw sack a down, like a sawyer;

Nor in a comic scene, play Hercules furens,

Tearing your throat to split the audience’ ears.


James ShirleyThe Sisters (1642) (Wing S3485),, sig. B3v:


You heard this fellow name the proud Paulina,

Her Chests are worth the rifling.


The Castle is impregnable she lives in.


Was that spoke like an understanding thief,

A true Bandit? How I do blush for thee?

Was not the Orchard of Hesperides

Watcht by a fierce, and flaming Dragon, robbed?

Shall wee despair to reach her golden Apples?

We’ll make discovery of the place, and persons,

Put it to Fate, let Stars do what they please;

Mercury is a stronger thief than Hercules.


c.  References to the whole cycle of Hercules’ labours


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


Patrick Gordon. Penardo and Laissa (1615) (STC 12067), chapter XII, sig. K1v-K2r:


The royalty of this fair room was such

As seem’d the like on earth could not be found;

The value of the hangings was so much

That from the ceiling to the paved ground

Did reach all richly wrought with pearl and gold,

Which Hercules’ great battles did unfold.



There, had he slain the Giant all alone,

Who sometime ruled fair Europe’s fairest isle,

Of whom it got the name of Albion

And there was sev’n mouth’d Hydra fierce e’rewhile,

Whom he by his all-conquering force had slain;

His shafts there, in the monster did remain.  



There, in the Nemean forest he had slain             [Nemean lion]

The lion fierce; the monster of the sea

He slew and fair Hesione did obtain.

There, the Thessalian Centaurs vanquish’d he,

There, Cerberus he bound and captive led

And Proserpine from Pluto’s thralldom freed.



There, did he kill Anteus fierce and bold

And Nessus there, and Geryon proud of Spain;

And from Hesperides renown’d of old,

Where did the golden flieced flocks remain,

He them from Atlas’ daughters did dissever

And bound Philotes as a slave for ever.



There, his twelve works bred terror to the eye

And trembling fear unto the boldest heart;

There, had he thrown him headlong in the sea,             [Lichas]

Who brought to him the strange empoison’d shirt

There, he in pain, rage, sorrow, did lament

Tearing the venom that his flesh did rent.


Richard Brathwaite.  “Three other Satyres...,” in Nature’s Embassy (1621) (STC 3571), pp. 148-55:

[The satire of tyranny, embodied in King Eurystheus, provides a 140-line-long account of Hercules’ labours]


2.  Hercules the lover
a.  Recurrent terms and episodes


[The general idea is that even a great champion like Hercules can do nothing against the power of love. The specific episode is that of Omphale (or Iole), hence frequent mentions of “spinning” and a “distaff”. Hercules’ death is also related to love, and the story of the poisoned shirt is often viewed as Deianira’s (involuntary) deceit.

Again, those allusions recurrently associate Hercules with Samson, who was also the victim of a woman.

In playful and bawdy allusions, the episode of Hercules sleeping with the fifty daughters of King Thespius is also frequently quoted, and the demigod is often characterized as a “bastard”.]


b.  Isolated references


C. Pyrrye.  “The Disprayse of Women”, in The Praise and Dispraise of Women (1569) (STC 20523), sig. B2r-v:

Who hath not read of Hercules,

whose spiteful, envious wife

Did cause him end, remediless,

his fatal thread of life


By giving him a coat to wear,

sprinkled with poison strong

Which seemed his tender parts to tear,

whereby he suffered wrong.


Whereby also the wretch alack,

soon yielded living breath;

The putting it upon his back

did cause untimely death.

Of Samson strong what need I speak,

the scriptures plainly show

How Dalilah her mind did break,

desirous for to know


Where his chief strength did most depend;

and when he had her told, 

She brought him to most wretched end,

selling his life for gold.


Both David, Lot, and Solomon,

I strike clean out of mind,

With thousands more that I could name,

deceived by womankind.


Timothy Kendall. Flowers of Epigrammes (1577) (STC 14927), p. 86v:

“Under Hercules painted spinning” 

What brings not love to pass?

what doeth not love constrain?

It caused stout Hercules to spin,

by whom were monsters slain.


Robert Greene. Mamillia (1583) (STC 12269), p. 12v, sig. D3v:

Theseus, Demophoon, Aeneas, Jason, and Hercules, were both famous for their feature and fortitude, and renowned for their invincible valour, and yet they won not so much fame for their prowess in war, as shame for their inconstancy in love ...


SHAKESPEARE1 Henry VI (1590)


SHAKESPEARE.  3 Henry VI (c. 1591, 1591)


SHAKESPEARE.  King John (1590-1591, 1591)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-1604, 1592)


SHAKESPEARE.  As You Like It (1598-1600, 1599)


SHAKESPEARE.  Hamlet (1600-1601, 1601)


SHAKESPEARE.  All’s Well That Ends Well (1603-1604, 1603)


John Marston. The Malcontent (1602-1604, 1604), IV.v.54-61:


Do not weep, kind cuckold; take comfort, man; thy betters have been beccos [cuckolds]: Agamemnon, emperor of all the merry Greeks that tickled all the true Trojans, was a cornuto; Prince Arthur, that cut off twelve kings’ beards, was a cornuto; Hercules, whose back bore up heaven, and got forty wenches with child in one night, —

Pietro: Nay, ’twas fifty.

Malevole: Faith, forty's enough, o’ conscience — yet was a cornuto. Patience; mischief grows proud; be wise.


Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton1 The Honest Whore (1604), III.iii.100-05:


Is’t possible, to be impossible! an honest whore! I have heard many honest wenches turn strumpets with a wet finger, but for a harlot to turn honest is one of Hercules’ labours. It was more easy for him in one night to make fifty queans, than to make one of them honest again in fifty years. Come, I hope thou dost but jest.

George ChapmanThe Widow’s Tears (1604-1605, 1604) (STC 4994), II, sig. E4v:


Sfoot, madam, am I the first great personage that hath stooped to disguises for love? What think you of our countryman Hercules, that for love put on Omphale’s apron, and sat spinning amongst her wenches, while his mistress wore his lion’s skin and lamb-skinned him if he did not his business?


George ChapmanThe Widow’s Tears (1604-1605, 1604) (STC 4994), V, sig. I4v:


Oh! I could tear myself into atoms! Off with this antic! The shirt that Hercules wore for his wife was not more baneful. Is’t possible there should be such a latitude in the sphere of this sex, to entertain such an extension of mischief, and not turn devil? What is a woman?


SHAKESPEARE.  Antony and Cleopatra (c.1606-1608, 1607)


SHAKESPEARE.  Coriolanus (1608)


Anon. The Hystorie of Hamblet (translated from François de Belleforest) (1608) (STC 12734.5), chapter VIII, sig. H4v-I1r:

... for if a man be never so princely, valiant, and wise, if the desires and enticements of his flesh prevail, and have the upper hand, he will imbase his credit, and gazing after strange beauties, become a fool, and (as it were) incensed, dote on the presence of women. This fault was in the great Hercules, Samson, and the wisest man that ever lived upon the earth following this train, therein impaired his wit, and the most noble, wise, valiant and discreet personages of our time, following the same course, have left us many notable examples of their worthy and notable virtues.


SHAKESPEARE.  Cymbeline (c. 1608-1611, 1609)


Ben Jonson. The Alchemist (1610), II.ii.34-39:

Mammon:                       For I do mean

To have a list of wives, and concubines,

Equal with Solomon, who had the stone

Alike, with me; and I will make me a back,

With the elixir, that shall be as tough

As Hercules, to encounter fifty a night.



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



Philip Massinger. The Picture (1629),


You would put now

A foolish jealousy in my head; my Lord

Hath gotten a new mistress?


One? a hundred!

But under seal I speak it, I presume

Upon your silence, it being for your profit.

They talk of Hercules’ back for fifty in a night;

'Twas well, but yet to yours he was a piddler.      [piddler: dabbler, trifler]

Such a soldier, and a courtier never came

To Alba regalis, the ladies run mad for him,   [Alba regalis: Székesfehérvár, in Hungary]

And there is such contention among’em

Who shall ingross him wholly, that the like

Was never heard of.


Philip Massinger. The Picture (1629), IV.ii.175-84:


How will you use us?


Ease and excess in feeding made you wanton;

A pleurisy of ill blood you must let out

By labour, and spare diet, that way got to,

Or perish for hunger. Reach him up that distaff

With the flax upon it; though no Omphale

Nor you a second Hercules, as I take it,

As you spin well at my command, and please me

Your wages in the coarsest bread, and water,

Shall be proportionable.


c.  Detailed references


Anon. The Deceyte of Women (1557?) (STC 6451):

An old deceite done in old time

Hercules, the worthy champion, was a man of great renown, and was the bastard of King Jupiter, and of the Queen Alcmena, This Hercules, when that he lay yet in the cradle, he strangled and killed two great serpents that would have killed him, the which his stepmother Juno had brought to him. This Hercules overcame a mighty great Greek, that which was called Philotes, that which afterwards became Hercules’ servant. And through the information of Juno his stepmother (the which would well that he had been dead) went into a forest or heath of Nemea [Nemean lion]; and there he overcame 3 lions with great power and strength. This Hercules took his journey into the city of Molosen [The author refers to Molossia, whose king Pluto had abducted Proserpina, according to Boccaccio, Genealogia, VIII, vi, and Coluccio Salutati, De Laboribus Herculis, IV, i, 19; iii, 18. Servius (In Aeneidos, III, 297) defines Molossia as a part of Epirus, in Greece, so-called from its first king, Molossus, Pyrrhus' son] and fetched again the fair Proserpina, Orpheus’s wife, the which king Pluto had stolen, and he fought against the porter Cerberus, which was a mighty great Greek, but Hercules overcame him and bound him hand and foot, and overcame 300 citizens of Molosyn, the which would have taken Proserpina from him. [The episode of Hercules rescuing Proserpina, Orpheus’ wife, from the king of “Molose” derives from Raoul Le Fèvre’s Recueil des hystoires de Troyes, translated into English by William Caxton] This Hercules overcame the great monster of Lerna, the upper part like a man and nether part like a serpent, by the which monster no man might pass without that he went with 300 or more strong men of arms, and his food was the flesh of men and therewith he lived. And he overcame the king Cacus, the which was a fierce tyrant and oppressed all the people of that country, and upon a night, he had stolen away Hercules’ oxen in Italy, and Cacus had tied them tail to tail, and so brought them into the cave where that he dwelt, to the end that they should not find the footing of them, for the footing of the oxen did show always from the cave ward where that he dwelt. Also he conquered the great monster of the sea afore Troy, the which they must have given every day for his dinner a man and a sheep, and that continued so long till the lot fell upon the king’s daughter [Hesione], the which he delivered, and subdued the great monster, and delivered the city of Troy; and also he was a great jouster, for where that he heard that there were any great lord, or king that was a tyrant, or an oppressor of the people, thither would he go, and adventure his life, and pursue them to death. Ha, good lord, if that an infidel hath done such things (that which had no hope of the life eternal) through love of justice, how much the more should every christian lord fight for the true justice, and that same to exalt, the which knoweth well the great reward that is promised them of the lord celestial ? Upon a time, Hercules took his journey toward his own country, of Ycoyien [Iconia, from Raoul Le Fèvre’s Recueil des hystoires de Troyes] with his wife Megara, and her handmaid. And also he came into the land of Tassalian [Thessaly] where that he must pass over the water with the ship, and the ship was so little that it could not carry them all over at once and so Hercules remained and went not over with the ship, and the ferry man beheld Deianira, and when they came to land, the ferry man took Hercules’ wife and would have run away with her; and Hercules seeing that, took his bow and shot over the water toward Nessus the ferry man, and shot the arrow in Nessus’ side in so much that he felt that he must die; and then, he said to Deianira: “Ye be a fair woman, and therefore I require you take a compassion upon me, for your husband Hercules is not true, for he loveth other beside you. Hold, take this box for therein is such a thing that when that ye anoint therewith his shirt, and that he put it upon his body, then shall all the strange love depart from him”. And upon a time, Hercules subdued the king Pricus, the which had many daughters, and among them there was one that was the fairest, the which he entirely loved above all the other and her name was Iole [Iole was the daughter of Eurytus in classical tradition; Hercules’ involvement with king Pricus and his daughter Iole derives from Raoul Le Fèvre’s Recueil des histoyres de Troyes and its English translation by Caxton], and Hercules said to her: “Iole, take me as your friend, for so must it be, for the gods have given to me this chance”. And when that Iole heard this that she must do him friendship, the which had oppressed and conquered her father, than fell Iole in a swoon and in great sorrow. And then Hercules betook Iole in the keeping of 12 men, that she should not escape him. And Hercules desired her that she would be his wife, that which, at last, she consented, and so Hercules lay by her and accomplished his pleasure so long with her that he wholly forgot his wife Deianira. Deianira heard of this and so she wrote a letter to him, remembering him of that great love that was once to be between them, and to know if that should be so lost and forgotten, and that he, the which all the world did dread, would so suffer himself to be overcome of a strange woman. And when Hercules had read this letter, he was not well content and was ill apaid thereof in so much that none durst come by him nor also the fair Iole. And so, Hercules being in heavy fantasy, revised himself how he might best forget the fair Iole, and so he took his way and journey to the mount Otaeus on pilgrimage, and for to do sacrifice to the god Apollo, and in the way met with him Lichas, chamberlain of Deianira and when that Deianira knew that, then she took one of Hercules’ shirts, the which was overstricken with the poison that Nessus had given to her and sent it to Hercules, for to put on, knowing no other wise but that the strange love should therewith have departed from him, as Nessus made her to believe. And then Hercules had made a great fire for to do sacrifice unto the god Apollo with a hart that Hercules had taken cunningly. And Lichas gave to him the shirt and for because that he sweat so sore through the great anguish and hard sorrow, he took the shirt of Lichas and put it on, and when that the shirt was warm upon him, it cleaved so fast to his body, and he felt such great pain, that he wist not what to do and would have drawn off the shirt again, but he could not, but drew it off by great pieces from his body with the skin and the flesh to the bone, in such wise that one might have seen his bowels. And so Hercules saw and knew well that he must die. Then, Hercules said to Philotes: “Tell Iole and all her friends (with abundance of tears) of the miserable death of Hercules”. Then wailed Iole so bitterly that her heart did burst, and died for sorrow. When that Deianira heard tell of the death of Hercules, and how that it was through the shirt the which she had sent him, she took a knife and killed herself for sorrow. And thus was the valiant Hercules shamefully deceived of a woman; nevertheless it was without the knowledge of the woman, though that the woman was the causer thereof. (sig. F4r-G2r)


The strong and worthy Hercules was overcome in all his power and strength through the love of a young maid, the fair Iole, that king’s daughter of Calydon in that which the worthiest of the world could not overcome and bring him to shame. This king her father had promised Hercules that his daughter Iole should be his wife, the which in short time after he repented, of the which Hercules was very wroth, and took war against the king and overcame him, and took all the country, with the fair Iole, the which he so entirely loved. But Iole, the which thought more upon the death of her father than on the love of Hercules, under a colour of false love and with subtle means, smiling and with flattering words, hath drawn Hercules to such great love, that she caused him for to do what it pleased her and so she hath caused him for to do lay away his iron staff, wherewith he was wont for to rule the strong monsters and beasts withal. She caused him for to lay away the lion’s skin and caused him to be clothed with soft clothes of silk; she caused him for to wear a crown of rosemary upon his head, and golden rings upon his fingers; his rough hair was combed and after the best manner trimmed, and set a crown upon his head and other costly ornaments, such as the maidens and women did wear. She caused his rough beard to be anointed with costly oil of Cyprus. This Iole was well seen in deceit, and thought in herself that it was more laudable to deceive such a gross, strong man with advoutry [advoutry: translates probrum alongside with whoredom, dishonesty and villany (Thomas Thomas, Dictionarium, 1587)] than to kill him with the sword of mischief, and so to revenge her father’s death. Yet (to the dishonour of that worthy Hercules), she caused him for to give himself to women’s business and idleness, in so much that he went and sat among the women and told riddles and fortunes as the children did, and sat and spun yarn at the distaff as the women did. Now behold how the worthy Hercules is brought to feminine works through the deceit of Iole to his utter confusion, the which which is wont to be so manly in all his feats. Now behold, what mischief, what marvels and what foolishness that the false and subtle women can bring to pass, yea that seemeth impossible for to be, that can they do and bring to pass. (sig. K1v-K2r).



Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke (translated from Robert Garnier). Antonius (1590) (STC 11623), Act III,  sig. E2v-E3v:


Yet hath this ill so much the greater force,

As scarcely any do against it stand;

No, not the demi-gods the old world knew,

Who all subdued, could Pleasure’s power subdue.

Great Hercules, Hercules once that was

Wonder of earth and heaven, matchless in might,

Who Antaeus, Lichas, Geryon overcame,

Who drew from hell the triple-headed dog,  [Cerberus]

Who Hydra kill’d, vanquished Achelous,

Who heavens’ weight on his strong shoulders bare,

Did he not under Pleasure’s burthen bow?

Did he not captive to this passion yield,

When by his captive, so he was inflam’d,

As now yourself in Cleopatra burn?

Slept in her lap, her bosom kissed and kissed,

With base unseemly service bought her love,

Spinning at distaff, and with sinewy hand

Winding on spindle’s thread, in maid’s attire?

His conqu’ring club at rest on wall did hang,

His bow unstringed he bent not as he used,

Upon his shafts the weaving spiders spun,

And his hard cloak the fretting moths did pierce.

The monsters free and fearless all the time

Throughout the world the people did torment.

And more and more, increasing day by day

Scorn’d his weak heart become a mistress’ play.



In only this like Hercules am I,

In this I prove me of his lineage right;

In this himself, his deeds I show in this,

In this, nought else, my ancestor he is.


SHAKESPEARE1 Henry VI (1590)


SHAKESPEARE.  3 Henry VI (c. 1591, 1591)


SHAKESPEARE.  King John (1590-1591, 1591)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-1604, 1592)



II. Specific applications
1.  Hercules and historical or political figures


[Hercules is repeatedly mentioned in praises of historical figures like Francis Drake, and political figures like James I or Charles I.]


Charles Fitz-GeffrySir Francis Drake (1596) (STC 10943):

None but old Atlas heaven-up-holding arms,

Or great Alcides’ adamantine breast,

To whose exploits all poets sing alarms,

Should under-prop the axle of the west,

And wield the heaven that Drake’s name hath address’d,

Whose weight will bruise the shoulders of the weak;

Let children cease of such exploits to speak. (sig. B4v)


The proud Tartessian Caligula fears [The Tartessian (i.e. Spanish) Caligula refers to Philip II]

And hides his doting head for very horror,

If but Drake’s name do thunder in his ears,

And lies astonish’d with an uncouth terror,

Exhaling forth his gasping breath with dolour,

While Drake (our new Alcides) vanquished

This Spanish Hydra’s ever-growing head. (sig. C5r) 


Equal with Hercules in all, save vice,

Drake of his country hath deserved grace,

Who by his industry and quaint devise

Enforc’d a river leave his former place,

Teaching his streams to run an uncouth race.

How could a simple current him withstand,

Who all the mighty Ocean did command? (sig. D7r)


SHAKESPEARE.  Titus Andronicus (1594)


SHAKESPEARE.  Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1588-1597, 1595)


SHAKESPEARE.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598, 1596)


SHAKESPEARE.  1 Henry IV (c. 1596-1597, 1597)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)


SHAKESPEARE.  Much Ado About Nothing (1598)


SHAKESPEARE.  Antony and Cleopatra (c.1606-1608, 1607)


SHAKESPEARE.  Coriolanus (1608)


SHAKESPEARE.  Cymbeline (c. 1608-1611, 1609)


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


Thomas Freeman.  “Pro Carolo Maximæ, magnæ Britannniæ, spei, Principe”, in Rubbe, and a great cast (1614) (STC 11370), sig. A3v:

Long stand our Atlas; and when he shall fall,

Be thou our Hercules, hold up our Heav’n,

Our happiness, I mean, and help us all:

Sit at the Helm, and keep our Ship up ev'n;

Then take, and long, O long keep at the stern!

[Hercules is also incorporated into Tudor mythological genealogy, for obvious nationalistic purposes. His story is then retold in greater detail. For instance, in Arthur Kelton, The Chronicle of the Brutes (1547) (STC 14918), sig. B6v-B7v and William Warner, Albions England (1586-1602) (STC 25079 to 25083), books I-II.]


2.  The writer’s Herculean labour


[Finally, one notes a tendency in writers to identify their own intellectual labour (or their patron’s influence) with Hercules’ more physical exploits. These allusions occur mostly in prefatory texts.]


Stephen Gosson. “To the Right Honorable Sir Frances Walsingham Knight,” in Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582) (STC 12095).

Finding plays of themselves, as filthy as the stables of Augeas, impossible to be cleansed before they be carried out of England, with a stiff stream, and the banishing of them as worthy to be registered in the labours of Hercules as the conquering the monstrous wild Boar of Erymanthus, that wasted the country round about. If ever so notable a thing be brought to pass, it must be done by some Hercules in the Court, whom the roar of the enemy can never daunt. Which persuaded me amongst all the patrons of virtue in her Majesty’s court to dedicate both this and myself unto your honour, that your wisdom might be a countenance to my study, your authority a buckler unto my life.


SHAKESPEARE1 Henry VI (1590)


SHAKESPEARE.  3 Henry VI (c. 1591, 1591)


SHAKESPEARE.  King John (1590-1591, 1591)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-1604, 1592)


SHAKESPEARE.  Titus Andronicus (1594)


SHAKESPEARE.  Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1588-1597, 1595)


SHAKESPEARE.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598, 1596)


SHAKESPEARE.  1 Henry IV (c. 1596-1597, 1597)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)


SHAKESPEARE.  Much Ado About Nothing (1598)


SHAKESPEARE.  Antony and Cleopatra (c.1606-1608, 1607)


SHAKESPEARE.  Coriolanus (1608)


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


George Chapman.  “To the Most Worthily Honoured, my singular good Lord, Robert, Earl of Somerset, Lord Chamberlain, &c,” in Homer’s Odysses (1614-1615), p. 8:

Twelve labours of your Thespian Hercules

I now present your Lordship.  


John TaylorA Funerall Elegie (1637) (STC 23759), sig. B1v:

[Elegy in memory of Ben Jonson.]

His plays were labours of Herculean peril,

Which every wit applauded (but the sterile)


III.  Hercules on stage


[In its inventory of props in the possession of the Lord Admiral's Men on March 10, 1598 (1599), Henslowe's Diary mentions a number of objects that can be related to the staging of Hercules: “3 clubs,” “1 lion skin,” “Cerberus's 3 heads,” “1 tree of golden apples,” “1 lion; 2 lion heads,” and “Hercules’ limbs” [ie, his armour] (R. A. Foakes, and R. T. Rickerts,  Henslowe's Diary: Edited with Supplementary Material, Introduction and Notes.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961, p. 316-25). Theatrical texts, lost and preserved, confirm that Hercules appeared several times on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stages, in plays, masques, and pageants, both for short scenes and as the focus of entire shows.]


Robert Greene. Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589-1590, 1589), scene ix:

[Competition between the two magicians, Friar Bungay in behalf of the English king (Henry III), and Vandermast in behalf of the German emperor.]


Now, English Harry, here begins the game,

We shall see sport between these learned men.


What wilt thou do?


Show thee the tree, leaved with refined gold,

Whereon the fearful dragon held his seat,

That watch’d the garden call’d Hesperides,

Subdued and won by conquering Hercules.


Well done.

Here Bungay conjures, and the tree appears with the dragon shooting fire.


What say you, royal lordings, to my friar,

Hath he not done a point of cunning skill?


Each scholar in the Negromantic spells

Can do as much as Bungay hath performed;

But as Alcmena’s bastard raz'd this tree,

So will I raise him up as when he lived,

And cause him pull the Dragon from his seat,

And tear the branches piecemeal from the root.

Hercules prodi, prodi Hercules!

Hercules appears in his Lion’s skin.


Quis me vult?


Jove’s bastard son, thou Lybian Hercules,

Pull off the sprigs from off th’ Hesperian tree,

As once thou didst to win the golden fruit.



Here he begins to break the branches.


Now, Bungay, if thou canst by magic charm,

The fiend appearing like great Hercules

From pulling down the branches of the tree,

Then art thou worthy to be counted learned.


I cannot.


Cease, Hercules, until I give thee charge.


SHAKESPEARE1 Henry VI (1590)


SHAKESPEARE.  3 Henry VI (c. 1591, 1591)


SHAKESPEARE.  King John (1590-1591, 1591)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590-1604, 1592)


SHAKESPEARE.  Titus Andronicus (1594)


W. S.  Locrine (c.1594) (STC 21528), IV.i:

Enter Ate as before. Then let there follow Omphale, daughter to the king of Lydia, having a club in her hand, and a lion’s skin on her back, Hercules following with a distaff. Then let Omphale turn about, and taking off her pantofle, strike Hercules on the head, then let them depart. Ate remaining, saying: “Quem non Argolici mandata severa tyranni, /Non potuit Juno vincere, vicit amor”. [“He whom neither the severe orders of the Argian tyrant nor even Juno could overcome, love overcame him”. The “Argian tyrant” is Eurystheus. The author of Locrine adapts Ovid’s Heroides IX, 25-26: “Quem non mille ferae, quem non Stheneleius hostis, / Non potuit Juno vincere, vincit amor” (He whom not a thousand wild beasts, nor the Stheneleian foe, nor even Juno could overcome, love overcomes) — “the Stheneleian foe” is Eurystheus, son of Sthenelus.]

Stout Hercules, the mirror of the world,

Son to Alcmena and great Jupiter,

After so many conquests won in field,

After so many monsters quelled by force,

Yielded his valiant heart to Omphale,

A fearful woman void of manly strength,

She took the club, and wore the lion’s skin,

He took the wheel, and maidenly gan spin.

So martial Locrine, cheered with victory,

Falleth in love with Humber’s concubine,

And so forgetteth peerless Guendoline.

His uncle Corineus storms at this,

And forceth Locrine for his grace to sue,

Lo here the sum, the process doth ensue.   


SHAKESPEARE.  Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1588-1597, 1595)


Anon. Hercules, parts 1 and 2 (1595). [The text of those two plays is lost.]


SHAKESPEARE.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Merchant of Venice (1596-1598, 1596)


SHAKESPEARE.  1 Henry IV (c. 1596-1597, 1597)


SHAKESPEARE.  The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597)


SHAKESPEARE.  Much Ado About Nothing (1598)


SHAKESPEARE.  As You Like It (1598-1600, 1599)


SHAKESPEARE.  Hamlet (1600-1601, 1601)


SHAKESPEARE.  All’s Well That Ends Well (1603-1604, 1603)


Thomas Tomkis. Lingua (1602-1607, 1607). (STC 24104).

[In this comedy, the character called Tactus identifies with Hercules and is mocked by the others. The whole of V.vii rehearses the labours of Hercules, and ends with the Omphale episode. V.xv reenacts the rage of Hercules and the episode of the poisoned shirt.]


SHAKESPEARE.  Antony and Cleopatra (c.1606-1608, 1607)


SHAKESPEARE.  Coriolanus (1608)


SHAKESPEARE.  Cymbeline (c. 1608-1611, 1609)


Thomas Heywood. The Silver Age 1610-1612, 1611) (STC 13365), Acts III and V; The Brazen Age) (1610-1611, 1611) (STC 13310 and 13310.3).

[From birth to death, the two plays present Hercules’ life and stage his heroic labours; they also include the Nessus and Omphale episodes.]


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


Ben Jonson. Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue (1618).

[This masque rewrites the allegorical legend of Hercules at the crossroads. It shows virtuous Hercules outraged at pleasure-loving Comus, and also contains a representation of Hercules and the pygmies very similar to those in contemporary emblem books (Alciati, “In eos qui supra vires quicquam audent” and Whitney, “Quod potes, tenta”).]


Thomas Middleton. The Sun in Aries (1621) (STC 17895).

[In the first show of this pageant, Hercules stands on a chariot among other Worthies such as Jason, Alexander, and Caesar. The account mentions “Hercules with his Ne plus ultra, upon pilasters of silver” (sig. A4v).]

How to cite

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

<< back to top >>