Shakespeare's Myths

Palaephatus. Peri Apiston (On Unbelievable Tales) (late 4th century BC), 36: “Heracles”; 37: “Laomedon and the Sea Monster”; 38: “The Lernaean Hydra”; 39: “Cerberus”; 40: “Alcestis”; 44: “Omphale”; 45: “The Horn of Almathea”.


Fulgentius. The Mythologies (c. 5th-6th century), II, 2: “Hercules and Omphale” [Lust overcoming virtue]; II, 3: “Cacus and Hercules” [The nature of evil]; II, 4: “Antaeus and Hercules” [Lust overcome by the strength of renown (“a virtute gloriae”)]


Ovide Moralisé (14th century), IV, 6302-35; IX, 1-1036; XI, 983-1098; XII.3035-224.

[In the anonymous Ovide moralisé, the moral perspective which views each of Hercules’ adversaries as a particular vice is combined with a higher, specifically Christian, level of allegory. Hercules is equated with Christ, and his labours with Christ’s ordeals. The mythological agony is read as a version of the Passion, and Hercules’ apotheosis prefigures the Resurrection.]


Boccaccio. Genealogia (1350-1374), XIII, i.

[Boccaccio lists 31 deeds, for which he privileges rational interpretations, both historical and natural. For instance, he explains that Hydra was a swamp, which Hercules drained, or that three-bodied Geryon stands for three closely united brothers. On the other hand, Boccaccio also draws a contrast between 30 victorious deeds, and a 31st, which is Hercules’ one defeat, when he falls victim to love in the person of Omphale (or Iole). The statement, which reappears in later texts, is that he who vanquished every monster was finally vanquished by love for a woman: “nam cum caetera superasset monstra, amori muliebri succubit” (indeed, though he had overcome the remaining monsters, he fell to a woman’s love). The sentence both contrasts and links the adventures, since the sexual episode is integrated in the general pattern of victory or defeat, the structure of conflict which is Hercules’ mode of functioning. Boccaccio’s presentation suggests a tension between heroism and love.]


John Gower. Confessio amantis (c. 1390), II, 2145-319: “Deianira and Nessus”; IV, 2045-2134: “Hercules and Achelous”; V, 1083-102: “Hercules, god of strength”; V, 6809-6953: “Hercules and Faunus”.


Coluccio Salutati. De Laboribus Herculis (early 15th century).


Ovide Moralisé en prose (c.1466-1467), IX, i-ii; XI, v; XII, xiii.


Pietro Andrea de Bassi. Le Fatiche d’Ercole. Ferrara: A. Camerium, 1475.


Raoul Le Fèvre. Recueil des hystoires de Troyes. William Caxton: Cologne, c. 1476. [The last chapters of Book I and the whole of Book II are devoted to the history of Hercules]


William Caxton. The Recuyell of the historyes of Troyes. William Caxton: Bruges, 1473/74 [translation into English of Raoul Le Fèvre’s Recueil des hystoires de Troyes]. Reissued as The ancient historie of the destruction of Troy, London: Thomas Creede, 1597 (STC 15379).


Enrique de Villena de Aragon. Los doze trabajos de Hercules. Juan de Burgos: Burgos, 1499.


Georg Pictor. Theologica Mythologica (1532), XVIII, “De Hercule”.  


Lilio Gregorio Giraldi. De Deis gentium varia et multiplex historia (1548), Syntagma X.


Giambattista Cinzio Giraldi. Dell’ Hercole di M. Giambattista Cinzio … canti ventisei. Modena: De Gadaldini, 1557.


Georg Pictor. Apotheseos (1558), “De Hercule”, pp. 94-98.


Alciati. Emblemata (1550), 58: “In eos, qui supra vires quicquam audent” [On those who dare anything beyond their powers]; 138: “Duodecim certamina Herculis” [The twelve labours of Hercules]; 139:  “In nothos” [On bastards]; 181:  “Eloquentia fortitudine praestantior” [Eloquence more powerful than strength]


Natale Conti. Mythologia (1567), VII, i.

[In keeping with a marked tendency to rationalize, the historical view of Hercules is privileged in Conti’s Mythologia: after establishing that the monsters and wild beasts which Hercules overcomes are thieves and dangerous people, he provides a wider view of Hercules as an agent of peace and civilization, one who got rid of tyrants, delivered oppressed people, and, with the help of his army, brought peace on earth. This rational and historical approach also has a political dimension, since it gives Hercules an altruistic mission and a role in society, instead of considering him in a purely individualistic perspective. Conti also offers a moral reading when he declares that Hercules’ strength was both spiritual and physical. And he gives a few spicy details about the character that suggest a less reverent approach to the mythical hero, describing him as someone who ate and drank in large quantities, and who was often beaten at school for lack of intelligence. The notion that having sex with 50 women in one night was his 13th labour also seems somewhat playful, like the description of Omphale as a whore for whom the once invincible champion did many undignified things. The Omphale episode does receive a moral interpretation warning us against the weakness of the flesh; but the erudite commentary contains traces of a comic Hercules.]


Vincenzo Cartari. Imagini (1556), IX, “Mercurio” [Mercury]; also V, “Giunone” [Juno]; IV, “Giove” [Jupiter]; VII, “Nettuno” [Neptune], and VIII, “Plutone” [Pluto].

[Cartari develops the image of the Gallic Hercules as a symbol of eloquence, which he explores in the chapter on Mercury. This particular meaning is recurrent in Renaissance literature. Cartari’s other comments include historical and moral interpretations of the hero, where victories over monsters are first read as victories over tyrants, and then, as triumphs over Vice. Compared with Conti, there seems to be a shift of emphasis when Cartari writes that Hercules’ strength was spiritual rather than physical. Finally, the mythography also contains some prosaic details about black-bottomed Hercules, and about his spectacular drinking and eating abilities, which suggest a potentially grotesque view of the hero. However, his translator, Linche, omits those comic anecdotes; on the other hand, he adds a detailed version of Hercules at the crossroads, an episode which comes from Xenophon and contributes to the close association of Hercules with Virtue.]


Jasper Heywood. Hercules Furens (1561, 1581). (STC 22221) [translation of Seneca]


Thomas Cooper. Thesaurus (1565) (STC 5686):

Hercules seemeth to be a general name given to men excelling in strength all other of their time. Cicero, De natura deorum (On the Nature of the Gods, III, 330), writeth that amongst ancient writers were found six Hercules. Varro affirmeth there were three and forty [Varro, as quoted by Servius, Commentary on the Aeneid of Virgil, VIII, 564]. Finally, there is no notable mention made but of two, the one called Hercules Aegiptius or Libycus, which is supposed to be Osiris, of whom is written hereafter. The other (long after him) was son of Jupiter and Alcmena, called Alcides by his proper name. And for his incomparable strength and labours (taken for the common profit of mankind) he was named also Hercules. All be it Berosus affirmeth Hercules to be the son of Osiris, and king of Egypt, and was called Hercules Libycus, because he conquered Libya [This derives from Antiquitatum Libri Quinque falsely ascribed to Berosius in Annius of Viterbo’s Commentaria, Rome, 1498]. Saint Jerome on the tenth chapter of Genesis writeth that this Hercules performed the twelve notable labours, which poets write of, and not Alcides, son of Alcmena. The first labour (as Diodorus writeth [The Library of History, IV, 11, 3]) was the slaying of a lion in the wood Nemea [Nemean lion], that far exceeded all other lions in greatness, which mought not be slain with metal, nor stone: wherefore he was constrained to slay him with his hands. The second labour was the killing of Hydra the monster, in the fens of Lerna, which had an hundred necks with serpentine heads, and when one was stricken off, there did arise eftsoons 2 other heads. The third labour was the taking of the great wild boar of Erymanthus, which wasted the country of Arcadia, and all people dreaded him. But finally Hercules took him alive, and bearing him on his shoulders, brought him unto king Eurystheus. The fourth labour was the battle which he had alone with the great number of men called Centaurs, that were of great strength and swift as horses: all them he slew, when they assaulted him. The fifth was the taking of the great hart in running, which for his swiftness had his horns gilded. The sixth was the destruction of the birds Stymphalides, which consumed the fruits and grain of the countries adjoining. The seventh was the making clean of the ox stall of Augeas, king of Elis, which would receive 3000 oxen at once, and had not been cleansed or rid in 30 years: so that it might seem impossible to have it cleansed, the which notwithstanding Hercules performed by wisdom, conveying into it the river Alpheus: which by the swift course of the stream, in one day carried away the dung, without any reproach unto Hercules. The eighth was the bringing of a bull from Creta into Greece, drawing him along the sea. The ninth was the taking of Diomedes, king of Thracia, and casting him to his horses, who feeding them with man’s flesh, was himself of them devoured.

And after Hercules breaking those wild horses, and making them gentle, brought them to Eurystheus. The tenth labour was his voyage into Spain, and slaying of Geryon and his sons, and taking the great kine, which he gave to a king in that country, who continually afterwards did yearly offer in sacrifice, to the honour of Hercules, one of the bulls, that came of those kine. The eleventh was his going into hell, and fetching thence Theseus and Pirithous, and bringing with him in a chain Cerberus, the dog of hell, having three heads. The twelfth and last labour was the taking of the golden apples, out of the gardens Hesperides, and slaying the terrible dragon, which, continually watching, kept those apples, which were called golden for the beauty of them. Some say they were sheep, whose fleeces were of the colour of gold, and the dragon signifieth the diligence and strength of the shepherd, which kept them. These were the twelve labours of Hercules, whereof grew this proverb “Herculei labores”, where the labours do seem impossible to be achieved.

Herculis cothurnos” was used for a proverb, wherein a thing of little importance was set forth with great eloquence or other thing solemn, more apt for a greater matter, as one should put Hercules’ hosen on a child’s legs. Wherewith accorded the saying of the wise king Agesilaus, when one commended to him a rhetorician, which by his crafty eloquence made trifles and small things to seem great, the king answered: that suiter deserveth no praise, which putteth a great shoe on a very little foot: meaning thereby, that the words should as well accord with the matter, as the garment with the person. This is so common a vice nowadays among students of eloquence, that in writing and speaking, they seem to prepare the hose before they know the measure of the leg, whereon they will put it. [The story comes from the section on Agesilaus the Great in Laconic Apophthegms or Remarkable Sayings of the Spartans in Plutarch’s Morals.]

Hercules Gallus”, as Lucianus writeth, was in the old time in France an image made like an old man, with a bald head, and unkempt, his hair very white, the skin of his face rivelled, and as it were burned with the sun, wearing on him a lion’s skin, and bearing in his right hand a great club, in his left hand a bow, a quiver at his back, drawing after him a multitude of people, tied by their ears with a little chain wrought with amber and gold, but they were so easily tied, that laughing and with good cheer they willingly followed, and as it seemed, would not be loosed: and the other end of the chain was tied at Hercules’ tongue, who looked towards them with a laughing countenance. This image signified eloquence, which for the puissance thereof, resembled rather Hercules’ than Mercury’s. And his age betokened, that for the most part eloquence is substantial and vehement. That Hercules, or rather eloquence, draweth men by the ears tied to his tongue signifieth the affinity between the tongue and the ear; and their glad and voluntary following signifieth with what delectation eloquence draweth men unto her persuasions and exhortations.


Arthur Golding. Metamorphoses (1567), VII.521-28, IX.1-328, XI.217-43, XII.593-635, Epistle, 193-211.


George Turberville. Heroycall Epistles (1567) (STC 18939.5), IX.


Stephen Batman. The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes (1577) (STC 1583), 12r-12v:

Hercules apparelled in a lion’s skin signifieth the valiant courage of a worthy captain, also the prudence wherewith his mind being furnished, he subdued his outrageous affections; the club signifieth understanding, through which the motions of wicked affections are repressed and utterly vanquished.

Hercules was before the destruction of Troy, in the third age of the world, governor among the Lybians, and had victory over many nations, and subdued divers kingdoms, a prince of worthy fame, a maintainer of virtue, and a punisher of vice, such a one as hated those that chose to steal by policy, rather than to win by prowess.

The poets feign that the hill Atlas in Mauritania was a huge giant which for the height supported the stars, and overcome by Hercules, he won the country and people, also in the valley of the said mountain was a pleasant place, the Ladies whereof were three sisters, Aegle, Erethusa [Arethusa], Hespertusa [Hesperusa], commonly known by these names of Hesperides, in this valley was the feigned tree with golden apples, kept by a Dragon: whereby is signified, the great riches that proceeded of so fertile a soil, and the covetous disorder of the inhabitants, who by devouring of others, consumed their selves.


John Studley. Hercules Oetæus (1581) (STC 22221) [Translation of Seneca]


Thomas Phaer and Thomas Twyne. The Æneidos of Virgill (1584) (STC 24802), VIII, 201-323.


George Whitney. A Choice of emblemes (1586) (STC 25438), p. 16: “Quod potes, tenta” [Do not attempt beyond your strength]; p. 40: “Bivium virtutis et vitii” [The two paths of virtue and vice].


Abraham Fraunce. The Third Part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yvychurch (1592) (STC 11341):

Natalis Comes expoundeth it thus: Cerberus is covetousness: and a covetous man laughs when he sees gold come in; but it grieves his heart to lay out one penny. ... Hercules drew him out of Hell, for, who can be a Hercules, and accomplish great matters, without money? Or thus, Hercules bound and brought out Cerberus, that is to say, he bridled and kept under concupiscence, and therefore returned safe from Hell: but Pirithous going thither of purpose to ravish Pluto’s Queen, and so to satisfy sensuality, was devoured of Cerberus; or, lastly, Hercules is a learned and absolute philosopher: he draweth the three-throated Cerberus out of Hell, by bringing to light the tripartite mysteries of philosophy, natural, moral, and dialectical. Cerberus, for spite and rage, struggling with Hercules, did let his poisoned foam fall on the earth, whence proceeded the deadly aconitum, for, what but rancour, can come from a rancorous heart? Historically, as Pausanias reporteth, there was in a dark dungeon in Tænarus, leading to Hell, as the fame went, for the deepness thereof, an hideous and terrible serpent, which for his deadly poison, and fearful aspect, was called the Devil’s dog, and was by Hercules drawn forth, and brought to King Eurystheus. (p. 27v)

Hercules killed Geryon, and brought away his oxen: where, by Hercules, both Pierius and Hesiodus his interpreter, understand the Sun, since he is the glory and ornament of Juno, that is, the air: for Ήρα is Juno, and κλεος is glory. And Geryon, they make to be winter, of γαραώ, which signifieth to cry or roar, thereby noting the roaring and blustering tempests of winter, which are calmed and repressed by Hercules, that is to say, by the heat of the sun. The oxen be the crashes of thunder, whose fearful sound resembleth the lowing of oxen; and these thunderings are never lightly heard, but when Hercules hath slain Geryon: when winter is overpast by the heat of the sun.  (p. 34r)

Hercules was also called Alcides, of άlkή, force and might; he was the son of Jupiter and Alcmena: μίυος, is strength and prowess. So then, Hercules is the type of a valiant, constant, and resolute hero, born of Jupiter, that is, endued with all heavenly qualities effected by Jove’s influence, and so born, as to purchase himself eternal fame and glorious renown through the world by his admirable adventures: which for that they were attempted and achieved by the malicious instigation and provocation of Juno; himself was thereof in Greek named accordingly: for, Ήρα is Juno; and κλεος, glory, or renown, as I have already mentioned; others had rather derive the name,  λπο τής άρετής, which noteth vertue and valour. In his infancy, he strangled two snakes; the meaning is, that he began even then to repress wantonness. Afterwards, he slew a lion [Nemean lion]; noting wrath, pride, and cruelty; and overcame Hydra, the almost invincible, and still breeding beast, envy. Hydra lurked in moors and fens: envy creepeth on the ground, in base and abject breasts. Troy could not be taken without his arrows: his arrows are a figure of heroical fortitude. He wrestled with Antæus, who ever thrown down to the earth, received new strength from the earth, till at last, he lifted him up, and strangled him in the air: so the spirit still striveth with the body, but never can overcome it, till he lift it up so high from the ground, that with his feet, to meet his affections, he receive no new assistance from his mother the earth. Diomedes, who fed his mares with man’s flesh, was by Hercules enforced to feed them with his own body. By Diomedes’ mares, some understand his whorish daughters, who robbed and consumed all that came unto them. He killed the mighty hart, he freed men’s hearts from fear. He was ever covered with the lion’s spoil: a valiant man useth open and lion-like prowess, and not treacherous and fox-like wiles. He brake one of the horns of the huge river Achelous: he reduced one part of the said river into his wonted course, which was the cause of great fertility to all the country: and therefore it is said, that the horn was decked with flowers, and called Cornucopia, the Horn of abundance. He fetched away the golden apples of the Hesperides, kept by the watching Dragon: Hesperides, the daughters of Hesperus, are the stars: their garden is in the west, wherein grow golden apples: for such is the nature of the stars, to glister like gold, and seem round in show like apples. They grow in the west, because the stars never appear but when the sun setteth, and that is in the west: for all the day long they are obscured by the surpassing light of the sun. The never-sleeping Dragon, that watcheth these apples and keepeth the garden, is the circle called Signifer [the zodiac]. Hercules brought these into Greece, that is, he brought astrology into his country. So was he, for the same cause, feigned to bear the heavens on his shoulders, whilst Atlas rested himself: because he learned astrology of Atlas: who is therefore said to hold up the heavens, because he continually observed the motions of the heavens, and was thereof called Atlas, of α, which here is a note of augmentation, and τλάμς, to bear and sustain. The Pleiads and Hyads be called his daughters, because he first noted their course, and observed their operation. Ovid in the fourth of his transformations maketh this Atlas to be a king of Mauritania, turned to a mountain of his own name, when Perseus had showed him Gorgon’s head, for denying him entertainment. In truth, Atlas is a most huge and high hill in Mauritania, so threatening the heavens, that it gave beginning to this fiction. Sometimes Hercules is painted old and bald with his club, bow, and shafts, and small chains or wires drawn from his tongue, to other men’s ears, signifying that his sweet tongue wrought more than his strong body and that the aged eloquence is most piercing and available, as Homer maketh manifest under the person of old Duke Nestor.

Thus did Hercules his searching and heroical heart leave nothing unattempted; but by his reaching capacity, and inquisitive speculation, pierced through heaven and hell; yet, alas, he that overcame all was at last overcome himself: he that mastered men, was whipped by a woman, and enforced by her to spin and handle a distaff instead of an iron club: so doth wantonness effeminate the most warlike hearts, and so much harder it is to resist pleasure than not to be overcome by pain. At length, having passed through so many perils, and being infected with a shirt sent him from Deianira, and polluted with the venomous blood of the Centaur Nessus, he burnt himself on the mount Oeta: that is to say, his terrestrial body being purged and purified, himself was afterwards deified and crowned with immortality. (pp. 46v-47r).


Richard Linche. The fountaine of ancient fiction (1599) (STC 4691), sig. L1r, M1v-M2r, P2v, R4v-S1r, T1v-T2v:

The ancients heretofore have consecrated unto Juno the lily, and thereof have framed for her diverse wreaths and garlands, and they called it the rose of Juno, because being besprinkled with her milk, they turned and were presently made white, being before of a ruddy and sanguine colour, and it is thus fabulized: Jupiter (knowing of the old hatred, and spiteful malice which his wife always carried towards Hercules) one day (as she lay asleep) so devised and brought to pass, as he conveyed Hercules with great secrecy to the paps of Juno, that thereby he might suck and draw from her some of her milk, whose vertues should disannul and frustrate her old conceived spite, and change the same into a new-made love and kindness. But Hercules sucking overgreedily, and belike pulling too hard upon her paps, Juno suddenly awaked, and perceiving him so unexpectedly there, whom from her soul she so much hated, distractedly, as it were, started from him, and by that means of violence, her milk spurting forth, and making through the element a certain white list and streak, called by the Astrologers Via lactea, descended down on the earth, and fell upon those lilies, then growing sanguine and reddish, which afterwards grew discoloured, pale, and milky white. (sig. M1v-M2r).

There be some have written that Mercury was taken and held for the very same as Hercules, or not much different from him, as his image or picture held among the French men manifested, which people likewise adored him as the god of wisdom and eloquence, and his statue was thus composed:

There was hewn and cut out with most exquisite skill and care of the workmen, an excellently well proportioned image, in the similitude and shape of a very aged man, even decrepit as it should seem, and in the extremity of years, his head almost bald, saving that on the sides remained some few hairs, short, and curled, his countenance severe, grim, and sour, his complexion of a tawny and time-worn hue, his upper vesture was the skin of a lion, and in his right hand he held an unwieldy and huge poleaxe, in his left hand an iron bow, and at his back hung a quiver of steel-headed arrows, to the end of his tongue were fastened and annexed many small chains and links of gold, with which he seemed to pull and draw unto him infinite multitudes of men of sundry nations, which were also tied and fastened to those chains, and yet of themselves seemed voluntarily to follow him, the picture looking always backward to behold such innumerable troops flocking towards him. And this piece of work was framed with inexplicable and rare perfection of knowledge, beautified and adorned with delicate politure [polish, smoothness] and true couching [laying, setting] and conclausture [finish] of those hard and almost impenetrable stones. By the description and setting forth of which, is discovered and unripped (as it were) the all-drawing force and attractive power of eloquence, so attributed and ascribed by these people unto Hercules. In framing him old and in year, is understood that in men of experience and long studies, eloquence is of more virtue and power, as attained unto maturity of perfection, being indeed raw (and therefore not well digested) in younger years, which of necessity must want judgement and a settled experience to adjoin unto it, by which it is made more forcible, prevailing, and gracious, as Homer, at large and copiously, speaketh thereof in his commends and praises of Nestor. (sig. R4v-S1r)

It is written with Xenophon and Marcus Tullius [Cicero, Offices, I, xxxii, 118] that Hercules, when he was in his adolescence, and prime of his blooming days, wandering by chance in a desert and unfrequented wood, came where two several ways divided themselves in two contrary courses, the one leading directly into the wood, and the other inclining on the one side thereof; Hercules, as uncertain which of these two he should take, stood pondering and considering of the choice; he had not long stood thus revolving within himself, but there appeared before him (all on the sudden) two women, the one of which was called Pleasure, who indeed was wondrous beautiful to the eye, and of a lovely aspect, wanton in her demeanour, and exceeding pleasing in all her gestures, and she was apparelled with very glorious and gorgeous habiliments, whose eye-dazzling brightness amazed Hercules with huge admiration thereof, she was so adorned and decked with resplendent jewels and glistering stones, and this woman seemed to persuade him to take the way of sensuality and delights, which at the first entrance appeared unto him very large, fair, and easy, beset with very pleasant and green herbs, and divers-coloured flowers, but towards the end it grew very straight, stony, rough, and full of sharp-pricking thorns: the other woman (somewhat more grave and settled in her countenance) was called Virtue, who was clothed with very simple and mean garments, and she with her finger pointed unto that way which she would wish Hercules to take, which indeed at the beginning showed itself very narrow, full of rocks, and steep-ascending banks, very crooked, and almost inaccessible; but after towards the midst it showed very pleasant, and at the very end of it was a most delicate green mead, all beset and enwalled with trees of the rarest and daintiest fruits that could be wished for, the vale it self [itself] all bespangled (as it were) with field flowers of sundry sorts and colours, intermixed with the odoriferous rose, gillyflower, marigold, and pink; through the midst of this green plot, glided and stole along a soft-murmuring crystal spring, through the purity of whose clearness (by means of the reflection of the sun’s beams) an infinite number of golden hewed pebble stones, danced as it were, and leaped on the sands, as moved and stirred with the swift-paced current of that fair-running water; and unto this path Hercules betook himself, labouring and striving very eagerly to pass in at the first entrance, which at the length, with continuing and laborious endeavours, he recovered, and so attained to that delicious and beautiful meadow, which his choice so elected, afterwards purchased unto him ever-living fame and glory, registered by time in the brass-leaved book of endless perpetuity. (sig. T1v-T2v).


Henry Peacham. Minerva Britanna (1612) (STC 19511), p. 36: “Virtus Romana et antiqua” [Roman and ancient virtue]; p. 73: “Major Hercule” [Greater than Hercules]; p. 95: “Vis Amoris” [The power of Love].


George Chapman. Iliads (1611) (STC 13634), VIII, 317-29.


George Chapman. Odyssey (1614) (STC 13636), XI, 818-52.


Francis Bacon. The Wisedome of the Ancients (1619), 23 (STC 1130): “Achelous, or Battle”.


George Sandys. Ovid’s Metamorphosis (1632) (STC 18966), IX, pp. 301-07 (translation), 319-29 (commentary); also IV, p. 167 (commentary); VII, p. 240 (translation), pp. 259-60 (commentary); XI, pp. 373-74 (translation), 391 (commentary); XII, pp. 410-11 (translation), 419-420 (commentary).

[Coming at the end of a long mythographical tradition, Sandys compiles many interpretations in his lengthy commentary. In his text, the two levels of reading which have been characteristic of his predecessors are virtually systematized. Each episode is given two meanings. The first betrays an effort to rationalize mythology, most often by referring to historical events (Geryon stands for three brothers who ruled over three Spanish islands in perfect harmony of mind; the Cretan bull was a general named Taurus; the Stymphalides were thieves), sometimes natural or scientific phenomena (the Antaeus fable has a medical relevance; the Atlas episode deals with astrology). The second attempts to moralize the myth, usually in the conventional sense of an opposition between vices and virtue (the fight between Hercules and Antaeus mirrors the opposition between soul and body, prudence and pleasure, reason and appetite), sometimes in a more abstract way (Geryon symbolizes “the three souls in man, the vegetative, the sensitive, and rational”). The more general interpretations of Hercules, which are also indicated in Sandys, can be linked to this double movement of mythographic interpretation: 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.]



“He that grants all that is asked is much harder than Hercules tasked” (Tilley 1950, A188)

“Hercules himself cannot deal with two” (Tilley 1950, H436)

“Hercules’ shoe will not fit a child’s foot” (Tilley 1950, S366)

How to cite

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

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