Another's Labor:  Madness and Identity in the Hercules Furens

Philip H. Purchase

University of Southern California

When the Juno of Seneca's Hercules Furens decides to infect Hercules with madness, she turns her sights to the world below.  She will bring forth Discord, along with anything else that Hercules has left behind (ll. 95-6); after all, Hercules is at this moment in Hades on her account.  Juno in her Vergilian incarnation declares flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo (Aen. 7.312); here, Seneca draws attention to the way in which she must assume madness herself in order to transmit it: nobis prius/ insaniendum est (ll. 108-9).  As such, madness functions as a form of contaminated transmission in a play which questions how identity might be structured in an unstable family: how are virtues transmitted when Hercules is so dominated by his noverca?

Madness takes its place in a wider meditation on such transmission.  The usurping tyrant Lycus espouses a position of radical self-fashioning that rejects the constitutive role of others: qui genus iactat suum,/ aliena laudat (ll.340-1); Hercules has been engaged in the work of another while his gloria is fashioned in terms defined by a hostile stepmother.  The question of what 'Hercules' signifies presses upon him through his alienation in Juno's madness, while Amphitryon's paternal performance dramatizes the difficult place of the father function in his psyche.

            It is precisely the extremity of madness that demands Hercules' self-examination.  At first the effects of insanity are directed outwards, but after the slaughter of his family Amphitryon observes: quodque habet proprium furor,/ in se ipse saevit (ll. 1220-1).  Amphitryon sees this as the time for Hercules to assume his name:  nunc Hercule opus est (1239).  Hercules' encounter with alterity forces a consideration of what is his (proprium) and how the demands of others might cohere into heroic identity.

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