EA! EA! (cry)
What kind of apparition is that above the house?
Run! Run! Lift your feet!
Lord Apollo protect me!
Calm down, old men.
This is Madness, daughter of the Night.
I am Iris, servant of the gods.
We do not come to harm your city.
Against one man we have a war to wage -
the so-called son of Zeus and Alkmene.
Until he finished with his bitter labors,
his destiny protected Herakles
and Zeus did not let me or Hera harm him.
But now he is done with the tasks of Eurystheus,
Hera wants to stain him in the blood
of his own children.
So do I.
unmarriageable daughter of black Night,
make your heart hard.
Drive insanity into this man - throw
childkilling chaos into his mind and his jumping feet!
Pay out the rope of blood
by which he'll pull his children into Hades
with his own hand.
So he may come to know the rage of Hera,
my rage too!
Either gods are nothing and mortals prevail,
or this man has to pay a price.
- Euripides (trans. by Anne Carson)
And there you have it, girls and boys, a deus ex machina - literally - except one that comes, not to save the hero in his hour of need, but to punish him in his hour of triumph. And why must Herakles suffer? Not because he has done something wrong, not because it is his 'fate' - on the contrary, it is his destiny, ironically enough, that has been protecting him - but because Hera (and Iris!) doesn't like him, because "either gods are nothing and mortals prevail / or this man has to pay a price". The gods inflict pain not out of sport, which would be bad enough (remember "as flies to wanton boys"?), but because they are insecure. From this moment on, Herakles is doomed - he must kill his wife and children, pull down his house and emerge from the ruin of himself a broken man, limping reluctantly into immortality. And all so Hera can feel a little more important.
Has there ever been a playwright more pessimistic than Euripides?
The first time I read this episode, nearly a decade ago, I was disappointed in Euripides . The whole thing struck me as being fairly clumsy. This, I thought, is not how tragedy works - true tragedy is an engine without mercy, that moves smoothly but surely towards its horrifying yet inevitable conclusion. And yet here was Euripides tacking on this arbitrary plot device, just to make the story come out right.
Reading the play again yesterday, and going over Carson's essays on this play and the three others that accompany it, it seems to me that what Euripides is doing here is actually rather brilliant. Subversive, but brilliant. Because arbitrary as the doom Iris pronounces may seem, is anything in classical tragedy really less contrived? Why, for instance, if the gods can cleanse mortals of bloodguilt, do they wait till the final act of the Oresteia before they call off the furies? By showing us the malice of the gods in all its pettiness, by making the interjection of fate seem gratuitious and cruel, Euripides strips tragedy of its lyric mask, makes suffering stand before us naked, shorn of all consolation, stripped to the bare lineaments of anger, humiliation and pain.
Carson, in her preface to Hekabe, cites Beckett (whom she compares Euripides to, aptly) on language, expressing his intention "To bore hole after hole in it,until what cowers behind it seeps through". This, it seems to me, is exactly what Euripides is doing: by placing a scene so dramatically transparent at the centre of his play, he is enabling us to see through the veneer of tragedy, to the corruption that lies growling behind.
(Tomorrow: Alkestis, and the notion of heroic sacrifice)
 My favorite Euripides play then, as now, is Hekabe. If, that is, a word like favorite can be applied to something so savage, so gloriously visceral.