Handel’s Hercules, recently staged at the Barbican in London, was designed as an oratorio to be presented during Lent rather than an opera. After the great success of the Messiah, Handel had turned increasingly to serious religious works and away from opera.
The original story by Sophocles tells of Hercules’ tragic death after returning from successfully completing his twelve labours. In Greek myths great heroes are always envied. They become scapegoats who have to be sacrificed to restore harmony in the community. The envious mob, the audience at the drama, justifies the killing of the hero, by revealing his fatal weakness.
Hercules returns victorious from his labours with a captive princess, and his wife poisons him out of jealousy. In the Greek tragedy the hero has indeed been unfaithful to his wife, and this proves to be his undoing. His wife has a cloak which she thinks will restore the love of someone who has strayed, but in fact it is soaked in poison. So, according to Sophocles, the flawed hero gets his just deserts, and those who envied him feel justified in wishing him dead. The wife, who does not realise the cloak will kill Hercules, is found to be innocent.
Handel’s drama is retold as a moral tale suitable for Lent by a clergyman, the Revd Thomas Broughton. As in Messiah, the hero is portrayed as an innocent victim of envy who does not deserve to die. The jealousy of Hercules’ wife is without foundation. The story will reveal her sin as surely as scripture reveals the sin of those who crucified Jesus.
In Broughton’s story, Hercules is not unfaithful. He wants his son to marry the princess, and his dying wish is fulfilled when they accept each other. When Hercules dies he is welcomed into heaven by the immortal gods who know his innocence, whilst his jealous wife, realising the enormity of her sin, goes mad. The story has been rewritten with a Christ figure, and also a Judas.
Handel’s oratorio wasn’t popular. Perhaps the audience didn’t like the story Thomas Broughton was telling, because it points the finger at our murderous envy of heroes. His Lenten drama called the audience to the virtue of emulating our hero, rather than to the sin of envying him. And emulation, whether it is described as ‘taking up our cross’, or as ‘the imitation of Christ’, is our calling.