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Heracles (Hercules): The Twelve Labors

In a Nutshell

Think of some of the most popular, epic, and exciting stories of all time. We're talking stories that make tons of money at the box office and that are constantly found on people's "Top Ten Greatest Stories of All Time" lists. We bet that Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings are some titles that immediately come to mind. What do all of these great stories have in common? They each involve some kind of hero going on a quest. Authors and Hollywood filmmakers rake in the big bucks with stories about heroes and their epic journeys, defeating monsters and evildoers, and maybe finding a little love along the way.

Hmmm. We might even be so bold as to say that humans are obsessed with stories about quests. "Say what, Shmoop?" That's right. You heard us. We think that people are in love with quest stories. Why is this? Well, one reason might be that quest stories are like detailed road maps of life. Just like life, quests often involve the same elements, or should we say side effects:

  • Huge setbacks
  • Frustration
  • Failures
  • Loss and pain
  • Confusion
  • Love
  • Family
  • Success
  • Jealousy
  • Romance
  • and more

In reading and watching quest stories, we humans can learn more about how to navigate our own confusing, complicated lives.

And the Twelve Labors of Heracles is probably one of the most famous quests in all of mythology. Unlike most of our modern-day heroes, Heracles (you might know him by his Roman name, Hercules) is no ordinary dude. His dad is the king of the gods. He has divine blood. That's how we know he's got a majorly complex and action-packed quest ahead of him.


Shmoop Connections

Explore the ways this myth connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop

  • Heracles pops up in The Metamorphoses by Ovid when the river god Achelous describes having a fist fight with the hero over a lady, Deianira. Heracles ends up winning Deianira's hand in marriage, but later dies as a result of Deianira's jealousy. He shows up again when he rescues Hesione, daughter of Laomadon, from a sea-monster. But then he causes major trouble because the Trojans won't give him the horses they promised him. Word to the wise: don't break a promise you've made to Heracles.
  • The men in Love's Labor's Lost by William Shakespeare sure do love them some Heracles. They like to talk about his many feats and the fact that he was love-struck, just like them.
  • In Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, Antony's men think that they hear strange music. They interpret this music as being the sound of Heracles leaving Antony's side, withdrawing his support for him.
  • We see how much Hamlet idolizes his father when he talks about how his uncle Claudius measures up to Old Hamlet as much as he (Hamlet) measures up to Hercules in Hamlet. (Hamlet's being super sarcastic here. He hates Claudius.)

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