Volume I of "The Complete Greek Tragedies" of Euripides offers the playwrights rather unique view on some of the greatest heroes of Greek Mythology: Hercules, Jason, and Theseus.
"Alcestis� (translated by Richard Lattimore) is the oldest surviving play of Euripides and the closest thing we have to an extant example of a satyr play. Consequently, this play has more of a burlesque tone, best represented in the drunken speech of Hercules to the butler and his teasing of Admetus at the end. Alcestis was the model wife of Admetus, for when her husband is to die she alone agrees to die in his place. However, the key in this drama is how Admetus finds this sacrifice totally acceptable. Admetus is represented as a good and honorable man, but then his ethos is established in this play by the god Apollo in the opening scene, and even though it was written later it is hard not to remember the expose Euripides did on the god of truth in "Ion." Euripides adds a key twist in that Alcestis agrees to the sacrifice before she fully understands that her husband will suffer without her. She is brought back from the underworld by Hercules and restored to her relieved husband, but the play clearly characterizes Admetus as a selfish man.
�Medea� (trans. Rex Warner) is not really about infanticide, but rather about how "foreigners� were treated in Greece, best seen in the odes of the Chorus of Corinthian Women. The other key component of the play is the psychology of Medea and the way in which she constructs events to help convince herself to do the unspeakable deed and kill the two sons she has borne Jason. There is a very real sense in which Jason is the true villain of the piece and I do not think there is a comparable example in the extant Greek tragedies remain wherein a major mythological hero is made to look as bad as Euripides does in this play. The audience remembers the story of the Quest for the Golden Fleece and how Medea betrayed her family and her native land to help Jason. In some versions of the story Medea goes so far as to kill her brother, chop up his body, and throw it into the sea so their father, the King of Colchis, must stop his pursuit of the Argo to retrieve the body of his son. However, as a foreigner Medea is not allowed to a true wife to Jason, and when he has the opportunity to improve his fortune by marrying the princess of Corinth, Medea and everything she had done for him are quickly forgotten. To add insult to injury, Jason assures Medea that his sons will be well treated at the court while the King of Corinth, worried that the sorceress will seek vengeance, banishes her from the land. Within this context Medea constructs the fate of herself and her children.
"The Heracleidae" (trans. Ralph Gladstone) is usually been a minor political play by Euripides. It tells of how the children of Hercules were exiled by from their home by the murderous King Eurystheus of Argos. After their father's death the children and their mother fled from country to country in search of sanctuary until, of course, they came to Athens. At first, the Athenians are reluctant to grant asylum, since Eurystheus might bring political and military strife on the city. But Demophon, King of Athens, agrees to admit them. Indeed, the army of Eurystheus surrounds the city and the oracles declares that the safety of Athens depends on the sacrifice of a virgin. Macaria, one of the daughters of Hercules, offers herself as the sacrificial victim. The play has usually been considered to be nothing more than a glorification of Athens, but, of course, in more contemporary terms it is worth reconsidering this Greek tragedy as a look at the problem of political refugees; consequently, �The Heracleidae� works well as an analog to �Medea.�
"Hippolytus" (trans. David Grene) opens with Aphrodite declaring her power over all mankind and her intention to ruin Hippolytus, the son of Theseus and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, because he alone has had the audacity to scorn love. Instead, the young prince has devoted himself to hunting and Artemis, the chaste goddess of the hunt. As the instrument of Hippolytus' downfall, Aphrodite selects his stepmother Phaedra, by making her fall in love with him. What becomes interesting in Euripides' telling of the tale is how Phaedra resists the will of Aphrodite, having resolved to starve herself to death rather than ever reveal her infatuation. However, Phaedra's secret is revealed when in a state of semi-delirium she confesses to her nursm who, out of love for Phaedra, tries to solicit an appropriate response from a horrified Hippolytus. Mortified that her secret is now known, Phaedra hands herself, but trying to spare the reputation of her children she leaves a note accusing Hippolytus of having tried to rape her. When Theseus returns from a long journey only to find his wife dead at her own hand and his son implicated in her suicide, he pronounces a deadly curse upon Hippolytus. Ironically, despite his fate, Hippolytus is not a sympathetic figure and it is Phaedra who becomes the truly tragic character in the tale. Another consideration is the portrayal of Theseus, generally accounted the wisest and best of the heroes of classical mythology. Yet in this story the man whose objectivity and sense of fairness made him give Oedipus a resting place indulges in an angry impulse worthy of Hercules. Again, the irreverance of Euripides towards the gods and their offspring remains the uniting theme of this collection.