LYCUS (in soliloquy)
Now I am sovereign over all of Thebes,
Its wealthy towns, its sloping countryside,
All the lush valley of the swift Ismenus,
Even the isthmus stretching to the south.
Stand on the summit of Mount Cithaeron
And everything you see in all directions
But no one ever gave it to me.
I am no heir. I have no noble name
Or great estate of ancient lineage,
No lofty family tree or courtly title.
All I was given was ferocious courage.
Nobles who brag about their ancestors
Extol the virtues that belong to others.
But when you seize a dynasty, you hold it
Nervously in your hands. Only sheer force
Can keep it yours. Everything you possess
Against the people’s will comes by the sword.
No kingdom built on foreign soil is safe.
But there exists one person who can help
Secure my throne—the king’s surviving daughter.
If I could take Megara as my bride,
Her ancient blood would give my new regime
Legitimacy in the public eye.
I hardly think she will refuse my suit.
Sharing my bed will let her share my throne.
But if she stubbornly declines my offer,
I have no choice but to annihilate
Both her and all the house of Hercules.
Popular opinion will surge against me,
But if there is one thing that monarchs know,
It’s how to bear the public’s hatred calmly.
Now is my chance. Fortune rewards audacity.
There is Megara, praying at the altar,
Still wearing the black veil of a mourning widow.
And next to her is old Amphitryon,
The one who really fathered Hercules.
(He addresses MEGARA.)
Dear Princess of the royal house of Thebes,
I need a moment with you to discuss
Matters of great importance to us both.
We must be open-minded. Life is so short.
There is no good in nourishing resentment
Or letting anger fester in the heart.
Conflict will never end if both the victor
And vanquished are unwilling to disarm.
A lengthy civil war can have no winners.
Picture a kingdom with its farms in ruins,
The fields unploughed, the villages burned down,
The commonwealth a heap of bones and ashes.
A prudent victor wants the peace restored.
The conquered know it is their only hope.
So won’t you join me in rebuilding Thebes?
Come share my throne. I offer you this pledge
Of my good faith. Give me your hand in peace.
Why stand so silently? Why be so scornful?
How can I touch a hand still smeared with blood
From slaughtering my father and my brothers?
You’ll sooner find a sunset in the East
Or snowflake’s glitter in a roaring fire.
Why not ask Sicily to uproot itself
And join its rocky coast to Italy?
Why not stand on Euboe’s storm-swept shore
And tell the crashing, white-capped waves to stop?
You took my father from me and my kingdom,
My brothers and my home—what else is left?
And yet I still have something dearer to me
Than father, brother, kingdom, or estate—
My hatred of you! And how I detest
Having to share it with the common crowd.
How minuscule my loathing is to theirs.
Go on and rule—bloated with arrogance,
Puffed up with self-importance. But remember.
The gods avenge such pride.
Look at our past—
How tragedy pursues the House of Thebes.
You know our queens not only suffered evil
But have inflicted it. Remember Oedipus
Whose murder and incest pollute the name
Of father, husband, child. Think how his sons
Killed one another squabbling for the crown,
Or how Niobe saw her children slaughtered
And turned into a stone dripping with tears.
Even great Cadmus, founder of our city,
Was cursed and changed into a crested serpent
To crawl across the wastelands of Illyria.
These are the precedents of your regime.
Do what you will as tyrant but remember
One day the doom of Thebes will fall on you.
Calm down, my dear. Enough of this mad talk.
Even your late husband, Hercules,
Knew kings must be obeyed. I’ve conquered Thebes.
My power is absolute. I don’t explain;
I give commands. But since it’s you I talk to,
I’ll say a few words on my own behalf.
Yes, your old father died in a cruel battle
Along with your two brothers. I’m afraid
Weapons of war observe no decencies.
Once swords are drawn, they are not easily
Held back or put away. Wars feed on blood.
You feel your father died defending his realm
While I was motivated by ambition.
Perhaps that’s true, but once a war is over
Most people don’t care much about the cause.
The only thing that matters is the outcome.
So let’s forget about the awful past—
It can’t be changed. For when the victor wants
To lay his weapons down, it’s not unreasonable
To hope the vanquished put away their hate.
I don’t ask you to grovel on your knees
And swear allegiance to my sovereignty.
I like the way you stand up for your rights.
High spirits are attractive in a woman.
You deserve to be my queen. Come marry me.
A chill of horror makes by body tremble.
I can’t believe your shameful proposition.
When war erupted, I wasn’t afraid.
I faced each terror calmly—even when
The fighting echoed round the city walls.
But when you mention marriage, then I shudder.
For the first time I truly realize
I’m just another slave captured in war.
Load me with chains or make me suffer death
By slow starvation. No torture you devise
Will break my loyalty to Hercules.
If I must die, I swear I will die his.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 5, on page 39
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