It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world Richard Armitage

I can’t help but notice that I seem to have an uncommonly long processing curve when it comes to Richard Armitage performances!  Although I watched Hannibal unfold in “live” network time, and I commented on the analyses of others, I’m just now getting around to analyzing it myself.


My brain works in mysterious ways.  I was thinking about something else entirely and *BOOM*  I’m thinking about how Francis Dolarhyde’s tRAnsformation into the Red Dragon reminds me of episodes of “madness” in the ancient Greek mythological and literary tradition.

Two famous instances of ancient “madness” popped immediately into my head.  The first comes from the later books of the Iliad (19-24) when Achilles’ anger transformed into a violent rage that he allowed to run completely amok…

“Nothing matters to me now

But killing and blood and men in agony” (19.226)

After learning of the death of his kinsmen and companion (probable lover?) Patroklos, Achilles anger, which is the driving thematic force of the Iliad, transformed into a homicidal rage that he never even attempted to control.  He went on a rampage and kills so many Trojan soldiers that their bodies clogged the local river.  His wrath was so unchecked that he violated all the rules of “civilized” warfare in his desecration of the lifeless body of the defeated Hektor.


Achilles looks bored as Priam pleads for the mutilated corpse of his son Hektor Source

While a modern audience might attribute Achilles’ uncontrollable rage to a variety of pathological conditions, the Greeks were having none of it.  Achilles was a paradigm of anger throughout the Iliad.  His personal anger as the “theft” of Briseis was the source of enormous hardship to the Greek forces at Troy.  His behavior was antithetical to everything the Greeks defined as heroic.  Homer, in the voice of Apollo, describes him below

Iliad XXIV.30ff

Iliad XXIV.30ff

To the Greeks, Achilles anger was his to control, and his inability or worse, his unwillingness, to do so was decidedly un-heroic.  It doesn’t really fit with how the Greeks defined “madness” either.

One of the best mythological examples of madness – particularly divinely “inspired” madness – was an episode in the mythology of Herakles.  While Herakles’ characterization as the super strongman who succeeds through brute force does not always gel well with Dolarhyde’s calm, methodical calculation, they do share a number of common elements that I found really striking.

The first is the presence of a highly malevolent maternal figure.  In Dolarhyde’s case it was the grandmother who devalued and terrorized him as a child, inflicting incalculable damage to his psyche. Herakles fell victim to a long attested trend in Greek mythology…

greek mythology

Herakles was the product of one of Zeus’ pant dropping episodes, and this earned him the everlasting hatred of Zeus’ wife Hera.  Hera had an incredibly acrimonious relationship with her philandering husband/brother…she hated him in particular, but it was his extracurricular offspring who usually bore the brunt of her malicious behavior.  Hera had an extra special loathing for Herakles, who was predestined to become a god, so she never missed an opportunity to take a poke at him.  She plagued him from infancy with a variety of attacks designed to destroy him or bar him from becoming immortal.

The worst episode of this was when Hera sent Lyssa, the goddess of mad rage to “infect” Herakles.  This scene is famously played out by Euripides in The Madness of Herakles (Ἡρακλῆς μαινόμενος) which is also known by the Latin title Hercules Furens after Seneca’s version of the play.  In this play, while Herakles is off on hero business, his family is seized and sentenced to death.  He arrives on the scene just in time to save them, but it turns out the the whole thing was a set up to get them all together in one place so that Hera could put her latest scheme into action.


Herakles goes berserk                                                                                                                     Source

When Herakles arrived on the scene, Lyssa was there – against her will, sent by Hera – to infect Herakles with her trademark madness.  Albeit under duress, she did it, and Herakles went berserk, killing his wife Megara and all of their children in a frenzy of divinely incited madness.  When he snapped out of it, he was devastated to learn what he had done – a seemingly unforgivable act.

Unlike Homeric Achilles though, Euripides presents Herakles as a figure to be pitied…redeemable Because, unlike Achilles, Herakles was not entirely responsible for his actions…clearly, the malicious madness sent by Hera was the real cause.  As such, Herakles was offered (and accepted) an avenue of redemption for his mad acts.

I found the whole scenario not unlike Richard Armitage’s characterization of Francis Dolarhyde’s “inspired” madness.  It’s fairly clear from Thomas Harris’ original text that the reader is to assume that Dolarhyde’s past treatment at the hands of this grandmother – his personal Hera – was at least in part responsible for the madness in his present.  While his original , malicious mommy dearest isn’t an active agent in his adult crimes, Dolarhyde has his own version of Lyssa, in the form of the Red Dragon, to inspire his madness.  While he doesn’t really show remorse for the families he’s “changed” his determination not to harm Reba – even though the Dragon demands her – seems similar to Herakles’ immediate horror at the realization of what he has done to his family…a possibility for redemption.

I take full credit for the cruddy screen cap above

I take full credit for the cruddy screen cap above

Unfortunately for fans of happier endings, while Herakles chose the path of redemption, Dolarhyde surrendered to the madness.




15 comments on “It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world Richard Armitage

  1. Guylty says:

    This was great, Obscura. How interesting – the difference in perception of Achilles’ and Herakles’ crimes and actions. Could it be interpreted, that Herakles is forgiven because he is REACTING (to malicious divine intervention) rather than ACTING, while Achilles is judged harshly because he is ACTING (on his own accord) and not REACTING?
    It seems that mankind doesn’t change. While we do not really believe in divine intervention by gods and goddesses of wrath and rage anymore, we do accept – like the ancient Greeks – that there are mitigating circumstances when judging the actions of a murderer. And that there is nonetheless personal responsibility for criminal acts. Even though Granny Dolarhyde was Francis’ “personal Hera” (loved that), Francis should’ve reigned in his rage. He surely was intelligent enough to see what was happening to him – hence he spared Reba.
    And on a totally (pubescent) tangent: That illustration of Herakles… you know where my gaze went, don’t you? The Greeks and their penchant for nudity again. Now, imagine having that in your living room, decorated with a bunch of daisies… *coughs*

    • linnetmoss says:

      Only the Greeks would show bearded men naked under transparent miniskirts 🙂

    • obscura says:

      He talks in the finale episode about how he’s stronger than the Dragon now…he makes the decisions. His love for Reba was His po

    • obscura says:


      …was his chance for redemption, but his desire to kill Hannibal was stronger. I guess there’s a fair amount of Achilles there after all.

      I assumed your gaze went directly to his gleaming gold greaves?

      • Hariclea says:

        hm maybe he did turn a bit Achilles when he realised how Hannibal had egged him on, but i think in his final moments he turned Herakles again. Had he really been Achilles he would have never been able to stop himself from completely killing rather than just barbecuing the other dr or not kill Will and kill Hannibal which he would have been perfectly capable of. I always believed he let it play out and kept his distance and apparent clear head because he did realise it would be his end as well, maybe his way of understanding redemption.

  2. jholland says:

    May I just say… I loved your pie chart!? As usual a really interesting comparison. I don’t know how you do it! =)

    • obscura says:

      I should really credit that – I borrowed it from somewhere (bad, bad academic!)

      I think the inside of my head is a very weird place a lot of the time! 🙂

  3. Hariclea says:

    Gotta love the Greek Gods, such artists of hypocrisy 😉 Punishing poor humans for faults they themselves are much more guilty of.
    I always liked Bana more than Pitt 🙂 Oh sorry meant Hektor rather than Achilles 😉 i had to :-p That movie was just so….
    But yes you are right, i never would have thought of it in these terms because Herakles is such a hero! But you are so right about the parallels… and i too felt Reba was Francis’ redemption as was his death in a way, mind you i would have found the latter more cathartic if he had actually managed to kill Hannibal. But it wouldn’t have worked with the premises of the series, it had to be Will from that respect.
    In my mind i justify his desire to kill Hannibal with the fact that he managed to understand in the end the damage the dragon did, if not to the victims, to himself. Like Herakles, without Hannibal/Hera he would have maybe be able to be with Reba… sniiiifff.
    Great analysis as always and i wish my pie charts were as interesting 🙂

  4. Esther says:

    Ah, another excellent comparison between our man and Greek mythology! Nicely illustrated too with see-through man skirts and hilarious pie charts. 🙂

    • obscura says:

      We do what we can. 🙂

      He does seem to persistently choose roles with strong classical themes…or is it the classical themes are embedded in an awful lot of stuff? Continued study called for. 🙂

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