Hercules the Younger: Heroic allusions in late-eighteenth-century British political cartoons
Allusions to Hercules feature in caricatures of the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, and some of his political contemporaries, at the turn of the 18th century. Imagery such as Pitt the child, strangling twin serpents topped by the human heads of his political rivals Charles James Fox and Lord North in Thomas Rowlandson’s ‘The Infant Hercules’ (1784), conveys an ambiguous message: Pitt dominates his enemies, but he is also inexperienced, and has attained his exalted political position prematurely. In some cases Pitt assumes the guise of Hercules, and in others Pitt is a Labour, and therefore a problem to be vanquished, as in another cartoon by Rowlandson where he appears as an animal in the Augean Stables (1805). This chapter will examine the utilisation of elements of the Hercules myth in the late eighteenth-century political context, and will question whether the caricatures were intended to convey a positive or negative image of a politician or political action. The reception of such imagery by their intended audience(s), as well as more general allusions to antiquity in political satire of the period, will also be considered. Finally, the position of these political cartoons in the long history of the use of Hercules as a motif in political discourse will be scrutinised, thereby connecting them with ancient topoi such as the comparison in late antique panegyric of Constantine with the snake-strangling infant Hercules (Pan. Lat. 4 (10) 16.6).
The Exemplary Hercules – chapter 10