We fast forward a bit past Herc’s childhood. Sure, there was the thing with the snakes Hera sent against him, his feeding incident which created the Milky Way, and he grew up learning from the best and the brightest, but we want to see a serious struggle, right? Right. So we come to the most devastating act of revenge that Hera ever implemented.
She drove Hercules mad.
The insanity made him kill his children and his wife, Megara. Yes, his main squeeze from the Disney movie was actually his first wife, and he killed her. So much for a Disney ending. His wife and children dead by his own hand.
It’s not often that Hera gets the upper hand in things, but this particular revenge is devastatingly effective. Hercules is crushed, demoralized, and it’s not like Zeus can do anything to fix this. Hera must be pretty proud of this one. Not only has she struck back against Hercules (for the breastfeeding thing), she’s also gotten back at Zeus. Whatever purpose Zeus had in having Hercules, he’s a thoroughly changed man because of this tragedy. He’s not a bold and brash Greek hero like Perseus, Theseus, Achilles, or even Odysseus. He’s broken. All he wants is to make up for what he did, to gain absolution for murdering his wife and children.
This makes Hercules unique among Greek heroes. He doesn’t go out questing and destroying his enemies. Instead, he must serve King Eurystheus—who was made king instead of Hercules. These are labors, menial tasks that are beneath the son of Zeus, and he must complete ten of them to Eurystheus satisfaction. He is a super-powered servant, whose service might—if Eurystheus allows—make up for his great crime.
So it is that the potentially greatest hero, the one who made Zeus go cold turkey, is not out making a name for himself by defeating monsters on their own islands, nor is he facing against Trojan champions. He is cleaning stables, and embarking on fools’ errands that Eurystheus thinks Herc will fail.