In Greek mythology, the Shirt of Nessus, Tunic of Nessus, Nessus-robe, or Nessus' shirt was the poisoned shirt that killed Heracles. It was once a popular reference in literature. In folkloristics, it is considered an instance of the "poison dress" motif.
Fearing that Heracles had taken a new lover in Iole, his wife Deianeira gives him the "shirt" (actually a chiton), which was stained with the blood of the centaur Nessus. She had been tricked by the dying Nessus into believing it would serve as a potion to ensure her husband's faithfulness. In fact, it contained the venom of the Lernaean Hydra with which Heracles had poisoned the arrow he used to kill Nessus. When Heracles puts it on, the Hydra's venom begins to cook him alive, and to escape this unbearable pain he builds a funeral pyre and throws himself on it.
Metaphorically, it represents "a source of misfortune from which there is no escape; a fatal present; anything that wounds the susceptibilities" or a "destructive or expiatory force or influence".
During the anabaptist Münster Rebellion of 1534, a fifteen-year-old girl named Hille Feyken (or Feiken) attempted to deceive Münster's Prince-Bishop Franz von Waldeck who had been commanding a protracted siege of the city. Her plan was to pretend to defect and entice the Bishop with information about the city's defenses while giving him a handsome shirt soaked in poison. Before her plan could be carried out she was betrayed by another defector, who warned the bishop, and Feyken was tortured and killed.
Major-General Henning von Tresckow, one of the primary conspirators in the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, famously referred to the "Robe of Nessus" following the realization that the assassination plot had failed and that he and others involved in the conspiracy would lose their lives as a result: "None of us can complain about our own deaths. Everyone who joined our circle put on the 'Robe of Nessus'."
In The Honest Man's Fortune (1612) Longueville, exaggerating his problems in a crowd for comic effect, says:
A labour that to those of Hercules,
May add another; or (at least) be called
An imitation of his burning shirt:
For ’twas a pain of that unmerciful
Perplexity, to shoulder through the throng
Of people that attended your success.
My sweaty linen fixed upon my skin...
In his work The Count of Monte Cristo, after Benedetto reveals in court that the crown prosecutor Monsieur de Villefort was his illegitimate father, he (de Villefort) forfeits his job and he removes his robes because it was a burden and torment to him, using the shirt of Nessus as a metaphor.
In section IV of his poem "Little Gidding", the final poem of Four Quartets, Eliot alludes to the Nessus myth and the Herculean "Shirt of Flame" in his lines:
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
The Shirt of Nessus (1952) is the title of the master's thesis of noted American postmodern novelist John Barth. Written for the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins University, which Barth himself later ran, The Shirt of Nessus is not a dissertation, but rather a short novel or novella. It can be considered Barth's first full-length fictional work, and it also is likely to remain his most elusive. Barth, not unlike a fair number of other authors, has revealed himself to be embarrassed by his early unpublished work—in his case, most work before The Floating Opera. The Shirt of Nessus is briefly referenced in both of Barth's nonfiction collections, The Friday Book and Further Fridays, but little is known of its actual content. The only known copies not held by the author were kept in the Johns Hopkins school library and the Writing Seminars Department thesis copies, but recent inquiries by devoted Barth fans have shown that the copy held by the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins disappeared in the mid-1960s, while the other seems to have mysteriously "walked out" of the school's special collections division of the library. It is the opinion of some notable JHU faculty members who occasionally talk to Barth that he may have been the mastermind behind these disappearances himself. While that remains speculation, when the special collections division notified Barth in 2002 (when the volume was first found to be missing), Barth responded that he "was not altogether unhappy the library no longer had a copy". Update: Novelist and scholar David Morell, in the updated, e-book edition of his study of Barth John Barth: An Introduction, notes that he long ago obtained a photocopy of Barth's "The Shirt of Nessus."
In the "Introduction" to Bending the Bow: "Pound sought coherence in The Cantos and comes in Canto 116 to lament 'and I cannot make it cohere.' But the 'SPLENDOUR, IT ALL COHERES' of the poet's Herakles in The Women of Trachis is a key or recognition of a double meaning that turns in the lock of the Nessus shirt."
In Audit/Poetry IV.3, issue featuring Robert Duncan, in his long polemic with Robin Blaser's translation of The Chimeras of Gérard de Nerval, which Duncan believes deliberately and fatally omit the mystical and gnostic overtones of the original, Duncan writes: "The mystical doctrine of neo-Pythagorean naturalism has become like a Nessus shirt to the translator, and in the translation we hear Heracles' tortured cry from Pound's version of the Women of Trachis from Sophokles: 'it all coheres.'"
In Hyam Plutzik's poem "Portrait", which appears in his collection Apples From Shinar, the poet writes of a Jewish-American character in the late 1950s who has successfully assimilated, and is able to "ignore the monster, the mountain—/A few thousand years of history." Except for one problem, "one ill-fitting garment…The shirt, the borrowed shirt, /The Greek shirt." The last line reveals the "Greek shirt" is "a shirt by Nessus."
As referenced in Robert Massie's tome Catherine The Great, A Portrait Of A Woman, Catherine's former lover, Stanislau Poniatowski the King of Poland, writes to Catherine that the crown she procured for him would become a shirt of Nessus: "I shall be burned alive and my end frightful." Catherine's support for dissident Russian Orthodox believers, a Polish minority, against the majority Catholic rulers created an untenable situation in Polish politics that led to many uprisings against the Russian interference in Polish domestic squabbles.