Alcestis is the earliest surviving play by Euripides, appearing first in 438 BCE when Euripides had seventeen years of playwriting experience. If it seems like an immature piece, it may be because this was played as the fourth work in a tetralogy — the place usually occupied by a satyr play (such as The Cyclops) after three tragedies. Therefore, Alcestis is lighter and simpler than most Euripides plays, with an ambiguously happy ending.
The play begins with Apollo subjecting us to “premise overload”: ultimately, he somehow wangled a deal with the Fates that the supposedly pious King of Pherae, Admetus, could avoid death and Hades if he could find someone to take his place. “He canvassed and solicited all his friends” (3), but only his wife Alcestis would agree to die in his stead. She is now approaching her untimely end. A gloomy personified Death enters with a sword and has a snippy exchange with Apollo, accusing him of trickery, thwarting the somewhat more natural order, and favoritism towards the rich who can afford to “buy the privilege of dying old” (5). Apollo calls Death a “sophist” (5).
The Chorus tries to gauge whether or not Alcestis is yet dead. The Chorus-Leader and a Handmaid (or Maidservant) discuss her coming death, the Leader saying rather oddly about Admetus, “Ah, unfortunate. Such a man, to lose such a wife!” (6). The Handmaid reports the melodramatic scene and Alcestis’ lament:
O couch where I loosed my maiden zone by the hand of him for whom I die, farewell. I do not hate you. You have destroyed me alone. It is because I dread to betray you and my husband that I die. Some other woman will possess you, no more chaste, perhaps more fortunate. (7)
After a choral lament, Alcestis appears, supported in the arms of Admetus. He mourns while she approaches death: “I see the two-oared boat, I see it upon the lake. The ferryman of the dead has his hand upon the pole, Charon is already calling me” (9). She tells her husband, regarding her choice, “I was not willing to live separated from you, with my children orphaned” (9). She does, however, note that one of his old parents could have prevented this: “they had no hope of getting other children if you were dead” (10). She makes Admetus vow never to marry again, fearing evil step-mother inevitabilities. Admetus is perfectly willing to vow to this, and will ban parties.
Oh, had I Orpheus’ words and music, so that I might charm Demeter’s child or her lord by my songs and so win you back from Hades, I would make the descent and neither Pluto’s hound would stop me nor spirit-guiding Charon at his oar until I had set you, living, in the light above!Alcestis dies, son Eumelus wails, and the Chorus’ lament accompanies the carrying off of the body.
Heracles, with club and lion-skin cloak, visits on his way between tasks; currently he must “fetch the four-horse team of Diomede of Thrace” (14). “They tear men with their swift jaws,” warns the Chorus-Leader. When Admetus enters, Heracles realizes that there’s reason to think he’s in mourning, but Heracles’ questions yield him only ambiguous answers and Admetus avoids specifying that Alcestis is dead. Admetus insists that Heracles stay.
Admetus’ father Pheres visits, only to be scolded for not sacrificing himself:
I do not count myself your son. Truly, you surpass all men in cowardice; for at your age, when you had reached the end of life, you had not the will or the courage to die for your own child…. You had spent your prime in kingship, and you had me for a son and heir of your house, so that you were not going to die childless and leave an orphaned house for strangers to plunder. (18)
Pheres counters, “I brought you into the world to be master of this house, and I raised you up; I am not obliged to die for you. I have received no such tradition from my ancestors that fathers should die for their children; it’s not a Greek custom” (19). They argue at length, reach a stalemate, and part with animosity.
A Butler (or Servant) resents Heracles’ presence in the household: his inappropriate revelling and drinking. Gradually Heracles finds out through this fellow that it was Alcestis did die. Heracles immediately is horrified and decides he must ambush Death and restore Alcestis to the household, partly in admiration of Admetus’ hospitality under the circumstances.
The funeral procession returns, and Admetus frets that he will have the reputation of a coward, letting his wife take his place in Hades (25). “The loneliness inside will drive me out, whenever I see our bed with no wife to share it and the chair she used to sit on and, throughout the house, the floor unswept” (35).
Heracles enters with a veiled woman he says he “received as a prize of victory” (26). He chides Admetus for not plainly revealing that Alcestis had died, so that he, Heracles, ended up inappropriately partying in a house of mourning. But Admetus, he recognizes, has enough sorrow already without his adding to it. Heracles wants to leave the veiled woman with Admetus while he returns to his labors. Admetus balks: “Shall she live under the same roof with men? How can she remain pure if she will be in the company of young men?” (26). After much argument, Admetus agrees to touch the woman: “[stretching his hand, with head averted]. I am putting it out — as if I were beheading the Gorgon” (29). Slowly he realizes it’s Alcestis, for whom Heracles fought with Death at the tomb. “But why does she stand here speechless?”
It is not permitted for you to hear her voice until her consecration to the powers below be removed and the third day come. But take her into the house. And in future, Admetus, show respect for guests, as is right. Farewell; I go to perform the labor that is before me for the king, the son of Sthenelus. (29)
There will be dancing and celebrating and the sacrifice of oxen. The Chorus decides, “That which was expected has not been accomplished; for that which was unexpected has god found the way” (30).
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Although the play seems slight compared with other Euripides works, the cheekiness and in-your-face challenges can be found here, particularly regarding the issue of the parents being expected to die in the place of Admetus and the supposed reasons for living or not living. And apparently no woman is safe from rapists nor estate safe from plunderers. The matter of Heracles not knowing that the good time he’s having is inappropriate seems bizarre as an ethical issue or as any kind of issue at all.
The ending surely must have been an influence on the Earl of Oxford’s last scene in The Winter’s Tale.
Euripides. Alcestis Medea and Other Plays. Trans. John Davie. NY: Penguin Books, 1996. 1-41, 175-178.
Euripides. Alcestis. Ten Plays. Trans. Moses Hadas and John McLean. NY: Bantam, 1981. 1-30.