On Euripides’s Alcestis

It has been said that Sophocles portrays his characters as they ought to be, while Euripides portrays his characters as they actually are. They are most similar to the mosaic of people walking around Athens, rather than striving to be Olympian gods. His characters are full of flaws and sorrow, while Sophocles’s characters are inevitably bound and doomed to their own fate, no matter how they attempt to reject it.

Alcestis is arguably the earliest surviving work from Euripides. It was performed as the fourth play in a series, as is common in Greek tragedy, though curiously Alcestis is not a satyr play. It is odd for being nearly a complete tragedy, but the end brings a full circle of redemption. It has been called a “problem play” by ancient critics. Upon first read, the audience is exposed to the excessive weight of the Euripidean tragic model.

The Backstory
Prior to the play, Admetus is known for being an honorable king of a small kingdom in Thessaly, called Pherae. Ever a friend to strangers, he welcomes someone into his home, a disguised man who is actually the god Apollo, who was recently banished by Zeus and bound to be a mortal for one year, for conflicting reasons. Possibly for slaying the Delphyne, a monstrous serpent, or the Cyclops. At any rate, he is welcomed into the home of Admetus and Apollo serves as a shepherd.

After staying for one year and a day, he reveals himself as Apollo and offers any gift to Admetus. Shortly thereafter, Admetus falls in love with a nearby princess, Alcestis, and asks her father, Pelias, for her hand in marriage. Pelias denies the request unless he can restrain a lion and a wild boar to pull Admetus’s chariot into the city. Facing this trouble, Admetus calls upon Apollo who helps him corral the beasts, and Admetus successfully wins the hand of Alcestis. On the day of their wedding, Apollo gives an unusual gift to Admetus – a conditional kind of immortality. Apollo had recently tricked the Fates by getting them drunk into promising to grant immortality to Admetus if another person dies in his stead. If Admetus becomes sick to the point of death, someone else may be able to die for him.

The Play
At this point, two versions of the story diverge. Older versions tell of Admetus becoming sick after many years, but suddenly awakening on his bed to find his wife, Alcestis, dead. When presented by Thanatos (or ‘Death’) to Persphone in the Underworld, she is so moved by Alcestis’s devotion to her husband that she commands her to be returned to the land of the living.

This is not the version told by Euripides.

In Alcestis, Euripides portrays a weak and dishonorable man, Admetus, who allows his wife to die for his own vulnerability and fear of death. He accepts her sacrifice, despite the woes of his kingdom. As he gradually grows stronger from his sickness, she grows weaker, until she asks to be taken out of the palace to see the sunlight one last time. She makes Admetus promise not to marry again and bids farewell to her family, amidst a parade of sorrow and tears from everyone, including Admetus. He also promises not engage in merriness and parties in his sorrow at her loss.

Alcestis and Hercules by Frederic Leighton in 1869

However, when Heracles unexpectedly arrives at Admetus’s court, he welcomes Heracles and allows him to partake in drinking and fun, despite his promise to Alcestis and also despite the morbid character of the servants who are forbidden from mourning while Heracles is present in the house. In an act of cowardice and dishonesty, Admetus refuses to tell Heracles the truth. Disappointed with the servants treatment, Heracles confronts the servants and discovers that Alcestis has just died. Heracles is embarrassed at his behavior in a house of mourning, and ventures into Hades and wrestles Thanatos (“Death”) until he frees Alcestis and Heracles returns her to Admetus. At first Admetus refuses, not knowing it to be his wife and remembering his promise not to marry again, but Heracles insists and then promptly departs to complete one of his Twelve Labors (the mares of Diomedes). Suddenly, Admetus recognizes Alcestis as his wife. Alcestis remains pale and silent for three days until she returns to her former self. Thus concludes the plot of the play by Euripides.

The flaw in the play concerns Admetus, once considered a great king by the ancient Greeks. In Euripides, he is brought down to the most base man possible. He chooses to allow his wife to die in his own place, and weeps bitterly at his predicament – a predicament which he initially endorsed and accepted. He is un-heroic and willing to sacrifice himself for perfect strangers, like the disguised god, Apollo, or the unexpected guest, Heracles, yet he is unwilling to sacrifice himself for his own wife. The people of the city mourn their predicament and indicate a loss of respect for their unmanly king.

It is telling that no other human being alive would die in the stead of Admetus, not even his own elderly parents. Indeed, his father curses Admetus in the middle of the play, and is disappointed in his character, preferring instead that Alcestis had lived.

In addition, Admetus lacks the guile and the strength to rescue Alcestis from the underworld. He offends and embarrasses Heracles, who then feels an obligation to bring balance back to the house of Admetus. He makes Heracles feel indebted to his house. Therefore, another man rescues Admetus’s wife, and Admetus continues to fail to meet any criteria for heroism. Admetus is the merely the selfish protagonist. Other figures in the play appear heroic: Heracles and Alcestis, but not the king, Admetus.

Who is Thanatos?
Thanatos, literally “death” or “to be dying” in Greek, is the bringer of mortal souls to Hades. He is depicted with wings and a saber, often clod in black in later mythology.

According to Hesiod, he is the son of Nyx (Night) and Erebos (Darkness). He has a twin brother, Hypnos (Sleep). Both are referenced in Homer. He is described by Hesiod as having a heart of iron and also for being pitiless like bronze. He is hated among both mortals and gods.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s