33. Alcestis, by Euripides (438 BC)

Plot : The earliest intact play from Euripides, the third of the great classical Greek tragedians.

King Admetus is granted a boon from Apollo to escape an early Fated death if he can find someone to take his place. After his elderly parents both refuse to die in his stead, his queen Alcestis agrees to sacrifice her life. When the appointed day arrives, Death comes to claim Alcestis. Meanwhile, Heracles visits on his way to steal King Diomedes’ flesh-eating horses, and Admetus offers him hospitality without telling of his recent bereavement. Upon uncovering the truth, Heracles sets off to reclaim Alcestis from Death.
My copy is the Penguin edition covering three of Euripides’ plays, the others being Hippolytus, and Iphigenia in Tauris (ISBN 0140440313)

My thoughts: A new and refreshing story unconnected to the two or three sagas that have dominated previous plays.
Alcestis is universally praised for her self-sacrifice although she is heartbroken at leaving her husband and children. Admetus is also wracked with grief, and yet although he pleads with her to stay, and wishes himself dead alongside her, he can still berate his father for cowardice, instead of admitting he should never have expected anyone to take his place

Admetus does not seem in the least genuine to me, and certainly does not call on Apollo, the other Gods or Fates to reverse the choice and save Alcestis. His promise to never wed again and stay true to Alcestis’ memory seems a spur of the moment emotion which will likely be forgotten soon, and his obfuscation in not telling Heracles the identity of the dead woman the first betrayal of her memory and honour in what is likely to be many. Other readers may argue with me over this.

Heracles’ rescue of Alcestis is also a little convenient and robs the tragedy of much of its power and moral. While rescuing Alcestis provides a happy ending, it does nothing to punish Admetus for allowing her to die in his place in the first instance.

Euripides was a contemporary of Sophocles; in fact they competed for the prize at the annual festival of Dionysus, so now for the first time we have literature written by different authors in the same place and time.

Favourite lines/passages:
I often seem to find the lines I enjoy most in a tragedy outside the tragic events themselves. Instead of the glory of Alcestis’ sacrifice, her bereft husband and children, and even Heracles’ drunken performance, what gave me greatest pleasure was this description of Apollo.

Under your roof Apollo chose to live,
The prophet, the musician;
And as a member of your household
Was content to graze your sheep,
Piping a tune of shepherd’s love
Over the steep winding pastures

Spotted lynxes loved his music and came
To feed beside his flock
And a tawny herd of lions
Came from the glen of Othrys,
And around your lute, Apollo,
Dappled fawns, stepping out
Slender-footed from the high shady fir-trees,
Danced for joy to your enchanting notes

Chorus, page 61

A more famous and contentious quote from Admetus’ father, Pheres, who upon saying this does nothing to redeem his position

With a woman like that, a man can find that marriage pays ; otherwise it’s a bad bargain

Pheres, page 63

And some obvious wisdom from Heracles himself

All mortal men are bound to die – inevitably,
There’s no man living who can confidently say
Not one – that he will still be living the next day
The road of chance leads on by a mysterious way

Heracles, page 68

Personal rating: 6/10.

Next : Medea, also by Euripides. Perhaps the opposite of Alcestis, as wife plots revenge on unfaithful husband.

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