Admetus (ad-MEE-tus), of Pherae, the king of Thessaly. Because of his fair and friendly treatment of Apollo, placed at Admetus’ mercy for punishment by Zeus, Admetus has been allowed to escape the appointed hour of his death if someone else will die in his place. His wife Alcestis has given her pledge to die for him, and the play opens on the day of her death. Admetus sincerely loves his wife, but he lacks the courage to die as he should instead of letting his wife die for him. Admetus is weak but is not a coward, and because he realizes his own baseness he gains in stature as the play proceeds. He advances from sincere but self-conscious lamentations to deeply moving and completely honest sorrow over his wife’s sacrifice. He is saved by his one virtue: He is the best of friends and hospitality is almost an obsession with him. He welcomes Herakles, hides the fact that his wife is dead, and insists that the great hero remain as a guest. When Herakles discovers the truth, he wrestles with Thanatos—the god of death—and saves Alcestis.
Alcestis (al-SEHS-tihs), Admetus’ wife. Her offer to die for her husband when all others refuse glorifies the self-sacrificing devotion of a wife. She is also the devoted mother who dies to ensure her children’s safety and to preserve the kingdom for her son. On stage, she appears rather cold and reserves her passion for her children, but only because, though she loves her husband deeply, she has come to realize that his love is not of the same quality. After Herakles rescues her from Death, she is led in veiled. She is forbidden to speak for three days, until her obligations to the...
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