Alcestis, the earliest extant tragedy by Euripides, was written when the dramatist was in his forties. It is therefore the work of a fully matured man. First staged in 438 b.c.e., the play is in part a product of Athens’s Age of Pericles, that period between the end of the Persian Wars and the onset of the Peloponnesian War. This play shares some of the piety and optimistic confidence of that golden era when Athens reached its greatest power and achieved its finest cultural successes, including the great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
In Alcestis, Euripides reworks an old legend that had earlier been dramatized by the tragic poet Phrynichus. The work bears Euripides’ inimitable stamp in the keen psychological portraiture, in the rare mixture of comic and tragic elements, and in the deus ex machina ending. Presented as the fourth drama in a tetralogy, which is traditionally a satyr-play, Alcestis is best described as a tragicomedy.
The opening confrontation between Apollo and Thanatos, or Death, sets forth the opposition that is the play’s main underlying theme. Apollo is a radiant god, the representative of light, health, and life, whereas Thanatos is a dark, dismal underworld divinity with an awesome power over all living creatures. Both deities have a claim on Admetus and Alcestis, yet because they belong to different supernatural spheres a compromise between them is impossible. However, Apollo, with his prophetic gift, foresees a resolution in the arrival of Hercules, who will rescue Alcestis from Death.
From that point on, the action proceeds on purely human terms. All the characters are recognizable as persons, with private attitudes, emotions, and choices. Euripides reveals the feelings of Alcestis, a woman who freely sacrifices her life so that her husband may live; of Admetus, who asks for and accepts such a sacrifice; of the child of such a marriage; of Admetus’s old father, Pheres, reviled by his only son for refusing to lay down his life; and of Hercules, who accepts hospitality from the grieving Admetus, drunkenly amuses himself, and then...
(The entire section is 885 words.)