The following entry presents criticism on Euripides's Alcestis (438 b.c.) For more information on Euripides's life and career, see CMLC, Volume 23.
The Alcestis is Euripides's oldest surviving play. It was first produced for the Feast of Dionysus in 438, as the last in a series of four dramas which also included the tragedies The Cretan Women, Alcmaeon in Psophis, and Telephus—all now lost. This is the only known instance in which a satyr-play did not occupy the fourth position in a tetralogy. With its mixture of legend, folklore, and fairy tale, as well as for what it reveals about ancient Greek values, the play is avidly studied by scholars. Critics disagree about how to categorize the Alcestis because, although it shares much with tragedy, it has a happy ending; some believe it is best called a tragicomedy.
Euripides was born into a well-to-do, possibly noble family about 485 b.c. and was raised in the village of Phlya in northern Attica. In about 455 b.c. he began to compete in Athens with his tragedies, and won third prize for the Daughters of Pelias (now lost). In 441 b.c. he received top honors for another now-lost play—the first of what would eventually be four such occasions. In the course of his career he entered his tetralogies into competition some twenty-two times. He died in 407 or 406 b.c. in Macedonia, but his popularity grew until he became unquestionably the most popular and influential tragic poet, with his plays widely and frequently performed. His lifetime work comprised, reportedly, 92 plays, of which 74 titles are known. Euripides is represented today by eighteen complete tragedies.
Plot and Major Characters
The basic plot line of the Alcestis was borrowed from a popular Greek myth. The King of Pherae in Thessaly, Admetus, marries Alcestis, the daughter of Pelias, King of Iolcus. On their wedding day, Admetus offends the goddess Artemis and is thus fated for an early death. Apollo, indebted to Admetus, intervenes, extracting a promise from the Fates that at the appointed time of death, they will accept a willing substitute in Admetus's place. No one among his kin is willing to make the supreme sacrifice except his wife. She prepares to meet Thanatos, Death, and on her last day, has Admetus promise that he will care for their children and never remarry, which would cause a stepmother to be inflicted on her offspring. Immediately upon her death, Heracles visits. Admetus feels it is his duty to be a gracious host and conceals the unpleasant news from his guest, who stuffs himself with food, drinks mightily, and sings wildly. The next morning Heracles learns from a servant what has happened and, in order to pay back Admetus's thoughtfulness, sets off in pursuit of Thanatos and Alcestis. He overtakes them, wrestles and defeats Thanatos, and takes Alcestis back to her home, heavily veiled. Heracles offers her to Admetus, but he does not know who she is because she is covered and, since he has vowed to remain celibate for his remaining years, he refuses to accept her. Heracles insists that he peek at her face, and when Admetus does so, he is overjoyed at being reunited with his wife.
Critics have pointed out that Alcestis seems to have a dual personality, encompassing traits of tragedy as well as comedy. In the play Euripides treats the serious themes of Alcestis's dutiful taking of her husband's place in death and of her concern for the welfare of her children. Her devotion to her family and her unselfish sacrifice of her own life to spare her husband's illuminate the Greek moral code of the time as well as the role of women in Greek society. But at the same time, the play exhibits a lighter side: the jolly, drunken Heracles plays a trick on his friend, Admetus; this prank results in the restoration of spousal, family, and social order. Complicating this positive current, as many modern readers have noted, is Admetus's compliance with his wife's sacrifice despite his love for her.
Critics find the Alcestis a richly rewarding play in many areas. D. J. Conacher explores how Euripides expanded the myth of Admetus and Alcestis, adding comic and folk tale elements to suit the needs of his tragedy. Charles Rowan Beye, too, discusses legendary and fairy tale aspects of the play. Another issue in Alcestis studies is how to categorize the work; because it mingles tragic and comic elements, can it be considered a satyr-play? D. J. Conacher and others investigate this problem. The Alcestis is also a popular text for women's studies. Numerous critics point out that the story is far more about Admetus than it is about Alcestis; Charles Segal, for example, has written of the play's patriarchal dimension. The nature of sacrifice, especially in ancient times, has been variously analyzed by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Philip Vellacott, and Anne Pippin Burnett, who explain that ancient Greek morality differed considerably from that of the present day. Modern interpretations of the play have been extremely varied, so much so that critics including Ann Norris Michelini and Kiki Gounaridou find them notable for their failure to agree on much of anything. Gounaridou believes this is fitting, positing that Euripides meant for the play to be understood in many different ways. The psychologies and motivations of Admetus and Alcestis are especially disputed, with the question of Admetus's selfishness strongly contested.
Alcestis (play) 438 b.c.
Medea (play) 431 b.c.
Hippolytus with a Garland (play) 428 b.c.
Hecuba (play) 425 b.c.
Andromache (play) c. 424 b.c.
Suppliants (play) 424 b.c.
Electra (play) c. 420 b.c.
Heracles (play) c. 416 b.c.
Trojan Women (play) 415 b.c.
Iphigenia among the Taurians (play) c. 414 b.c.
Helen (play) 412 b.c.
Bacchae (play) c. 406 b.c.
Iphigenia at Aulis (play) c. 406 b.c.
Ten Plays by Euripides (translated by Moses Hadas) 1966
Alcestis (translated by William Arrowsmith) 1974
Alcestis (translated by Charles Rowan Beye) 1974
Alcestis (translated by D. J. Conacher) 1988
Euripides with an English Translation. 5 vols. (translated by David Kovaks) 1994
Euripides: 10 Plays (translated by Paul Roche) 1998
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SOURCE: Arrowsmith, William. Introduction to Alcestis, by Euripides, translated by William Arrowsmith, pp. 3-29. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
[In the following excerpt, Arrowsmith provides a modal analysis of the Alcestis.]
By general agreement the Alcestis is a spirited, puzzling, profound, and seriously light-hearted tragicomedy of human existence. But it is also, as I hope to show,1 a peculiarly beautiful and coherent example of what, for want of a better word, I would call “modal” drama (as opposed to modern “psychological” drama or the drama of our own “theater of character”). Moreover, the beauty and the difficulty of the play—its mysterious elusiveness, its puzzling texture and unfamiliar form—can only be understood, I think, by grasping, in all its complicated richness, its peculiar thought and structure.
Among extant Greek plays, there is literally nothing like it.2 For works of similar tone and structure, we must go to the late Shakespearean “comedies,” to The Winter's Tale or Pericles or The Tempest; or, in music, to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, with its miraculous blend of wit, pathos, and farce, its buffo Figaro and its semi-tragic Countess Almaviva. In composition, the Alcestis is remarkably executed; each succeeding scene unerringly articulates...
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SOURCE: Conacher, D. J. Introduction to Alcestis, by Euripides, translated and edited by D. J. Conacher, pp. 29-55. Wiltshire, England: Aris & Phillips Ltd, 1988.
[In the following excerpt, Conacher provides background on the Alcestis, explores the question of whether it should be considered a satyr-play, and analyzes its themes and structure.]
I. ANCIENT INFORMATION
Our information concerning the date and other features of the production of the Alcestis is drawn from the second “Hypothesis” to our play …. A “Hypothesis”, in this context, refers to a notice, dating back to the time of the Alexandrian editing of Greek tragedies (and, possibly, sometimes earlier), which was prefixed in our MSS to most of the extant plays, and provided what was to be understood as the basis of the play concerned. Some Hypotheses, such as the first one (attributed to Dicaearchus) to the Alcestis, give only a bare outline either of the plot of the play or of the legend on which it is based; others, such as the second Hypothesis (attributed to Aristophanes of Byzantium) to the Alcestis, contain as well information drawn from the original didascaliae (or production records) including names of tetralogies and their authors, dates, and victories in the Athenian tragic festivals.
We learn from this second...
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SOURCE: Segal, Charles. “Female Death and Male Tears.” In Euripides and the Poet of Sorrow: Art, Gender, and Commemoration in Alcestis, Hippolytus, and Hecuba, pp. 51-72. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Segal focuses on death and mourning in the Alcestis and contends that the play, despite its depiction of women's feelings, is a firmly patriarchal work.]
ALCESTIS AND THE PROCESS OF DYING
Despite the fantastic circumstances, Alcestis' death unfolds as a “normal” death of a woman in the house: gradual, anticipated, full of pain and also of unexpected family tensions. We observe the inevitable progression as Alcestis makes elaborate preparations; bids tearful farewells to husband, children, and servants; and reveals her most intense emotions before the marriage bed, the center of the woman's life (177-84). The play therefore allows us an extraordinary glimpse of how men and women in classical Athens might be expected to respond to a wife and mother's death in the house. The play begins with the divinities Apollo and Thanatos (Death), but as soon as they exit at line 76, we enter a fully human world and witness the emotional consequences of a death in the family: conflict, escape, denial, and feelings of loss and guilt. The play presents a veritable anthropology of death, a kind of miniature encyclopedia of attitudes and responses,...
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SOURCE: Gounaridou, Kiki. “Hypotheses.” In Euripides and Alcestis: Speculations, Simulations, and Stories of Love in the Athenian Culture, pp. 1-24. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Gounaridou surveys numerous twentieth-century critical interpretations of the meaning of the Alcestis and concludes that the scholarly indeterminacy she finds reflects the deliberately ambiguous nature of the play.]
Apollo convinced the Fates to allow Admetus, who was condemned to die shortly, to find a voluntary substitute to die in his place. Alcestis, Admetus' wife, offered herself, when neither of the parents wished to die for their child. A short while after this disaster, Heracles visited Admetus' palace and a servant told him what had happened. Heracles went to Alcestis' grave, fought Death away, covered the woman with a veil, brought her back to Admetus, told him that she was given to him as a prize during a fighting contest, and asked him to keep her. Admetus was not willing to keep her but Heracles revealed to him that she was his wife whose death he had been mourning.
The entire play is enacted in front of the house of King Admetus. First there is the exchange between Apollo and Thanatos, with the latter refusing to give up his prize. … Prior to...
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Melchinger, Siegfried. “The Life and Times of Euripides.” In Euripides, translated by Samuel R. Rosenbaum, pp. 7-36. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973.
Presents Euripides's life with historical, literary, and cultural background of his time.
Beye, Charles Rowan. Introduction to Alcestis, by Euripides, translated by Charles Rowan Beye, pp. 1-12. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974.
Discusses the Alcestis legend and speculates on the audience's reaction to Euripides's play.
Beye, Charles Rowan. “Alcestis and Her Critics.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 2, no. 2 (April 1959): 109-27.
Examines some of the criticism directed at the Alcestis and explains how it is mistaken.
Bradley, Edward M. “Admetus and the Triumph of Failure in Euripides' Alcestis.” Ramus no. 9 (1980): 112-27.
Critical analysis focuses on the presence of death.
Burnett, Anne Pippin. In Catastrophe Survived: Euripides' Plays of Mixed Reversal, pp. 22-46. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Critical analysis that focuses on the theme of sacrifice in the play.
Conacher, D. J. “The Myth and Its Adaptation.” In...
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