Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713
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 gods of the underworld have been fulfilled.
Herakles (HEHR-a-kleez), the son of Zeus. He is the Greek prototype of great physical strength. He stops at the house of Admetus on his way to capture the man-eating horses of Diomedes. Presented as a jovial, ingenuous boaster, he accepts Admetus’ hospitality and drinks until he becomes quite merry. When told the truth about the death of Alcestis, he is stricken with remorse for his conduct and repays Admetus by rescuing Alcestis from Death. He provides comic relief when he is drinking and when, in the final scene of the play, he presents the veiled Alcestis to Admetus. He insists that Admetus take the woman into his household, even though Admetus has sworn to Alcestis that he will never remarry. Thus, Admetus is made to refuse at first to take back Alcestis.
Pheres (FEE-rees), the aged father of Admetus. Presented as a horrible old man who refuses to sacrifice his life for his son, he is smug and complacent. He serves to make Admetus realize how ugly his conduct appears to others.
Apollo (uh-POL-oh), the god befriended by Admetus. He speaks the prologue, and in his conversation with Death he foreshadows the victory of Herakles over Death.
Thanatos (THAN-a-tohs), the god of death. Unrelenting in his right to take Alcestis, he is defeated by Herakles.
A maid, an attendant of Alcestis. She describes Alcestis’ preparations for death to the Chorus and helps to reveal Alcestis’ love for Admetus.
Chorus of men
Chorus of men, citizens of Pherae. Loud in their praise of the devotion of Alcestis, they hold forth hope that Admetus’ hospitality will prove a virtue to save him. Although they do not sympathize with Pheres, they realize that it is not Admetus’ place to condemn him and that Admetus breaks one of the most sacred of all rules, to honor one’s parents. They rejoice at the rescue of Alcestis.
Eumelus (ew-MEE-luhs), the son of Admetus and Alcestis. He breaks into lamentation as Alcestis dies and emphasizes vividly the child motive in Alcestis. The characterization is not a happy one, for the boy is far too much a miniature adult.
A servant to Admetus
A servant to Admetus, who supposes Herakles to be fully aware of Alcestis’ death and complains bitterly of the hero’s unseemly conduct. He tells Herakles the truth. Later, he declares that if there had been no death in the family, Herakles’ conduct would not have been objectionable.