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 wrests Alcestis from Death to redeem his honor. These are not mere puppets of Fate but men and women acting of their own volition. They are, however, torn between life and death—between Apollo and Thanatos—by the choices they make.
Alcestis chooses the heroic role in laying down her life for Admetus. She knows well what she will leave behind: the joy of her marriage bed, her small children, and the pleasures of living. Her sacrifice is all the greater because she is also aware of the terrors of death. She loves her husband, but Alcestis is also thinking of her children and of what will happen to them if the kingdom passes to a stranger. Her final restoration dramatically suggests the biblical paradox that whoever loses his life for love’s sake will gain new life.
Admetus suggests the complementary paradox, that whoever seeks to save his life will lose it. He turns weak in the face of death and chooses to let another die for him. His remorse while his wife is still alive is sheer sentimentality, for at heart he is an egoistic coward. However, when she is dead, he must confront his ignoble shame and live a deathlike existence of perpetual mourning.
His moment of self-recognition occurs in the bitter meeting with his father, Pheres. Admetus blames Pheres for Alcestis’s death, because the old man chose to live when he might have died for his son. Pheres exhibits the same cowardice that afflicts Admetus, but he speaks the truth when he condemns Admetus and declares...
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that no one should ask another to die in his place. Pheres, in clutching life, loses the only thing that matters to him—the respect of his son—and so his life becomes a curse.
If Admetus damns his father, he also damns his children to a motherless desolation and damns himself. He performs one generous act by admitting Hercules as a guest and disguising the cause of his mourning. It is dramatically necessary that Hercules be ignorant of Alcestis’s death so that he makes a drunken fool of himself. Euripides ingeniously retains the sober mood of the play in this scene, for Hercules in his intoxicated solemnity discourses on death’s inevitability. This leads to Hercules’ discovery of the truth and of his own shame. To every man in this play there comes a moment when he must face personal shame. In Hercules’ case, shame motivates him to a noble act. The final scene, where Hercules restores Alcestis to Admetus, is perfectly integrated with the pattern of the whole play and with the themes of sacrifice, loss, and redemption.
The view of life behind this drama is psychologically coherent. It shows the heroic nature of a total sacrifice, the base nature of asking and accepting such a gift, and the path of salvation through a full realization of personal degradation and through acts of unsolicited generosity. Hercules, in entering Admetus’s home, becomes involved in his degradation and must save himself by this same path. Baseness is a form of death, Euripides seems to say, but redemption is life, true life. In Alcestis, Euripides revives an old myth in a way that probes the basis of human experience.