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.