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Alcestis is one of the earliest surviving works of the Greek playwright Euripides. The play was probably first produced at the Dionysia in the year 438 BC, well into the author's career. It is sometimes characterized as a satyr play and sometimes as a melodrama.

Characters and Setting

Characters include:

King Admetus
his wife, the princess Alcestis
his father, the former king Pheres
Herakles
Apollo
Death
Eumelus and another child
two servants
chorus of Thessalian women
Setting: the city of Pherae in Thessaly

The Set-Up

Long before the start of the play, King Admetus was granted by the Fates the privilege of living past the allotted time of his death. The Fates were persuaded by the god Apollo (who got them drunk). This unusual bargain was struck after Apollo was exiled from Olympus for nine years and spent the time in the service of the Thessalian king, a man renowned for his hospitality and by whom Apollo was treated well. The gift, however, comes with a price: Admetus must find someone to take his place when Death comes to claim him.

The time of Admetus' death comes, and he still has not found a willing replacement. His father, Pheres, is unwilling to step in and thinks it is ludicrous that he should be asked to give up the life he enjoys so much as part of this strange deal. Finally, his devoted wife Alcestis agrees to be taken in his stead, and at the start of the play, she is close to death.

The Plot

Alcestis, on her death-bed, requests that in return for her sacrifice, Admetus never again marry, forgetting her and placing a resentful stepmother in charge of their children. Admetus agrees to this, and also promises to lead a life of solemnity in her honor, abstaining from the merrymaking that was an integral part of his household. Alcestis then dies.

Just afterwards, Admetus' old friend Herakles arrives at the palace, having no idea of the sorrow that has befallen the place. The king, wishing to be a perfect host, decides not to burden his guest with the sad news and instructs the servants to make Herakles welcome and keep their mouths shut - thus immediately breaking one of his promises to Alcestis to forego merriment. Herakles gets drunk and begins irritating the servants, who loved their queen and are bitter at not being allowed to mourn her properly. Finally, one of the servants snaps at the guest and tells him what has happened.

Herakles is terribly embarrassed at his blunder and his bad behavior, and he decides to travel to Hades to reclaim Alcestis. When he returns, he brings with him a veiled woman whom he tells Admetus he has brought for his host as a new wife. Admetus agrees to take her (breaking his other promise), but when he lifts the veil, he finds that it appears to be, in fact, Alcestis, back from the dead.

Controversy

This, to many, indicates a happy ending to the play. Others argue, though, that the woman is not actually Alcestis but a look-alike, meaning that the king truly has broken his vows. The language used by Herakles and Admetus contains some ambiguity: the woman looks exactly like the princess, but the men themselves hesitate to identify her as the real Alcestis. She herself does not speak, a silence which Herakles explains will last for three days, after which time she will be freed from her ties to Hades, purified, and allowed to talk again. There is no concrete evidence that this explanation is untrue, but it is an oddity which many readers and audiences believe merits scrutiny.

Other Questions

One question many readers have asked is how Admetus, a perfectly ordinary man to all appearances, and frankly rather a coward, can inspire such devotion in so many people. Apollo persuades the fates to let someone else die in his place; Alcestis agrees to die for him; Herakles wrestles Death himself to bring Alcestis back from the grave. The answer seems to be that whatever Admetus' faults, he's an excellent host. He hosted Apollo during his year's servitude on earth; he hosted Herakles even during his wife's funeral; and it's possible that his willingness to accept this strange woman back into the house at the request of his friend Herakles, so soon after his wife's death, and even at the risk of endangering his vow to the dying Alcestis shows that he, once again, is placing the virtue of hospitality above all else.

However, in Greek thought hospitality WAS a genuine virtue; so perhaps Admetus' pre-eminence as a host is what saves him in the end.

Alcestis Text

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