Alcestis (Άλκηστις / Alkēstis) is an Athenian tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. It was first produced at the City Dionysia festival in 438 BCE. Euripides presented it as the final part of a tetralogy of unconnected plays in the competition of tragedies, for which he won second prize; this arrangement was exceptional, as the fourth part was normally a satyr play. Its ambiguous, tragicomic tone--which could be "cheerfully romantic" or "bitterly ironic"--has earned it the label of "problem play. Alcestis is the oldest surviving work by Euripides, although at the time of its first performance he had been producing plays for 17 years.
Events prior to the start of the play
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
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 because she wishes not to leave her children fatherless or be bereft of her lover, and at the start of the play, she is close to death.
In the play's prologue
, the god Apollo
comes out from Admetus
' palace in Pherae
), dressed in white and carrying his golden bow, with the intention of leaving to avoid becoming stained by the imminent death of Alcestis
, who is being comforted within. He offers an exposition
of the events leading up to this moment
, repeating the phrase "none but his wife." He hails the arrival of Thanatos
), who, dressed in black and carrying a sword, has come to the palace in his role as psychopomp
to lead Alcestis to the underworld
. Thanatos challenges Apollo's apparent defense of Alcestis and accuses him of "twisting slippery tricks" when he helped Admetus cheat death in the first place. Apollo reassures him and, in a passage of swift stichomythic
banter, proposes a postponement of Alcestis' death, which is sarcastically rebuffed. "Who would ever have thought Death had a sense of humour?" Apollo muses with theatrical self-consciousness
. "For once," Thanatos concludes, "you may not have what is not yours." Defeated, Apollo leaves angrily, prophesizing the arrival of a man (Heracles
) who will wrestle Alcestis away from Death. Alone with the audience, Thanatos warns that "this was a god of many words; but words / are not enough," before he summons the doors open with the tip of his sword and slowly enters the palace.
The entry of the chorus, or the "parodos" sequence, follows: a chorus of fifteen men of Pherae, led by a "coryphaeus" (chorus-leader), enter the orchestra of the theatre. The chorus-leader complains that they are in a state of suspense, ignorant of whether they ought to be performing mourning rituals for their queen. The chorus' lyrical ode, to which they dance as they sing, consists of two paired stanzas of strophe and antistrophe. They sing of the silence that greets their search for signs of mourning, the evidence of Alcestis' death. "When goodness dies," they lament, "all good men suffer, too." The chorus-leader concludes by dismissing the chorus' search for hope in the situation: "The King has exhausted every ritual."
|'[...] Who will deny it?
|'Is there a higher excellence
|'than this, that a wife should die her husband's death?
|'The entire city knows it, and affirms it.
|Maidservant (Epeisodion I)
The first episode
begins with a maidservant
, who enters from the palace in tears. When the chorus-leader presses her for news, she gives a confusing response: "She is alive. And dead." Alcestis stands, she explains, at this moment on the brink of life and death. The chorus-leader anxiously confirms that all of the customary preparations have been made for her proper burial. The maidservant joins the chorus-leader in praising Alcestis' virtue. She narrates a long description of Alcestis' prayers and preparations to die earlier that morning, when she cried over the bridal bed that will destroy her, embraced her sobbing children and bade all farewell. She describes how Admetus held her weeping in his arms while her eyes clung to the sight of the last rays of sun she would see. The maidservant welcomes the chorus-leader to the palace and goes inside to inform Admetus of their arrival.
Alcestis, on her death-bed, requests that in return for her sacrifice, Admetus never again marry, nor forget her or place 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 Heracles arrives at the palace, having no idea of the sorrow that has befallen the place. Hospitality is considered a great virtue, in fact it remains the main motivation for the characters throughout the play. It would be against all manners to turn a guest away, so the king decides not to burden him with the sad news and instructs the servants to make Heracles welcome and keep their mouths shut. By doing this, Admetus breaks his former promise to Alcestis to abstain from merrymaking during the period that follows her death. Heracles 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.
Heracles is terribly embarrassed at his blunder and his bad behavior, and he decides to ambush and confront Death when the funerary sacrifices are made at Alcestis' tomb. When he returns, he brings with him a veiled woman whom he tells Admetus he has brought for his host as a new wife. After much discussion he finally forces Admetus to reluctantly take her by the hand, but when he lifts the veil, he finds that it appears to be, in fact, Alcestis, back from the dead. Heracles has battled Death and forced him to give her up. She cannot speak for three days after which she will be purified and fully restored to life.
Some of the decisions by the characters in the play could raise some questions. Hospitality was considered a great virtue among the Greeks, that is why Admetus cannot send Heracles away from his house. In turn as a reward Heracles returns Alcestis to him. Alcestis' fate can be viewed as a reflection of the male- dominated world of fifth- century Athens- her death is decided by her husband, in that he allows her to take his pre-ordained place in Hades; her rescue from Death comes only through Heracles' intervention. Being led silently from the tomb perhaps symbolises the woman's role in the Athenian household as a subordinate figure, from whom it was preferred to hear little. In all, the play shows that the rules of the male world, guest- friendship and hospitality in particular, are more important that the whims of a female, even her dying wish is disregarded. That Heracles rewards Admetus for his adhesion to these social mores is a reflection of this and it may be this aspect of his contemporary society which Euripides is calling into question with this play.
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.
Modern production history
The American theatre director Robert Wilson staged a production of the play in 1986 at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in 1987 at the Staatstheater in Stuttgart. The production supplemented Euripides' play with material drawn from a range of sources, united by their exploration of the themes of death and rebirth. It began with Heiner Müller's Explosion of a Memory (Description of a Picture) (1985) as a prologue; the piece is a dream narrative partly composed using automatic writing. Müller described it as a description of "a landscape beyond death" that is "an overpainting of Euripides' Alcestis which quotes the Noh play Kumasaka, the Eleventh Canto of the Odyssey, and Hitchcock's The Birds. The production also utilised a Japanese kyogen play whose themes parodied those of Alcestis, laser projections, and a musical score by Laurie Anderson.
- R. Potter, 1908 - verse
- Arthur S. Way, 1912 - verse
- Richard Aldington, 1930 - prose and verse: full text
- Augustus T. Murray, 1931 - prose
- Moses Hadas and John McLean, 1936 - prose
- Richmond Lattimore, 1955 - verse
- William Arrowsmith, 1974, verse
- David Kovacs, 1994 - prose: full text
- Ted Hughes, 1999, verse
- New Russian translation completed in 2008 by Vlanes: or
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- Fitts, Dudley. 1960. Introduction. Four Greek Plays. Ed. Dudley Fitts. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World. 143-145. ISBN 015602795X.
- Weber, Carl, ed. & trans. 1989. Explosion of a Memory: Writings by Heiner Müller. By Heiner Müller. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications. ISBN 1555540414.