Alcestis is a Greek tragedy composed by Euripides (c. 480-406 BCE). It is the earliest of Euripides’s dated surviving plays, performed in 438 BCE at the City Dionysia dramatic festival in Athens, where it won second prize. Plays performed in Athens during the 5th century are often referred to as “Attic tragedies.” Alcestis was performed as part of the tetralogy made up of the tragedies Cretan Women, Alcmaeon in Psophis, and Telephus (none of which survive). Alcestis took the place in the tetralogy that was usually reserved for a satyr play, which combines elements of tragedy and comedy. This unusual arrangement has shaped the way scholars and critics have interpreted the play as a “problem play,” because it uses irony, ambiguity, and humor to explore themes such as the Inevitability of Death, the Pursuit of Virtue and a Good Reputation, and the Relationship between Gods and Mortals.
This study guide refers to Richmond Lattimore’s translation of the play from the third edition of the University of Chicago Press series The Complete Greek Tragedies (2013).
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The setting is outside the palace of Admetus, King of Thessaly. Apollo, the Greek god of healing, culture, and prophecy, converses with Death. Apollo tells the audience that his father, Zeus, enslaved him to Admetus as punishment for killing the Cyclopes. Admetus, however, treated Apollo well, and as a reward, Apollo tricked the Fates into allowing Admetus to escape death if he could find somebody to voluntarily die in his place. Only Admetus’s wife, Alcestis, agreed to do so, and today is the day she will die. Death enters the stage to claim Alcestis. In a biting interchange, Death refuses Apollo’s pleas to spare Alcestis. Apollo finally departs, but not before he predicts that Alcestis will be wrested away from Death by a guest in Admetus’s house.
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Apollo and Death exit, and the Chorus, made up of elders of Pherae, enters to sing the first choral song of the tragedy, the parodos. After noting the silence of Admetus’s house, the Chorus wonders whether Alcestis is still alive and praises the nobility of her willingness to die for her husband.
The parodos is followed by the first episode. Alcestis’s maid enters and tells the Chorus that Alcestis is still alive. She describes her mistress’s preparations for death, which involve bathing, dressing herself in finery, praying, and saying goodbye to her children and household. The maid adds that Admetus is already beginning to grieve the loss of his beloved wife. The maid exits, and the Chorus sings the first stasimon, asking Zeus and Apollo to rescue Alcestis from her fated death. They sympathize with Admetus, who must lose such a noble wife.
Supported by her servants, Alcestis enters with her husband and their two children. She is dying. She addresses the sunlight for the last time, already seeing the gods of the Underworld waiting for her in the darkness. Admetus begs Alcestis not to leave him and promises never to remarry. Alcestis tells Admetus to remember her sacrifice and places their children in his care. She dies. One of the children says a brief dirge over his dead mother. Admetus, with a heavy heart, commands all his subjects to observe a year of mourning for Alcestis.
The Chorus sings the second stasimon, saying goodbye to Alcestis and releasing her to the gods of the Underworld. They praise the virtues of Alcestis and declare that future poets will celebrate her in song.
Heracles comes to Pherae and speaks with the Chorus in front of Admetus’s palace. He is on his way to Thrace to steal the man-eating mares of Diomedes, one of the famous Labors that he must perform as punishment. Admetus comes out to greet Heracles but hides Alcestis’s death from him; When Heracles asks him why he is in mourning, Admetus responds that a female friend of the family has died. Admetus insists on entertaining Heracles and has a servant take him to the guest quarters. The Chorus rebukes Admetus for entertaining a guest while mourning his wife, but Admetus responds that it would not be right to turn away a friend. After Admetus exits, the Chorus sings the third stasimon, praising Admetus for his virtuous, hospitable nature.
Admetus reenters at the head of Alcestis’s funeral procession. Pheres, Admetus’s father, approaches him with funerary gifts and expresses condolences for the death of Alcestis. Admetus refuses to accept the gifts, saying that Pheres is a coward and that by refusing to die for Admetus, Pheres is responsible for Alcestis’s death. Pheres responds that he was under no obligation to die for Admetus and that only Admetus is to blame for Alcestis’s death. Admetus disowns his father and exits with the Chorus to bury Alcestis.
A servant enters the empty stage and delivers a messenger speech, complaining about Heracles’s excessive revelry. A drunk Heracles arrives and rebukes the servant for being so morose before learning, to his horror, that Alcestis has died, and the household is in mourning for her. Heracles sets out to rescue her, wishing to repay Admetus’s kindness to him. Admetus, meanwhile, returns home with the Chorus. Admetus laments his loss. The Chorus tells him to be strong and sings the fourth stasimon, an ode to the goddess Compulsion.
Heracles enters with a veiled woman, ushering in the final stasimon. Heracles scolds Admetus for lying to him about Alcestis and then asks him to take charge of the woman he has with him while he is away, claiming that she is an enslaved person he won in an athletic competition. Admetus initially refuses, but by degrees it is revealed that the woman is none other than Alcestis, snatched away from Death by Heracles. Admetus rejoices at having his wife restored to him and takes her with him into the palace as the Chorus sings a concluding chant on the unexpected turns of fortune.