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Alcestis
By Euripides (485-406 BC)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
First Performance
Source
Setting
Characters
Tone
Plot Summary
Conflicts
Themes
Climax
Admetus: a Changed Man
Sections of the Play
Greek Theater: Structure
Author's Biography
Questions, Essay Topics
Complete Text

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012

Type of Work

.......
Alcestis is a tragedy centering on a doomed king whose wife volunteers to die in his place.
Alcestis is also categorized as a satyr play, a drama with the structure and serious theme of a tragedy but which incorporates comic scenes. The best Greek playwrights each staged a satyr play and three tragedies at the Great Dionysia, a yearly festival at Athens presented in the name of the god of wine, drama, and ribald merriment, Dionysus (known as Bacchus to the Romans.) The satyr play was intended as comic relief from the three ponderous and profound tragedies that each playwright presented.
....... A satyr was a minor deity with the the head and trunk of a man and the horns, ears, and legs of a goat. It became associated with Dionysus because of its love of wine, revelry, and lechery. In a satyr play, satyrs acted as the chorus, a group of persons who commented on the action of a play (the way a movie narrator comments on plot developments) and often conversed with the characters.
 
First Performance

.......
Euripides debuted Alcestis in Athens in March of 438 BC at the theater on the south side of the Acropolis. The occasion was the Great Dionysia, the festival described under Type of Work.  


S
ource

.......
Euripides based the play on part of a Greek myth centering on Alcestis, the daughter of King Pelias of Iolcos. This myth was the subject of a play of the same name written by Phryinicus many decades before Euripides wrote his version of the myth.
.......According to the myth, Alcestis was a young woman of surpassing beauty. After many suitors called upon her, her father decided that he would give his daughter to the man who could yoke a lion and a boar to a chariot. With the help of the god Apollo, Admetus—the king of Pherae in Thessaly, Greece—completed this seemingly impossible task and married Alcestis. One day, when Admetus was fated to die, Apollo again helped Admetus by persuading the Fates to let him live. However, the Fates decreed that another person must die in his place. Only one person agreed to do so, Alcestis. Euripides retells the rest of this myth in his play, summarized below.

Setting

.......The action takes place in a single day at Pherae, an ancient community in southeastern Thessaly. Thessaly was a region of central Greece that stretched eastward to the Aegean Sea.

Characters

Admetus
: King of Pherae in Thessaly, Greece.

Alcestis: Young wife of Admetus.
Apollo: God of the sun, medicine, and prophecy. After a conflict with Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, Zeus punished him by forcing him to serve a mortal for a time. Apollo chose to work for Admetus. Because Admetus treats the great god with kindness and respect, Apollo becomes a friend of Admetus.
After the Fates mark Admetus for death, Apollo persuades them to allow him to live. But they set a condition: another must die in his place.
Death (Thanatos): Death personified comes calling at the palace of Admetus and demands the victim who must die in place of Admetus. He will not leave until he has another soul to populate the Underworld.
Heracles (Roman name, Hercules): Son of Zeus and great hero of Greece. A friend of Admetus, he is scheduled to stop overnight at the palace of the king while traveling to another place on one of his adventures.
Eumelus: Son of Admetus and Alcestis. The child chants a lament when his mother dies.
Sister of Eumelus:
This child observes the action. The author does not identify her by name.
Chorus: Older men of Pherae who sing or chant songs about the unfolding action. They also advise the king and sing prayers for him and his family.
Female Servant
Male Servant

Tone

.......The tone is generally serious, but Heracles' drinking and merrymaking add a comic touch.

Plot Summary

.......The great god Apollo steps forth with his unstrung bow from the palace of Admetus, the king of Pherae, a city in Thessaly, Greece. Apollo bemoans the humiliation he has endured as a common laborer for a mortal, Admetus. Apollo's abasement was the result of a conflict with Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods. First, Zeus killed Apollo's son, Aesclepius, with a thunderbolt. (Aesclepius was a god of medicine and healing. He had saved so many humans from death that Hades, the god of the Underworld, lodged a complaint with Zeus that Aesclepius was robbing him of the souls of the dead. To satisfy Hades, Zeus killed Aesclepius.) In retaliation, Apollo killed the one-eyed giants (called Cyclopes) who made Zeus's thunderbolts. Zeus then sentenced Apollo to work in the service of a human being. On earth, Apollo happened upon the kingdom of
Admetus and carried out his sentence by tending Admetus's oxen.
.......Apollo found Admetus to be a noble and kindly man. Consequently, he acted to prevent the death of Admetus when he was fated to die. The Fates—three goddesses who control human destiny—agreed to postpone the death of Admetus if Apollo could produce someone willing to die in the place of Admetus. Apollo discovered that not one of the king's friends—and not even his own mother and father—was willing to die for him. However, his young wife, Alcestis, agreed to die in his place.
.......As Apollo stands in front of the palace, Death approaches him and lays claim to Alcestis. When Apollo tries to persuade him to allow Alcestis to live, Death refuses to give her up, noting that he especially prizes young victims like Alcestis. Angry now, Apollo tells Death that both humans and gods revile him. He then says a man will be coming to wrest Death's prize from him. This man is to visit Admetus during a stopover on a mission to fetch a horse-drawn chariot belonging to Diomedes, a Thracian.
.......After Apollo leaves, Death enters the palace to cut off hair from the head of Alcestis with his sword, a ritual that consecrates a human to the gods of the Underworld.
.......Two choruses of men enter the scene. The first chorus observes that the the palace seems very quiet. The second chorus wonders why none of the king's relatives is around to tell them whether Alcestis, a very good wife to the king, is still alive. Because they hear or see no activity signaling the preparation of funeral rites, the choristers think she must still be alive. Yet they note with sadness that this is the day she is fated to die. The men agree that only the son of Apollo, Aesclepius—who had the power to raise the dead—could save her now. But he himself is dead, slain by the thunderbolt of Zeus.
.......A servant comes from the palace weeping. She tells the men that Alcestis yet lives but is near death. The palace has already prepared for her funeral. The chorus leader tells the woman, “Let her know then that she will die glorious and the noblest woman by far under the sun.”
.......The servant tells the men just how noble. When Alcestis became aware that the day of her death had arrived, she bathed herself, put on fine attire, and prayed to the earth goddess that she would watch over her orphaned son and daughter and, when they are older, marry them to noble spouses. Admetus weeps for her as she declines in her illness. The chorus petitions Zeus and Apollo to find a way for the royal family to escape tragedy. 
.......The palace door opens. Royal guards lead Alcestis, supported by Admetus in her weakened condition, outside so that she may look upon the light of day one more time. Her boy and girl cling to her. Attendants and servants follow with a throne for her to sit on. Alcestis says she can see the boatman Charon, who ferries the dead across a lake to the Underworld. Growing weaker, she falls back on the throne and says,
My children, my children,
Never more, Oh, never more
Shall your mother be yours!
O children, farewell,
Live happy in the light of day!
.......Admetus calls out to the gods for help.
.......Alcestis then asks Admetus to watch over the children and to remain unmarried after she dies. A stepmother, she says, would be envious of the children and treat them poorly. Saying she has done her duty as a mother and wife, she bids farewell. Admetus assures her that he will do her will. He also says he will mourn her death for the rest of his life. When the time comes for him to die, he says, he will leave orders to bury his body in her coffin. In the Underworld they will once again be together.
.......She commends her children to him and says her last good-bye, then slumps over. The children and the father grieve, as do all gathered around them. Servants then carry her body into the palace.
.......Heracles enters and tells the chorus he plans to call upon Admetus. When the chorus inquires about his business, he says he is on a quest to seize the four-horse chariot of Diomedes, a Thracian. The chorus warns him that the horses tear apart men who try to put a bit into their mouths. Their breeder is the son of Ares, the god of war. Thus, Heracles faces a formidable task.
.......Admetus comes out of the palace, greets Heracles, and invites him to stay in the palace in guest quarters. Although Admetus says he is in mourning, he does not tell Heracles who has died. Heracles says he does not wish to impose on Admetus when he is grieving. Therefore, he says, he will find another place to lodge. But Admetus insists that he stay and directs a servant to take him to his quarters and order food for him. Heracles goes inside, followed moments later by Admetus.
.......A short time later, Admetus comes back out with servants bearing the body of Alcestis. Pheres, the father of Admetus, arrives at the palace with finery to adorn the body of Alcestis. He speaks words of comfort for Admetus and praises Alcestis as a great and noble woman. But Admetus is angry that his father and mother refused to help Admetus when he was marked for death and stood by while Alcestis volunteered to die in his place. Admetus says he no longer considers himself the son of Pheres. Even though his father is very old, Admetus says, he lacked the courage to die in his son's place.
.......The chorus leader urges Admetus to cease railing against his father. There is already a surfeit of sorrow in the house of Admetus.
.......Pheres then reproaches Admetus, saying he dutifully reared Admetus and passed on to him his kingdom. But, he says, he is under no obligation to die in his son's place. He likes life just as much as his son, he says. He then accuses Admetus of shameful behavior—namely, that he refused to accept his fated death and allowed his wife to die in his stead. He then calls his son a coward. They exchange further insults. But the words of Pheres seem to carry more weight. Why didn't Admetus accept death so that his wife would live? Admetus orders him to go away.
.......After Pheres leaves and Admetus moves on with the funeral procession, the servant who escorted Heracles to his quarters comes out of the palace. Talking to himself, he criticizes Heracles for accepting Admetus's invitation to lodge in the palace at a time of mourning. When food was set before the guest, the servant says, he ordered additional fare. Then he drank so much wine that he began singing. Heracles then comes out and scolds the servant for treating him coldly and for “worrying about a grief that does not concern your house.” (Heracles is still unaware that it was Alcestis who died.) When he tells the servant that he ought to stop worrying and enjoy a drink of wine with him, the servant informs him of the death of Alcestis and tells him that the household is attending to her burial in a tomb on the outskirts of the city. Heracles then vows to force Death to release Alcestis. If Death is lurking at the burial site, Heracles will deal with him there. However, if he is not there, Heracles will go to the Underworld and carry Alcestis back to the light of day.
.......After Heracles leaves and the servant returns to the palace, Admetus comes back from the funeral deeply distraught. He says he now envies the dead and wishes that he could dwell in the Underworld. He says he should have been the one who died. Now he has to live the rest of his life in pain. When he goes inside and sees the things that remind him of his wife, his desolation will drive him back outside, he tells the chorus. But when he leaves the house, he will not be able to endure the sight of women his wife's age. And people will mock him as a coward for allowing his wife to die in his place.
.......Heracles approaches with a veiled young woman whom he says he won in a public contest. He asks Admetus to keep her for him until he returns from his quest for the four-horsed chariot. However, if he dies during his mission, Heracles says, Admetus may keep her as a servant. Admetus asks Heracles to take the woman elsewhere for safekeeping. Having a young woman in his house would remind him of his loss of Alcestis. In addition, it would cause scandalous public rumors. But Heracles insists that he take her. Admetus relents and tells his servants to take her into the palace. Heracles then says Admetus himself must take the woman in. Admetus, upset by now with Heracles' insistence that he take her against his will, refuses. Heracles nevertheless asks him to offer his hand and take her. Admetus turns around to avoid looking at her, then reaches out his hand.
.......Heracles then pulls off the woman's veil and tells Admetus to look at her. When Admetus turns around, he sees Alcestis. In his astonishment, he first thinks she is a ghost. Heracles tells him to embrace her. When Admetus does so, he realizes it is indeed Alcestis. Overjoyed and deeply grateful to Heracles, Admetus asks him how he was able to retrieve her. Heracles says he pulled her away from Death at the site of her tomb.
.......Admetus asks Heracles why Alcestis does not speak. Heracles replies that three days must pass, during which she will become purified of her consecration to the gods of the Underworld, before she can speak again. Admetus wishes Heracles well and takes Alcestis into the palace.

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Conflicts

.......The main conflict of the play pits Death, or Thanatos, against the other characters. Because he robs people of life, they despise him. But they find him especially loathsome for desiring the life of the Alcestis, who is still young and has a family that loves her. Apollo describes him as a horror even to the eternal gods of Olympus. Other conflicts include the following:
Admetus vs his parents: Neither of them agrees to die in his place.
Admetus vs himself: After Death claims Alcestis, he regrets that he allowed her to die in his place.
The servant vs Heracles: Heracles, unaware that Alcestis has died, eats well and drinks heavily in the palace of Admetus. A servant condemns him for his revelry at a time when the palace is mourning. When Heracles—drunk and wearing a myrtle wreath—speaks with the servant, the latter tells him that it was the king's wife who died. Their  conflict ends.

Themes

Sublime Love: Alcestis demonstrates her profound love for Admetus by surrendering her own life so that he may live. In doing so, she also surrenders the joy of her children and her own desires for the future.
Heroism: Heracles fights Death itself to restore Alcestis to his friend, Admetus. However, the bravery of Alcestis overshadows even that of Heracles when she gives up her own life without a fight for the sake of her husband.
Selfishness: Perhaps the most astounding aspect of the play is that Admetus selfishly clings to his own life while allowing his wife to die for him. Keep in mind, though, that Euripides was following
Remorse: Admetus wins back a small measure of respect from the reader when he expresses remorse for allowing his wife to die for him. 

Hospitality: To the ancient Greeks, hospitality was extremely important. One was obliged to welcome and entertain visitors and to provide them food, drink and lodging. Admetus demonstrates the importance of hospitality when he receives Heracles as a guest and withholds from him news of the death of Alcestis.

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Climax

.......The climax occurs when Heracles unveils Alcestis and reunites her with Admetus.

Admetus: a Changed Man
Dr. Gilbert Murray, a professor of Greek at Oxford University in England, published a translation of Alcestis in 1915. In an introduction to the book—entitled The Alcestis of Euripides—Murray analyzed Admetus. The following excerpt from the introduction presents his analysis.
.......What was Admetus really like, this gallant prince who had won the affection of such great guests as Apollo and Heracles, and yet went round asking other people to die for him; who, in particular, accepted his wife's monstrous sacrifice with satisfaction and gratitude? The play portrays him well. Generous, innocent, artistic, affectionate, eloquent, impulsive, a good deal spoilt, unconsciously insincere, and no doubt fundamentally selfish, he hates the thought of dying and he hates losing his wife almost as much. Why need she die? Why could it not have been some one less important to him? He feels with emotion what a beautiful act it would have been for his old father. "My boy, you have a long and happy life before you, and for me the sands are well-nigh run out. Do not seek to dissuade me. I will die for you." Admetus could compose the speech for him. A touching scene, a noble farewell, and all the dreadful trouble solved—so conveniently solved! And the miserable self-blinded old man could not see it!
.......Euripides seems to have taken positive pleasure in Admetus, much as Meredith did in his famous Egoist; but Euripides all through is kinder to his victim than Meredith is. True, Admetus is put to obvious shame, publicly and helplessly. The Chorus make discreet comments upon him. The Handmaid is outspoken about him. One feels that Alcestis herself, for all her tender kindness, has seen through him. Finally, to make things quite clear, his old father fights him openly, tells him home-truth upon
home-truth, tears away all his protective screens, and leaves him with his self-respect in tatters. It is a fearful ordeal for Admetus, and, after his first fury, he takes it well. He comes back from his wife's burial a changed man. He says not much, but enough. "I have done wrong. I have only now learnt my lesson. I imagined I could save my happy life by forfeiting my honour; and the result is that I have lost both." I think that a careful reading of the play will show an almost continuous process of self-discovery and self-judgment in the mind of Admetus. He was a man who blinded himself with words and beautiful sentiments; but he was not thick-skinned or thick-witted. He was not a brute or a cynic. And I think he did learn his lesson ... not completely and for ever, but as well as most of us learn such lessons.

Structure

Prologue


.......Alcestis begins when Apollo presents background information explaining events that led to the main concern of the play—that Alcestis must die in place of Admetus. This introduction, or prologue (Greek: prologos), continues when Apollo tries to persuade Death not to claim her. The prologue ends when Apollo and Death leave the stage.

Parode, Episode, Stasimon


.......The lines that chorus members sing when they first appear make up what is called a parode (or parados). The lines that the characters speak as the plot unfolds make up what are called episodes. For example, the first episode consists of the dialogue between the servant and the chorus. The lines that the chorus sings between episodes of action make up what are called stasimons.

Kommos and Exodos

.......The lines making up the lamentation scene near the end of the play make up what is called the kommos. This scene begins when Admetus, his children, and the other mourners return from the funeral of Alcestis. It ends when Heracles arrives with Alcestis. The lines making up the final scene of the play—that is, the exit scene—are called the exodos. 

Greek Theater: Structure

Definition and Background

.
.....The Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage, and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dionysia, the Greeks danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue, to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging them in a theater. 
....."A contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the ‘tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate them. 

Major Sections of the Theater
.
.....(1) A tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron faced the east to allow the audience to view plays–usually staged later in the day–without squinting. 
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors. 
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
.
Other Theater Sections

.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery. 
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene. 
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra. 
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus. 
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.

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Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Who is the most admirable character in the play? Who is the least admirable?
  • Does the willingness of Alcestis to die in her husband's place indicate that she regarded Admetus and other males as more important than women? Explain your answer.
  • Write an essay that discusses whether you would be willing to die for another person or for a noble cause.
  • Write an essay describing the Underworld in Greek mythology.