Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012Type
.......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.
.......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
.......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.
.......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.
Admetus: King of Pherae in Thessaly, Greece.
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
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.
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.
tone is generally serious, but Heracles' drinking and
merrymaking add a comic touch. Plot
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
.......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, .......Admetus calls out to the gods for
Never more, Oh, never more
Shall your mother be yours!
O children, farewell,
Live happy in the light of day!
.......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
.......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
.......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.
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.
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
climax occurs when Heracles unveils Alcestis and
reunites her with Admetus.
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!
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.
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.
.......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
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
Greek Theater: Structure
Definition and Background
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.
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
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.
A stage called a proscenium. The
staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to
illuminate the faces of the actors.
An orchestra in front of the proscenium to
accommodate the chorus.
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.
Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene.
Passage on the left or right through which the chorus
entered the orchestra.
Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make
sacrifices to Dionysus.
Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god"
onto the stage from the heavens.
Study Questions and Essay
- Who is the most
admirable character in the play? Who is the least
- 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
- 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.