Alcestis is a myth that is “the most touching of all the Greek dramas to a modern audience” (Lind 213). It is a tragicomedy by the playwright Euripides and it centers on the king and queen of Thessalia. Admetus, the king, has been fated to die yet, due to his alliance with Apollo, is given the chance to find a replacement. His wife, Alcestis, volunteers for the position claiming that she cannot imagine life without her husband.
After Alcestis submits her life, Admetus discovers the pain of loss and even determines that Alcestis is the lucky one in dying. In a surprising turn of events, a friend of Admetus, Heracles, goes down into the underworld, wrestles Death, and wins Admetus back his bride.1 This tale, as mentioned above, tugs at a readers heartstrings. We, as an audience, want to believe that Alcestis is brought to life at the termination of this drama, yet there are those interpreters who believe otherwise. A specific example of this type of person is D.L.
Drew, who proposes that the woman given to Admetus is the corpse of his wife rather than the resurrected Alcestis. Drew goes further to comment that this is Heracless revenge against Admetus for tricking him into believing that she who died is a stranger and not Alcestis.1 This is a terrible proposition that tends to disturb a reader and, through the examination of the text, seems to be rather incorrect. The concept that Alcestis has been resurrected can be supported, in fact, by several elements. Through the influence of the god Apollo in the dramas entirety, through the temperament and motivations of Heracles, and through the presence of many comic elements in correlation with the definition of comedy, one can truly believe that Alcestis is brought back to life. In the onset of Alcestis, the god Apollo utters to Death an oracle. “For a man comes to the dwelling of Pheresand he shall be a guest in the house of Admetus, and by force shall he tear this woman Alcestis from you” (Euripides 66-69).
These are the last words of Apollo in this text, yet he does not completely disappear from the drama. He seems to show his covert influence through the use of light and sound.One may first examine the use of light in this drama. The characters use the concept of the sun many times throughout their dialogue. “Sun, and you, light of day” (Euripides 244). A similar line comes quickly, “The sun looks upon you and me” (Euripides 246). Furthermore, a play on the word, “light” is used.
Alcestis tells her children to “live happy in the light of day” (Euripides 273) and Pheres accuses his son Admetus of loving “to look upon the light of day” (Euripides 691). These are just four examples of a play filled with mentions of light, and it seems to be a device used by Euripides. This playwright uses the mention of sun and light constantly to hint at the silent presence of Apollo, who is the god of the suns rays. He is guiding the fate of the dramas characters. A second examination can be focused on the use of the flute in the drama.
Apollo is credited as being the creator of music and of the flute. The flute plays throughout the play through stage directions interpreted by editor L.R. Lind. Mostly, the flute is played as Admetus speaks and is quite prominent throughout lines 863-902 where Admetus truly understands why Alcestis gave her life and begins to envy Alcestis in her death. These places of flute are also mentions of the presence of Apollo and perhaps show where he aids Admetus in understanding the reason for Alcestiss sacrifice. The most important concept that can be derived from the above material is that Apollo is a god known for oracles at Delphi.
Apollo gives the above oracle personally and is constantly brought up as being a character just under the surface of the play. He can been seen as a character guiding the fates of the other characters and can thus be held accountable for the sidetracking of the hero Heracles from his twelve tasks.This is Apollos intent, yet another aspect must be proven and that is whether or not Heracles has the disposition to, as D.L. Drew believes, cruelly present Admetus with the corpse of his wife. A look into Heracless past is an interesting way to do so.
Heracles was driven by a fit of passion to kill his wife, Megara, and his children by her. After the flame of anger created by Hera (who was angered by Heracless existence as the son of Zeus and of a mortal woman) was extinguished, Heracles was mortified by his actions. He sought out the oracle at Delphi in order to discover what it was he must do in order to make up for his actions, and this is how Heracles was assigned to the twelve tasks as commanded by his half-brother, Eurystheus2. In this way, one can see that Heracles is a character who feels responsible for his own mistakes and who tries to make up for them.One may be wondering what this character trait has to do with Heracless motivations and whether or not he would actually bring to Admetus the corpse of Alcestis. Admetus welcomes Heracles into the land of Thessalia and does not tell him of the death of Alcestis. Heracles is lead to believe, through the cryptic words of Admetus (“She is and is not- and for this I grieve” (Euripides 521).) that it is a stranger who has died.
Heracles therefore disgraces himself by acting very indulgently. “Hedrank the unmixed wine of the dark grape-mother, until he was encompassed and heated with the fame of wine. He crowned his head with myrtle sprays, howling discordant songs. There was he caring nothing for Admetuss misery” (Euripides 755-760). Soon though, he is told the truth that Alcestis has died. It is in Heracless disposition, which is of a man who is somewhat slow to understand, who is animalistic in his passions, yet who is quick to take responsibility for his actions, that one can see he is not the type of man to seek revenge.
Heracles did not bring Admetus the corpse of his wife; he instead brought the resurrected Alcestis in order to apologize for his rather inappropriate actions. “If I can leap upon him Death from an ambush, seize him, grasp him in my arms, no power in the world shall tear his bruised sides from me” (Euripides 847-849). It is interesting to note that Heracles actually wrestles with Death in order to free Alcestis. He fights for the queens life, as did Apollo in the opening of this drama. This can be seen as a connection to the opening scenes and as a reminder that Apollos original oracle has been fulfilled.The examination of Apollo and of Heracles thus far deals mostly with plot and with motivation.
The structure of the drama and its status and a tragicomedy is also very important in the examination of Alcestis. There are obvious examples of tragedy in this drama, such as the downfall of Admetus as he mourns for Alcestis, yet comedy does seem to be sparse in the text at first glance. On a closer look, however, one can see many of the elements of comedy throughout.There is little to no phallic worship in this drama, although one can make guesses as to how Heracles rejoices in his drunkenness. Heracles does play an important role in the creation of one comic element, however, and that is wild indecency. As mentioned above, Heracles saunters around drunk and rejoices as an entire kingdom mourns for their lost queen. “Hey, you!” Why so solemn and anxious?You greet him Heracles with a gloomyface, because of your zeal about a strange womans death” (Euripides 773-777).
Heracles is drunk here and unknowingly mocks the mourning of the servant that he is talking to.This also serves as a type of selfish effrontery. Obviously, Heracles has offended the servants of the palace as he rejoices in a drunken stupor. Furthermore, Admetus acts selfishly as he lets his wife die in place of him. He is offended when his elderly mother and father do not die for him. In his argument with his father Pheres, Admetus delivers much of the selfish effrontery in the drama. “You have proved what you are when it comes to the test, and therefore I am not your begotten son; or you surpass all men in cowardice, for, being at the very verge and end of life, you had neither courage nor will to die for your son” (Euripides 640-643).
One might wonder why Admetus brashly offends his father as such, when he is guilty of the same crime; he had no right to take Alcestiss offer to die.The third element of comedy in Alcestis is social satire. The concept of mourning is made into a hyperbole, for example. “Your image, carven by the skilled hands of artists, shall be laid in our marriage bed; I shall clasp it, and my hands shall cling to it” (Euripides 348-349). It seems quite silly to actually create a statue of Alcestis and sleep with it each night! Furthermore, Admetus orders the entire kingdom to shear their hair and to dress in the cloaks of mourning. Another hyperbole occurs here; it is not necessary to have an entire kingdom mourn as such! According to the stage directions of L. R.
Lind, Admetus “covers his head with his robe, and crouches in abject misery on the steps of his Palace” (Lind p. 244). This is an odd thing for a king to do!These elements prove that Alcestis is partially a comedy. In one aspect, this drama has the downfall and death of Alcestis and the shame of Admetus as he is displayed as the selfish creature that he truly is. This is the tragedy of the drama, yet there is still the concept of comedy in Alcestis.
Comedy is shaped by the above elements and then also by a rise of the protagonist in the dramas termination. It thus follows that if Alcestis has the elements of comedy, then there must also be some sort of comic rise! There seems to be two comic rises. First, Admetus understands the true sacrifice that Alcestis has made. “No pain ever shall touch her again; she has reached the noble end of all her sufferings. But I, I who should have died, I have escaped my fate, only to drag out a wretched life.
Only now do I perceive it” (Euripides 938-941). Although this does not seem to be a comic rise for Admetus, it is an enlightenment of sorts. Admetus has seen that he has been selfish and is shamed by it. The final comic rise is the resurrection of Alcestis, which seems to be an almost reward for Admetuss enlightenment. This resurrection of Alcestis is necessary in order to fulfill the definition of comedy and is thus proven through it, through the actions of Apollo, and through the motivations of Heracles.Footnotes1.
L. R. Lind (1957), Ten Greek Plays in Contemporary Translations Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston, Mass.2. Thomas Bulfinch (1855) The Age and Fable or Stories of Gods and Heroes