Sunday, 31 January 2016

Alcestis by Euripides.

Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis by Frederick Leighton (1869-1871).
Thanks to Adam and winning the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge I managed this month to get a hold of The Complete Dramas of Euripides, something I've wanted for quite some time, and I'm hoping I may be able to read all the plays in 2016. In the book the plays are simply arranged in alphabetical order, which is as good a way as any to work through an author, and so I start with Alcestis (Ἄλκηστις), which was first performed in 438 B.C.

In the Prologue Apollo explains of how he persuaded the Fates to allow King Admetus to live beyond what would be his natural lifespan, saving him from the possible revenge from Apollo's sister Artemis after he failed to make a sacrifice in her honour. However in order for this to happen Admetus must find a replacement for him when Death arrives. The only person who is willing to give their life so that Admetus may have his is his wife Alcestis. And so at the beginning of the play we see her dying, with Death (Thanatos) arriving to take her to the Underworld. Admetus and Apollo get into a heated argument, Apollo leaves prophesying that she will be rescued from Thanatos, Nevertheless Alcestis dies and Thanatos claims her.

From here we see Admetus, his children, and the people mourning her, led by the Chorus: the fifteen men of Pherae (after some confusion over whether or not she has actually died). Admetus has promised, at his wife's request, that he will never remarry and have their children raised by an unfit step-mother. He is in deep mourning, however when Heracles arrives he conceals this: Admetus is famed for his hospitality - this is why Apollo intervened in the first place to give him a longer life, as thanks for showing him hospitality when he was exiled from Mount Olympus. And so Heracles stays in ignorance, unaware of his friend's pain, and causing the servants enormous irritation as they feel they cannot mourn Alcestis properly. Eventually one of them, in anger, tells Heracles what has happened. Though very embarrassed and hurt by this, Heracles leaves to find Thanatos: he wrestles Alcestis from him and returns her home to Admetus.

Alcestis is really a tragicomedy: too tragic to be a comedy, and too funny to be a tragedy. Nevertheless it is still often classed as a tragedy, which is a reminder that in Greek plays a tragedy does not have to end horribly (this was also the case in Aeschylus' Orestia). Even so I really enjoyed this play however problematic it was, such as the acceptance of Admetus of Alcestis to take his place in death, and that Heracles was to be shown such lavish hospitality. These questions are central to the play, but so too is the nature of loss, mourning, and remorse, and Alcestis' love and devotion to her husband. It's a very moving play.

And as I'm reading these in alphabetical order, in a few weeks I'll be reading Andromache (425 B.C.).

Heracles and Alcestis by Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix (1862). 

The Plays of Euripides

Alcestis Medea  | Heracleidae | Hippolytus | Andromache | Hecuba


  1. We have so many Euripides plays because of the chance survival of one volume of an alphabetical set, so an alphabetical approach has historical precedent.

    1. Very interesting... It's quite scary all of these "chance survivals" in Greek and Roman literature - amazing how much we could have lost, though that said we could have had so much more. I gather Sophocles had written over hundred plays yet only seven survived...

  2. interesting how the greek deities frequently behave in spontaneous ways, at a whim that is to say, and the results of those actions, in addition to wreaking havoc amongst humans, cause unforeseen and thought provoking ethical situations in the participating characters...

    1. It is interesting - I think I've had this conversations on other blogs - some writers portray the gods with some reverence, others mock them for, as you say, acting on a whim and wreaking havoc!

  3. Oh, it sounds so touching. I can't wait to read it to see how the comedy was brought in.

    I know that hospitality was of HUGE importance to the Greeks. One of my favourite parts in The Iliad is when Glaucus and Diomedes face each other in battle, find out that one of their grandfathers had shown hospitality to the other (if my memory serves me well), and decide that they won't fight each other because of that guest-host relationship. Such is hospitality in action ...... it's more important than war.

    Your review has made me want to read some Euripides now, but I'm still making my way through Aeschylus, and Sophocles is next I think.

    1. Sophocles is definitely my favourite so far! And I would have continued with Aeschylus if I hadn't have gotten the complete Euripides. I wish I had more time - I ordered Homeric Hymns as well and... So many I want to read right now! :D


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