In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Euripides' Alcestis

  • Introduction
  • Recent Biographies
  • Commentaries: What the Text Now Says
  • Translations: What the Text Says in English

Classics Euripides' Alcestis
by
Victor Castellani
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0405

Introduction

Euripides’ Alcestis was first performed during the Greater/City Dionysia in 438 BCE in the Precinct-and-Theater of Dionysus. After three (lost) tragedies it appeared as the fourth play, the usual but by no means prescribed place for a lighter drama with a chorus of satyrs and their leader Silenus. Their lustiness, bibulousness, and overall unruly behavior would make a mythic plot into para-tragic travesty. In Euripides’ (henceforth “E’s”) play, the title character Alcestis, having some time before volunteered to die in place of her husband, King Admetus, does so, but is then wrested from Death himself by Heracles and returned to life and to spouse and children. No satyrs appear, no Papposilenus. On the other hand, after a report of Heracles’ drunkenness (that the hero may confirm on stage), for his friend Admetus the wine-fueled son of Zeus returns Alcestis to the light of the sun (and to the stage). The deed parallels a myth where Wine-god Dionysus, likewise son of Zeus, resurrects his mother, Semele, who died giving first embryonic birth to him. The tragic poet Phrynichus had dramatized the “same” basic Alcestis story perhaps half a century earlier, but all we know for sure is that Thanatos (Death) appeared on stage with a sword. Less certainly, Apollo and/or Heracles also appeared. Both nevertheless have been postulated. Apollo, who had negotiated the possibility of surrogate death. Heracles, somewhat more persuasively, a mighty demigod hero who could have forcibly rescued Alcestis from Death. According to an alternate form of the myth, to which Zeus’s son likely alludes at Alc. 850–854, possibly at his request, Uncle Hades and Queen Persephone released a valorous woman to reward her selfless love, eternally young Persephone also perhaps out of compassion for a mortal woman whose brief youth death curtailed. Questions arise: (1) How may we classify Alcestis’s theatrical genre, as E’s experiment or as a form that his audience recognized and from which they expected certain generic features? (2) In the Prologue Apollo predicts that Heracles will rescue Alcestis from Death and he does: Do these divine half-brothers, in other myth adversaries, ally, as has been suggested, to effect a happy outcome whereby Admetus, Apollo’s mortal protégé and Heracles’s friend, may live happily and long with restored Alcestis? (3) Is this outcome really happy for both? If so, (4) does Admetus deserve it? (5) Would thoughtful members of the audience reject it as impossible and/or because Admetus is unworthy of this “best of women/wives”?

Recent Biographies

Since we probably have no complete or generously fragmentary play by Euripides (henceforth “E”) from before this one we cannot guess how its audience reacted, in surprise, in horror, or satisfied that they knew what to expect from him or from any tragedian at the end of a tetralogy. Scodel 2017 and Tyrrell 2020 both permit us to situate the year of the tetralogy that ended with Alcestis, 438 BCE, within E’s life and career. For further biographic information and bibliography, see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Euripides.”

  • Scodel, Ruth. 2017. The Euripidean biography. In A companion to Euripides. Edited by Laura K. McClure, 50–64. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

    Current state of the question. More ambitious than Tyrrell 2020, Scodel’s chapter is divided into well-expounded topical sections titled “What We Know” (far less than we should like), “The Poetic Career,” “Ancient Biographical Traditions” (some of them preposterous), “Misogyny and Misanthropy” (both alleged against E—and their opposites argued!), “Popularity,” and “A Death in Macedon” (where E probably died and was entombed). “Summary” and “Works Cited” complete the chapter.

  • Tyrrell, William Blake. 2020. Life of Euripides. In Brill’s companion to Euripides. Vol. 1. Edited by Andreas Markantonatos, 11–28. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

    Another senior American Euripidean scholar rises to the challenge. Relatively concise complement to Scodel 2017; Tyrrell takes a more concentrated, more consecutive-biographical approach, a less interpretive one. He leaves detailed analysis of E’s actual achievement to other chapters in the Companion, and undertakes deft and duly cautious citation of pertinent ancient sources. He offers credible biography and understanding of the man and the poet-dramatist E in his time and place. This provides Athenian context to the playwright and his plays.

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