Alcestis by Euripides is a story I have been somewhat obsessed with ever since I first heard about it during my Readings in Ancient Greek Drama class last fall. Should I have read it then? Yes. Was I also dealing with a great many things beyond my control? Also yes. So, here we are.
The story of Euripides’ Alcestis essentially consists of a wife (Alcestis) agreeing to die in her husband’s place since his parents will not do it; after she has had two children, the god of Death comes to collect, and thus she must die. Then Herakles comes to visit her husband (Admetus); he provides a warm welcome despite being in mourning, and after discovering this deceit, Herakles goes to the god of Death and brings back Alcestis.
Two points are worth mentioning here: first, that because Alcestis agrees to do this for her husband, she is considered the “best of wives and best of women” (to borrow a phrase from that most glorious of musicals, Hamilton) of all ancient Greek women. This is so much so that she was generally considered to be a model of womanly virtue. The second thing worth mentioning is that Euripides actually modifies the original folktale version of this story, in which Alcestis dies on her wedding night and then the gods (not Herakles) bring her back to life in admiration of her womanly virtue.
In any case, this story has always made me incredibly angry. Why did Alcestis have to agree to give up her life for a man she had barely met in order to be considered the best of wives and best of women? Why, in Euripides’ version, did her sacrifice have to be practically negated by Herakles’ rescue? Why, in Euripides’ version, does she not speak after her rescue (a point which is conveniently explained away as a necessary three-day purification from the rites of death)?
And most of all, why can I not explain these things even to myself?
Despite this story making me very angry, I still enjoyed reading the play. It is, like most plays (even ancient Greek ones), a quick read. The action moves along swiftly, and in keeping with tradition, all the action happens within a “dramatic day” (all the action in ancient Greek plays happened within a span of twenty-four hours).
My main takeaway from reading the play rather than simply knowing the story is that Admetus is an even bigger cad than I originally thought he was. He is cowardly, yes, for trying to have someone die in his place (there was a deal with Apollo at some point that allowed this), but then his completely over-the-top mourning upon the death of his wife who willingly agreed to die for him is just so much. Too much, really.
The last thing I want to say is that I have been channeling my anger from this story into a series of poems about Alcestis (so far I have eight, and I hope to have a whole book of them someday). One of them is a rather remarkably clever limerick about Alcestis meeting Theseus in the Underworld (since he and his bestie Perithoos went down to try to abduct Persephone to be Perithoos’ bride, and then obviously were captured by our good man Hades and got punished by having their bums stuck to rocks until Herakles came and rescued them), even though she probably never got that far (since she hadn’t passed over the Acheron – not the Styx – with Charon yet). Still, it’s funny, and I always thought it would never see the light of day, but here we are. Enjoy!
Alcestis V. Theseus.
I once met a man who was Athenian
Who told me I was quite a bohemian
But his rear was stuck
And mine beat his luck
But we both got the treatment of the tragedian.
(This is book 2/50 for my 50 Classics in 5 Years Challenge.)
(Public Domain Image from Wikipedia. Scenes from the myth of Admetus and Alcestis. Marble, sarcophagus of C. Junius Euphodus and Metilla Acte, 161–170 CE. By Unknown artist – Jastrow (2006), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1302577)