Translated by C. A. E. Luschnig, University of Idaho <email@example.com> with help from L. J. Luschnig
Apollo: god of poetry, prophecy, and plague
Thanatos: Death in person
Chorus of elderly citizens of Thessaly
Maid (in Greek, therapaina): the personal female slave of Alcestis
Alcestis: wife of Admetus, daughter of Pelias
Admetus: husband of Alcestis, king of Thessaly, son of Pheres
Children of Alcestis: (a boy and a girl, probably non-speaking roles in the original)
Heracles: Greek hero
Pheres: retired king of Thessaly, father of Admetus
Servant (in Greek, therapon): male slave of Admetus
The scene is Pherai, a town in Thessaly. The play is set in the heroic age in the generation before the Trojan War.
The Alcestis was first produced in Athens in 438 BC. It was played by two actors and a chorus. It was presented fourth, after the three tragedies, in the place of the satyr play. The Alcestis is the earliest of Euripides’ plays to survive.
Hail, halls<3> of Admetus, where I had to eat
with the underclass<4>, though I am a god.
Zeus is to blame for this; he killed my son,
Asclepius<5>, striking him in the heart with lightning.
I got mad and I got even: I killed the Cyclopes,
makers of Zeus’ fire; then my father made me
serve a mortal man as his slave, to punish me.
So I came to this land and tended sheep for my host<6>
and up to now I have been the protector of this house.
Yes, being holy myself, I found him holy,
the son of Pheres<7>; I rescued him from death,
by tricking the Fates<8>; for my sake the goddesses agreed
to let Admetus escape his present death,
if he found a substitute to give the gods below.
He made the rounds, he asked them all, his nearest and dearest,
his father and the old woman who gave him birth, his mother,<9>
but he found not a one save his wife who was willing
to die for him and give up the daylight.<10>
Now in the halls she needs a helping hand even to stand up.
Her last gasp cannot be far off. Today is the day she
is destined to die and leave this life.
But as for me, to avoid the filth<11> of death under the roof,
I am leaving this house, with fond memories.<12>
And I already see Death coming ’round, priest of the deceased,
who is going to take her down to the halls of Hades.
He has come right on time, keeping track of the day she has to die.
What are you doing in front of the halls? Why are you hovering about this place,
Phoebus? Are you still stealing from the lower gods,
trying to end our honors–is that your game?
Aren’t you satisfied with forestalling Admetus’
death, using a dirty trick to trip the Fates? Now,
with bow in hand, are you looking out for her, his wife,
who contracted to redeem her husband
by dying in his place, his wife, the daughter of Pelias?
Not to worry. I am not a crook you know. My word is good.
What is the bow for, if you are not crooked?
It’s just that I always carry it. It’s part of my costume.
And you always help this house unjustly.
Yes, because it upsets me when a friend is in trouble.
Well, are you going to rob me of this second corpse?
But I did not take even him by force.
How is it that he is still up here and not six feet under?
He let his wife take his place.<14> She is the one you have come after.
Yes, I shall certainly take her down to those who live below.
Take her, then, and go. I guess I can’t convince you…
To kill my victims? This is what I am made for.
No, but to bring death to those ready to die.
I get your meaning and your intent.
Is there no way that Alcestis can come to old age?
There is not. You have to realize that I enjoy my honors too.<15>
You won’t get more than one life anyway.
I get a juicier prize when the young die.
And yet if she dies in old age, she will have a rich funeral.
Your law favors the haves over the have nots, Phoebus.
What do you mean? Have you become a sophist and not told anybody?
Those who could afford it would buy a ripe old age.
I suppose you are not going to do me this favor.
No, not really. You know what I am like.
Yes, an enemy to men and to gods detestable.
You can’t have everything when it doesn’t belong to you.
You will go along with me in the end, intractable as you are;
such a man is coming to Pheres’ house,
sent by Eurystheus after the team of
horses from the wintry reaches of Thrace,
who, after he has been entertained in this house of Admetus,
by force will rob you of this woman.
Then you will get no thanks from me, but still
you will have to do it, and I will still hate you.
You have wasted your breath.
The woman is going to Hades.
I am going in for her now to begin the ritual with my sword.
Anyone whose hair is consecrated by this sword
is dedicated to the gods of the netherworld.<17>
Parodos (the entrance song of the chorus), 77-135
— Why this silence at the gates?
— Why is the house of Admetus hushed?
— But no friend is near
who might tell whether she is dead,
and we must mourn our queen, or living still
she sees this day’s light, the daughter of Pelias,
Alcestis, by me and everyone else
judged the best a wife
could be to her husband.
Strophe 1<19> (86-97):
— Does anyone hear sounds of mourning
or the beating of hands within the house
or moaning as when the end has come?
— No, and there is no attendant
posted at the gates.
If only, amid the waves of disaster,
oh Paian,<20> you would appear.
— If she were gone they would not be silent.
— She is dead now.
— But not gone from the house.
— Why do you think so? I am not so confident. What makes you sure?
— How could Admetus have buried
his noble wife without mourners?
Antistrophe 1 (98-111):
— Beside the gates I do not see
the spring water that is the custom
at the gates of the dead.
— No cut lock of hair is at the front gates
which falls in mourning
for the dead. No young hand
of women can be heard beating.
— And truly this is the fated day…
— What is this you say?
— On which she must go below.
— You have touched my soul, you have touched my heart.
— When the good are worn down with misery
all good people
must grieve with them.
Strophe 2 (112-121):
— But there is no place left on earth
where anyone, by making
a sea voyage, either to Lycia
or to the waterless
altars of Ammon,
might save the life
of the unhappy woman. For the untimely end of her life
approaches. By the hearths of the gods
there is no sacrificial priest
I may approach.
Antistrophe 2 (122-131):
— But he alone… if only he were now seeing
this day’s light with his eyes,
Phoebus’ son,<21> then leaving
the shadowy places and gates of Hades,
she might come back.
For he used to raise the dead
until the Zeus-cast
bolt of blazing thunder took him away.
But now what hope
of life may I entertain?
— All is over for the royal family;
at the altars of all the gods
full sacrifices are streaming with blood.
But there is no cure for these ills.
First Episode (136-216)
But look. One of the maids is coming out of the house
with tears in her eyes. What news will I hear?
We don’t need an excuse to grieve if something happens
to our rulers. Is the lady alive
or has she passed away? We would like to know.
You could say that she is both living and dead.<23>
But how can the same person be dead and alive?
She can barely stand and her last gasp<24> cannot be far off.
Oh poor man!<25> What a man you are! What a wife you are losing!
The master doesn’t know this yet, not until he experiences it.<26>
Is there no hope of saving her life?
The fated day is making itself felt.
Then are all the preparations being made for her?
Yes, she is all dressed up for her funeral.
I hope she realizes that she is dying gloriously
and is by far the best wife under the sun.
What else but the best? Who is there to challenge her?
What would a woman have to do to surpass her?
How could anyone better show that she puts
her husband first than by dying for him?
And the whole city knows about it.
But you will be amazed to hear what she did in the house<27>.
When she felt that the appointed day
had come, with flowing water she washed
her fine skin and taking from the cedar closet
clothing and accessories she dressed herself becomingly.
Then standing before the altar of Hestia<28> she prayed:
“Mistress, since I am going down below the earth
this is the last time I will fall on my knees before you;
take care of my orphaned children: wed to my boy
a dear wife and to my girl a noble husband.
Do not let them, like their mother,
die before their time, but let my children be happy
in their father’s land and complete a happy span.”
She went to all the altars that there are in Admetus’ house
and she crowned them all with garlands and prayed at them,
pulling leaves from myrtle branches,
without tears, without complaint; even her complexion
was unblemished by the advancing evil.
And then flinging herself into her bedroom and onto her bed,
there at last she let the tears fall and said,
“My bed, where I gave up my virginity
to this man for whom now I am giving up my life,
goodbye. I do not hate you, though you have destroyed
only me. But I was reluctant to betray you and my husband
and so I am dying. Another woman will get you,
no more virtuous than I, but maybe luckier.”
Throwing herself upon the bed, she planted kisses on it
and all the bedclothes were wet with her floods of tears.
But when she was finished crying, tearing herself from the bed,
she started to go out, her head bent down,
but again and again, she turned back
and threw herself back on the bed.
The children were crying, clinging to their mother’s dress
and she took them in her arms and
one after the other she kissed them goodbye, because she was dying.
All the servants were crying everywhere in the house,
feeling sorry for their mistress. But she held out her
right hand to each, and no one was so low that
she did not speak to him and hear what he had to say.
Such is the tragedy of Admetus’ house.
If he had died he would be done with it, but by escaping
he has so much grief that he will never forget it.
Surely Admetus is lamenting these troubles
if he must lose his excellent wife.
Yes, he is crying, holding his dear wife in his arms
and he begs her not to abandon him, impossible
wish. She is fading fast, wasting away with illness.
And she’s fallen in a faint, a pitiful burden in his arms.
But still, even though she is scarcely breathing
she wants to come out for a look at the sunlight
for the very last time–never again
to see the bright face of the sun.
I will go in and announce your arrival.
Not everybody thinks well enough of their kings,
to stand by them in troubles;
but you are old friends to my masters.
Stasimon 1 (212-237)
— Ah Zeus what way out of evils, how, where
might there be a way? and release from the fortune
that is upon our rulers?
— Oh no! Will anyone come or must I cut my hair
and change into
black clothes of mourning?
— It is plain, friends, plain, but still
let us pray to the gods,
for great is the might of the gods.
— Oh Lord Paian<29>,
find a way out of evils for Admetus.
— Grant one, grant it. For even before this
you discovered a way, even now
be a savior from death,
stop bloody Hades.
— How sad . . .
Oh child of Pheres, how badly you have fared
deprived of your wife.
— Ah, are these not things to make a man cut his throat
and more than enough to tie a rope
around his neck.
— For you will see your dear wife,
the dearest wife in the world,
die on this day.
— Look, look,
she is coming out and her husband with her.
— Cry out! Lament, oh Pheraian land,
for the best of wives,<30>
wasting away with sickness
and going beneath the earth to Hades.
Episode 2 (238-434)
Never will I say that marriage brings more delight
than grief. Earlier experience
tells me this and it is confirmed now by seeing the misfortune
of the king who will lose the world’s best wife
and live out an unlivable life.
Sun and light of day,
heavenly whirlings of running cloud.
Yes, the sun sees you and me, two unhappy people who have done
nothing against the gods for which you should die.
Earth and roof of the house,
bridal bed of my native Iolcus.
Raise yourself, poor thing, do not abandon me.
Beg the mighty gods to have mercy.
I see a two-oared boat, I see it in a lake.
And the ferryman of the dead
holding his hand on the pole, Charon
is calling me now: “Why are you delaying?
Hurry along, you are keeping us back.” That is how
gruffly he harries me.
Oh no! Bitter to me is the voyage you speak of.
My poor dear, what we are suffering.
He is taking me. Someone is taking me! Someone is taking me!
–don’t you see?– into the halls of the dead,
he’s looking out at me under dark brows
he has wings! Death!
Let me go!32> What are you doing? Let me go! Such a journey
I am making, saddest of all…
Sad to your friends, but especially to me
and the children, who share this sorrow.
Let me loose, now. Let me loose.
Put me down. My legs are too weak to stand.
Death is near.
Dark night is coming over my eyes.
Children, children, your mother–
you have no mother.
Goodbye, my children. May you live in the sunlight.
No, no! These words are misery to my ears,
and worse than any other death for me.
Do not, by the gods, do not abandon me;
in the name of the children whom you are leaving orphaned, do not!
Stand up! Be brave.
If you die, I can’t survive.
We depend on you to live or die.
Your love gives meaning to our lives.
Admetus, you see how things are with me,
I need a word with you before I die.
I put you ahead of my own
life, so that you would be in the sunlight,
and I am dying–even though I could stay alive–for you
and could have a husband, anyone I wanted in Thessaly,
and live like a queen in a wealthy home.
But I did not want to live without you
with my children orphans, and I did not spare
my youth, though I am young and have had a happy life.
And yet your father and mother abandoned you,
though they had reached an age at which it would become them to die
with honor to save their son and bow out graciously.
You were all they had, an only child; there was no hope,
with you gone, for them to have any more children.
And then I would be alive and you too for the rest of our lives
and you would not be mourning the loss of your wife
and bringing up motherless children. But this is the work
of one of the gods, that it has to be like this.
Very well. You, remember now what you owe me.
For I will ask you–nothing comparable, you know; there is
nothing more precious than life–
but something fair, as I am sure you will agree. You love
these children, no less than I, if your heart is in the right place.
Bring them up to be masters in my house,
and do not marry another woman to be their stepmother
who will be a worse woman than I, and out of spite
will raise her hand to my children … yours too.
A stepmother coming into a family where there are children
by the first wife is as tender as a viper.
Our son has his father as a tower of strength
to talk to him and listen to what he has to say.
But you, my little daughter, what kind of girlhood will you have?
What sort of wife of your father will you have to live with?
I am worried that she will spread some nasty rumor about you
in the prime of your youth and destroy your chances for marriage.
Your mother will not be able to attend your wedding;
she won’t be with you when you give birth, my baby,
when nothing is more comforting than a mother.
I am dying and it’s not tomorrow or
on the third of next month; this tragedy is coming
right now. I will not be here any more.
Goodbye and be happy. You, my husband, can
brag that you had the best wife in the world,
and you, children, that you were born of the best mother.
Never fear. I do not hesitate to speak for him.
He will do as you say unless he has taken leave of his senses.
Not to worry. I will do it. I will do it. Since I had
only you while you were living, when you die
you will be called my only wife and no one ever
instead of you will be my bride and call me husband.
For there is no one so well-born
nor any woman more beautiful.
I have enough children. I pray the gods to
be able to enjoy them, since we will not enjoy you.
I will grieve for you not for a year only
but as long as my life lasts, my wife,
hating my mother and hating my
father. They were friends in word, never in deed.
But you gave up what was dearest to you and saved
my life. Isn’t it right, then, for me,
losing such a wife as you, to grieve?
I shall put an end to the revels and parties
and garlands and music which cheered up my house.
Never again could I touch the lyre strings
nor lift my spirit to sing to the Libyan
flute. For you have taken all joy from my life.
Your likeness, made by a skillful artist
will be placed in my bed and I will
fall upon it and hold it in my arms and
call your name and feel like I am holding
my dear wife in my arms. Of course I will not hold her.
A cold comfort, but still it would relieve the
burden of my heart. Coming in dreams
you could bring me pleasure. For it is sweet to see
dear ones even at night, for as long as they can stay.
If I had the tongue of Orpheus and his gift for song
to charm the daughter of Demeter and her husband
with songs and bring you back,
I would go down and neither Hades’ dog nor
Charon the ferryman of the dead at his oar would
hold me back until I had restored you to life.
But wait for me there until I die,
and make a home for me so we can live together when I’m dead.
For I shall leave instructions to be laid out
in the same coffin and to lie side by side with you
and not even in death ever to be apart from you,
the only one loyal to me.
And I too, as a friend for a friend, will bear
this painful grief for her, for she is worthy.
Children, you have heard with your own ears
your father promise that he would not ever marry another
woman to lord it over you and to dishonor me.
Yes, and I say it again and I will do it.
On these terms, take the children from me.
I take them, a dear gift from a dear hand.
You be their mother instead of me.
I will have to be since you won’t be there.
Oh children, I should live, but I must go.
Oh no. What will I do without you?
Time will soften your grief. The dead are nothing.
Take me with you, in gods’ name, take me with you!
My death is enough–I am dying for you.
Oh god! What a wife I am losing!
My eyes are growing dark and heavy…
I am dead, if you will leave me, my wife.
You can say that I am gone.
Lift up your head, do not leave your children.
I do not want to–but, goodbye, children.
Look at them, look.
Nothing is left of me.
What are you doing? Are you leaving?
Poor me, I am dead.
She is dead. The wife of Admetus is gone for good.
Oh, I’m so unlucky. Mama has gone
away. Oh father, she is not here any more.
She has gone and left me an orphan.
Look, look at her eyelids and her hands, they’re limp.
Hear me, please listen, mother, I beg you.
It is me, I am calling you, your own little bird,
leaning over your lips.
She does not hear or see you. I have been knocked flat
and you too, by a heavy blow.
I am young, father, I am left
on my own, without my mother, oh
I have suffered awful
And you, little sister,
have suffered with me. Oh father
for nothing, nothing, you married, and you did not
grow old with her.
She died first. Mother, mother, with you
gone our home is gone.
Admetus, you must bear this tragedy.
You are neither the first nor the last of mortals
to lose a good wife. You have to learn
that death is a debt we all must pay.
Yes, I do know. And this tragedy did not hit me out of the blue.
I have known about it and been in agony for a long long time.
Now I must take care of her funeral.
Stand by me and stay to sing the chorus
to the deaf god of the dead.
I command all the Thessalians over whom I rule
to share in the mourning for this woman
with cut hair and black robes;
and you who yoke the four-horse chariots and you who
ride single steeds, take your swords and cut the hair from the mane.
There will be no sound of flutes in the city
nor of the lyre for twelve full months.
For I will never bury anyone dearer than she
nor better to me. She is worthy of
respect because she died for me, the only one who would.
Stasimon 2 (435-475)
Oh daughter of Pelias,
be happy for me in the house of Hades
where you live in the sunless halls.
But Hades the black-haired god must know, and the old ferryman of the dead
who sits by the oar
and rudder, that he rows you,
far and away the best of women,
over the lake of Acheron
in the two-oared pine boat.
Many are songs the servants of the Muses
will sing of you to the seven-toned mountain lyre
and they will celebrate in lyreless hymns
in Sparta when the cycle of the season of the month
of Karneios<34> returns
when the moon is up all night long,
and in shining happy Athens.
Such hymns of praise did you leave
to the singers when you died.
If only it were up to me
and I were able to bring you
into the light from Hades’ halls
and across the streams of Cocytus
rowing across the river under the world!
For you alone, dearest of women,
had the heart to give your life
in exchange for your husband’s,
saving him from Death. Light may the earth
fall upon you, my queen. But if
your husband makes a second marriage in his house, we will despise him
and so will your children.
When his mother refused
to let her body be buried in the ground
for her child and his aged father too
–for their son whom they gave life–
they had not the courage to save him,
hard-hearted, grey-headed couple.
But in your early youth,
dying for your husband, you are gone.
I hope I am lucky enough
to get such a partner
–this rarely happens in life–she would live with me without pain
throughout our lives.
Episode 3 (476-567)
HERACLES<35> (Enters from the side walkway or parodos.)
Friends, villagers of this land of Pherai,
do I find Admetus at home?
The son of Pheres is in the house, Heracles,
but tell us, what brings you to the land
of the Thessalians and this town of Pherai.
I am performing a labor for Eurystheus.
And where are you going? Where do your travels take you?
I’m going after the four-horse chariot of Diomedes of Thrace.
How will you possibly do it? You must not know him!
Never met the man. I have never been to the Bistonians before.
There is no way to master the horses without a battle.
But I can’t just say no to the labors.
You will kill him and come back home or else die there and never return.
This will not be the first time I have taken a risk.
What would you gain if you overpower their master?
I will drive the horses down to the Lord of Tiryns.<36>
It is not easy to put a bit in their mouths.
Well, unless they breathe fire from their nostrils…
Not that, but they tear men to pieces with their blood-stained jaws.
That sounds more like wild beasts than horses.
You can see their mangers red with blood.
Whose son does their master expect us to believe he is?
Ares’ son; he is king of the golden Thracian shield.
That is the story of my life.
It is always tough and an uphill battle,
if I must fight with the children
Ares fathered: first Lycaeon,
then Cycnus,<37> and now this is the third battle,
with the master and his horses that I must enter into.
But there is no one who will see the son of
Alcmene quaking before an enemy’s hand.
And here is the king of our land, himself,
Admetus coming out of the house.
Good cheer, son of Zeus, child of Perseus’ blood.
Good cheer to you too, Admetus, king of the Thessalians.
I wish … but I know you mean well.
What is the matter? Why is your hair cut in mourning?
I have to bury someone today.
God protect your children from harm.
The children are alive in my house.
Your father has reached a ripe old age, if he is gone.
He is fine … my mother too, Heracles.
Your wife, Alcestis, isn’t dead…?
There are two ways of looking at it…
Is she dead or still alive?
Yes and no — but I grieve for her.
I do not understand. You don’t make sense.
Don’t you know the fate she must meet?
Yes, I know that she has undertaken to die in your place.
How is she still with us, if she has agreed to that?
Ah. Don’t grieve for your wife in advance. Put it off until the time comes.
She is going to die…the dead are nothing.
Alive and dead are considered two different things.
You have your opinion, Heracles, and I have mine.
Just why are you in mourning? Has someone died in the family?
My wife… It’s a woman we were just now talking about.<38>
Is she an outsider or related to you by blood?
Not exactly related, but vital to our house.
How is that she died in your house?
When her father died, she spent her life here.<39>
Too bad. I wish I had not found you in mourning.
What are you getting at …?
I will find another friend to put me up.
No sir, it cannot be done. Perish the thought!
It is an added burden for those in mourning if a guest stays over.
The dead are dead. Come into the house.
It is uncouth for guests to feast when the house is in mourning.
The guest quarters are separate, where you will stay.
Please let me go and I will be very grateful.
You must not go to another man’s hearth.
You, open the guest house for him
and show him to his rooms, and tell the staff
to serve him plenty of food. Close up
the connecting doors carefully. It is uncouth for guests
to be disturbed at their feasting by sounds of mourning.
What are you doing? When such a thing has happened, Admetus,
how could you invite a guest to stay here? Have you gone soft in the head?
But if I had driven him away from my house and city
when he came as a traveler, then would you have approved of me more?
Oh no, the misery would be no less, but
I would not be a good host and friend.
And I would have this tragedy on top of the other,
that my house would be called unwelcoming to guests.
I always find him a perfect host
whenever I go to the thirsty land of Argos.
How is it that you concealed the present misfortune
from a man who came here, if he is a friend as you say?
He would never have been willing to enter the house,
if he had known of my troubles.
And maybe to some in doing this I will seem foolish
and those people will not approve. But my house does not
know how to turn away guests nor to treat them badly.
Stasimon 3 (568-605)
Strophe 1 :
Oh house of a hero, forever welcoming and free,
in you the Pythian Apollo of the beautiful lyre
deigned to dwell,
and he endured to be a shepherd
in your domain,
over the sloping hillsides,
piping to your flocks
bucolic idylls of love.
In joy at the melodies spotted lynxes were herded with them,
and the blood-red pride of lions came,
leaving the covert of Orthys.
And with them danced about your lyre,
Phoebus, the dapple-coated fawn
skipping from beyond the high-needled pines
on graceful ankles,
rejoicing in the happy tune.
For he dwells in a home most rich in sheep
beside the fresh waters of
lake Boebia. The boundary
of his farmlands and the wide expanse of his plains is
the dark resting place
of the sun’s horses, the Molossians’ realm;
and on the Aegean sea he rules
up to the harborless shore of Pelion.
And now having opened his home,
he has received a traveler, with tears in his eyes
from weeping over the body of his dear wife,
just dead in the house. Good breeding
brings out good deeds.
In the brave heart is every sort of wisdom. I am stunned.
But upon my soul confidence sits
that a god-fearing man will fare well.
Episode 4 and kommos (606-961)
Welcome company of citizens of Pherai,
servants are lifting up the body properly adorned,
and carrying it to the tomb and pyre.
You, accompany the deceased on her last journey
with the traditional song.
I see your father coming at an old man’s pace,
and servants with gifts for your
wife in their hands, offerings for the lower world.
PHERES (enters with an entourage, from the opposite side to Heracles’ entrance)
I have come, to sympathize with you in your troubles, my boy.
For you have lost a fine and virtuous wife;
no one will deny that. Still you must get through
these things, even though they are hard to bear.
Receive these gifts and bury them with her.
It is right to pay our respects to her body,
since she died for your life, my boy, and
she did not make me childless and did not let
me waste away without you, grieving in my sunset years.
And she has made life more glorious for all
women by undertaking this generous deed.
Oh, you, who have saved this man and lifted us up
when we were low, farewell, even in Hades’ halls
may it go well for you. I say that such marriages
are profitable for mortals or it is not worth getting married at all.
You were not invited to come to this funeral
and yours is not a welcome presence here.
She will never put on these gifts of yours.
No, she will not be buried beholden to you.
That was when you ought to have grieved with me, when I was dying.
But you kept out of the way and let someone else die,
a young person, when you were old, and now you are ready to mourn her death?
Are you really my natural father?
Did that woman who claims to have given me birth and is called
my mother really bear me? Or was I born of slave’s blood
and deposited at your wife’s breast in secret?
You showed, coming to the test, who you are,
and I do not think that I am your natural child.
You are without a doubt the most cowardly man alive.
You who are so old and have reached the finish line of life…
you backed away and did not have the courage to die
for your own son, but you let this woman do it,
not even a relative. She is the one I honestly think of as
my mother, yes, and my father too, only she.
And yet this would have been a noble undertaking for you
to die for your son and you have only
a little time left in your life.
And then she and I would have lived for the rest of our lives
and I would not be in mourning for her.
And yet you have had everything that a happy man
ought to have: in your youth you enjoyed royal power,
you had me as your son, an heir to your estate,
so that you would not have to leave it without an heir, to be dismantled.
You will not say that I dishonored your old age
and left you to die, since I was very
respectful to you. And for that, here is
the gratitude you and mother have shown.
So hurry home and get started on some more children
who will nurse you in old age and when you die
pay their last respects to your body.
For I will not bury you with my hands.
As far as you are concerned, I am dead! And if I see the light of day
because someone else rescued me, I say that
I am that person’s child and the nurse of her old age.
In vain old people pray for death,
cursing their old age and long life span,
but when death shows his face no one wants to die
and old age is no longer such a heavy burden.
Stop it. Haven’t you enough troubles already?
My boy, do not excite your father’s wrath.
My boy, what has gotten into you? Do you think it is some Lydian
or Phrygian slave bought for cash that you are insulting?
Do you forget that I am a Thessalian and my father was a
Thessalian too, legitimate and free born?
You are very abusive, spitting out your childish taunts;
you will not get away like that with badmouthing me.
I gave you life and I brought you up to be master of
my house. It is not my duty to die for you.
That is not a custom I received from my father,
that parents die for their children–it isn’t the Greek way!
For yourself you exist, whether happy or not.
What was rightfully yours you have received from me.
You rule a large kingdom and I will leave you many acres of
farmland: that is what I received from my father.
How have I hurt you? What do I have that should be yours?
Do not die for me and I will not die for you.
You are glad to be alive. Do you suppose your father is not?
I figure that I will spend a long, long time in the other world.
Life is short but still it is sweet.
You fought tooth and claw to escape death
and you are alive because you slunk past your appointed time
and killed her. Do you talk about my cowardice,
you reprobate, put in the shade by a woman,
who died for you, her fine young Adonis?
You have found a clever way of avoiding death
if you will persuade each wife in turn to die
for you. And then you reproach your loved ones for not
wanting to do this, when you’re the coward.
Hold your tongue! Just think, if you love your own
life that all men love theirs, and the bad things you say
of me, you will hear the same about yourself and they will not be lies.
Too much now has been said, on top of the old troubles.
But stop, old man, do not badmouth your son.
Have your say, since I have had mine. If you are pained to hear
the truth, you should not have wronged me.
I would have done you wrong if I had died for you.
Is it the same for a young person and an old one to die?
We get one life to live, not two.
I hope you live to be older than Zeus!
You curse your father, though you have suffered no wrong from me?
I had the idea that you were fond of living long.
But are you not laying out this corpse instead of your own?
Proof of your mean spirit, you utter coward.
She did not die for me. You will not say that.
Ah!. I hope one day you need me!
Chase more women so that more will die.
This is your disgrace. Since you were not willing to die.
I love the light of day, I love it. I don’t want to die!
Your spirit is mean. How can you call yourself a man?
You are not laughing at an old man in that coffin.
You will die in disgrace when you do die.
I do not care about my reputation after I am gone.
Ah! Old men have no honor.
She was not dishonorable, you found her foolish.
Get out. Let me bury my dead.
I am going. You will bury her though you are her murderer.<40>
And you will be punished by her kin.
Or Acastus is not the man he was,
if he does not take vengeance for his sister’s death.
Go to hell. You and the woman you live with.
Childless, though your child is living, go and grow old
as you deserve. You will not come with me into the same house.
If I had to publicly repudiate you as my father
and my father’s hearth, I would do it.
But we — we must endure the present tragedy.
Let us go, so that we may put this body on the pyre.
CHORUS (going out in procession, singing to Alcestis’ body, leaving stage and orchestra empty)
Ah! Ah! Brave in your daring,
Noble and most excellent,
farewell. Graciously may Hermes of the beyond
and Hades receive you. If there is any reward in the hereafter
for the brave and good, you have earned it.
You will be seated beside the bride of Hades.
* * *
SERVANT (Male slave, enters from the house)
I have known many guests who come
from all over the world to the house of Admetus
and I have served meals to all of them. But never in my life
have I waited on a worse guest than this one in the house.
From the beginning he saw my master in mourning,
but he came in anyway and crossed the threshold.
Then he did not have the good manners to take what
was available, seeing how upset we were,
but if there was something we did not bring, he got rowdy and demanded it.
He takes an ivy-wood cup in his hands
and he drinks the wine of the black grape unmixed
until the flame of the wine overtakes him and makes him
hot. Then he crowns his head with myrtle branches
howling unmusically. There were two sounds to hear.
He was “singing” without a thought for
Admetus’ tragedy, but we servants were mourning
our mistress. But we did not show the stranger
that we were weeping. Admetus had forbidden it.
And now I am entertaining in the house
this guest, some robber or reprobate,
but she is gone from the house and I could not follow and
pay my last respects to my mistress at the grave side.
She was a mother to me and all the servants.
Many’s the time she saved our hides,
soothing her husband’s temper. Haven’t I the right
to hate this guest who has come in our time of trouble?
HERACLES (he’s sloshed)
Hey, you. Why do you look so sober and righteous?
A servant should not be sullen to guests,
but give service with a smile.
But you, when you see a man come to the house who is your master’s friend,
you treat him with gloomy looks and a scowl on your face,
and are more interested in the troubles of some outsider.
Come here and let me teach you a thing or two.
Do you know the secret of life?
I doubt it. How would you? Listen up.
Everybody has to die sometime
and nobody, not a living soul knows
if he will be alive tomorrow.
Round and round she goes and where she stops nobody knows;
you can’t learn it in school or work out a system.
Now that you’ve heard this and don’t forget that you learned it from me,
not to worry, drink up, live your life one day at a time.
The rest belongs to Lady Luck.
Worship Aphrodite, sweet, sweet goddess to men … and women.
Forget the rest and listen to what I’m saying,
if I’m making sense.
And I think I am. Won’t you give up your infernal grief
and come inside and have a drink with me?
Let your hair down? I guarantee you that
raising a few glasses will carry you away
from you from your gloomy constricted state of mind.<41>
Mortals have got to think mortal.
To all you high and mighty, disapproving types,
if you want my opinion, you ought to live a little before you die.
Life isn’t all tragedy.
I know all that. But laughing and carrying on are
not appropriate in our present state of affairs.
A woman is dead who was not even a member of the family.
Do not grieve so much. The masters of the house are still alive.
What do you mean “alive”? Don’t you know the trouble we are in?
Yes, unless your master deceived me.
His hospitality goes way too far.
Was I supposed to be put out because some stranger died?
Stranger, yes, but actually too much a member of the family.
Is there some tragedy that he did not tell me?
Go on, goodbye. Master’s troubles are our affair.
That does not sound much like other people’s problems.
Otherwise I would not have been angry seeing you having a good time.
What is it? Have I been treated shabbily by my hosts?
You did not come at the right time for the house to take you in.
We are in mourning. You see
the cut hair and the black robes.
Who is it that died?
I hope not the children or his old father.
Admetus’ wife is dead.
What are you saying? And he still invited me to stay?
He was ashamed to send you away from his house.
I’m impressed! What a wife you have lost!
We are all lost, she’s not the only one.
But, yes, I noticed his eyes wet with tears
and his cut hair and his face. But he persuaded me,
insisting that it was an outsider that he was burying–
and in spite of how I felt, I went in through these doors
and I was drinking in the house of a hospitable man
who had suffered such a blow, and I was carrying on
and putting flowers in my hair. And then for you not to tell me
when there was so great a tragedy in the house!
Where is he burying her? Where shall I go to find her?
By the straight path that leads to Larisa
you will see a tomb of polished stone outside the city.
Oh heart and hand that have endured so much!
Now show what a son the daughter of Electryon
of Tiryns, Alcmene, bore to Zeus.
For I must rescue the woman who has just
died and set her up again in the house,
Alcestis, and do this favor for Admetus.
I will go and watch for the black-robed lord
of the dead, Death, and I think I will find him
drinking the offerings beside the tomb.
And if I jump out and surprise and
catch him, I will fasten my arms around him,
and there is no one who will release him, struggle as he will,
until he gives up the woman to me.
But if I miss this prey, and he does not come
to his bloody feast, I will go down
to the sunless halls of Kore and the King<42>
and I will plead with them and I am sure that I will bring back Alcestis,
and put her into the hands of my host,
who invited me into his house and did not drive me away
even though he had been struck by such a heavy blow,
but he concealed it from me because he is noble and had respect for me.
Who is more hospitable than this in all of Thessaly?
Who in all of Greece? He will never say that his kindness
and bravery were wasted on a cowardly man.
Oh!<44> Hateful entrance! Hateful sight of
my widowed halls.
io moi moi aiai
Where shall I go? Where stand? What say? and what not?
How can I die?
Truly it was to an evil fate that my mother bore me.
I envy the dead. I am in love with them.
I long to live in that house.
I take no pleasure in seeing the sunlight
nor in setting my foot upon the ground.
Such a hostage Death has stolen from me
and given to Hades.
Go on, go on. Go inside the house.
You have suffered anguish worthy of your cries.
You are in pain.
I understand perfectly.
You are not helping the dead.
io, moi, moi!
Never again to see your dear wife’s
face is painful.
You have reminded me of what broke my heart.
What greater evil is there for a man than to lose
a faithful wife? If only I had never married
and lived with her in our house!
I envy people who are unmarried and childless.
They have one soul to grieve for,
a bearable burden.
But children’s sicknesses and bridal
beds ravaged by deaths
are unbearable to see, when it is possible
to go through life unmarried and childless.
Bad luck has come, hard to wrestle with.
You set no limit to your grief.
Heavy to bear, but still.
Courage, you are not the first to have lost–
io moi moi!
a wife. There’s always some tragedy for us mortals.
Oh long mourning and grief for loved ones
below the earth.
Why did you prevent me from throwing myself into
the hollow ditch of the grave and with her
to lie dead, with my perfect wife?
Hades would have gotten two souls together instead of one,
most faithful to each other,
crossing together the underworld lake.
I had a relative
whose son, an only child, died in his house, a loss
worth grieving for; but he bore the tragedy
in moderation, though he was childless
and already his hair was turning grey and he was advanced in years.<45>
Oh frame of the house, how will I enter you?
How will I live with the change in
fortunes; oimoi. So much has happened since.
Then among pine torches from Pelion
with wedding songs I went inside
holding my dear wife by the hand,<46>
and a noisy revel followed,
blessing my dead wife and me–
how noble and royal our ancestors
on both sides– we were joined together.
Now instead of wedding songs there is grieving.
Instead of white garments, black robes
accompany me into the house, inside
to my empty nest.
You have felt your first true grief without any previous experience.
But you have saved your own life.
Your wife is dead, she left your love.
What is new in that? From many men
death has taken away their wives.
My friends, I think that my wife’s fortune
is luckier than mine although it does not look that way.
No grief will ever touch her now.
She is famous and her troubles are over.
And I who ought not to be alive have bypassed my fate and
will lead a miserable life. Just now I understand.
How will I endure to enter my house?
Whom will I speak to, who will speak to me
and make my coming welcome? Where will I turn?
The emptiness inside will drive me out
when I see my wife’s bed empty
and the chairs in which she used to sit, and inside
the floors dirty, and the children leaning against my knees
will weep for their mother, and the servants
will mourn their mistress, what a woman has died and gone from the house.
That is what it will be like at home. But outside
the marriages of the Thessalians will torment me
and parties full of women. For I will never hold up,
when I see the friends of my wife.
Anyone who is my enemy will say this:
“look at him living in shame, when he did not dare to die,
but gave up his wife in his cowardice
and escaped Hades. Does he even look like a man?
And he hates his parents, though he was not willing to
die.” In addition to my tragedy this is what people will say.
Why is it better for me to live, my friends,
when I have a bad reputation and deserve it?
Stasimon 4 (962-1005)
Strophe 1 (962-971):
I have heard the Muses’ many songs
and heard the stories that are told
but I have found only this:
nothing is stronger than Necessity.
For this I have found no cure
in the Thracian tablets
where the sayings of Orpheus
are written down, nor in all the drugs Phoebus gave to the Asclepiads,
the proven remedies for other ills of mortals.
Antistrophe 1 (972-981):
Futile it is to go to the altar
and statue of this goddess
who alone of gods ignores our pleadings.
Goddess Necessity come not upon me
with greater force that you have before.
Whatever Zeus assents to,
by your hand it is done.
You forge even the hard Chalybean<47> iron by force,
and ignoring the stubborn temper you break us all.
You<48>, too, the goddess has taken in the inescapable grip of her hands.
But be brave, for you will not ever bring back the dead
from the other world by weeping.
Even the shadowy children of the gods
perish in death.
Dear she was when she was with us,
dear will she be in death.
You brought to your bed the most perfect wife of all.
Let not the tomb of your wife be thought of
as a mound of the perished dead, but let it be honored like the gods,
a holy shrine for travelers.
And someone, turning into the road that angles off
will say this:
she once died for her husband,
now she is a Blessed Spirit.
Hail Mistress, grant my prayer. Such words will greet her.
HERACLES (enters from the side with a veiled woman)
You ought to speak openly to a man who is your friend,
Admetus, and not in silence to hold back your troubles
inside yourself. I expected to stand by you in
your misfortunes and to prove myself a friend.
But you did not tell me that it was your wife’s body
you were laying to rest. And instead you entertained me in the house
as if your worries were for an outsider.
And I crowned my head and poured libations
to the gods in your unhappy house.
I blame you, yes I do, for this,
but I do not want to add to your grief.
Now I will tell you why I have come back here again:
I want you to take this woman and keep her for me
until I come back here driving the Thracian
horses, after killing the king of the Bistonians.
But if I don’t–no that won’t happen, for I shall return–
I give you the woman to serve in the house.
It was a struggle to get her:
I came upon some people setting up a public
contest–well worth the effort for a sportsman–
and it’s from there I bring her as my prize. I won, you see.
For the winners in the lighter contests
the prize was horses and for those in the greater
events, you know, boxing and wrestling, it was cattle.
A woman went with them. It would have been a shame
to let this fine prize go.
But, as I say, you must take care of the woman.
I did not steal her, but won her by hard work.
In time perhaps you will think well of me for this.
It was not because I didn’t respect you or considered you
less than a friend that I hid my poor wife’s death.
But it would have been one more pain on top of the pain I already suffered
if you had gone to someone else’s house.
It was enough for me to weep for my loss.
But, sir, the woman–if it is possible, I beg you–
ask another Thessalian to keep her, one who has not suffered what I have.
You have many friends in Pherai.
Do not remind me of my troubles.
How could I see her in the house and keep from
crying? Do not add more suffering to a sick man,
for I am overwhelmed by my tragedy.
Where would a young woman be kept in the house?
I see that she is young by her clothing and accessories.
Will she stay in the men’s quarters?
How will she remain intact if she associates with young men?
It is not easy, Heracles, to restrain a young man.
It is your interest I have at heart in this.
Or should I keep her in the dead woman’s room?
But how could I introduce her into her bed?
I fear blame on two counts, from the citizens
lest they reproach me for betraying my
savior and lying in bed with another young woman,
and from my dead wife. For she deserves my respect.
I must be very careful. But you, Miss,
whoever you are, you are the same size as
Alcestis and you look like her.
Oimoi. In gods’ name take her out of my sight,
that woman, unless you want to bring down a ruined man.
When I look at her I think I am looking at my wife.
She muddies my heart; my eyes are flooded with
tears, oh how unhappy I am!
Just now I taste the bitter grief.
I cannot say that your luck is good,
but we must, come what may, accept the gift of the god.
If only I had the power to bring
your wife from the halls of the dead into the light
and to do you this favor.
I know you wish me well. But what good is that?
It is not possible for the dead to come into the light.
Do not go overboard, but bear up as you must.
It is easier to give advice than to bear such a loss.
What do you gain if you will be miserable forever?
I know that myself, but a kind of love urges me to do this.
To love the dead, that brings a tear to my eye.
She destroyed me, and more than I can say.
You have lost a good wife. Who will deny it?
So that life is no longer a pleasure to me.
Time will soften it, now your trouble is new.
You are right in saying time, if time means dying.
A woman will end it and the desire for a new marriage.
Do be quiet! What have you said?! I would never think of it.
What do you mean? Will you never marry again, but remain celibate?
There is no one who will lie in my bed.
Do you suppose you are helping the dead?
I must give her my respect..
Fine, fine… but you are being a fool.
Maybe, but you will never call me a married man.
You are a faithful lover to your wife and I respect you for it.
May I die if I ever betray her even now that she is gone.
Now, take this woman inside your noble house.
No, I beg you by your father Zeus.
You will be making a mistake if you do not do this.
And if I do it I will stab my heart with grief.
Do it. Perhaps the favor will turn out right.
If only you had not won her in that contest!
Yes, but when I won, you won with me.
Kindly said, but let the woman go away.
She will go away if she must, but first see if she must.
She must, if you do not want to torture me.
I know something too which makes me so insistent.
Have your way. But you know you are causing me a lot of pain.
You can thank me later. Just do it.
Take her in, if the house must receive her.
I couldn’t hand this woman over to servants.
You take her into the house yourself, if you wish.
I will put her into your hands, no one else’s.
I will not touch her. She may go into the house.
I will release her only to your right hand.
Sir, you are forcing me to do something I do not want to.
Dare to stretch out your hand and touch the stranger.
Yes, I reach out my hand, as if to kill a Gorgon.<49>
Do you have her?
I have her.
Yes and keep her now, and you will say that Zeus’
son is a brave and good guest.
Just look at her. See if she resembles your
wife. You are happy now. Give up your grief.
Oh gods! What can I say? This is an unexpected miracle.
Do I really see my wife?
Or does some false joy from god strike to break my heart?
No. The woman you see here is your wife.
Watch out that it is not a phantom of the dead.
I was not some kind of ghoul when you took me in as your guest.
But do I really see my wife whom I just buried?
You can be sure of that. I’m not surprised that you have your doubts.
May I touch her? May I speak to her as my wife, alive?
Speak to her. You now have all that you wanted.
Oh face and figure of my dearest wife!
I have you against all expectation. I never thought I would see you again.
You have her. Let’s only hope no envy from the gods comes down on us.
Oh, noble son of all-high Zeus,
God bless you and may your father
protect you. For you alone have lifted us up.
How did you manage to bring her back to life?
I fought a battle with the lord of the spirits.
Where was it you met Death in battle?
Right beside the tomb I ambushed him and seized him with my hands.
Why does she stand there without speaking?
It is not yet allowed for you to hear her speak,
Until she is no longer consecrated to the gods of death,
when the third day comes.
But take her inside. And continue to act justly
in the future, Admetus, and be pious toward your guests.
Goodbye then. I will go now to perform the next
labor for the king, the son of Sthenelos.
Stay with us and be our guest.
Another time, but now I must hurry.
God bless you and keep you till you make the journey home.
I command the citizens and the whole tetrarchy<50>
to hold dances for this good fortune
and to make all the altars smoke with sacrifice for good luck.
Now we change to a better life
than before. I must admit that I am a happy man.
Many are the forms of the spirit world,
many are the things the gods bring about against all reason,
and things looked for do not happen after all,
yet a god finds a way for the unexpected.
That is how this story has ended.
1. The prologue is part of the play. Technically it is everything that is said before the parodos [“side entrance”] or entrance song of the chorus. This is followed by alternating episodes (the spoken and sung parts between actors and between actors and chorus) and the songs of the chorus, called stasima. Everything that follows the last stasimon is called the exodos.
2. Apollo enters from the house of Admetus and turns to greet it. There are no stage directions in the texts of Greek plays. In the original performances the playwrights directed and at the earliest period acted in their plays. We know that Apollo enters from the house 1) from the ancient commentary (scholia) and more cogently 2) because he says that he has just left the house and he very briefly describes what is going on in the house. The maid whose part forms the first episode fills in what he has said with moving details and in the second episode we see (with the entrance of the royal family) the result of what she has said. I imagine Apollo to be attired in his traditional costume as we see him in vase paintings; he is certainly carrying the bow, which he admits is part of his iconography and serves no other purpose in the play.
3. The house of Admetus is a major theme in the play. It is addressed by various characters. It is said to receive guests. Its interior is almost given a life of its own even without the people.
4. In Greek , “the serfs’ table” or “menial fare” (LSJ). In Athens, the thetes were the lowest class of free persons, laborers, hired hands. (Cf. Odyssey. 4.644)
5. Asclepius, the god of medicine, was killed because he raised the dead, disturbing the order of nature, another theme in the play. It is as if Apollo in his generational conflict with his father Zeus is a collaborator with his son in the defiance of the rules of mortality. Admetus, through a trick, is allowed to slip through a last loophole. Heracles, another son of Zeus, will also join in the fray. But the woman Alcestis is the one who actually has the role of being the last mortal to cross the boundary.
6. Notice that Apollo uses the term xenos (host, guest-friend) to refer to Admetus, rather than “master”.
7. The son of Pheres is Admetus; Alcestis is the daughter of Pelias. This is a common way of designating free-born Greeks, by means of their patronymics. The son of Zeus and Alcmene is Heracles.
8. Apollo tricked the Fates by getting them drunk. Cf. Aeschylus, Eumenides (713ff) and scholia (the marginal notes and earliest commentary) to Alcestis at line 12. This is one of the folktale elements in the Alcestis, which is not strictly a tragedy, but was performed in the place of a satyr play, the non-tragic relief at the end of a trilogy of tragedies. Trickery, riddling language, conquest of death, gluttony are all characteristics of the satyr play and the folktale. Of course Apollo doesn’t notice that the Fates tricked him back.
9. The redundancy is doubtless deliberate. Euripides wants to make Apollo’s disgust with Admetus’ mother abundantly clear.
10. Seeing the light (of day) is equivalent in Greek to being alive. Hades (the place) is a shadowy realm, not at all pleasant even for heroes.
11. In Greek the word is miasma, “pollution”.
12. See L. J. Elferink, “The Beginning of Euripides’ Alcestis,” Acta Classica 25 (1982):43-50 for the interpretation that this whole speech is said sarcastically. Gods are polluted by contact with dying mortals: Artemis at the end of Hippolytus is a good example. For gods who carry the bow and kill things, this may seem a bit hypocritical. But see William Sale, Existentialism and Euripides, Melbourne, 1977, on Artemis as “the goddess who separates.” That is, she is the goddess of chastity but also of the hunt and of childbirth, separating the creature from its life, the infant from the mother.
13. Death enters from the side. He carries a sword. He may have wings.
14. This may sound pretty bad but people do this kind of thing all the time: letting loved ones sacrifice themselves and not noticing until it is too late. Once Alcestis volunteered, it’s unclear whether Admetus could refuse to accept her offer: folktales are often mechanistic. This would explain his continued surprise that she is leaving him. But he did ask people (his parents, as the text says) to die for him–big mistake. He gets a second chance. Does he deserve it? Does anybody?
15. Compare this with Pheres’ remarks later when he wants to make Admetus understand that everyone loves his own life. Death also shows Apollo that they have interests in common, the expectation and enjoyment of honors.
16. Apollo goes into his prophetic mode. He predicts the arrival of Heracles in between two labors.
17. Thanatos cuts the hair of his victim, dedicating her to death. Mourners cut locks of hair in mourning for their loved ones. In this way Alcestis is made one of her own mourners. These closing words of Death explain the silence of Alcestis at the end of the play, thus making a virtue of necessity, since this is a two actor play and in the technical sense, the role of Alcestis is taken by a supernumerary (or mute, ). In fact, then, she is not the same person (actor) who plays the role of Alcestis in her death scene, but she wears the same mask (,character = mask) and is Alcestis (or not; as some readers interpret the scene: the woman returned is not really the same one who died in the second episode). Heracles is the one who feels himself the extra when it is finally straightened out just who is the couple in that final scene (the exodos).
18. The chorus enters as two half-choruses. The dashes indicate the changes in singing parts, first one group, then the other.
19. This parodos opens with anapests that are not part of the stanza structure. Strophe and antistrophe are the words used for stanzas in a choral ode: strophe 1 and antistrophe 1, for example, are a matched set: they correspond metrically (that is, they have the same number of syllables and an identical arrangement of long and short syllables, which is characteristic of ancient Greek verse, as opposed to alternation of stressed and unstressed as in English and many modern European languages). Presumably, the chorus also danced identical (or reversed) steps in the strophe and antistrophe. In the parodos of the Alcestis, the chorus is divided into two hemichoroi. Their question and answer technique is able to give us needed information; in particular, the information that the citizen body, represented by the chorus, is aware of what Alcestis has undertaken to do for her husband.
20. Paian is a name for Apollo in his capacity as healer. In Homer Paian is the physician of the gods, but this role was taken over by Apollo. A paean is a choral song or chant.
22. In the episodes, when the chorus speaks, it is understood that the chorus leader speaks alone, not with the other fourteen members. In the songs they all sing in unison, or, as in the song just ended and the next one, in two hemichoroi.
23. “Both alive and dead”: this is a theme in the play. See R.G.A.Buxton, “Euripides’ Alkestis: Five Aspects of an Interpretation,” Papers given at a Colloquium on Greek Tragedy in Honour of R. P. Winnington-Ingram, ed. Lyn Rodley, 1987:17-31 for an especially subtle interpretation of Alcestis’ liminal status. I believe that this ambiguous status, between life and death, which is maintained by Admetus even after her condition is no longer equivocal, is one of the things that makes her return possible. This is Admetus’ part in the heroism of the play: he keeps his wife alive in this world and the next.
24. (143), a technical term; cf. Apollo’s (20). Apollo has left the house to avoid this last gasp of the dying. Human beings, of course, though they too are polluted by a death in the house and by touching the dead, cannot avoid this last contact with a loved one. Ironically, Alcestis follows Apollo out of the house and dies in full view of the sun and sky and of the audience. A death on stage is somewhat rare in Greek tragedy: Ajax commits suicide in our view; Hippolytus breathes his last on stage. But the audience is not deprived of death’s gore. Even when the deaths take place offstage, the result of the action is often displayed on the eccyclema, a revolve (most likely) that was rolled out of the sk n (scene-building) to reveal what had happened in the house, often showing the remains of gruesome murders.
25. There is a touch of irony here in “poor man,” but perhaps not as much as we would feel. There is a natural alienating of the dead and those about to die from their survivors.
26. Another theme is “the education of Admetus”: see Jones’ fine article, Classical Review 62 (1948):50-55.
27. City/house: the famous po/lij/ oi)=koj polarity. Men in the city, women in the house.
28. Goddess of the hearth– the continuation of the family and woman’s special place.
30. In spite of their sympathy for Admetus, the chorus has finally come around to the maid’s point of view (the feminine perspective). It is important that Admetus has the support of the chorus, because it is his play after the death of Alcestis.
31. Alcestis sings her part in emotional lyrics, displaying her terror and sadness at the real presence of Death. Admetus’ answers (until the chanted 273-9) are in the iambics of ordinary dialogue to which Alcestis does not respond. There is already a vast gulf between them. When Alcestis recovers she speaks in iambics.
32. She is speaking to Death, but what we see is her shaking off Admetus.
33. Since this is a two-actor play, it is probable that the actor playing Alcestis actually sang the child’s part while he mimed the words and actions.
34. Named after Apollo Karneios [Dale].
35. The arrival of Heracles after Admetus returns to his palace to tend to the laying out of his wife’s body causes a complete change in tone. The chorus turns from its mourning for Alcestis and sympathy for Admetus to finding out the latest news in the Heracles saga. Perhaps in a modern staging he could look like Elvis in his white suit (with added lion skin and club). Sightings of Heracles are comparable to Elvis apparitions and, like Elvis, Heracles was given to over-indulgence and bulked up considerably in later years.. Heracles actually did appear to Greeks long after he died or was elevated to the world of the gods. He’s always recognizable because he wears a lion skin and carries a club.
36. Eurystheus, also called the son of Sthenelos.
37. Lycaon is obscure; for Cycnus see Hesiod, Shield of Heracles 327ff. and Apollodorus 2.7.7.
38. An ambiguous line (531). It could be “A woman…we were just talking about my wife.” There are also several other possibilities because the word gunh/ (gun ), which is used twice in this line, means both woman and wife. “A woman…it’s a woman we just mentioned,” is another possibility.
39. Alcestis’ father was Pelias (who was also Jason’s uncle). He died in a well-known story, having been boiled up by Alcestis’ sisters at the instigation of Medea in a botched attempt to rejuvenate him (on their part) and to reclaim the throne for Jason (on her part).
40. He goes into his prophetic mode.
41. Or another interpretation is:
The splash of the wine falling into the cup will
wipe that scowl off your face.
42. The King is Hades, not Elvis. Kore (also called Persephone) is his wife. The name Kore means “daughter”; she is daughter of Demeter. Mother and daughter are worshiped together.
43. A kommo/j is a lament sung by actors and chorus.
44. In Greek, io, one of many tragic noises that also include, aiai, oimoi, e e, pheu.
45. The might-have-been for Pheres. He would have lived without his son. It is unusual for the chorus to talk in such a personal way.
46. When the groom brought his bride to his house, the custom was for him to take her by the hand and lead her in. If it was a second marriage, a friend brought the bride. In the vase paintings often the bride and groom are shown as two equals (the same size, looking each other right in the eye) and this is what Admetus implies. In reality the bride was usually in her teens (fourteen or fifteen) and the groom in his thirties.
47. The Chalybes or Chalyboi were a people of Pontus (on the southern coast of the Black Sea, famous for their iron work. See Aeschylus, Seven against Thebes, 728.
48. To Admetus.
49. That is, he turns his face and reaches for her. But somewhere in the next lines she lifts her veil and Admetus is stunned by what he sees.
50. A tetrarchy, as used here, is a kingdom with four city-states. The scholiast lists the poleis of Thessaly as “Pherai, Boibe, Glaphurai, and Iolkos.” See Homer, Iliad B.711. At lines 425-431 Admetus had commanded all the Thessalians over whom he ruled to go into mourning for a full year. Now they will share in his happiness.
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