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an analysis of the play by Euripides

The following essay on Alcestis was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 284-5.

The Alcestis, the only Greek example of a tragi-comedy, was brought out in 438 [B.C.], and formed the last of a group of four plays. It must have been substituted, therefore, for the usual satyric drama. This fact accounts for its peculiar tone. The comic scenes with which it is interspersed were apparently intended to reproduce, in a modified shape, the humours of the satyric style of composition. We learn from the Cyclops, as well as from other sources, that two of the principal features in this kind of play were, first, its wild indecency and exaltation of the animal side of human nature, and secondly, its amusing picture of the selfish effrontery of the satyrs. Both these qualities are introduced into the Alcestis by Euripides. The gross sensuality of the satyrs is represented, in a more refined form, by the cheerful epicureanism of Hercules; their shameless imprudence finds a counterpart in the dialogue between Admetus and Pheres. In this well-known scene the unblushing egotism of father and son is depicted with humorous exaggeration. Admetus, whose life can only be saved by the substitution of a voluntary victim, gravely approaches his father for neglecting to offer himself in place of Alcestis, and points out that for an old man, already on the brink of the grave, such a sacrifice would have been a graceful and becoming act. Pheres replies, with considerable spirit, that he enjoys his life far too much to lay down the small remainder from a mistaken sense of honour. If Admetus can find a series of wives as foolish as Alcestis, he may prolong his life to eternity; but he is much mistaken if he expects to bury his father before the proper time.

The chief defect of the play is the character of Admetus. His ready acquiescence in the death of Alcestis, in order to preserve his own life, is not only revolting in itself, but seems inconsistent with agony of remorse which he elsewhere displays. His selfishness, however, might have been forgotten in the midst of the pathetic incidents of the tragedy, had not Euripides gone out of his way to bring it into fresh prominence by the deliberate insertion of the scene with Pheres. The case is one of those in which, for the sake of a humorous situation and an effective debate, he has not scrupled to degrade one of his characters, and to destroy the moral balance of the composition. The love and devotion of Alcestis are drawn with such infinite pathos, that the unworthiness of her husband, as the object of the sacrifice, jars upon the feelings; and it is a striking testimony to the beauty of the play, that in spite of this vital flaw it should have won such universal popularity.

Modern poets, in their imitations of the Alcestis, have invented various devices, in order to improve the plot, raise the character of Admetus, and supply him with a worthy motive for his conduct. Alfieri, in his Alceste Seconda, supposes that Alceste had been the first to hear the oracle, and that she had devoted herself to death before the others could interfere. Admeto and Fereo are horrified on making the discovery, and endeavour to prevent the sacrifice, and to die in her place; but their efforts are too late. By this device the moral tone of the play is much improved, and the characters all become patterns of virtue. The general result, however, is far from successful; and the continual protestations of devotion and self-sacrifice, uttered from every quarter throughout the whole of the action, become wearisome by their repetition. Browning, in Balaustion's Adventure, has also briefly sketched a novel version of the story. He supposes that Admetus has resolved to abandon the ways of his ancestors, and to govern, not for his own advantage, but for that of his subjects. In the midst of these splendid dreams for the restoration of the golden age, he is suddenly confronted with death. Alcestis offers to die in his place. He at first refuses, but is at length persuaded to consent, in order that his glorious project may not perish. This conception of his conduct is one of great beauty, and gives a new significance to the legend; still, it is possible that a play written on these lines might suffer from the same defect as that of Alfieri. Indeed, the fable of Alcestis, considered as a subject for pure tragedy, presents inherent difficulties which perhaps no dramatist could entirely overcome.

The story had already been dramatized by Phrynichus. Nothing, however, is known about his play, beyond the fact that it suggested to Euripides the introduction of Death, who comes in person to claim his victim. Phrynicus probably followed the original form of the legend, in which the gods were said to have restored Alcestis of their own accord, ad a reward for her piety. Such a theme would be appropriate to the old lyrical drama; but the later tragedy required more variety of action. Euripides, therefore, to supply the deficiency, skilfully invented the interposition of Hercules, which not only adds diversity to the plot, but also gives occasion for one of the comic interludes which he wished to introduce.

Every critic has admired the pathos and dramatic effect of the final scene, in which Alcestis is brought back disguised as a stranger, and received at first with reluctance, until she is gradually recognized. Two points in the scene deserve notice. The first is the curious resemblance which it bears to the conclusion of the Winter's Tale, where Leontes is taken to see, as he imagines, the statue of his dead wife, and finds instead the living Hermione. The second is the silence of Alcestis, after her return from the grave. This silence is due, not to the theatrical exigencies, and the absence of a third actor, as some critics have supposed, but to the deliberate choice of the poet. For one who has just been restored from the darkness of the tomb, no form of words could be so appropriate as the mute and half-dazed torpor in which she stands; and Alfieri, in his version, by departing from the example set by Euripides, and placing a speech in her mouth, has spoiled one of the most thrilling effects of the original play.

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