17 Jan Euripides: Extract from “Alcestis”
Euripides (c.485-406 B.C.) was the last of the three great Fifth Century B.C. Athenian tragedians. “Alcestis”, dated to 438 B.C. is his first surviving play, but it is not a tragedy, as it was produced in the place of a satyr play, the semi-comic treatment of a myth, to accompany a set of three tragedies. The background to this extract is as follows. The god Apollo had been condemned by Zeus to serve as the slave of Admetus, King of Pherae, for one year. Because Admetus had treated him well, Apollo promised that, when the time came for him to die, he could escape death if he could find someone willing to die in his place. However, when the time came, Admetus could find no one willing to die for him except his wife Alcestis. Even his parents refused to die on his behalf. In this extract Euripides evokes a mood of very considerable pathos, despite the macabre circumstances of such self-sacrifice. Alcestis, while dying, is evidently anxious that her children should not be subjected to the inevitable cruelties of a step-mother. Admetus, no doubt feeling guilty that he has accepted that his wife should die in his place, tries desperately to think of things he can say to console her.
This text of this extract is taken from “A Greek Anthology”, JACT, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Ll. 280-392. When the play opens, Alcestis is at the point of death. Her children are at her bedside and the chorus of citizens of Thessaly are watching.
ALCESTIS: Admetus, for you see my circumstances, how they are, I wish to tell you, before I die, what I want. I, putting you first, and having arranged for you to see this light (of life) instead of my life, I am dying, (although) it being possible for me not to have died on behalf of you, but to have had a man of the Thessalians whom I wanted, and to have dwelt in wealth in a royal palace. (But) I did not wish to live separated from you with orphaned children, nor did I grudge my youth, (although) having much in which I delighted. Yet your father and mother betrayed you, (although) it having come (to the point) of life for them to die well. For you were an only (child) to them, and there was not any hope, you having died, (of them) begetting other children. And you and I would be living the rest of our lives, and you would not be grieving, having been left alone by your wife, and bringing up your children as orphans. But one of the gods has brought these things about so that they are thus. So be it! Now you remember (your debt of) gratitude to me for these things. For I shall not ever ask you for a return of equal value [for nothing is more valuable than life], but for what is right, as you will acknowledge; for you love these children no less than I (do), if indeed you are thinking properly; keep them as lords of my palace, and do not marry a step-mother for these children, (as) such a woman being more wicked than me will, in envy, lay her hand upon your children and mine. Do not, I say, do this, I beg you. For a step-mother coming in, hostile to the children of the former time, (is) in no way more gentle than a viper. On the one hand, a male child has his father (as) a great tower; [Alcestis turns to her daughter] but, on the other hand, how will you grow to womanhood well, O my daughter? (I fear) lest, casting upon you some shameful reputation in the prime of your youth, she destroys your marriage (prospects). For your mother will not either ever give you in marriage or, by being present, encourage (you) in your childbirth, my child, where nothing (is) more comforting than a mother. For it is necessary for me to die; and this disaster comes upon me not tomorrow nor on the third day of the month, but straightaway I shall be numbered among those no longer living. Faring well, may you be happy; for you, husband, it is possible to boast that you took the best wife, and for you, children, that you were born of the best (mother).
CHORUS: Take courage; for I do not fear to speak on behalf of him; he will do this, if indeed he does not lose his senses.
ADMETUS: It shall be (thus), it shall be (thus), do not fear; since I had you alive, dead too you alone will be called my wife, and no (other) Thessalian bride will address this man as husband. There is no woman either of such a noble father or of (such) very outstanding beauty either (that I should marry her). I have enough children (lit. there is to me enough of children); I pray to the gods that I may reap the benefit of them; for I have not had the benefit of you. I shall carry my grief for you, not for a year, but for as long as my life shall last, O wife, hating her who bore me and loathing my father; for they were dear in word, not in deed. But you, giving up what (is) most dear in exchange for my life, have saved (me). Surely it is permitted to me to mourn, losing such a wife as you? I shall put a stop to the revels of drinking companions and the gatherings and the garlands and the songs that used to fill my palaces. For I shall not ever either touch the lyre or yet raise my spirit to sing to the Libyan flute, for you have taken away the enjoyment from my life. Your body, having been modelled by the skilled hand of craftsmen, will be stretched out on the bed on which I shall fall, and, folding my hands around (you and) calling your name, I shall imagine that I am holding my dear wife in my arms, although not holding (her); (it will be) a cold comfort, I suppose, but nevertheless I may (thus) lighten my heaviness of heart. Perhaps you may cheer me, visiting (me) in dreams for as much time as possible. If the tongue and the music of Orpheus were available to me, so that (by) charming the daughter of Demeter or her husband by songs I should take you from Hades, I should come down and neither the hound of Pluto nor Charon, the ferryman of souls at his oar, should prevent (me) from bringing (you) back to the light alive. But expect me to come there when I die, and prepare a home in order that you may dwell with me. For I shall command these men here to place me in the same cedar coffin with you , and to lay out my limbs near to your limbs; for not even in death may I ever be apart from you, the woman (who) alone (has been) faithful to me.
CH. And certainly I shall help to bear the bitter grief of her with you, as friend with friend; for she is worthy (of this).
ALC. O children, you yourselves have heard your father promising not ever to marry another woman (to be) in charge of you, and not to dishonour me.
ADM. I affirm (this) now, and I shall fulfil it.
ALC. On these terms, receive the children from my hand..
ADM. I receive (them), a precious gift from a precious hand.
ALC. Do you now become the mother of these children in place of me!
ADM. (It is) a great necessity for me, they having been deprived of you.
ALC. O children, (at a time) when it is necessary that I should be alive, I am going below.
ADM. Alas! What then shall I do, being bereft of you.
ALC. Time will heal you; one who is dead is nothing.
ADM. Take me with you, by the gods, take (me) below.
ALC. Dying for you, I suffice.
ADM. O fate, what a wife you are taking away from me!
ALC. And, indeed, darkness is weighing down my eyes.
ADM. I am lost then, if indeed you are going to leave me, wife.
ALC. As I no longer exist, you may call me nothing.
ADM. Lift up your head, do not leave your children.
ALC. (I leave them) certainly not willingly, but farewell, O children.
ADM. Look, look at them!
ALC. I no longer exist.
ADM.. What are you doing? Are you forsaking (me)?
ADM. Wretched man, I am lost.
CH. She has gone, Admetus’ wife is no more.
Despite the tragic mood of this extract, the play actually has a happy ending. Heracles, on the way to one of his twelve labours, arrives at the house of Admetus shortly after Alcestis has died. He is welcomed in accordance with the laws of hospitality, and Admetus tries to conceal the fact that the house is in mourning. When Heracles learns the truth, he goes to fight Death, wins Alcestis back, and restores her to her husband.