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Publication Date: This translation by Gilbert Murray, 1915
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Alcestis is an Athenian tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. It was first produced at the City Dionysia festival in 438 BCE. Euripides presented it as the final part of a tetralogy of unconnected plays in the competition of tragedies, for which he won second prize. In the play's prologue, the god Apollo comes out from Admetus' palace in Pherae (modern Velestino in Magnesia), dressed in white and carrying his golden bow, with the intention of leaving to avoid becoming stained by the imminent death of Alcestis, who is being comforted within. He offers an exposition of the events leading up to this moment.
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The Alcestis would hardly confirm its author's right to be acclaimed "the most tragic of the poets." It is doubtful whether one can call it a tragedy at all. Yet it remains one of the most characteristic and delightful of Euripidean dramas, as well as, by modern standards, the most easily actable. And I notice that many judges who display nothing but a fierce satisfaction in sending other plays of that author to the block or the treadmill, show a certain human weakness in sentencing the gentle daughter of Pelias.
The play has been interpreted in many different ways. There is the old unsophisticated view, well set forth in Paley's preface of 1872. He regards the Alcestis simply as a triumph of pathos, especially of "that peculiar sort of pathos which comes most home to us, with our views and partialities for domestic life.... As for the characters, that of Alcestis must be acknowledged to be pre-eminently beautiful. One could almost imagine that Euripides had not yet conceived that bad opinion of the sex which so many of the subsequent dramas exhibit.... But the rest are hardly well-drawn, or, at least, pleasingly portrayed." "The poet might perhaps, had he pleased, have exhibited Admetus in a more amiable point of view."
This criticism is not very trenchant, but its weakness is due, I think, more to timidity of statement than to lack of perception. Paley does see that a character may be "well-drawn" without necessarily being "pleasing"; and even that he may be eminently pleasing as a part of the play while very displeasing in himself. He sees that Euripides may have had his own reasons for not making Admetus an ideal husband. It seems odd that such points should need mentioning; but Greek drama has always suffered from a school of critics who approach a play with a greater equipment of aesthetic theory than of dramatic perception. This is the characteristic defect of classicism. One mark of the school is to demand from dramatists heroes and heroines which shall satisfy its own ideals; and, though there was in the New Comedy a mask known to Pollux as "The Entirely-good Young Man" ([Greek: panchraestos neaniskos]), such a character is fortunately unknown to classical Greek drama.
The influence of this "classicist" tradition has led to a timid and unsatisfying treatment of the Alcestis, in which many of the most striking and unconventional features of the whole composition were either ignored or smoothed away. As a natural result, various lively-minded readers proceeded to overemphasize these particular features, and were carried into eccentricity or paradox. Alfred Schöne, for instance, fixing his attention on just those points which the conventional critic passed over, decides simply that the Alcestis is a parody, and finds it very funny. (Die Alkestis von Euripides, Kiel, 1895.)
I will not dwell on other criticisms of this type. There are those who have taken the play for a criticism of contemporary politics or the current law of inheritance. Above all there is the late Dr. Verrall's famous essay in Euripides the Rationalist, explaining it as a psychological criticism of a supposed Delphic miracle, and arguing that Alcestis in the play does not rise from the dead at all. She had never really died; she only had a sort of nervous catalepsy induced by all the "suggestion" of death by which she was surrounded. Now Dr. Verrall's work, as always, stands apart. Even if wrong, it has its own excellence, its special insight and its extraordinary awakening power. But in general the effect of reading many criticisms on the Alcestis is to make a scholar realize that, for all the seeming simplicity of the play, competent Grecians have been strangely bewildered by it, and that after all there is no great reason to suppose that he himself is more sensible than his neighbours.
This is depressing. None the less I cannot really believe that, if we make patient use of our available knowledge, the Alcestis presents any startling enigma. In the first place, it has long been known from the remnants of the ancient Didascalia, or official notice of production, that the Alcestis was produced as the fourth play of a series; that is, it took the place of a Satyr-play. It is what we may call Pro-satyric. (See the present writer's introduction to the Rhesus.) And we should note for what it is worth the observation in the ancient Greek argument: "The play is somewhat satyr-like ([Greek: saturiphkoteron]). It ends in rejoicing and gladness against the tragic convention."
Now we are of late years beginning to understand much better what a Satyr-play was. Satyrs have, of course, nothing to do with satire, either etymologically or otherwise. Satyrs are the attendant daemons who form the Kômos, or revel rout, of Dionysus. They are represented in divers fantastic forms, the human or divine being mixed with that of some animal, especially the horse or wild goat. Like Dionysus himself, they are connected in ancient religion with the Renewal of the Earth in spring and the resurrection of the dead, a point which students of the 'Alcestis may well remember. But in general they represent mere joyous creatures of nature, unthwarted by law and unchecked by self-control. Two notes are especially struck by them: the passions and the absurdity of half-drunken revellers, and the joy and mystery of the wild things in the forest.