Reading: Alcestis, by Euripides

I finished Paul Roche’s translation of Euripides’s Alcestis on 15 Aug 2009.

This is the story of Admetus, who has been promised immortality if he can convince someone to die in his place. He first asks his parents, thinking that they will be sacrificing less since they have few years left to live anyway, but in the end only his wife Alcestis will agree to die for him. After Alcestis’s death, Admetus is overcome with grief at his loss, and he has a serious quarrel with his father, each accusing the other of murdering Alcestis by selfishly refusing to die in her place. As he sinks deeper into depression and resentment, it becomes clear that his wife’s wonderful “gift” to him has in fact ruined his life.

The characterization, intensity, and emotional power of the play up to this point is phenomenal, making the sudden arrival of a happy-go-lucky Heracles, oblivious to what has just happened and hoping to enjoy a good time at his buddy Admetus’s place, almost physically jarring. The scrupulously hospitable Admetus hides the truth from Heracles and welcomes him into his home. Heracles proceeds to get drunk and have a great time until one of the household servants reveals the secret — that Alcestis is dead. Heracles then goes down to Hades, brings Alcestis back to the world of the living by force, presents her to Admetus, and all’s well that ends well.

Of the improbably happy endings of this and others of Euripides’s plays, the translator writes that they “must have seemed silly to Euripides too . . . it is as though Euripides were saying: ‘You want a happy ending, but can’t you see that the ending would not have been happy? Very well, I’ll give you an ending that you can’t believe in.'” I’m not sure I buy that as an explanation. After all, the ancient Greeks weren’t exactly known for their insistence on happy endings, and I’m sure there was nothing stopping Euripides from writing the play as a straight-ahead tragedy if he had felt so inclined. These tacked-on happy endings have a long history, going at least back to the Book of Job, and it’s possible that they just didn’t seem as silly to the ancients as they do to us. Perhaps they serve to underscore the tragedy by showing that even when a god shows up and magically makes everything all right, it’s still not all right. Admetus’s relationship with his father is probably irreparably damaged, and both Admetus and Alcestis will have to live out the rest of their lives knowing that Admetus was willing to let her die. And in the end Alcestis will die anyway and Admetus will live on (I think he still gets to live forever) without her. It’s hard to escape the feeling that Heracles hasn’t so much saved the day as ruined everything, trivialized it, deprived them of tragedy without relieving them of suffering.

This was my first exposure to Euripides, and it was extraordinary. I’ve got a book with nine other plays of his and am looking forward to reading them.

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