"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

23 February 2014

Alcestis, by Euripides

Admetus: There was a time for you to feel for me,
            when I was at the point of death;
            but you stood aside and let another die:
            the young die for the old.
Now you come whining over this dead body (26).

Pheres: You struggled without a blush to hang on to life.
And now you only live because you killed this woman
            and went beyond your span.
Yet I’m the coward, you say, you—you prince of cowards:
            shown up by a woman who died for you—oh, fine young man! (28).

Heracles: my most generous host,
            who made me at home and did not turn me out
            though he was struck to the heart with grief:
            yes, hid his feeling, heroic man, and did me honor.
Is there anyone in Thessaly more hospitable than he?
Anyone in Greece?
Never let him say that such nobility
            was answered by a lack of generosity (33).

Admetus: For her a thousand cares are over—she is sublime.
But I, who have no title to be living
            and have overstepped my mark,
            must go on and on—most melancholy—alive (36).

EuripidesAlcestis is a romance, so it operates differently from a tragedy or a comedy. Romances set up like tragedies—a noble though not totally admirable hero makes a tragic mistake, which leads to disaster—but the resolution is a happy one as the hero is rewarded for being somehow good. The other component of romance as a genre is that at least one character is unrealistically idealized. In Alcestis the title character is the idealized woman, the one willing to sacrifice her youth and her life for a husband who is unwilling to accept his own destined time to die. Although she is sad to leave her family, Alcestis goes without recriminations for Admetus, despite the fact that it is for him that she is dying. Admetus is the noble hero of the play—though for modern post-feminist audiences I think he’s less admirable than he would be for the more staunchly patriarchal Hellenes—who allows his wife to die in his place in fulfillment of a deal Apollo had made with Death. But because Admetus obeys the Hellenistic laws of hospitality when Heracles comes to his home, Heracles reciprocates by fighting Death for Alcestis and returning her to Admetus. In this way the play turns from its tragic potential into a romance.

Alcestis puts particular emphasis on the multiplicity of guilt that René Girard describes. Girard argues that tragedies have multiple characters who are all guilty of something and that the blame for the communal suffering could be hung on anyone of them. In Alcestis this is a central concern because the middle section of the play focuses on Ademtus blaming his parents for letting Alcestis die rather than giving up their own lives for him. When Pheres, Admetus’ father, arrives bearing tokens for the dead woman’s grave, Admetus accuses him of being selfish and cowardly, of refusing to give up his life so that Ademtus and Alcestis could live. Pheres rightly counters that Admetus is as much to blame because he asked his wife to swap her death for his own—that Admetus fears and resists death as much as Pheres. The other character who is directly implicated in this is Pheres’ wife, Admetus’ mother, who never makes an appearance. But in reality, anyone in the community could have stepped up and taken Admetus’ death on him or herself, so implicitly everyone in the community is potentially guilty. However, because Alcestis is a romance and not a tragedy, we never go beyond the phase of debating guilt. Girard argues that in a tragedy guilt is fixed upon one scapegoat and then that person is sacrificed for the good of the community, generally either dying or going into exile. As a romance, Alcestis does not include a sacrificial victim whose expulsion returns order and harmony to the community.

Euripides was quite a modern social satirist, often subtly critiquing and questioning the values of his society (a kind of dramatic Socrates, almost). In this tradition we get Alcestis, which is a problematic romance in that it undermines and throws into question the values of Greek society. Despite being a patriarchal culture, it would probably have been difficult for any Greek to get up after this play without questioning Admetus’s values. I mean, he does let his wife die for him and his rejection of his father (who refused to die) is less than filial. Admetus even admits that it was his choice that doomed Alcestis. Although not a feminist play directly, Alcestis does open the door for a strong feminist reading.
Additionally, a feminist reader could not help but notice that when Alcestis returns with Heracles from Death, she is not allowed to speak for three days, ostensibly to break the underworld’s hold on her. This seems like an odd rule, and as far as I know it isn’t a standard part of Greek back-from-the-dead stories. One might read this as of a piece with the general silencing of women in patriarchal cultures, or as a guarantee that Alcestis will not criticize her husband for the duration of the play. Perhaps it is Euripides’ ironic commentary on the ideal form of the Greek woman—much like Pucchini’s Butterfly, a woman should be willing to sacrifice herself for an unworthy man without ever speaking out against her own mistreatment.
Of course, to complicate the second wave feminist reading here, I think it’s important to notice the inherently phantasmatic quality of Alcestis. She is not a real person in the sense that many other Greek characters are dynamic and psychologically fleshed out. She is simply a two-dimensional prop to move the action of the play forward. By making this character so idealized and so perfect that she loses her humanity, I think Euripides gestures to the impossibility of any actual person being ‘the perfect woman.’ He attacks an ideal as only ever an ideal, one without any substance or humanity.

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