Let’s talk about marriage.
How often does it happen that partners decide to put the couple before themselves as individuals? How often does one or even both of them willingly decide to “die," metaphorically speaking, for a higher good in their relationship? It might be for the sake of their children, or the status quo, or for the sake of an uncertain future.
It can happen that one might decide not to apply for a job because he or she wants to keep the family together; or that one chooses to stay in an unhappy marriage with the hope that it will get better in the future. How can we describe this death? What is its toll? And does it truly mean dying for a higher good?
Intrigued by this topic, I reread the story of Alcestis and Admetus. Unhappy with the myth, I also decided to reread Euripides’ Alcestis. (The last time I read it I was a teenager.) This time Euripides’ play struck my heart deeply and left me with a big question.
Why did Euripides present this story as a satire? I really didn’t find anything funny about it.
I will share the story with you and let you decide. Hopefully, by the end we will have found some answers to the questions above.
The story goes this way:
As in nearly every case, this story, too, starts long before its actual beginning. Admetus, Alcestis’ husband, was granted by the Fates the privilege of living beyond the time allotted to him. The bargain, though, had a stipulation—he had to find someone who would replace him. When the time of Admetus’ death comes, he is still looking for a willing substitute. He thinks his parents, now old and almost at the end of their lives, would be willing to take his place. However, they do not want to die because they enjoy life more than before, knowing now what it truly is. After a long, unfruitful quest, the only one willing to accept the bargain is Alcestis, Admetus’ devoted wife. She accepts because, she says, she wishes not to leave her children fatherless or be bereft of her lover.
Euripides’ tragedy begins at this point.
The tragedy starts with Alcestis already dead. She’s an evanescent figure who stands on the brink of life and death. The chorus leader anxiously confirms that all of the customary preparations have been made for her proper burial. The maidservant joins the chorus leader in praising Alcestis’ virtue. Admetus holds Alcestis in his arms as she takes her last breath.
Nothing funny so far—everyone is in tears at this last extreme sacrifice.
On her deathbed, she makes two requests: in return for her sacrifice Admetus would never remarry (she didn’t want her children to have a resentful stepmother) and he would lead a life of solemnity in her honor. Admetus accepts, of course. His wife is sacrificing her whole life for him; he will have no problem keeping these two small promises for her.
Maybe this is the satiric part of the play. Just after her death, Heracles happens to arrive at the palace (he’s a good friend of Admetus). There they are still mourning Alcestis’ death, but what can one do? Admetus does not want to burden his good friend with bad news, so he breaks his promise and organizes a big banquet in Heracles’ honor.
Heracles gets drunk and begins to irritate the servants, who loved their queen and are bitter at not being allowed to mourn her properly. Finally, one of the servants snaps at the guest and tells him what has happened.
Fortunately for everyone, Heracles really was a good friend. Saddened by the news, he decides to face Death and take Alcestis back. Although she cannot speak for three days, she returns to life purified and fully restored.
What do we make of this story?
First, Alcestis was lucky. Her husband’s friend was genuinely a good person and his generosity balanced Admetus’ weak will. Alcestis came back from death as a new person.
Feminist readers are simply mad at this story. Rabinowitz, for example, writes that the story confirms the stereotype of the good Greek wife who is willing to take self-sacrifice for the sake of her family’s well-being.
Certainly Euripides’ choice of where to start telling the story speaks volumes. Indeed, Euripides’ plot begins with Alcestis already dead in her marriage—which might be taken as an interesting commentary on the role of women in marriage. Admetus’ father praises her choice because she made the reputation of all women better than what it is (622). In the play her evanescence is her strongest quality.
Her devotion to her husband is unquestioned despite Admetus breaking his word and failing to mourn her properly. When she is resuscitated, she seems happy to come back to her marriage. The most authentic moment of her existence is in that mute figure just purified from death come back to life.
The truthfulness of Alcestis’ evanescence is even stronger in the eyes of old and modern interpreters. Webster, for example, defined this tragedy as a lighthearted play (1967, 105) that tells the harmonious story of a devoted wife and a good husband in which the self-sacrifice is for the sake of Admetus’ own transformation and realization. According to Goldfarb, the ideal that this story embodies is philia, a word that occurs often in the play (201; philia at 460, 599, 991, 993; ef 876, 917). Familiar love, intimacy, and friendship are the bonds that Alcestis decides to establish with herself, her children, and her husband. In order to be near her intimate world she has to die and hopefully come back to life again.
In my view, I believe this is a story about compassion.
Similar to Orpheus, who decided to descend to Hades and rescue his beloved wife, Alcestis decided to consign herself to death in order to help her husband in his transition toward his new life. I assume that Admetus and Alcestis were in love with each other. This love gave her the strength to make enormous sacrifices. Contrary to the tempting feminist reading, I don’t think the point is whether the sacrifice was made for a husband or a wife. We assume that love more than gender moves us to compassion.
Compassion seems to be the most important ingredient of this story—feeling so much for your loved one that you decide to sacrifice your present life for him/her with the hope of rising again. Admetus had a chance to transform himself and get closer to his new identity thanks to Alcestis’ compassion, while Alcestis had a chance to come back to life as a new and purified person because of Heracles’ compassion.
I do not know if this story should be labeled a tragedy or a satire or a comedy. It is a story about life and all the important transformations that can take place while we are living it. Living as much as dying does not exclude moments of intense joy and pain. They are inevitably the poignant ingredients of a deep transformation, and among those feelings compassion is absolutely the most necessary for us to have the chance to rise again.