Euripides, Alcestis


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This unit has five main aims:

  1. To extend your ability to read, understand and translate accurately into idiomatic English Euripides' play Alcestis;
  2. To gain an appreciation of the play's structure and literary qualities;
  3. To develop through a study of the play a knowledge of some of the characteristics of 5th century Greek theatre;
  4. To study features of linguistic interest contained in the play;
  5. To study aspects of the play's contents, including its themes and mythological allusions.

We have chosen Alcestis for this unit because, after The Children of Heracles, it is the shortest of Euripides' tragedies. You may also have some experience already of part of it from JACT sec. 14 (lines 150-207).


The Alcestis is the earliest extant play of Euripides (c. 480-406 B.C.). It was presented in Athens in the year 438 B.C. during the course of the Great Dionysia, the annual theatre festival held in Athens in honour of the god Dionysus. We learn the date of the play from one of the two "Hypotheses", or introductory notices, which were attached to the play by later editors. In such a context, the word `hypothesis' "seems at first to have been used in its natural sense of the story which the playwright found in the legends, or constructed out of them, as a `presupposition' on which to base his drama.." (Dale) Most of the surviving plays of the tragic playwrights had such notices attached to them. In some cases they give a synopsis of the plot, or the legend on which the play was based, and in some cases they provide information about when the play was staged and where it came in that year's competition.

The first of the two Hypotheses to Alcestis, attributed to a pupil of Aristotle called Dicaearchus, outlines the plot of the play. The second, attributed to the 3rd century B.C. scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium, indicates both the date of the production of the play, and also that it was the fourth play in a tetralogy. (A tetralogy is a group of four plays, usually three tragedies and a satyr-play.) The first three plays, of which only fragments survive, were Cretan Women, Alcmaeon in Psophis, and Telephus. In the drama competition of 438, the tetralogy won Euripides second place to the playwright Sophocles.

What sort of play is Alcestis?

The second Hypothesis refers to it as a drama "of the satyric kind in that it turns to joy and pleasure at the end, contrary to the tragic kind." In accordance with the convention of the day, one would normally expect a satyr-play at the end of a tetralogy. (A satyr-play bears some resemblance to a tragedy in form, but is generally a send-up or burlesque of a legend or myth.) But there is some uncertainty as to how Alcestis should be classified.

There do in fact appear to be some satyric elements within it, particularly in the scene in which Heracles appears (lines 773 ff.), following the Chorus' departure for the funeral of the play's heroine Alcestis. Dale comments thus: "Here we have the figure of Heracles presented in a manner discreetly reminiscent of the traditional burlesque Heracles, the coarse glutton and drunkard who rouses himself to perform prodigious feats of strength against the local monster or bully.....Perhaps too we might reckon the discomfiture of Death as a potentially satyric feature, Death who is not the majestic king enthroned in the underworld but the ogreish creature of popular fancy....As for the happy ending, that is of course the normal thing in satyr-play as in comedy, but the Greeks never recognised its exclusion from the concept of tragedy."

However, in the view of H.D.F. Kitto, there is no trace of the satyric; the slightly tipsy Heracles is at the most a touch of low comedy. The play is pure tragi-comedy. Kitto believes that the play cannot be treated as serious tragedy. Because it is based on an impossibility (Alcestis is carried off by Death as a substitute for her husband; she is restored to life when Heracles wrestles Death for her and wins), its action as a whole is deprived of tragic, or universal, reality, and so of serious tragic meaning. It is difficult for us to relate to the sufferings of Admetus and Alcestis because their experiences are quite remote from real-life situations. Yet Conacher comments that while the Alcestis cannot be regarded as a serious tragedy, it nevertheless deals with both human sufferings (death and bereavement) and ethical themes (hospitality and loyalty) of the kind which serious tragedy does so often treat.

These are matters which you might consider as you read the play for yourself. What sort of play is the Alcestis? And as you consider this question, bear in mind one other comment by Dale: "In spite of its happy ending it has a curiously tart, almost bitter, flavour, and (one) is apt to find (oneself) puzzled by the figures of Admetus and Alcestis and uncertain about the whole tone of the play: how seriously is it meant to be taken?"

The play's structure

Greek plays were written in verse, using a wide range of metres. We shall not be making a study of these metres, beyond noting that the predominant metre of Greek drama was the iambic trimeter. This was used for dramatic dialogues, in which the characters spoke their lines, and monologues, which were chanted or intoned. The iambic trimeter consists basically of six iambic feet, each made up of a short syllable followed by a long syllable. However other types of feet were regularly substituted for the basic iambus. A variety of other metres were used for songs and choral odes. For a basic introduction, see JACT (reference as under The Notes below) secs. 179 and 228.

Structurally, the play begins with a Prologue which sets the scene, followed by the Parodos, the song sung by the Chorus on its entry into the Orchestra (the "Dancing-Circle"). There then follows a series of Episodes, scenes involving dialogue between two or more of the play's characters and alternating with Stasimons, odes sung by the Chorus. Interspersed among these elements are occasional monodies, sung or chanted by an actor. We will have more to say about each of these structural features when we meet them in the text.

The Notes

In the notes which follow, a number of references are made to comments contained in the editions of the play by A.M. Dale, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1954 (repr. 1978), and more recently by D.J. Conacher, Warminster, Aris & Phillips, 1988. Occasional references on grammatical points are made to JACT (Joint Association of Classical teachers Greek Course, Grammar, Vocabulary and Exercises).

The notes also provide literal translations of a number of passages. These translations are intended to assist you in analysing and interpreting sentences or phrases which may cause you some difficulty. Occasionally the notes provide a freer or more idiomatic translation of a passage as well as a literal one. But generally it will be left to you to compose a final translation, which should of course be expressed in good, idiomatic English.

The text of our play is preserved in two groups of mediaeval manuscripts, dating from the 12th to the 14th centuries. As might be expected, there are a number of variations between these manuscripts, and it is often difficult to decide in particular passages which of two or more variants represents the original Euripidean text. As a general rule the notes below follow the text of Dale's edition. They also contain brief discussions of a small number of textual difficulties, indicating why one textual variant seems preferable to another. This will provide you with a brief, elementary introduction to the field of study known as textual criticism.

Online help

You can call up a Greek text, translation, and morphological help for this text and many more Greek and Latin texts on the Internet from the Perseus Project at Click on 'Ancient Greek texts', then 'Euripides', then 'Alcestis'. You will need a Greek font (downloadable) to display the text in Greek on your P.C.

Copyright: Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Queensland
Subject Development: Professor T R Bryce, MA, PhD, FAHA.
Web Development: Mr Gayle Paltridge, BA

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Last revised: December 11, 2000