Composers and their stage works 


(Alkestis, 438 B.C.)


Tragedy with touches of coarse humour, justified by this play's position at the end of a tetralogy, which traditionally consisted of three tragedies followed by a ribald satyr play. Euripides, in concluding with a fourth tragedy, was breaking with the Greek dramatic convention of the tetralogy.


The prologue, spoken by Apollo, reveals that he had once served as a slave to Admetus, King of Pherae in Thessaly, as an act of penance to Zeus. In gratitude for the kindness and respect shown him, Apollo has saved Admetus from death on condition that another person can be found to take his place in Hades. The only person willing to die for Admetus is his wife Alcestis. As the play opens, she dies in the arms of her husband, who mourns her deeply and promises never to remarry. Shortly after her death Heracles arrives, seeking hospitality. Unwilling to share his sorrow with his guest and filled with guilt over his selfishness, Admetus conceals the fact that it is Alcestis for whom the household mourns. Heracles, who takes advantage of the hospitality and becomes tipsy, is reviled by the grieving servants for his unseemly behaviour. When he discovers that Alcestis has just died, he resolves to fight Death to rescue her. He returns to Admetus with a veiled woman, whom he entrusts to Admetus for safekeeping during his absence. He even suggests that Admetus marry her and forget his grief. The King, mindful of his pledge to Alcestis, is reluctant to accept the strange woman into his house. At last Admetus relents, but he emphasises that he will never touch her. When Heracles removes her veil, revealing Alcestis, Admetus is overjoyed to be reunited with his wife, and Heracles departs to resume his Twelve Labours.