Written 438 B.C.E.
CHORUS OF OLD MEN
A WOMAN SERVANT
ALCESTIS, the Queen, wife of ADMETUS
ADMETUS, King of Thessaly
EUMELUS, their child
PHERES, father of ADMETUS
At Pherae, outside the Palace of ADMETUS, King of Thessaly. The centre of the scene represents a portico with columns and a large double-door. To the left are the women's quarters, to the right the guest rooms. The centre doors of the Palace slowly open inwards, and Apollo comes out. In his left hand he carries a large unstrung golden bow. He moves slowly and majestically, turns, and raises his right hand in salutation to the Palace.
Dwelling of Admetus, wherein I, a God, deigned to accept the food of serfs!
The cause was Zeus. He struck Asclepius, my son, full in the breast with a bolt of thunder, and laid him dead. Then in wild rage I slew the Cyclopes who forge the fire of Zeus. To atone for this my Father forced me to labour as a hireling for a mortal man; and I came to this country, and tended oxen for my host. To this hour I have protected him and his. I, who am just, chanced on the son of Pheres, a just man, whom I have saved from Death by tricking the Fates. The Goddesses pledged me their faith Admetus should escape immediate death if, in exchange, another corpse were given to the Under-Gods.
One by one he tested all his friends, and even his father and the old mother who bad brought him forth-and found none that would die for him and never more behold the light of day, save only his wife. Now, her spirit waiting to break loose, she droops upon his arm within the house; this is the day when she must die and render up her life.
But I must leave this Palace's dear roof, for fear pollution soil me in the house.
See! Death, Lord of All the Dead, now comes to lead her to the house of Hades! Most punctually he comes! How well he marked the day she had to die!
From the right comes DEATH, with a drawn sword in his hand. He moves stealthily towards the Palace; then sees APOLLO and halts abruptly. The two Deities confront each other.
Ha! Phoebus! You! Before this Palace! Lawlessly would you grasp, abolish the rights of the Lower Gods! Did you not beguile the Fates and snatch Admetus from the grave? Does not that suffice? Now, once again, you have armed your hand with the bow, to guard the daughter of Pelias who must die in her husband's stead!
Fear not! I hold for right, and proffer you just words.
If you hold for right, why then your bow?
My custom is ever to carry it.
Yes! And you use it unjustly to aid this house!
I grieve for a friend's woe.
So you would rob me of a second body?
Not by force I won the other.
Why, then, is he in the world and not below the ground?
In his stead he gives his wife-whom you have come to take.
And shall take-to the Underworld below the earth!
Take her, and go! I know not if I can persuade you…
Not to kill her I must kill? I am appointed to that task.
No, no! But to delay death for those about to die.
I hear your words and guess your wish!
May not Alcestis live to old age?
No! I also prize my rights!
Yet at most you win one life.
They who die young yield me a greater prize.
If she dies old, the burial will be richer.
Phoebus, that argument favours the rich.
What! Are you witty unawares?
The rich would gladly pay to die old.
So you will not grant me this favour?
Not I! You know my nature.
Yes! Hateful to men and a horror to the gods!
You cannot always have more than your due.
Yet you shall change, most cruel though you are! For a man comes to the dwelling of Pheres, sent by Eurystheus to fetch a horse-drawn chariot from the harsh-wintered lands of Thrace; and he shall be a guest in the house of Admetus, and by force shall he tear this woman from you. Thus shall you gain no thanks from us, and yet you shall do this thing-and my hatred be upon you
APOLLO goes out. DEATH gazes after him derisively.
Talk all you will, you get no more of me! The woman shall go down to the dwelling of Hades. Now must I go to consecrate her for the sacrifice with this sword; for when once this blade has shorn the victim's hair, then he is sacred to the Lower Gods!
DEATH enters the Palace by the open main door. The CHORUS enters from the right. They are the Elders or Notables of the city, and, therefore move slowly, leaning upon their staffs.
From the central door of the Palace comes a splendid but tragical procession. Preceded by the royal guards, ADMETUS enters, supporting ALCESTIS. The two children, a boy and a girl, cling to their mother's dress. There is a train of attendants and waiting women, who bring a low throne for the fainting ALCESTIS.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS chanting
Never shall I say that we ought to rejoice in marriage, but rather weep; this have I seen from of old and now I look upon the fate of the King, who loses the best of wives, and henceforth until the end his life shall be intolerable.
Sun, and you, light of day,
Vast whirlings of swift cloud!
The sun looks upon you and me, both of us miserable, who have wrought nothing against the Gods to deserve death.
O Earth, O roof-tree of my home,
Bridal-bed of my country, Iolcus!
Rouse up, O unhappy one, and, do not leave me! Call upon the mighty Gods to pity!
ALCESTIS starting up and gazing wildly in terror, chanting
I see the two-oared boat,
I see the boat on the lake!
Ferryman of the Dead,
Calls to me, his hand on the oar:
'Why linger? Hasten! You delay me!'
Angrily he urges me.
Alas! How bitter to me is that ferrying of which you speak! O my unhappy one, how we suffer!
He drags me, he drags me away-
Do you not see?-
To the House of the Dead,
The Winged One
Glaring under dark brows,
What is it you do?
Set me free!-
What a path must I travel,
O most hapless of women!
O piteous to those that love you, above all to me and to these children who sorrow in this common grief!
Loose me, Oh, loose me now;
Lay me down;
All strength is gone from my feet.
She falls back in the throne.
Hades draws near!
Dark night falls on my eyes,
My children, my children,
Never more, Oh, never more
Shall your mother be yours!
O children, farewell,
Live happy in the light of day!
Alas! I hear this unhappy speech, and for me it is worse than all death. Ah! By the Gods, do not abandon me! Ah! By our children, whom you leave motherless, take heart! If you die, I become as nothing; in you we have our life and death; we revere your love.
It shall be so, it shall be! Have no fear! And since I held you living as my wife, so, when dead, you only shall be called my wife, and in your place no bride of Thessaly shall salute me hers; no other woman is noble enough for that, no other indeed so beautiful of face. My children shall suffice me; I pray the Gods I may enjoy them, since you we have not enjoyed.
I shall wear mourning for you, O my wife, not for one year but all my days, abhorring the woman who bore me, hating my father-for they loved me in words, not deeds. But you-to save my life you give the dearest thing you have! Should I not weep then, losing such a wife as you?
I shall make an end of merry drinking parties, and of flower-crowned feasts and of the music which possessed my house. Never again shall I touch the lyre, never again shall I raise my spirits to sing to the Libyan flute-for you have taken from me all my joy. Your image, carven by the skilled hands of artists, shall be laid in our marriage-bed; I shall clasp it, and my hands shall cling to it and I shall speak your name and so, not having you, shall think I have my dear wife in my arms-a cold delight, I know, but it will lighten the burden of my days. Often you will gladden me, appearing in my dreams; for sweet it is to look on those we love in dreams, however brief the night.
Ah! If I had the tongue and song of Orpheus so that I might charm Demeter's Daughter or her Lord, and snatch you back from Hades, would go down to hell; and neither Pluto's dog nor Charon, Leader of the Dead, should hinder me until I had brought your life back to the light!
The body of ALCESTIS is carried solemnly into the Palace, followed by ADMETUS, With bowed head, holding one of his children by each hand. When all have entered, the great doors are quietly shut.
O Daughter of Pelias,
Hail to you in the house of Hades,
In the sunless home where you shall dwell!
Let Hades, the dark-haired God,
Let the old man, Leader of the Dead,
Who sits at the oar and helm,
Far, far off is the best of women
Borne beyond the flood of Acheron
In the two-oared boat!
Often shall the Muses' servants
Sing of you to the seven-toned
Lyre-shell of the mountain-tortoise,
And praise you with mourning songs at Sparta
When the circling season
Brings back the month Carneius
Under the nightlong upraised moon,
And in bright glad Athens.
Such a theme do you leave by your death
For the music of singers!
Ah! That I had the power
To bring you back to the light
From the dark halls of Hades,
And from the waves of Cocytus
With the oar of the river of hell
Oh, you only,
O dearest of women,
You only dared give your life
For the life of your lord in Hades!
Light rest the earth above you,
If your lord choose another bridal-bed
He shall be hateful to me
As to your own children.
When his mother
And the old father that begot him
Would not give their bodies to the earth
For their son's sake,
They dared not deliver him-O cruel!
Though their heads were grey.
In your lively youth,
Died for him, and are gone from the light!
Ah! might I be joined
With a wife so dear!
But in life such fortune is rare.
How happy were my days with her!
Source: Euripedes. Alcestis. Trans. Richard Aldington. The Internet Classics Archive (29 September 2000). http://classics.mit.edu/Euripides/alcestis.html. Accessed 14 December 2002.