An honorable person would always try to act in a selfless way whenever he/she could. A dilemma emerges, though, when being selfless interferes with one’s own well-being. Whom the selfless action is performed for is the essential variable in whether or not a person decides to go through with being selfless despite the risks. In the Greek tragi-comedy Alcestis, by Euripides, a wife gives the impression of being selfless, when she sacrifices her life for her husband, even after her husband’s parents balked in the same situation. Though Alcestis is portrayed as a tragi-comedy, featuring a wife who epitomizes selflessness and loyalty, the true nature of the story is that Heracles is the lone selfless character among a group of characters that are only looking out for themselves.
Admetus, the King of Thessaly feels it is his parents’ duty to be selfless and give up their lives in exchange for his. He has been dealt the fate of a premature death, but because he has befriended the god Apollo, Apollo has given him the opportunity to spare his own life if he can find someone willing to trade in his/hers. It is understandable why Admetus first went to his parents for this request, since they have lived a long life and obviously, as parents, have great love for him. Admetus assumes his parents would want their son to experience the same and would be willing to give up the tail end of their life for the many years he still has to live. However, when Admetus is denied this request, he becomes furious with his father, Pheres.
I do not count myself as any child of yours
Oh, you outpass the cowardice of all the world,
You at your age, come to the very last step of life
And would not, dared not, die for your own child (641-645).
Admetus sees his father as a coward for not sacrificing his life for his son, but I think it is extremely selfish to ask such a favor from anyone. Parents make sacrifices their entire life for their children, and now that Admetus is older and independent, he should grant his parents the right to grow old together. Pheres is not about to take his son’s verbal bashing sitting down, as he lashes back by saying:
I gave you life, and made you master of my house,
and raised you. I am not obliged to die for you.
I do not acknowledge any tradition among us
that fathers should die for their sons. That is not Greek.
Your natural right is to find your own happiness
or unhappiness. All you deserve from me you have (681-686).
Pheres’ speech is quite eloquent, as he makes a convincing point that he has acted in a selfless manner his entire life by giving his son life and placing him in a position of power and, therefore, owes him nothing more. I believe it is a father’s choice to give up his own life for his son if it so pleases him, but there is no rule, written or otherwise, that says it is a father’s duty to act selfless to this extent. Admetus’ request to his parents speaks volumes to his selfishness, yet I do not believe Pheres could be labeled selfish or selfless for merely wanting to keep his life. In the wake of his parents’ refusal, Admetus’ angst is obvious, since he cannot think of anyone else who would be willing to give his/her life for him and, therefore, sees his fate of an early death inevitable. That is until his wife, Alcestis, chooses to step forward and offer her own life to Apollo in exchange for her husband’s. Alcestis’ decision can be seen as quite typical of the traditional wife, who sees it as her duty to be selfless by serving her husband and ensuring his happiness. Her act is so fitting that the name Alcestis has (mistakenly in my eyes) become synonymous with loyalty. “It is true that women onstage and off were expected to perform extraordinary feats of faithfulness’ to fulfill their Alcestis roles of loyal wife, and that men were not assigned equally high standards in matters of carnal love” (Rzhevsky 296). The problem here lies in the fact that the relationship of husband and wife is a more complex one than son and father. As husband and wife, Admetus and Alcestis are supposed to be a team throughout their lives; therefore, with Alcestis giving up her life, it is as if a part of Admetus has died too. Hence, Admetus has not profited anything from Alcestis’ impulsive act. The decision is further exaserbated, when Alcestis makes Admetus promise his loyalty to her beyond the grave:
Children, you now have heard your father promise me
that he will never marry again and not inflict
a new wife on you, but will keep my memory (371-373).
In asking Admetus to make this promise, she sacrificed her own life, so her husband can live a lonely life filled with mourning and sadness. This appears inconsistent with the loyal wife that most people would make Alcesitis out to be. From this perspective, she could be perceived as a shallow woman, and one must wonder if she made this decision because she was running away from something or if she had a death wish of her own. Though Alcestis gives the impression that she is selfless beyond all limits, her actions show that she has a selfish side and could even be hiding ulterior motives.
The limits of selflessness between friends are tested in this play as well, when Admetus’ friend Heracles visits during the inopportune time of the death of his friend’s wife. Admetus insists his friend stay with him, and even covers up the tragedy so his friend does not feel unwelcome at his house. Admetus is likely acting in a selfless way, so Heracles will feel obligated to repay the favor later on. He is aware of the extraordinary power of Heracles, son of Zeus, and is merely baiting him, knowing that when Heracles finds out about Admetus’ loss, he will do everything he can to right his friend’s wrong. Sure enough, when Heracles hears about the news of Alcestis’ death, he travels to the underworld, where he fights Death to win Alcestis and return her to Admetus. Admetus’ plan worked perfect; he was able to use his friend to get his wife back, while at the same time not feeling like he owed anything to Heracles due to his previous favor. With this brave and noble gesture, Heracles proves to be the solitary selfless character in this play.
The prevailing thought seems to be that the play Alcestis has a happy ending, thus it is labeled as a tragi-comedy, but I disagree. The ambiguous nature of the ending leads me to believe that not all ends well in the land of Thessaly. When Heracles returns Alcestis to Admetus, she cannot speak for three days. It is apparent that Admetus is jubilant in her return, but how does Alcestis feel about it? In her critique, Ruby Blondell wrote the following about Alcestis’ homecoming, “In her silent return, she may be paradigmatic of the model Periclean wife, yet she has been forceful earlier in the play. Her silence may be equally forceful and threatening (99). Alcestis was indeed forceful when making the decision to give her own life. She did not give Ademetus the chance to have a say in her decision, probably knowing he would not allow it. This behavior is especially out of the ordinary given the time period in which this play was written. Therefore, her silence is a threat to Ademetus, because upon her awakening, we, the readers, are given good reason to believe she will not be happy about her return, since it was her unfettered choice to leave in the first place. Even the closing lines are suspiciously vague:
Many are the forms of what is unknown.
Much that the gods achieve is surprise.
What we look for does not come to pass;
God finds a way for what none foresaw
Such was the end of this story (1159-1163).
The common interpretation for this ending is that what no one foresaw was the rejoining of Admetus and Alcestis in life. To me, however, this was predictable. Eurepides leaves the true irony of the story up to the reader’s imagination with his open-ended conclusion.
Euripides wrote a play that has become famous for its strong female character that shows her selflessness is devoid of limits. In my reading, though, only Heracles truly exemplifies the virtue of selflessness by risking his own life and limb to reunite his friend with his recently departed wife. The other characters are simply looking after themselves, since both Admetus and his parents had their own best interests in mind. As for Alcestis, little background is given about her, so it is impossible to know for sure what motivated her to go off half cocked and give her life away for her husband without first consulting him. A marriage is supposed to consist of a team in which some form of collaboration should be made before major decisions, such as this, are arrived at. Alcestis seems to show a lack of respect for Admetus by not including him in this decision making process and then later for cajoling him to swear his loyalty to her forever. Conclusions can therefore be drawn that this defiant behavior illustrates an unhappy wife, merely acting the role of selfless heroin to escape her unhappy existence.