Alcestis (Murray)/Notes


P. 3, Prologue. Asclêpios (Latin Aesculapius), son of Apollo, the hero-physician, by his miraculous skill healed the dead. This transgressed the divine law, so Zeus slew him. (The particular dead man raised by him was Hippolytus, who came to life in Italy under the name of Virbius, and was worshipped with Artemis at Aricia.) Apollo in revenge, not presuming to attack Zeus himself, killed the Cyclopes, and was punished by being exiled from heaven and made servant to a mortal. There are several such stories of gods made servants to human beings.

P. 3, l. 12, Beguiling.]--See Preface. In the original story he made them drunk with wine. (Aesch. “Eumenides”, 728.) As the allusion would doubtless be clear to the Greek audience, I have added a mention of wine which is not in the Greek. Libations to the Elder Gods, such as the Fates and Eumenides, had to be "wineless." Historically this probably means that the worship dates from a time before wine was used in Greece.

P. 4, l. 22, The stain of death must not come nigh My radiance.]--Compare Artemis in the last scene of the “Hippolytus”. The presence of a dead body would be a pollution to Apollo, though that of Thánatos (Death) himself seems not to be so. It is rather Thánatos who is dazzled and blinded by Apollo, like an owl or bat in the sunlight.

P. 5, l. 43, Rob me of my second prey.]--"You first cheated me of Admetus, and now you cheat me of his substitute."

P. 6, l. 59, The rich would buy, etc.]--Here and throughout this difficult little dialogue I follow the readings of my own text in the “Bibliotheca Oxoniensis”.

P. 7, l. 74, To lay upon her hair my sword.]--As the sacrificing priest cut off a lock of hair from the victim's head before the actual sacrifice.

P. 8, l. 77, Chorus.]--The Chorus consists of citizens, probably Elders, of the city of Pherae. Dr. Verrall has rightly pointed out that there is some general dissatisfaction in the town at Admetus's behaviour (l. 210 ff.). These citizens come to mourn with Admetus out of old friendship, though they do not altogether defend him.

The Chorus is very drastically broken up into so many separate persons conversing with one another; the treatment in the “Rhesus” is similar but even bolder. See “Rhesus”, pp. 28-31, 37-42. Cf. also the entrance-choruses of the “Trojan Women” (pp. 19-23) and the “Medea” (pp. 10-13); and ll. 872 ff., 889 ff., pp. 50, 51, below.

Instead of assigning the various lines definitely to First, Second, Third Citizen, and so on, I have put a "paragraphus" (--), the ancient Greek sign for indicating a new speaker.

P. 8, l. 82, Pelias' daughter.]--”i.e.” Alcestis.

P. 8, l. 92, Paian.]--The Healer. The word survives chiefly as a cry for help and as an epithet or title of Apollo or Asclepios. "Paian," Latin Paean, is also a cry of victory; but the relation of the two meanings is not quite made out. (Pronounce rather like "Pah-yan.") Cf. l. 220.

P. 9, l. 112, To wander o'er leagues of land.]--You could sometimes save a sick person by appealing to an oracle, such as that of Apollo in Lycia or of Zeus Ammon in the Libyan desert; but now no sacrifice will help. Only Asclepios, were he still on earth, might have helped us. (See on the Prologue.)

P. 12, l. 150, 'Fore God she dies high-hearted.]--What impresses the Elder is the calm and deliberate way in which Alcestis faces these preparations.

P. 12, l. 162, Before the Hearth-Fire.]--Hestia, the hearth-fire, was a goddess, the Latin Vesta, and is addressed as "Mother." It is characteristic in Alcestis to think chiefly about happy marriages for the children.

P. 12, l. 182, Happier perhaps, more true she cannot be.]--A famous line and open to parody. Cf. Aristophanes, “Knights”, 1251 ("Another wear this crown instead of me, Happier perhaps; worse thief he cannot be"). And see on l. 367 below.

P. 15, l. 228, Hearts have bled.]--People have committed suicide for less than this.

P. 16, l. 244, O Sun.]--Alcestis has come out to see the Sun and Sky for the last time and say good-bye to them. It is a rite or practice often mentioned in Greek poetry. Her beautiful wandering lines about Charon and his boat are the more natural because she is not dying from any disease but is being mysteriously drawn away by the Powers of Death.

P. 16, l. 252, A boat, two-oared.]--She sees Charon, the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead across the river Styx.

P. 17, l. 259, Drawing, drawing.]--The creature whom she sees drawing her to "the palaces of the dead" is certainly not Charon, who had no wings, but was like an old boatman in a peasant's cap and sleeveless tunic; nor can he be Hades, the throned King to whose presence she must eventually go. Apparently, therefore, he must be Thanatos, whom we have just seen on the stage. He was evidently supposed to be invisible to ordinary human eyes.

P. 18, l. 280, Alcestis's speech.]--Great simplicity and sincerity are the keynotes of this fine speech. Alcestis does not make light of her sacrifice: she enjoyed her life and values it; she wishes one of the old people had died instead; she is very earnest that Admetus shall not marry again, chiefly for the children's sake, but possibly also from some little shadow of jealousy. A modern dramatist would express all this, if at all, by a scene or a series of scenes of conversation; Euripides always uses the long self-revealing speech. Observe how little romantic love there is in Alcestis, though Admetus is full of it. See Preface, pp. xiii, xiv.

Pp. 19, 20, l. 328 ff., Admetus's speech.]--If the last speech made us know Alcestis, this makes us know Admetus fully as well. At one time the beauty and passion of it almost make us forget its ultimate hollowness; at another this hollowness almost makes us lose patience with its beautiful language. In this state of balance the touch of satire in l. 338 f. ("My mother I will know no more," etc.), and the fact that he speaks immediately after the complete sincerity of Alcestis, conspire to weigh down the scale against Admetus. There can be no doubt that he means, and means passionately, all that he says. Only he could not quite manage to die when it was not strictly necessary.

P. 20, l. 355, If Orpheus' voice were mine.]--The bard and prophet, Orpheus, went down to the dead to win back his wife, Eurydice. Hades and Persephonê, spell-bound by his music, granted his prayer that Eurydicê should return to the light, on condition that he should go before her, harping, and should never look back to see if she was following. Just at the end of the journey he looked back, and she vanished. The story is told with overpowering beauty in Vergil's fourth Georgic.

P. 21, l. 367, Oh, not in death from thee Divided.]--Parodied in Aristophanes' “Archarnians” 894, where it is addressed to an eel, and the second line ends "in a beet-root fricassee." See on l. 182.

P. 23, l. 393 ff., The Little Boy's speech.]--Classical Greek sculpture and vase-painting tended to represent children not like children but like diminutive men; and something of the sort is true of Greek tragedy. The stately tragic convention has in the main to be maintained; the child must speak a language suited for heroes, or at least for high poetry. The quality of childishness has to be indicated by a word or so of child-language delicately admitted amid the stateliness. Here we have [Greek: maia], something like "mummy," at the beginning, and [Greek: neossos], "chicken" or "little bird," at the end. Otherwise most of the language is in the regular tragic diction, and some of it doubtless seems to us unsuitable for a child. If Milton had had to make a child speak in “Paradise Lost”, what sort of diction would he have given it?

The success or ill-success of such an attempt as this to combine the two styles, the heroic and the childlike, depends on questions of linguistic tact, and can hardly be judged with any confidence by foreigners. But I think we can see Euripides here, as in other places, reaching out at an effect which was really beyond the resources of his art, and attaining a result which, though clearly imperfect, is strangely moving. He gets great effects from the use of children in several tragedies, though he seldom lets them speak. They speak in the “Medea”, the “Andromache”, and “Suppliants”, and are mute figures in the “Trojan Women, Hecuba, Heracles”, and “Iphigenia in Aulis”. We may notice that where his children do speak, they speak only in lyrics, never in ordinary dialogue. This is very significant, and clearly right.

The breaking-down of the child seems to string Admetus to self-control again.

P. 25, l. 428, Ye chariot-lords.]--The plain of Thessaly was famous for its cavalry.

P. 25, l. 436 ff., Chorus.]--The "King black-browed" is, of course, Hades; the "grey hand at the helm and oar," Charon; the "Tears that Well," the more that spreads out from Acheron, the River of “Achê” or Sorrows.

P. 25, l. 445 ff. Alcestis shall be celebrated--and no doubt worshipped-- at certain full-moon feasts in Athens and Sparta, especially at the Carneia, a great Spartan festival held at the full moon in the month Carneios (August-September). Who the ancient hero Carnos or Carneios was is not very clearly stated by the tradition; but at any rate he was killed, and the feast was meant to placate and perhaps to revive him. Resurrection is apt to be a feature of both moon-goddesses and vegetation spirits.

P. 27, l. 476, Entrance of Heracles.]--Generally, in the tragic convention, each character that enters either announces himself or is announced by some one on the stage; but the figure of Heracles with his club and lion-skin was so well known that his identity could be taken for granted. The Leader at once addresses him by name.

P. 27, l. 481, The Argive King.]--It was the doom of Heracles, from before his birth, to be the servant of a worser man. His master proved to be Eurystheus, King of Tiryns or Argos, who was his kinsman, and older by a day. See “Iliad” T 95 ff. Note the heroic quality of Heracles's answer in l. 491. It does not occur to him to think of reward for himself.

P. 27, l. 483, Diomede of Thrace.]--This man, distinguished in legend from the Diomede of the “Iliad”, was a savage king who threw wayfarers to his man-eating horses. Such horses are not mere myths; horses have often been trained to fight with their teeth, like carnivora, for war purposes. Diomêdes was a son of Arês, the War-god or Slayer, as were the other wild tyrants mentioned just below, Lycâon, the Wolf-hero, and Cycnus, the Swan.

P. 30, l. 511, Right welcome were she: “i.e.” Joy.]--"Joy would be a strange visitor to me, but I know you mean kindly."

P. 30, l. 518 ff., Not thy wife? 'Tis not Alcestis?]--The rather elaborate misleading of Heracles, without any direct lie, depends partly on the fact that the Greek word [Greek: gynae]; means both "woman" and "wife."--The woman, not of kin with Admetus but much loved in the house, who has lived there since her father's death left her an orphan, is of course Alcestis, but Heracles, misled by Admetus's first answers, supposes it is some dependant to whom the King happens to be attached. He naturally proposes to go away, but, with much reluctance, allows himself to be over-persuaded by Admetus. He had other friends in Thessaly, but the next castle would probably be several miles off. The guest-chambers of the castle are apparently in a separate building with a connecting passage.

As to Admetus's motive, we must remember that the entertaining of Heracles is a datum of the story in its simplest form. See Preface, pp. xiv, xv. In Euripides, Admetus is perhaps actuated by a mixture of motives, real kindness, pride in his ancestral hospitality, and a little vanity. He likes having the great Son of Zeus for a friend, and he has never yet turned any one from his doors.

Euripides passes no distinct judgment on this act of Admetus. The Leader in the dialogue blames him ("Art thou mad?") and so does Heracles hereafter, p. 56. But the Chorus glorifies his deed in a very delightful lyric. Perhaps this indicates the judgment we are meant to pass upon it. On the plane of common sense it was doubtless all wrong, but on that of imaginative poetry it was magnificent.

P. 35, 11. 569-605, Chorus.]--Apollo, worshipped as a shepherd god and a singer, harper, piper, etc. ("song-changer"), had been himself a stranger in this "House that loved the stranger": hence its great reward. Othrys is the end of the mountain range to the south of Pherae; Lake Boibeïs was just across the narrow end of the plain to the north-east, beyond it came Mt. Pelion and the steep harbourless coast. Up to the north-west the plain of Thessaly stretched far away towards the Molossian mountains. The wild beasts gathered round Apollo as they did round Orpheus ("There where Orpheus harped of old, And the trees awoke and knew him, And the wild things gathered to him, As he piped amid the broken Glens his music manifold."--”Bacchae”, p. 35).

P. 37, l. 614, Scene with Pherês.]--Pherês is in tradition the "eponymous hero" of Pherae, “i.e.” the mythical person who is supposed to have given his name to the town. It is only in this play that he has any particular character. The scene gives the reader a shock, but is a brilliant piece of satirical comedy, with a good deal of pathos in it, too. The line (691) [Greek: chaireis horon phos, patera d' ou chairein dokeis]; ("Thou lovest the light, thinkest thou thy father loves it not?") seems to me one of the most characteristic in Euripides. It has a peculiar mordant beauty in its absolutely simple language, and one cannot measure the intensity of feeling that may be behind it. Pheres shows great power of fight, yet one feels his age and physical weakness. See Preface, p. xvi.

P. 40, l. 713 ff. The quick thrust and parry are sometimes hard to follow in reading, though in acting the sense would be plain enough. Admetus cries angrily, "Oh, live a longer life than Zeus!" "Is that a curse?" says Pheres; "are you cursing because nobody does you any harm?" (“i.e”. since you clearly have nothing else to curse for). Admetus: "On the contrary I blessed you; I knew you were greedy of life." Pheres: "“I” greedy? It is “you”, I believe, that Alcestis is dying for."

P. 42, l. 732. Acastus was Alcestis's brother, son of Pelias.

P. 43, l. 747. It is rare in Greek tragedy for the Chorus to leave the stage altogether in the middle of a play. But they do so, for example, in the “Ajax” of Sophocles. Ajax is lost, and the Sailors who form the Chorus go out to look for him; when they are gone the scene is supposed to shift and Ajax enters alone, arranging his own death. This very effective scene of the revelling Heracles is to be explained, I think, by the Satyr-play tradition. See Preface.

P. 45, ll. 782-785. There are four lines rhyming in the Greek here; an odd and slightly drunken effect.

P. 46, l. 805 ff., A woman dead, of no one's kin: why grieve so much?]-- Heracles is somewhat "shameless," as a Greek would say; he had much more delicacy when he was sober.

P. 48, l. 837 ff. A fine speech, leaving one in doubt whether it is the outburst of a real hero or the vapouring of a half-drunken man. Just the effect intended. Electryon was a chieftain of Tiryns. His daughter, Alcmênê, the Tirynthian “Korê” or Earth-maiden, was beloved of Zeus, or, as others put it, was chosen by Zeus to be the mother of the Deliverer of mankind whom he was resolved to beget. She was married to Amphitryon of Thebes.

P. 49, l. 860 ff. If Heracles set out straight to the grave and Admetus with the procession was returning from the grave, how was it they did not meet? The answer is that Attic drama seldom asked such questions.

Pp. 49-54, ll. 861-961. This Threnos, or lamentation scene, seems to our minds a little long. We must remember (1) that a Tragedy “is” a Threnos--a “Trauerspiel”--and, however much it develops in the direction of a mere entertainment, the Threnos-element is of primary importance. (2) This scene has two purposes to serve; first to illustrate the helpless loneliness of Admetus when he returns to his empty house, and secondly the way in which remorse works in his mind, till in ll. 935-961 he makes public confession that he has done wrong. For both purposes one needs the illusion of a long lapse of time.

P. 53, l. 945 ff., The floor unswept.]--Probably the floor really would be unswept in the house of a primitive Thessalian chieftain whose wife was dead and her place unfilled; but I doubt if the point would have been mentioned so straightforwardly in a real tragedy.

Pp. 54-55, l. 966 ff., That which Needs Must Be.]--Ananke or Necessity.-- Orphic rune.]--The charms inscribed by Orpheus on certain tablets in Thrace. Orphic literature and worship had a strong magical element in them.

P. 55, l. 995 ff., A grave-mound of the dead.]--Every existing Greek tragedy has somewhere in it a taboo grave--a grave which is either worshipped, or specially avoided or somehow magical. We may conjecture from this passage that there was in the time of Euripides a sacred tomb near Pherae, which received worship and had the story told about it that she who lay there had died for her husband.

Pp. 56-67, ll. 1008-end. This last scene must have been exceedingly difficult to compose, and some critics have thought it ineffective or worse. To me it seems brilliantly conceived and written, though of course it needs to be read with the imagination strongly at work. One must never forget the silent and veiled Woman on whom the whole scene centres. I have tried conjecturally to indicate the main lines of her acting, but, of course, others may read it differently.

To understand Heracles in this scene, one must first remember the traditional connexion of Satyrs (and therefore of satyric heroes) with the re-awakening of the dead Earth in spring and the return of human souls to their tribe. Dionysus was, of all the various Kouroi, the one most widely connected with resurrection ideas, and the Satyrs are his attendant daemons, who dance magic dances at the Return to Life of Semele or Persephone. And Heracles himself, in certain of his ritual aspects, has similar functions. See J.E. Harrison, “Themis”, pp. 422 f. and 365 ff., or my “Four Stages of Greek Religion”, pp. 46 f. This tradition explains, to start with, what Heracles--and this particular sort of revelling Heracles--has to do in a resurrection scene. Heracles bringing back the dead is a datum of the saga. There remain then the more purely dramatic questions about our poet's treatment of the datum.

Why, for instance, does Heracles mystify Admetus with the Veiled Woman? To break the news gently, or to retort his own mystification upon him? I think, the latter. Admetus had said that "a woman" was dead; Heracles says: "All right: here is 'a woman' whom I want you to look after."

Again, what are the feelings of Admetus himself? First, mere indignation and disgust at the utterly tactless proposal: then, I think, in 1061 ff. ("I must walk with care" ... end of speech), a strange discovery about himself which amazes and humiliates him. As he looks at the woman he finds himself feeling how exactly like Alcestis she is, and then yearning towards her, almost falling in love with her. A most beautiful and poignant touch. In modern language one would say that his subconscious nature feels Alcestis there and responds emotionally to her presence; his conscious nature, believing the woman to be a stranger, is horrified at his own apparent baseness and inconstancy.

P. 57, l. 1051, Where in my castle, etc.]--The castle is divided into two main parts: a public “megaron” or great hall where the men live during; the day and sleep at night, and a private region, ruled by the queen and centring in the “thalamos” or royal bed-chamber. If the new woman were taken into this "harem," even if Admetus never spoke to her, the world outside would surmise the worst and consider him dishonoured.

P. 66, l. 1148, Be righteous to thy guest, As he would have thee be.]-- Does this mean "Go on being hospitable, as you have been," or "Learn after this not to take liberties with other guests"? It is hard to say.

P. 66, l. 1152, The feasting day shall surely come; now I must needs away.]--A fine last word for Heracles. We have seen him feasting, but that makes a small part in his life. His main life is to perform labour upon labour in service to his king. Euripides occasionally liked this method of ending a play, not with a complete finish (Greek “catastrophê”), but with the opening of a door into some further vista of endurance or adventure. The “Trojan Women” ends by the women going out to the Greek ships to begin a life of slavery; the “Rhesus” with the doomed army of Trojans gathering bravely for an attack which we know will be disastrous. Here we have the story finished for Admetus and Alcestis, but no rest for Heracles. See the note at the end of my “Trojan Women”.