man prefers evasion to lying so long as he sees his way, 'of her I may speak in a double sense'. 'Do you mean', says the other with pardonable bluntness, 'that she is dead or that she is alive?' She is…alive, and yet she is not: I feel it keenly' is the equivocator's answer, explained, under further pressure, to mean that even a living person is as good as dead, when she lies under an inevitable sentence of death. The dramatic merit of these quibbles, as an exhibition of character and as points in the scene, makes but a small part of the pleasure derived by the accustomed auditor, who has long before this been assured, as he might indeed have guessed before the play began, that Alcestis is no more dead than she is likely to die, and now perceives that Admetus in his embarrassment has been forced to say so in so many words.
But Euripides can do much better than a turn like this, of which, as Aristophanes not unjustly implies, the type is too formal for frequency. Such are for ears that need pricking, and are employed sparingly. Far above these, and touching surely the high-water mark of ingenuity, is the passage already signalized, in which a maid-servant relates to the Chorus the proceedings of Alcestis upon the 'fatal' morning. Here we have first to notice the skill with which this important narrative is introduced. In the mechanism of the piece, as conceived by the author, the cardinal fact is the precipitation of the funeral. As soon as we know that Alcestis will be buried without delay, whenever her husband believes her dead, we have the key to the situation, and are ready to appreciate the treatment. Now it is just before the narrative of the maid-servant begins that this intention on the part of Admetus, hinted in the opening dialogue of the Chorus, is fully disclosed; 'There is, I suppose, no hope of saving her life.—No; it is the day of fate, irresistible.—Then…with regard to her person…they are doing, are they not…what is required?—The adornment, yes, it is ready, to be buried by her husband along with her'. Here, when the reader has received his cue and fixed his attention, at a word of admiration from the Chorus the maid-servant breaks out into a full description of what has passed. Now the facts which she relates have two distinct bearings, both in the conception of
- ↑ vv. 152 foll.