By Calder Classics Intern and high school junior Bailey Franzoi
Who are the most important female characters in ancient Greek tragedy?
This post, written by Calder Classics intern Bailey Franzoi, a rising senior at Marymount School in New York City, is the second in our series highlighting the the most significant female roles in ancient Greek tragedy and their influence through the ages.
Alcestis: The Husband Saver (and Willing Sacrifice)
Alcestis was the wife of King Admetus. Euripides’s play, Alcestis, is arguably one of his earliest (and strangest) works. Alcestis begins in media res and requires some explanation of prior events: For nine years, Apollo was banished from Mount Olympus to serve King Admetus. Because King Admetus was good to Apollo, the god wishes to give him a gift: freedom from death. It comes, however, with a caveat: he must find someone to take his place. Much to Admetus’s chagrin, no one volunteers. Not even his elderly father. Finally, Admetus' devoted wife Alcestis agrees to be taken in his place and at the beginning of the play, she is close to death. On her deathbed, she makes Admetus promise that he will not remarry or forget her. Admetus assents and even pledges never to again have any fun without her. Shortly after her death, Admetus receives a visit from his old friend Heracles, who ends up journeying to Hades, rescuing Alcestis from death, and returning her to her husband.
Alcestis Characters and Sacrifice
Though Alcestis is a lesser-known female character in ancient Greek tragedy, she has found a great deal of life in the media. Admired through time as the ideal wife, there are many paintings of Alcestis, usually of the scene where Heracles returns her to Admetus.
Both of the works shown date from the Neoclassical period, a time marked by a return to classical styles and depictions of the stories and characters of antiquity. This was caused to some extent by the increased efforts to preserve and uncover artifacts at newly-discovered ruins like Athens, Herculaneum and Pompeii, Paestum, and Palmyra, enabling artists to observe and reproduce classical works first-hand. Both works emphasize the tragedy of Alcestis’ story. The first, painted by Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, shows her as a damsel in distress, needing to be carried by Heracles, arms limp and clothing displaced. The second, by Friedrich Heinrich Füger, displays the tragedy of Alcestis’ situation not only through Alcestis and her own actions but by the grief of those around her. She looks to the heavens, perhaps asking the gods for strength, while those around her plead with her, bending over and leaning into Alcestis, who alone stands upright and ready, the clear tragic hero of this painting.
Though not explicitly based on the story of Alcestis, characters like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Lily Potter from the Harry Potter series, Anna from “Frozen”, and Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” all share Alcestis’ devotion and selflessness in sacrificing themselves for members of their families. These characters willingly offer themselves to death without expecting any return and are eventually honored for doing so.
The story of Alcestis has recently become popular again in literature. Published in 2010, the novel Alcestis by Katharine Beutner presents Alcestis’ life, including her 3 days in the Underworld, and attempts to depict the woman as “a real and ordinary person [with a] strange, remarkable, too-little-known story” (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/02/03/the-big-idea-katharine-beutner/). Ted Hughes also brought Alcestis to modern literature with his 1999 version of Euripides’ Alcestis. His play is both a literal translation and a modern adaptation of Euripides’ work (http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa091900a.htm). For example, Hughes writes:
His death would have been a national catastrophe.
A nuclear bomb spewing a long cloud
Both of these works serve to make Alcestis’ ancient story new again, more accessible to a new audience and culture.
Fun Fact: Though critics have noticed strong correlations between the statue scene in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and the climax of Euripides’ Alcestis, it is rather unlikely that Shakespeare used “Alcestis” as a source because Shakespeare never read Greek! However, there is still debate on the subject.
For those who wish to learn even more about Alcestis’ wild tale, Christoph Willlibald Gluck’s opera “Alceste” can be viewed here.
Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix's Hercules and Alcestis: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mbell1975/5321509499/
Friedrich Heinrich Füger's Alcestis: http://www.maicar.com/GML/Alcestis.html
Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games): http://weheartit.com/tag/i%20volunteer%20as%20tribute
Belle (Beauty and the Beast): https://janeaustenrunsmylife.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/your-favorite-heroine/