Alcestis by Euripides: a translation with commentary by Charles Rowan Beye (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs NJ 1974) 116pp.
Eric Havelock was commissioned by Prentice Hall to produce a series of translations of ancient Greek tragic drama. His task was to find suitable translators for the plays and to oversee their results. Because I had written an article on the Alcestis (“Alcestis and her Critics” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies Issue Number 2  pp. 111-127), Havelock who had been my teacher at Harvard and thus presumably looked favorably on my competence, chose me for this particular translation. Translations are, of course, always problematic since the essential truth is that a verbal construct in one language cannot honestly be reproduced in another; just like snowflakes, no two words ever say the same thing. My goal was to provide as literal a translation as possible with notes that would indicate what I thought were the nuances contained in the language of the original that were absent from this bald translation. My idea was to provide a service for an acting company who might take my translation as a working script and rethink it into language with which the various actors and the director felt comfortable. I don’t know if this was ever done, but that was my aim.
Very briefly the dramatic situation finds Admetus, a nobleman, father, and husband, discovering that the Fates have doomed him to die in the near future. The god, Apollo, who has a thing for the handsome Admetus, gets the Fates to agree to allow Admetus to find a substitute as a candidate for dying. After asking around and finding negative responses (surprise, surprise) even from his aged parents who he evidently was enough of a selfish blockhead to think would be happy to die for their son, his wife Alcestis agrees. She dies, but at that moment the hero Herakles passes the area and seeks to spend a few days with Admetus, who as a polite host seeks to hide the grief of the household. Herakles finds out, of course, and goes to the Underworld and wrestles with Death, and succeeds in winning Alcestis back into life as a reward for Admetus’ impeccable discretion as a host. The play ends with a reunion between Alcestis and Admetus, but, as in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, she speaks not a word to her husband throughout the final scene.
The Alcestis is unusual as a tragic drama because it seems to have a so-called happy ending, and a good deed is rewarded. It is generally held to be a portrait of one woman’s heroism in her willingness to die in place of her husband, something which he later regrets having asked her to do for him. Alcestis is often held up to be a paragon of wifely selflessness. My take on it was somewhat different. I see her as essentially selfish (naturally she prefers to die than live without her husband in a culture where a husbandless wife is without any material support whatsoever and might as well be dead). She wants to doom her husband to a life devoid of pleasure; on her deathbed she gets her husband to swear that he will go into perpetual mourning for her.. But that direction for the drama is overthrown moments later when as the funeral procession begins Herakles arrives, Confronted with this demand on his famous hospitality Admetus ignores his pledge to Alcestis and introduces Herakles into the house. After Herakles has wrestled with Death and won Alcestis, he brings her to Admetus veiled, telling him that she is a slave girl he won as a prize, and asking the king to lodge her while he goes on his travels. Again Admetus wrestles with his pledge to his dying wife. Again his desire to play the perfect host trumps his pledge; one wonders what his anxious glances at the nubile woman presage. So although the play ends “happily,” it is definitely bittersweet--so much the Euripidean manner.