As for the characters in the play, that of Alcestis must be acknowledged to be pre-eminently beautiful. . . .But, if we except the heroine of the piece, the rest are hardly well-drawn, or, at least, pleasingly portrayed. The selfish Pheres, the unfilial Admetus, the boisterous Hercules, are not in themselves proper characters for tragedy; but then they serve to set off and bring out in relief the beauties which the poet has laboured to concentrate upon one person. . . .The dispute between Admetus and Pheres is calculated, as Hermann observes, and as was very probably designed, to please a contentious and law-loving audience. The poet might perhaps, had he pleased, have represented Admetus in a more amiable point of view. But he preferred to take the legend as he found it; and we must in fairness admit that the faults are those inherent in the subject itself rather than in the poet's manner of treating it.
It should be noted that when Paley describes Admetus, Pheres, and Heracles as 'not well-drawn', he means, as appears by the correction 'not pleasingly portrayed', that they are not drawn well for the general effect of the picture. Regarded merely as studies from life they are drawn only too well. And when he says that they are 'not proper characters for tragedy', he must be taken to mean that they are not proper for this tragedy, for a play on this particular subject, since no one could dispute that characters equally unpleasing in themselves, equally 'selfish', 'unfilial', and 'boisterous', are to be found in dramas and even in tragedies, of which the total effect is nevertheless both pleasing and consistent. And if we ask, why then these traits are objectionable here, the answer is first, that they are useless to the conduct of the story, and secondly that, according to an instinct which not without reason we assume to be universal, they are repugnant to the solemnity of the topic. You cannot make a good play, nor anything fit to be called a play, out of incidents which have no moral or necessary connexion, no other connexion in short than that they might succeed one another in the way represented: and you ought not to make a trifle out of a theme so full of tenderness and awe as the death and resurrection of Alcestis. We will consider the scheme for a moment in these two points of view, and will confine our attention for convenience to the scenes numbered fourth and fifth, upon which the objections may be concentrated. It should be noted that these two scenes form between them a full fourth part of the action, and that a survey of the whole work would only confirm our impressions.