Tragedies of Euripides (Way)/Appendix A
On the Character of Admetus.
While the play of Alcestis is, of all the remains of the ancient classical drama, the most popular with modern readers, it is, beyond question, the most misunderstood. We bring to our estimate of it judgments based on instincts inherited from our Teutonic forefathers, ideas which took form in the days of medieval chivalry, and convictions begotten in us of the teachings of Christianity. Hence, when we read of a husband who availed himself of a heaven-given opportunity of escaping death at the price of his wife's life, all our sympathies go out to the love, the unselfishness, the courage, of the willing sacrifice, and in the husband's conduct we find the meanest selfishness and the most unmanly cowardice. The invectives of Pheres appear as a well-merited castigation, unanswerable in their withering force. The sorrow of Admetus seems hypocritical, and his lamentations hollow. Browning (Balaustion's Adventure) describes him as doing in the death-scene everything but the one right thing, which would have been to insist on revoking the compact. It is not enough to answer that Euripides had to make the best of a legend which he could not alter; we have to account for the fact that the legend, both in its original form and in Euripides' treatment of it, was regarded as redounding to Admetus' glory rather than to his shame. For it is certain that the modern view is diametrically opposed to that of the Athenian audience. In their eyes—1. Admetus was a noble character: 2. He was in the right in respect to the motif and incidents of the play: 3. He reaped the just reward of the good man.
1. Admetus was a noble character, for he displayed the highest social virtue recognised by a Greek—hospitality, the crowning height of unselfishness, as truly a part of patriotism in peace, as heroism was in war. The hospitable man embodied for them the virtues, not only of the modern philanthropist, but also those of the enlightened diplomatist: he established and maintained friendly relations with other states, gaining for his city allies, and for her people friends and protectors in foreign lands, and that in days when, without such, not only was travel perilous, but even commerce was difficult and precarious. The deserts of the man who thus served his country, and his countrymen individually, without regarding the cost to his own fortune and convenience, could not be overrated. Conjugal affection shrank into insignificance beside such a trait. Admetus is the supreme type of this class, a point which is emphasized by the fact that Apollo set the seal of Heaven's approval upon his peculiar excellence, by accepting, and so consecrating, his hospitality. It was his duty to his country (quite apart from his position as her king and protector), to neglect no means of prolonging his usefulness.
2. He was in the right in respect to the motif and incidents of the play:—A God put forth special exertions, taxed to the utmost his divine craft in outwitting the Fates, in order to gain a conditional privilege for his earthly friend. That the man should thereupon decline to accept the boon, would have seemed to the Greeks, not false delicacy merely, but impiety; just as it would have seemed to a Hebrew impious for Abraham to renounce the favour of God when it involved the sacrifice of his son. The acceptance of the condition was perhaps the easier, because the time of its fulfilment was indefinite, as we gather from ll. 524 and 526, where Herakles, while referring to Alcestis' pledge as a matter well known to him, yet has no idea that the time for its redemption has come. The compact once made, we may fairly infer that it was impossible to draw back from it: a mortal could not play fast and loose with the powers beneath, and "the Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts." Hence, though Admetus passionately cries to Alcestis to take him with her, he does not, he cannot, propose the impossible, to die instead of her. Again, it was part of the fitness of things that the less valuable life should be surrendered for the more valuable. To the Greeks of that time, the proper victim should have been the king's old father or mother. Pheres' conduct in valuing his own life before that of his son was in their eyes unnatural, unreasonable, and unpatriotic. He owed a paternal duty to his son: he had already enjoyed his share of life's pleasures; his life was no longer worth living, for the utter contempt for old age prevalent in Athens in those days, must have made its infirmities an unmitigated misfortune: and his life was now useless to the community. Hence his arguments in reply to Admetus' reproaches would appear as a tissue of selfishness and shamelessness. His exclamation (l. 726) that he cares not what men may say of him after his death—a sentiment simply atrocious to a Greek—is enough in itself to indicate that he is meant to be in the wrong throughout the altercation, in which he could have been in the right only on the supposition that he had as good a claim to live as his son, which is precisely what to the Greek was inconceivable. Failing the substitute who shirked his duty, Alcestis would be regarded as simply fulfilling hers in yielding her life. For here again, besides the obvious claims of wifely devotion, was the incontestable fact that the less precious life was given for the more precious. It was an axiom with the Greeks, which Euripides has in the Iphigeneia in Aulis (1394) put into words, that "the life of one man was better than that of ten thousand women." That Alcestis did but rise to the height of her duty is in no way inconsistent with the praises lavished upon her. A soldier who throws himself in front of his king to receive in his own body the stroke of an assassin or a foe is indeed extolled, but would he not be counted false to his duty, did he, at the supreme moment, shrink behind his king? The especial pathos of the situation to the audience lay in this, that the sacrifice of a young and happy woman was forced upon her by the cowardly selfishness, not of her husband, but of a miserable old man: that Admetus should not have found a substitute at all would have seemed monstrous.
3. Admetus reaped the just reward of the good man:—All the respectable characters of the play have nothing but sympathy for him. The Chorus—the embodiment of enlightened public opinion—praise him and condemn his parents: they put up prayers on his behalf: they offer for his consolation considerations which presuppose the paramount value of the life so redeemed, and express a nascent hope (ll. 603–5) that there may yet be blessing in store for him. Herakles, the incarnation of manliness and high courage, is full of sympathy and admiration for him, and is kindled to enthusiasm by his unselfish hospitality; and it is of cardinal importance to the right understanding of the situation that the turning-point of the plot is to be found in a crowning instance of Admetus' pre-eminent virtue, which is made the justification for the extreme measure by which the dénouement is effected, as though he alone of men were worthy to have the decrees of fate reversed in his favour. To adapt the words of a modern poet, his actions said, "Write me as one that loves his fellow-men" . . . . "and lo, Admetus' name led all the rest." We might go so far as to say that for the Greek audience the real theme of the play was not so much "The devotion of Alcestis," as "The reward of virtue," just as for a Hebrew the subject of the crowning episode of his first father's history was not "The self-devotion of Isaac," but "The faith and obedience of Abraham."
The foregoing remarks are, of course, not designed to change the modern reader's estimate of Admetus' action, but to show that he was not intended to be lowered in the eyes of the audience, and that whatever censure we pronounce must include also a condemnation of some fundamental principles of Greek ethics.
- This view of old age is again and again expressed in the plainest language both by the Dramatic and Gnomic poets.
- The current view is expressed by Odysseus in the Hecuba (ll. 315–319).