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CHORUS of citizens of Pherae
MAID, attendant of Alcestis
ALCESTIS, wife of Admetus
ADMETUS OF PHERAE, king of Thessaly
BOY,° son of Admetus and Alcestis
HERACLES, friend of Admetus
PHERES, father of Admetus
SERVANT of Admetus
Scene: Pherae, in Thessaly, in front of the house of Admetus
(Enter Apollo from the house, armed with a bow.)
House of Admetus, in which I, god though I am, had patience to accept the table of the serfs! Zeus was the cause. Zeus killed my son, Asclepius, and drove the bolt of the hot lightning through his chest. I, in my anger for this, killed the Cyclopes, smiths of Zeus's fire, for which my father made me serve a mortal man, in penance for what I did. I came to this country, tended the oxen of this host and friend, Admetus, son of Pheres, and have kept his house from danger until this very day. For I, who know what's right, have found in him a man who knows what's right, and so I saved him from dying, tricking the Fates. The goddesses promised me Admetus would escape the moment of his death by giving the lower powers someone else to die instead of him. He tried his loved ones all in turn, father and aged mother who had given him birth,° and found not one, except his wife, who would consent to die for him, and not see daylight any more. She is in the house now, gathered in his arms and held at the breaking point of life, because destiny marks this for her day of death and taking leave of life. The stain of death in the house must not be on me. I step therefore from these chambers dearest to my love. And here is Death himself, I see him coming, Death who dedicates the dying, who will lead her down to the house of Hades. He has come on time. He has been watching for this day on which her death falls due.
(Enter Death from the side, armed with a sword.)
DEATH [chanting] Ah! You at this house, Phoebus? Why do you haunt the place? It is unfair to take for your own and spoil the death-spirits' privileges. Was it not enough, then, that you blocked the death of Admetus, and overthrew the Fates by a shabby wrestler's trick? And now your bow hand is armed to guard her too, Alcestis, Pelias' daughter, though she promised her life for her husband's.
Never fear. I have nothing but justice and fair words for you.
DEATH [now speaking]
If you mean fairly, what are you doing with a bow?
It is my custom to carry it with me all the time.
It is your custom to help this house more than you ought.
But he is my friend, and his misfortunes trouble me.
You mean to take her corpse, too, away from me?
I never took his body away from you by force.
How is it, then, that he is above ground, not below?
He gave his wife instead, and you have come for her now.
I have. And I shall take her down where the dead are.
Take her and go. I am not sure you will listen to me.
Tell me to kill whom I must kill. Such are my orders.
No, only to put their death off. They must die in the end.
I understand what you would say and what you want.
Is there any way, then, for Alcestis to grow old?
There is not. I insist on enjoying my rights too.
You would not take more than one life, in any case.
My privilege means more to me when they die young.
If she dies old, she will have a lavish burial.
What you propose, Phoebus, is to favor the rich.
What is this? Have you unrecognized talents for debate?
Those who could afford to buy a late death would buy it then.
I see. Are you determined not to do this favor for me?
I will not do it. And you know my character.
I know it: hateful to mankind, loathed by the gods.
You cannot always have your way where you should not.
For all your brute ferocity you shall be stopped. The man to do it is on the way to Pheres' house now, on an errand from Eurystheus, sent to steal a team of horses from the wintry lands of Thrace. He shall be entertained here in Admetus' house and he shall take the woman away from you by force, nor will you have our gratitude, but you shall still be forced to do it, and to have my hate beside.
Much talk. Talking will win you nothing. All the same, the woman will go with me to Hades' house. I go to her now, to dedicate her with my sword, for all whose hair is cut in consecration by this blade's edge are devoted to the gods below.
(Exit Death into the house, Apollo to the side. Enter the Chorus.)
It is quiet by the palace. What does it mean? Why is the house of Admetus so still? Is there none here of his family, none who can tell us whether the queen is dead and therefore to be mourned? Or does Pelias' daughter Alcestis live still, still look on daylight, she who in my mind appears noble beyond all women beside in a wife's duty? [singing individually, not as a group]
Does someone hear anything? a groan or a hand's stroke or outcry in the house, as if something were done and over?
No. And there is no servant stationed at the outer gates. O Paean, 90 healer, might you show in light to still the storm of disaster.
They would not be silent if she were dead.
No, she is gone.°
They have not taken her yet from the house.
So sure? I know nothing. Why are you certain? And how could Admetus have buried his wife with none by, and she so splendid?
Here at the gates I do not see the lustral spring water, approved by custom for a house of death.
Nor are there cut locks of hair at the forecourts hanging, such as the stroke of sorrow for the dead makes. I can hear no beating of the hands of young women.
Yet this is the day appointed.
What do you mean? Speak.
On which she must pass to the world below.
You touch me deep, my heart, my mind.
Yes. He who from the first has claimed to be called a good man himself must grieve when good men are afflicted.
[all singing together]
Sailing the long sea, there is not any shrine on earth you could visit, not Lycia, not the unwatered sanctuary of Ammon, to redeem the life of this unhappy woman. Her fate shows steep and near. There is no god's hearth I know you could reach and by sacrifice avail to save.
There was only one. If the eyes of Phoebus' son Asclepius could have seen this light, if he could have come and left the dark chambers, the gates of Hades.
Excerpted from EURIPIDES I by David Grene. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Editors’ Preface to the Third Edition
Introduction to Euripides
How the Plays Were Originally Staged
The Children of Heracles