Alcestis eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 73 pages of information about Alcestis.

Pp. 56-67, ll. 1008-end.  This last scene must have been exceedingly difficult to compose, and some critics have thought it ineffective or worse.  To me it seems brilliantly conceived and written, though of course it needs to be read with the imagination strongly at work.  One must never forget the silent and veiled Woman on whom the whole scene centres.  I have tried conjecturally to indicate the main lines of her acting, but, of course, others may read it differently.

To understand Heracles in this scene, one must first remember the traditional connexion of Satyrs (and therefore of satyric heroes) with the re-awakening of the dead Earth in spring and the return of human souls to their tribe.  Dionysus was, of all the various Kouroi, the one most widely connected with resurrection ideas, and the Satyrs are his attendant daemons, who dance magic dances at the Return to Life of Semele or Persephone.  And Heracles himself, in certain of his ritual aspects, has similar functions.  See J.E.  Harrison, Themis, pp. 422 f. and 365 ff., or my Four Stages of Greek Religion, pp. 46 f.  This tradition explains, to start with, what Heracles—­and this particular sort of revelling Heracles—­has to do in a resurrection scene.  Heracles bringing back the dead is a datum of the saga.  There remain then the more purely dramatic questions about our poet’s treatment of the datum.

Why, for instance, does Heracles mystify Admetus with the Veiled Woman?  To break the news gently, or to retort his own mystification upon him?  I think, the latter.  Admetus had said that “a woman” was dead; Heracles says:  “All right:  here is ‘a woman’ whom I want you to look after.”

Again, what are the feelings of Admetus himself?  First, mere indignation and disgust at the utterly tactless proposal:  then, I think, in 1061 ff.  ("I must walk with care” ... end of speech), a strange discovery about himself which amazes and humiliates him.  As he looks at the woman he finds himself feeling how exactly like Alcestis she is, and then yearning towards her, almost falling in love with her.  A most beautiful and poignant touch.  In modern language one would say that his subconscious nature feels Alcestis there and responds emotionally to her presence; his conscious nature, believing the woman to be a stranger, is horrified at his own apparent baseness and inconstancy.

P. 57, l. 1051, Where in my castle, etc.]—­The castle is divided into two main parts:  a public megaron or great hall where the men live during; the day and sleep at night, and a private region, ruled by the queen and centring in the thalamos or royal bed-chamber.  If the new woman were taken into this “harem,” even if Admetus never spoke to her, the world outside would surmise the worst and consider him dishonoured.

P. 66, l. 1148, Be righteous to thy guest, As he would have thee be.]—­ Does this mean “Go on being hospitable, as you have been,” or “Learn after this not to take liberties with other guests”?  It is hard to say.

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Alcestis from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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