3. Its content. This is a Greek mythological story, in which gods and mortals are the actors. The plot brings out two social ideals which were peculiar to Greek civilization. The ideal that it was the duty, approved of by the gods, that old people should die for their children, and that wives should die for their husbands, and that such sacrifice should be accepted as a matter of course; and the ideal of hospitality, which was incumbent, no matter what pain it might cause to exercise it.
With regard to the first ideal, many critics of this drama take the view that to the Greeks there would be nothing contemptible or unnatural in the conduct of Admetus. To quote Mr. Collins again on this point, ’Alcestis would be considered fortunate for having had an opportunity of displaying so conspicuously the fidelity to a wife’s first and capital duty. Had Admetus prevented such a sacrifice he would have robbed Alcestis of an honor which every nobly ambitious woman in Hellas would have coveted. This is so much taken for granted by the poet that all that he lays stress on in the drama is the virtue rewarded by the return of Alcestis to life, the virtue characteristic of Admetus, the virtue of hospitality, to this duty in all the agony of his sorrow Admetus had been nobly true, and as a reward for what he had thus earned, the wife who had been equally true to woman’s obligations was restored all-glorified to home and children and mutual love.’
The unbiased reader, however, cannot help suspecting that Euripides saw ahead of the ideals of his time and intended deliberately to show up the cowardice and selfishness of Admetus, by what the critics call the ‘painful scene’ between Pheres and Admetus.
In the second place, if he did not share to some extent the feelings of the chorus that the virtue of hospitality might be carried too far, how could he have made it say:
’Many a guest from many a land ere
I’ve known arriving at Admetus’ halls,
And set before them viands; but ne’er yet
Any more reckless have I entertained
Than this, who first, although he saw my lord,
Bowed down with sorrow, dared to pass our gates,
And next immoderately took his fill
Of what was offered—though he knew our grief—
And what we did not offer bade us fetch.’
The unbiased reader will find a few critics on his side, and he will find also the poet Browning, who, in his Balaustion’s ‘Adventure,’ has put into the mouth of his beautiful young Greek woman an interpretation which will chime in fully with his own untutored perceptions.
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‘Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble’