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The Agency and Power of the Dying Alcestis

Mary Dolinar

University of Wisconsin - Madison

Alcestis may be the title character of Euripides’ tragedy, but her own role in the play has long been overshadowed in scholarship by a fascination with her husband Admetus. Critics argue whether he should be admired for his hospitality, condemned for abandoning his wife, or upheld as a quintessential man powerless in the face of fate. Scodel (1979), Dyson (1988), and Goldfarb (1992), for example, all develop arguments focused on Admetus and the conflict between philia and xenia. Similarly, Padilla (2000) explores the exchanges of charis that unfold over the course of the play, creating an unbalanced system in which Admetus cannot adequately participate. In each case, Alcestis’ agency is largely limited to her decision to die, made before the play begins and important primarily because of its effect on her husband.

This paper examines the ways in which Alcestis claims an active role in the tragedy, not only while she is speaking onstage but also before her initial appearance and following her death. Its aim is to demonstrate that Alcestis does not relinquish her agency upon agreeing to die, but continues to use her position and resources to protect her own interests; and that in doing so, she remains a powerful character in the very moment of death and even beyond.  

The first section of the paper shows how Alcestis actively participates in the process of her death through the first half of the tragedy. Her first actions occur offstage, related by the maidservant. She bathes and dresses her own body for burial, cultivates the household altars, laments her death upon her marriage-bed, and bids farewell to each member of the house. Effectively, she acts out a pageant of her own impending death, engaging in a ritual which most people experience as an object. In each stage of her funeral performance, Alcestis emphasizes her centrality in the life of the house. She embodies Hestia, the religious core of the house; and the marriage-bed, its social heart. Once she appears onstage, the dying woman continues to dominate the focus and direct the progress of her death. Alcestis selects the location – outside, onstage, an unusual tragic death to say the least; she narrates her visions of approaching death, but resists its agents in order to extend her time speaking onstage; and she leads Admetus through the scene, initiating first a lyric lament and then iambic dialogue, securing as she does his assurances that he will continue to honor her as wife and mistress of the house following her death. In the final hour of her life, though frail and fading, Alcestis maintains control over her surroundings, establishes her own importance, and guarantees that her influence will continue when she is gone.

The second section argues for the effectiveness of Alcestis’ actions, as shown in the living death of Admetus’ house and the quasi-divinity of its dead mistress. With her passing, the life force of the house is gone as well. Admetus suspends revelry and public social life indefinitely, planning a lifetime of mourning. Meanwhile Alcestis, though now a corpse, remains foremost in the minds of the living and takes on a semblance of divinity. The chorus addresses her as though a goddess and plans cult honors; Admetus too promises a sort of private cult image to be kept in their bed. While she lacks the power to prevent her own death once she has promised it, Alcestis creates a semblance of continued life for herself, a suspended reality in which neither she nor the house move beyond her death. This intermediate state allows for her continued existence until the crisis can be resolved by a more powerful figure, Heracles, who has the ability to return Alcestis to her living role at the center of Admetus’ household. Only with his successful intervention does Alcestis relinquish her control over the play and allow herself to fall silent.

Session/Panel Title:

Agency in Drama

Session/Paper Number

9.1

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