Euripides’ Alcestis (438 BC) has generated great interest among classicists of the 20th and 21st centuries. One of the issues that has attracted scholarly attention is how the marital relationship of Admetus and Alcestis is portrayed in the play. Some scholars argue for the total absence of love between the royal couple (Beye 1959; Smith 1960; von Kurz 1962; Sicking 1967; Conacher 1984; Schein 1988; Dova 2013), while others deny erotic but not marital love (Burnett 1965; Lesky 1966; Iakov 2012). Only a few allow for the possibility that Alcestis might actually have something to do with erôs (Kaimio 2002; Visvardi 2017). In this paper I argue that both marital and erotic love play a substantial role in this drama. I intend to show this by examining some significant material references that have been studied so far only separately and not with the view of addressing the underdiscussed matter of marital erôs (Franco 1984; Masaracchia 1992; Stieber 1998; McClure 2016; Beltrametti 2016; Bassi 2018).
More specifically, throughout the drama, the dramatis personae either refer or allude to the following material objects: 1) the hearth, that constitutes the place where Alcestis prays for the future marriage of her children (162–169), 2) the bed, where the queen unceasingly weeps for her imminent death (175–188), 3) the statue, that Admetus promises to put on their bed after her death (348–354), and 4) the veil, that the queen presumably wears when she re-enters the scene with Herakles (1020–1125). With the exception of the veil that probably covered, at least partially, the mask of the resurrected Alcestis (pace Masaracchia 1992 and Beltrametti 2016), these imagined, out-of-sight props never appear on stage, yet they bear fundamental cultural and emotional associations both for the audience members and the dramatic characters. What is of interest is that these material references can actually refine our understanding of how the institution of marriage and the relation between the couple is depicted in Alcestis, given that most of these realia are related to marriage and the various wedding ceremonies.
Due to limitations of time and space, I shall focus my full attention on two of these objects: the bed and the statue. I shall argue that Alcestis’ address to the personified bed (177–182) does not reveal her resentment, but rather her sexual jealousy and her love for Admetus. The palpable progression in her emotional outburst, which seems to be somehow correlated with this particular object, will also be discussed: Alcestis bursts into tears (183–184) only after she thinks of the imaginary second wife of Admetus as the future owner of their bed (181–182), (NB the difference between ’δάκρυσε in line 176 and ὀφθαλμοτέγκτωι πλημμυρίδι in line 184). Similarly, I shall maintain that Admetus’ reference to the statue he will put on their bed (348–354) does not betray any perversion on his part or his conjugal indifference, as has been argued, but rather recalls expressions of love and desire found in tragedy (cf. A. Agamemnon 208, 414–422; Eur. Andromeda and Protesilaus). The import of the bed and its association with erotic love is further accentuated, when Admetus recalls the happy memories of their first sexual encounter, measuring them against his presently empty bed (915–925, 945).
Therefore, this paper shall address the above-mentioned materialities of Alcestis, while reflecting upon the ways they refine our understanding of this marital relation and of the dramatic action. The conclusion will also draw together the representation of this legally married, possibly erotically connected couple within the context of Euripidean tragedy. Does the fourth position of this drama in the tetralogy dictate this less destructive manifestation of erôs? Or could Alcestis perhaps provide us with evidence that heterosexual erôs can, in some cases, be celebrated as such in Euripidean tragedy?
Topography and Material Culture in Fifth-Century Drama