Ancient Athenian Drama
5th century BC, Ancient Greek.
Heracles is leading a woman beside him. We know who she must be. We know who she is! And yet Heracles says that he came across her at a public games, that he won her in an athletic contest.
The sun is beginning to set, as, on the floor of the theatre below us, Heracles and Admetus speak words that the playwright Euripides has put into their mouths. I can hear a bird cawing from some olive trees a little distance away; we are all so rapt in attention that the crying of a far-off bird can quite clearly be heard.
Two things are puzzling me about the scene I am witnessing. But I had first better explain to you what has passed before us so far. Admetus is the king of an ancient Greek state and has cheated the approach of death by arranging instead that his wife should die in his place. I have been struck by the great irony of his part. He has been lamenting her death, going as far even as wishing himself dead when it is simply to save his own skin that she is dying! But now he stands before us just after her funeral, his head shaven in mourning, a pitiful sight to behold.
Heracles, as repayment for the hospitality very recently shown to him by King Admetus, has vowed to use any method he can to rescue the king’s wife, whose name is Alcestis, from the underworld, since he is no stranger to that place. And now he parades before us a woman who is standing there as though she is a stranger. And Heracles has a strange tale to tell. We know that he was going to fight with Death, even to enter the realm of Hades in order to return Alcestis to her husband. And here he is leading a woman beside him. We know who she must be. We know who she is! And yet Heracles says that he came across her in this way; that there was a competition that some people had organised in which at some of the less difficult events there were horses to be won and at the more difficult there were cattle, and this woman, on offer as prizes. And it was by victory in these public games, these games played under the scorching heat of a Grecian sun, that Heracles stands here now with this veiled lady who makes no move towards a husband she was making such a tearful farewell to just a short while ago . Heracles is even now appearing to acknowledge that return from the dead is impossible and that Admetus should not extend his grief beyond the bounds of what is required – that time will lessen his anguish. Admetus has just replied that if by time Heracles means death, then that will certainly lessen his anguish. 'Your longing for death will be relieved,' Heracles now replies to him, 'if you take a new wife.' Clearly meaning the woman he is holding.