Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.34

Niall W. Slater, Euripides: Alcestis. Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy.   London; New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.  Pp. vi, 141.  ISBN 9781780934730.  vi, 141.  

Reviewed by Andreas Markantonatos, University of the Peloponnese (

The last decade has seen a remarkable resurgence of interest in the study of Euripides’ earliest surviving tragedy Alcestis; in fact, no fewer than five informative annotated editions of the play have been produced, not to mention a plethora of interpretative essays which attempt to shed light on a wide range of issues related not only to the play itself but also on Euripidean tragedy as a whole.1 Niall Slater’s book is the latest example of this striking revival of critical attention to the various problems surrounding the text and context of Euripides’ Alcestis. It is also a significant addition to the burgeoning series of Bloomsbury (formerly Duckworth) companions to Greek and Roman tragedy. Going beyond his brief, Slater not only offers an accessible introduction to this surprising play, which occupied the slot normally reserved for the satyr play in a Greek tetralogy, but also goes on to touch upon a variety of perplexing difficulties concerning the special place of this drama within the tragic genre, as well as the wider consequences of the dilemmas that it poses to the audience for our evaluation of the political dimension of the Great Dionysia festival.

The book is divided into four chapters; in addition, a Glossary, a helpful Guide to Further Reading, thoroughly worked Endnotes, a rich (mostly anglophone) Bibliography, and a useful General Index provide the reader with the tools needed to make the most of these well-argued and illuminating chapters. Given the limited scope of this review, I shall refrain from offering elaborate analyses of each chapter, preferring instead to draw attention to those points in the author’s arguments which may raise the most questions in his reader’s mind, as well as making an effort to buttress certain interesting suggestions with further recommendations.

In keeping with the specifications of the series, the first chapter (‘438 and All That’, pp. 1–14) attempts to situate the play within the historical context of the City Dionysia of 438 BCE, placing strong emphasis on questions of genre, the Euripidean adaptation of the myth, and the special conditions of theatrical production in classical Athens. Slater attempts to discover the reasons that led Euripides to offer a satyr-less fourth play at the Great Dionysia, relying too heavily on Marshall’s ingenious but highly controversial theory that the surprising Euripidean tetralogy of 438 BCE constituted a zone of resistance to an official decree issued in the archonship of Morychides (440/439 BCE) which sought to curtail the satire of individuals in comedy; the decree was duly annulled in 437/436 BCE.2 The idea that Euripides’ Alcestis is a covert political protest against threats to freedom of speech, otherwise zealously protected by the Athenian constitution, can generate exciting insights into the ways we can interpret what more than one critic has recognized as a distinctly layered text that makes the connection of mythical and historical events powerful and engaging. Perhaps the most serious disadvantage of this approach to Alcestis is that the historicity of the decree forbidding comic satire has come under serious scrutiny. What is more, although the so-called ‘Syracosius decree’ of 414 BCE, which similarly tried to contain offensive personal comments, seems to confirm a general tendency in late fifth-century Athens to restrict comic ridicule by subjecting comedy to the law of slander, one cannot help feeling that all those supposedly preventive pronouncements play right into the comic poets’ hands and that their complaints may therefore be either overblown oratorical posturing or merely fabricated bluster for humorous effect.3 My feeling is that it would have been more beneficial in this case to treat the hypotheses with reserve, while keeping in mind that questions of genre became relevant after Aristotle’s Poetics, rather than treating this play as an experimental drama veering wildly between tragedy and comedy with a sharp political agenda on top of all that. Slater goes on to discuss the mythological background of the play, sensibly arguing that Phrynichus’ Alcestis must have influenced Euripides in his treatment of the rudiments of the Alcestis legend; more than that, he rightly concurs, in the face of strong reservations to the contrary, with those scholars who have surmised that Phrynichus’ lost drama was a satyr play.4

The second chapter (‘The Action of the Play’, pp. 15–30) offers scene-by-scene summaries of the plot, while drawing out and relating the details of Euripidean theatrical techniques and stage directions to the meaning of each scene. Once again Slater shows his good grasp of tragic stagecraft when he argues that in the Prologue the door of the scene building opens and it is the god Apollo who walks out to make his farewell speech (p. 16). Following the ancient scholium on line 1 (Schwartz ii, p. 216), and disregarding Elferink’s attractive but unconvincing proposal that Apollo returns from the fields to greet the Thessalian palace one last time before departing from the city of Pherae, one should imagine the Olympian god entering from the royal house of Admetus dressed in spectacular costume with his bow and arrows so as to be instantly recognizable.5 Cutting a diametrically opposite figure, Thanatos makes his appearance as a winged black-robed ogreish character with sword in hand; as Slater is right to note, all these ominous trappings would have made him ‘a figure of antipathy’ in the eyes of the original audience (p. 16). It can be confidently argued that the emphasis on the sword and the bow is there to add a touch of potential violence to the verbal confrontation between an Olympian god and a chthonian divinity, thus accentuating the unbridgeable abyss between upper world and nether world by rehearsing the perennial Athenian antithesis between hoplite and archer. Indeed, the Prologue scene serves as the focus of many narrative echoes in the play. The war of words between Apollo and Thanatos not only replays in miniature the vicious conflict between Zeus and Apollo over the fate of the human-loving Asclepius, which gives the Alcestis-tragedy a strong extra-dramatic directional movement, but also adumbrates the acrimonious exchange between Admetus and Pheres. In other words, with its tremendous visual impact and acute verbal feuding the Prologue is microcosmic of divine and human agones for the restructuring of cosmic order.6 Furthermore, I would add to what Slater has to say about the ancient conceptualization of the repulsive Death-figure that of particular interest for our understanding of the role of Thanatos in the play is the important but often neglected fact that this master of corpses is singularly fitted to oppose both Apollo and Heracles, primarily because ‘his work […] does not take him into the lower world, but, like that of his brother Hypnus, has to do with the body rather than with the soul’.7

The third chapter (‘Themes of the Play’, pp. 31–66) comprises a series of themed sections in which Slater explores the main issues of the play and the central developments in critical thinking about it, while also illuminating Euripides’ aims and methods and identifying techniques and motifs derived from Athenian theatrical tradition. One might wish that Slater had voiced more clearly his personal take on the ever-burning question of Admetus’ moral responsibility and the numerous interpretative challenges surrounding the supposedly happy ending of the play, but readers will appreciate his exemplary treatment of such important themes as ‘Husband and Wife’, ‘Xenia, Philia, and Charis’, and ‘Fame and Infamy’, which combine discussions of current scholarship with indications of future directions for research. In particular, the section on the sharp polarity of fame and infamy is an essential source of debate and point of reference, eloquently pressing the point that in Alcestis ‘the royal oikos functions as a metonymy for the city’ (p. 55). This argument may also be sustained by the observation that in this play the strong emphasis on the fate of orphaned children justifies speculation about contemporary political correlatives to the characters’ trials and misfortunes (the parade of the war orphans in the pre-play ceremonies may spring to mind). Slater’s conclusion would, I think, have been even more convincing if he had acknowledged the apparent structural equality between the Alcestis legend and the Demeter–Kore myth; recognizing the parallelism between the play’s optimistic message of heroic transcendence and Eleusis’ Orphic–Bacchic moral pledge for afterlife compensation makes the political and social environment of this drama all the more clear.8

The fourth chapter (‘Afterlives of an Afterlife’, pp. 67–94) makes a fitting end to this rich arc of themed arguments. Slater provides a comprehensive and authoritative guide to the numerous afterlives of the play as both myth and performance. Particularly welcome is his discussion of the possibility of repeat performances of Euripides’ Alcestis in antiquity; more than this, his instructive and sustained reading of modern literary reincarnations of the Alcestis legend (such as Thornton Wilder’s The Alcestiad and Ted Hughes’ Alcestis) serves as an erudite and sophisticated analysis of the dynamics of the tensions between the Euripidean dramatization of this fascinating story and contemporary sensibilities and preoccupations.

All in all, this book is a serious, informed, and nuanced study of Euripides’ Alcestis, which shows that it is still possible to say something new and important on this most crowded of topics, and to do so with eloquence and lucidity.


1.   J. E. Thorburn, The Alcestis of Euripides, with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Lewiston, NY, 2002), C. A. E. Luschnig and H. M. Roisman, Euripides’ Alcestis: With Notes and Commentary (Norman, OK, 2003), L. P. E. Parker, Euripides’ Alcestis (Oxford, 2007), G. Seeck, Euripides: Alkestis (Berlin; New York, 2008), and D. I. Iakov, Ἄλκηστη τοῦ Εὐριπίδη. Ἑρμηνευτικὴ Ἔκδοση , 2 vols. (Athens, 2013). For further references see the exhaustive bibliography in A. Markantonatos, Euripides’ Alcestis: Narrative, Myth, and Religion (Berlin; New York, 2013).
2.   C. W. Marshall, ‘Alcestis and the Problem of Prosatyric Drama’, Classical Journal 95 (2000), 229–238.
3.   Critical opinion has polarized on this difficult issue; see for example the essays by Steven Halliwell and Alan H. Sommerstein in I. Sluiter and R. M. Rosen (ed.), Free Speech in Classical Antiquity (Leiden, 2004).
4.   For more sceptical views see primarily H. Lloyd-Jones, ‘Problems of Early Greek Tragedy: Pratinas and Phrynichus’, in H. Lloyd-Jones, Greek Epic, Lyric and Tragedy (Oxford, 1990), 225–237 at 231.
5.   L. J. Elferink, ‘The Beginning of Euripides’ Alcestis’, Acta Classica 25 (1982), 47. Cf. also Markantonatos (note 1 above), 25ff. Iakov (note 1 above), II.17 argues that Apollo comes from Olympus and greets the palace after having served his slavery sentence.
6.   Cf. A. Markantonatos, ‘Ἀρχαία Ἑλληνικὴ Τραγωδία καὶ Ρητορικὴ Τέχνη. Οἱ Ἀγῶνες Λόγων στὴν Ἄλκηστιν τοῦ Εὐριπίδου’, Platon 59 (2013).
7.   L. C. G. Grieve, Death and Burial in Attic Tragedy: Part I. Death and the Dead (diss. PhD, Columbia University, 1898) 66–67.
8.   See principally H. P. Foley, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy (Princeton, 2001), 303–331 and J. Assaël, ‘La résurrection d’Alceste’REG 117 (2004), 37–58. Cf. also Markantonatos (note 1 above), 131–159 with further notes.

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