Introduction to "The Love of Alcestis"
The Classical Tale for June
Florence S. Boos
Admetus, an admirable Thessalian monarch, gallantly extends hospitality to an exiled stranger, who then settles in Thessaly as a herdsman for many years. This mysterious figure disappears from time to time, but returns eventually to provide services for Admetus. When Admetus wishes to wed the lovely Alcestis, daughter of the neighboring king Pelias, the stranger helps Admetus satisfy Pelias's demand that he appear in a chariot drawn by wild beasts by taming the animals on his behalf. A monster later bars the door of Alcestis's bridal chamber, but the 'herdsman' propitiates the virgin-goddess Diana and the monster disappears. (Similar assistance from fellow-males in overcoming sexual phobias is provided in "The Ring Given to Venus," the medieval tale for January). The stranger, finally, reveals to Admetus that he is the god Apollo, gives Admetus a parting gift of arrows, and enjoins him to burn these arrows with incense if his life is ever threatened.
After an idyllically happy marital life and harmonious, peaceful reign, Admetus falls ill and faces death. When he remembers the arrows, he asks Alcestis to burn them with incense, and the two hear a prophecy that Admetus will recover if someone else will die in his place. Admetus sets this alternative aside and prepares for his death with proper resignation, but his gentle and devoted wife lies down beside him as he sleeps, and prepares to accept Apollo's conditions. She does wrestle briefly and angrily with the injustice of Apollo's 'gift,' but her decision is never in doubt. She embraces her husband farewell, and the grieving Admetus awakens to find his wife dead beside him.
At the tale's end, Admetus's story is "entwined" in that of Alcestis's courage and devotion: "Alcestis' fame / Grew greater, and about her husband's twined, / Lived, in the hearts of far-off men enshrined."
Morris's principal alternative source for Admetus's wooing of Alcestis in the early part of the tale was Apollodorus's Bibliotheca, possibly mediated by Lemprière. Euripides's Alcestis omits these early scenes and darkens the hero's character. In Euripides's play, for example, Admetus munificently entertains the disguised Apollo, and introduces his wife (note that they are already married) with proprietary pride. Later, Euripides' s Admetus cravenly begs his father, mother, and wife to die in his stead, and whines that Alcestis's death will hurt him. Morris's hero, by contrast, lies down to sleep in preparation for what he assumes will be his death, and mourns Alcestis's death sincerely when he learns what she has done.
Morris presents with a certain tempered solicitude Admetus's fears during courtship, and his response to the onset of impending death, and he adds many descriptions of the loveliness of peaceful country life, the beauty of the couple's wedding, and the happiness of Admetus's reign. He also represents with clarity the emotional complexities of Alcestis's decision.
"The Love of Alcestis" gives roughly equal prominence to descriptions of fulfilled life and fears of death, female heroism and male aspirations, and it also draws together gracefully two recurrent Morrisian motifs: the need to overcome real as well as chimerical threats to heterosexual fulfillment; and the enduring, even transcendent power of such love, even unto death.
Alcestis is initially another of Morris's gentle suffering heroines, and a certain sadness and bitterness linger in the 'womanly' self-effacement of her sacrifice and the tale's suggestion that moral and physical victories may be mutually exclusive. She does act, however, and her ambivalence and sorrow express a realism and amour propre often absent from Morris's more saintlike women lovers.
The frame-tales' auditors, at any rate, are deeply moved. Admetus may have 'overcome' death within the tale, but Alcestis's courage gains a deeper immortality in its retelling. Such retellings have for a moment the power to mitigate the twin miseries of separation and death:
See Bellas, 97-110; Boos, 90-94; Calhoun, 161-68; Kirchhoff (1990), 165-66; Oberg, 47, 55; Silver, 69, 72.
No early drafts remain, and "The Love of Alcestis" is not included in May Morris's list of early drafts. Huntington Library MS 6418 contains the fair copy for the printer.