Alcestis | Study Guide


Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Alcestis Study Guide." Course Hero. 2 Mar. 2020. Web. 25 Sep. 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2020, March 2). Alcestis Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved September 25, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2020)



Course Hero. "Alcestis Study Guide." March 2, 2020. Accessed September 25, 2023.


Course Hero, "Alcestis Study Guide," March 2, 2020, accessed September 25, 2023,

Alcestis | Themes


Self-Sacrifice and Heroism

The theme of self-sacrifice is most closely associated with Alcestis. She has volunteered to die in order to allow her husband, Admetus, to live. In doing so she achieves heroic status and is often talked about in the same terms as the famous male heroes of Greek myth. In Stasimon 2, for example, the chorus sings that Alcestis's "death leaves behind a rich song / for our poets to nurture and revere." In Stasimon 4 the chorus sings that as a result of her sacrifice, Alcestis will always be remembered and loved. Travelers will stop at her grave and pray to her "like a god."

The argument between Admetus and his father, Pheres, in Episode 4 also addresses the theme of self-sacrifice. Admetus expected one of his parents to sacrifice themselves on his behalf. However, neither would do so. Pheres sees no obligation for a parent to die for a child. He tells Admetus, "Don't die for me, and I won't die for you." Then he goes so far as to call Alcestis "a moron" for sacrificing herself. This viewpoint is the polar opposite of the chorus's characterization of her action. However, Pheres's viewpoint has merit. After Alcestis's death, Admetus envies the dead and finds "no joy ... anymore in the rays of the sun."

Self-sacrifice is synonymous with death, which is described and discussed throughout the play. In contrast to the image of heroism presented by the chorus, Alcestis herself characterizes the dead as "nothing." After her death, her son, Admetus, and even the chorus says she no longer exists.

The Physicality of Marriage

There is much discussion about marriage in Alcestis. Yet, before Alcestis's death, it is hard for the audience to get a clear image of what Euripides may be saying about it. In addressing her marriage bed, as recounted by the female servant in Episode 1, Alcestis mentions losing her virginity there. She blames marriage for destroying her. In Episode 2 she speaks of missing her homeland, which she left when she married. Alcestis's meager comments about marriage do not offer a particularly happy image of it. It may be that Admetus has not been an ideal husband.

The female servant, the chorus, and Pheres offer similarly limited comments. The servant says in Episode 1 that being "willing to die on his behalf" is the "most compelling way ... to show how much you hold your husband first in honor." Both the chorus (Stasimon 2) and Pheres (Episode 4) remark that Alcestis is the sort of wife they would want. Their reasoning also appears to be that a good wife is someone who will die for you.

It is Admetus's suffering that gives the clearest idea of what marriage should be. For him a wife is more than a wife. She's also a parent. In Episode 4 he tells Pheres that Alcestis is "the one / whose child I am." For him marriage is the knowledge that he is loved and safe. His parents have not offered that security. They have placed their own interests above his. Alcestis, on the other hand, put his interests first. Marriage is more than that, though. Later in the episode Admetus realizes Alcestis's personality filled his house. Without her, the house is empty. Finally, marriage has physical aspects. It is affectionate and sexual. When Admetus finally sees Alcestis again in the Exodos, he exclaims, "Oh, most beloved face, beloved body!"

Obligations of Guests and Hosts

The theme of the obligations of guests and hosts are laid out in the Greek social code of xenia. Xenia protected the safety of travelers and the people who offered them hospitality. In Alcestis it is made clear from the Prologos on that Admetus takes his role as a generous host very seriously. His former hospitality to Apollo, who appeared only as a lowly herdsman, earned him the god's lasting favor. He values his reputation as a good host so much that in Episode 3 he insists Heracles stay with him even though his wife has just died. He even hides this fact from Heracles so the guest won't feel bad.

However, the relationship goes two ways. The guest also has obligations. The male servant points out in Episode 4 that Heracles's buffoonery transgresses the social conventions of xenia. Moreover, once Heracles himself learns the truth, he is mortified and immediately sets off on a quest to rescue Alcestis from Death in order to fulfill his obligation as a good guest.

Oddly, it is Admetus's passionate adherence to xenia that has landed him and Alcestis in their current position. If he had not earned Apollo's favor, Apollo would not have arranged for Admetus to be able to avoid death by having someone die in his place. When Admetus's time came, he would have died naturally—if sadly—surrounded by his family and friends. The suffering depicted in the play would never have happened.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Alcestis? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!