Chapter no 31

The Silent Patient

I WENT INTO WATERSTONES on my way to work and bought a copy of Alcestis. The introduction said it was Euripides’s earliest extant tragedy, and one of his least- performed works.

I started reading it on the tube. Not exactly a page-turner. An odd play. The hero, Admetus, is condemned to death by the Fates. But thanks to Apollo’s negotiating, he is offered a loophole—Admetus can escape death if he can persuade someone else to die for him. He asks his mother and father to die in his place, and they refuse in no uncertain terms. It’s hard to know what to make of Admetus. Not exactly heroic behavior, and the ancient Greeks must have thought him a bit of a twit. Alcestis is made of stronger stuff—she steps forward and volunteers to die for her husband. Perhaps she doesn’t expect Admetus to accept her offer—but he does, and Alcestis dies and departs for Hades.

It doesn’t end there, though. There is a happy ending, of sorts, a deus ex machina. Heracles seizes Alcestis from Hades and brings her triumphantly back to the land of the living. She comes alive again. Admetus is moved to tears by the reunion with his wife. Alcestis’s emotions are harder to read— she remains silent. She doesn’t speak.

I sat up with a jolt as I read this. I couldn’t believe it.

I read the final page of the play again slowly, carefully:

Alcestis returns from death, alive again. And she remains silent—unable or unwilling to speak of her experience. Admetus appeals to Heracles in desperation:

“But why is my wife standing here, and does not speak?”

No answer is forthcoming. The tragedy ends with Alcestis being led back into the house by Admetus—in silence.

Why? Why does she not speak?

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