At first glance Alcestis has all the makings of a tragedy, but in retrospect, it could in fact pass for a comedy. Though tragic elements certainly exist, the helplessness of the catch-22 Admetus finds himself in and the happy ending indicates the makings of a comedy. Tragedy is a type of drama or literary work that is most well renowned for the suffering its protagonists are forced to endure and an acute lack of a happy ending. Alcestis has no shortage of agony, to be sure. The play begins with a monologue delivered by Apollo explaining the events that have led up to the current situation.
Alcestis is near death and King Admetus is grieving. The audience knows only that the King of Thessaly had been saved by Apollo while the latter was serving penance for slaying the Cyclopes. The audience knows only that Apollo was able to convince the Fates to give Admetus a chance to switch any willing person for himself in death. His wife being the only person willing to do so, the situation appears rather bleak.
The catch-22 that Admetus finds himself in is humorous right off the bat. All of the characters in the play tell Admetus he has the greatest wife of all time, but the only evidence to support this claim that the play offers is the fact that she will die for him. Therefore, he is relegated to choosing between death and the perfect wife, who is perfect because she’ll die for him, effectively making the perfect wife impossible to obtain.
While Euripides uses a language that appeals in a very direct way to the audience’s emotion, these same lines, after the play’s happy resolution, come across as rather up-played, seemingly to the point of satire. He depicts Alcestis weeping at Death’s approach: “And when she was fulfilled of many tears, drooping she rose from her bed and made as if to go, and many times she turned to go and many times turned back, and flung herself once more upon the bed.”
However, she does not weep for herself, but for the separation from her husband she must soon endure. Of course, as Semonides’ Poem 7 tells us, no woman is so loyal or loving. The satirical use of highly dramatic language is what makes Alcestis laughable.
The Lord Servant says, at one point, “We must accept the gifts of the Gods,” which is highly reflective of ancient Greek thought—if turning away a friend even during a time of such mourning would have shamed Admetus, then certainly to turn away Apollo’s assistance from the beginning would have been folly. While at first one might think, like his father, that Admetus has gotten himself into this mess by not accepting his own death when it came, Admetus really has no choice in the situation.
He cannot refuse Apollo’s help, nor can he refuse the help of demi-god Herakles; the situation is created and resolved by gods, and the only thing the mortals can do is grieve or rejoice. Given the choice, why not rejoice? After all, there is an old saying that goes, “God is just a comedian playing to an audience that’s too afraid to laugh.”