Alcestis is one of the earliest surviving works of the Greek playwright Euripides. The play was probably first produced at the Dionysia in the year 438 BC, well into the author's career. It is sometimes characterized as a satyr play and sometimes as a melodrama.
Long before the start of the play, King Admetos was granted by the Fates the privilege of living past the allotted time of his death. The Fates were persuaded by the god Apollo (who got them drunk). This unusual bargain was struck after Apollo was exiled from Olympus for nine years and spent the time in the service of the Thessalian king, a man renowned for his hospitality and by whom Apollo was treated well. The gift, however, comes with a price: Admetus must find someone to take his place when Death comes to claim him.
The time of Admetos' death comes, and he still has not found a willing replacement. His father, Pheres, is unwilling to step in and thinks it is ludicrous that he should be asked to give up the life he enjoys so much as part of this strange deal. Finally, his devoted wife Alcestis agrees to be taken in his stead because she wishes not to leave her children fatherless or be bereft of her lover, and at the start of the play, she is close to death.
Alcestis, on her death-bed, requests that in return for her sacrifice, Admetus never again marry, nor forget her or place a resentful stepmother in charge of their children. Admetos agrees to this, and also promises to lead a life of solemnity in her honor, abstaining from the merrymaking that was an integral part of his household. Alcestis then dies.
Just afterwards, Admetus' old friend Heracles arrives at the palace, having no idea of the sorrow that has befallen the place. Hospitality is considered a great virtue, in fact it remains the main motivation for the characters throughout the play. It would be against all manners to turn a guest away, so the king decides not to burden him with the sad news and instructs the servants to make Heracles welcome and keep their mouths shut. Heracles gets drunk and begins irritating the servants, who loved their queen and are bitter at not being allowed to mourn her properly. Finally, one of the servants snaps at the guest and tells him what has happened.
Heracles is terribly embarrassed at his blunder and his bad behavior, and he decides to ambush and confront Death when the funerary sacrifices are made at Alcestis' tomb. When he returns, he brings with him a veiled woman whom he tells Admetus he has brought for his host as a new wife. After much discussion he finally forces Admetos to reluctantly take her by the hand, but when he lifts the veil, he finds that it appears to be, in fact, Alcestis, back from the dead. Heracles has battled Death and forced him to give her up. She cannot speak for three days after which she will be purified and fully restored to life.
Some of the decisions by the characters in the play could raise some questions. Hospitality was considered a great virtue among the Greeks, that is why Admetos cannot send Heracles away from his house. In turn as a reward Heracles returns Alkestis to him. Why did Admetos consent to sacrifice of his wife at all? To us it seems an offer he should never have accepted. Perhaps he couldn't refuse to use the favour Apollo had given him.