The plot in brief. Because Admetus revered the sacred rites of Apollo, the god persuades the fates to let him escape his time of death. The fates let Admetus live, but only if someone else dies in his place. Admetus’s wife, Alcestis, volunteers to die for her husband. Admetus lets her die. (What a guy.) As he is mourning, Hercules comes to the house. Admetus entertains Hercules and does not tell him he is mourning his wife because he doesn’t want to ruin Hercules’s day. When Hercules learns what Admetus has done, he fights Death off from Alcestis and returns the woman alive to Admetus. (Neat trick!)
The theme of the play is: hospitality is good. As themes go, this is weak. Maybe hospitality was more important to the ancient greeks, but it really is not important enough a theme to sustain an entire play.
I don’t see how a modern audience can relate to this play at all. Admetus is a whining shit, a weak man who allows his wife to die for him. This is a grossly ignoble act – and Admetus is supposed to be redeemed because he lets Hercules get drunk in his house? This play really illustrates how little the greeks esteemed women.
And just how little was that? When Hercules brings Alcestis back to Admetus, he puts a veil over her face and pretends she is a prize he won at some games. He says,
Here is a prize I won
and bring you. For the winners in the minor events
were given horses to take away, while those who won
the heavier stuff, boxing and wrestling, got oxen,
and a woman was thrown in with them.
Hey, look – I won an ox! Oh yeah, and this chick came with it.
It’s no wonder they were all homosexuals if this is what they thought of women.