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Summary by Michael McClain
Based on a translation by Richmond Lattimore


Apollo explains that in gratitude for Admetus' kindness toward him, he has made a deal with Death to spare Admetus if Admetus can find someone willing to die in his place. Admetus canvassed his family, but all refused, except his wife Alcestis. Apollo spies Death coming to take her away. Despite Apollo's pleas to spare her, Death insists on his due.

When a servant comes out of the house to tell the citizens of Pherae that Alcestis is near death they call her the noblest of women. "How could any woman show that she loves her husband more than herself than by consent to die for him?" The servant describes the scene inside the house – Admetus holding the dying Alcestis in his arms, while the children and servants weep.

The family brings Alcestis outdoors on a litter. She sees the ferryman of the dead, come to take her away. Before she dies, she extracts a promise from Admetus never to marry again. With this assurance, she says her farewells and passes away. Admetus makes plans for the funeral and orders twelve months of mourning.

Admetus' friend Heracles arrives, looking for hospitality. Admetus pretends that Alcestis is away and that they are mourning the death of a woman who lived with them. When Heracles offers to stay with another friend, Admetus insists that he stay in his guest chambers.

As Admetus is leaving to bury Alcestis' body, his parents arrive for the funeral. He refuses to let them participate, blaming them for her death because they would not take his place. Pheres, his father, responds angrily, accusing Admetus of – in effect – murdering his wife. He warns him that her brothers will exact revenge.

As the family leaves for the funeral, the servant who is responsible for taking care of Heracles complains about having to entertain a drunken guest while the family is in mourning. When Heracles complains about the service, the servant reveals that Alcestis has died. Angry that he was misled, but grateful to Admetus for his friendship and hospitality, he vows to rescue Alcestis from Death – either from the grave or from the underworld.

Returning from the funeral, Admetus regrets his decision – thinking that Alcestis is happier in death than he is in life. As the townspeople remind him of the finality of her death, they spot Heracles approaching with a woman wearing a veil. Admonishing Admetus for not telling him the truth, Heracles demands that Admetus take the veiled woman into his house, describing her as a prize he won in a contest. Admetus apologizes, but begs Heracles to make some other arrangements for the woman, who looks in all respects like Alcestis. "How can I take her to Alcestis' bed?" he asks. When Heracles insists, Admetus offers as much resistance as he can mount. Finally, Heracles persuades him to take the woman by the hand and take a good look at her. Admetus realizes that it is his wife, returned from the dead. Heracles wrestled her away from death at her gravesite. She cannot speak for three days, until the gods of the underworld are appeased. Heracles goes on to finish his labors while Admetus orders dances and sacrifices to the gods.