Before the play begins . . .
Apollo while in exile from Olympus enjoyed the legendary hospitality of Admetus of Thessaly. As a reward, the god has arranged that Admetus can live past his time if he can find someone willing to die in his place. Alcestis, the wife of Admetus and mother of their children, agrees to take his place when no one else will.
In the play . . .
Apollo and Death give us background and debate their divine rights.
The Chorus of Thessalians enter and wonder whether Alcestis still lives. A Servant reports that Alcestis is near death and praises her mistress’ virtues.
The royal family–Admetus, Alcestis, and their two children–emerge from the palace, with Alcestis on her death bed. Just before Alcestis dies, Admetus promises never again to marry. The children and the Chorus sing their grief.
Heracles, on his way to one of his labors, arrives, expecting to enjoy the hospitality of Admetus, who does not disappoint him, even though the house is in mourning. He conceals the identity of the dead, and welcomes Heracles in. The Chorus takes note of this extreme nobility.
Pheres, the father of Admetus, arrives to pay his respects. Because Pheres had refused to die for his son, Admetus angrily turns him away, and they debate the worth of a life.
A second servant reports that Heracles has been a remarkably rude guest: he has been drunken, loud, and oblvious to the the grief of the household. Heracles, demanding to be served, comes out to find the servant, who finally reveals that it was Alcestis who died. Heracles resolves to rectify the situation.
Admetus begins to realize his misery, and the Chorus try to console him. Heracles returns with a veiled woman and offers her to Admetus as a new wife. Admetus, reluctant because of his promise to Alcestis, finally agrees to accept her, and then unveils his wife, returned by Heracles from the dead.