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Gifts of Humiliation: Charis and Tragic Experience in Alcestis
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American Journal of Philology 121.2 (2000) 179-211

Charis is always what bears charis.

(Soph. Aj. 522)

Not for many does charis breed charis.

(Anaxandrides fr. 69 PCG II)

A gift that does nothing to enhance solidarity is a contradiction.

--Mary Douglas on Marcel Mauss

Whether or not in the spring of 438 B.C.E. Euripides anticipated that his festival audience would find his production of Alcestis to be a thought-provoking pro-satyr play, its twentieth-century "readerly audiences" most certainly have. The play has prompted a steady stream of critical studies on a broad range of themes and issues. The trends in the most recent century's approaches to Alcestis are not necessarily tidy, but one critic has summarized them as having three movements: interest prior to World War I in the play's lighter, comic elements; emphasis on Euripides' use of folktale elements, beginning in the 1920s; and exploration of the play's more sinister elements since World War II.

My analysis here references this scholarly tradition in the service of an ethical-sociological reading focused on the issue of "charis," a theme interwoven in the play's complex narrative levels of irony and fairy tale, tragedy and satyr drama, and dark and light characterization. I argue that it is possible to view Alcestis' offer to die for Admetus as a kind of gift, a gift that in turn effectively devalues the kinds of gifts Admetus is able to give. In his attempts to restore the efficacy of his own level of traditional aristocratic gift giving, he is driven to extremes. He offers not to remarry; misleads Heracles about the death of his wife; and renounces his father. These acts, however, further lower his standing. Admetus' attendance at the funeral and homecoming then lead to an experience of tragic understanding, an anagnorisis that offers him perspective on the relative merits of his honor code and complicates the reconciliation scene at the play's end.

Charis and Gift Giving

Charis has a root meaning of "something which delights" (cf. khairo). In usage, charis more typically conveys two ideas: a "favor" that one does for another, and a feeling of "gratitude" that one has for receiving a favor. The term thus lends itself to a sociological inquiry involving the cultural logic of "gift giving." For example, as part of a study of violent social relations in the context of honor/shame societies, William Miller has discussed the problem of "requiting the unwanted gift." Another member of the recipient's society may have chosen to give him such a gift not in the spirit of generosity but, on the contrary, as a way to shame him, providing him, as it were, with a "gift of humiliation."

The notion of gift giving as a sociological institution was pioneered by Marcel Mauss. Working within a framework formulated by Emile Durkheim, Mauss posited the idea that gift giving is not identified with "charity," for it typically implies the expectation by both giver and recipient of a return gift; more importantly, gifts belong to a larger dynamic that establishes social rank and assigns identity. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has argued that in gift-exchange cultures, individuals who offer gifts think simultaneously on two levels of engagement: they give in a fashion that serves to exploit and dominate the recipient, yet their words and posture can convey altruism and concern. Bourdieu has been criticized for universalizing observations made during fieldwork among the Kabyle in Africa; but his principle that primitive honor societies lack institutional means for economic relationships, and that individuals thus employ elaborate schemes of manipulating codes of honor to further their needs and ambitions, speaks to the heart of the social logic which Euripides' Alcestis thematizes and renders theatrical.

This reading of the play thus follows the work of other classical scholars who have analyzed the dynamics of gift exchange in Greek society, particularly in the context of xenia. As M.I. Finley famously argued in his analysis of the Odyssey, a reading informed by the work of Karl Polanyi, xenia constitutes a primary social code in which aristocratic heroes and families exchange gifts in ritualized fashions in order to maintain...

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