66. Iphigenia in Aulis, by Euripides (405 BC)

Plot : The Greek armies are trapped at the seaport of Aulis, waiting for favourable winds before they can set sail for Troy to destroy the city and restore Helen to her husband Menelaus. Their prophet has announced that they will only sail if Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon agrees under pressure and writes to his wife Clytemnestra to send Iphigenia to Aulis, pretending that she is to be married to the great Greek warrior Achilles.

Clytemnestra and Iphigenia find out the truth once they arrive at Aulis, and Iphigenia eventually offers herself freely to be sacrificed to save her father and Greece. But even then, not all goes according to plan.

This play finishes the Penguin Classics edition Orestes and other plays (ISBN 0140442596) translated by Philip Vellacott.

My thoughts:

Back to the pre-Iliad episode where Agamemnon must sacrifice Iphigenia or the fleet wlll never reach Troy – the prologue to Iphigenia in Tauris, and the motivation for Clytemnestra’s actions in the Oresteia cycle.

The first thing that struck me was how many characters reverse their decisions about the sacrifice. Menelaus turns from villain to supportive brother in a heartbeat, Iphigenia finds the courage to offer herself willingly after the grief and horror have washed through her, Achilles backing away (at least physically) from his stand to defend Iphigenia in the face of the entire Greek army, including his own men, prepared to stone him to death if he interferes, and the most vacillating, Agamemnon, who changes his mind back and forth several times. There is no direct influence by the Gods seen in these reversals, but maybe the Greek audience took that on board without being told.

The central question is what action should King Agamemnon take. The play reveals more fully the reasons behind the whole endeavour. All the Greek leaders had been suitors for Helen, and to prevent bloodshed, her father Tyndareos had made them all swear to support the successful man if ever he should call for their help – so they are all bound on their word to help Menelaus recover Helen from Troy.  Agamemnon’s position as leader and perhaps his and his entire familiy’s lives depend on his acquiescence to sanction the sacrifice of his eldest daughter. And yet the natural love between father and child would surely make this action an insurmountable grief to bear.

If you haven’t read Iphigenia in Tauris, I won’t reveal the ending here. Suffice to say, the fleet sail for Troy almost immediately but Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (the latter was not present at the altar) part ways believing very different things have happened to Iphigenia.

Diversions/digressions: Although I get most of my volumes from the local university library where I work, I do haunt the local public library as well, and yesterday my eyes caught a small paperback title  –  Classical literature : a Pelican introduction, by Richard Jenkyns (9870141977355), which covers a broad sweep of Greek and Roman literature in brief and relatively easy to read and understand chapters. I will go back and read what he has to say on the Greek authors and works I have already covered to see what deeper themes I have missed.

Personal rating : 6

Next : I thought I had finished with Euripides but I have to confess I have missed one. The early Euripidean play Rhesos (although the authorship is disputed) from around 437 BC should have been read back in February around #34-ish. Oh well, better late than never.


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