An introduction to a classic play
Iphigenia at Aulis (the title is sometimes rendered as Iphigenia in Aulis) has been criticised for its melodrama, but its portrayal of the central character’s decision to agree to renounce her life for the ‘greater good’, and Agamemnon’s ambivalence about sacrificing his own daughter, make it a curious and satisfying play which repays close analysis and discussion. The play is largely (more on that later) by the Greek tragedian Euripides, and was first performed in 405 BC. In the mid-1550s, Iphigenia at Aulis even provided an unlikely claim to fame in English literature: it became the first piece of dramatic writing to be ‘composed’ by an Englishwoman, when Joanna Lumley (alternatively Jane Lumley) translated Euripides’ play into English, thus becoming effectively the first female dramatist in the English language. (We discuss Lumley in our book of literary curiosities, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.)
Before we go any further, though, a brief summary of the plot of Iphigenia at Aulis. At the port of Aulis (an ancient port in central Greece), the Greek fleet is all ready to sail off to the Trojan War. But Agamemnon, who will lead the fleet, has been told that in order to get calm winds for the journey, he must make a terrible sacrifice to the goddess Artemis: he must kill his own daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon agrees, sending a message to his wife Clytemnestra asking her to come to Aulis with their daughter on the pretext that he wishes to marry her to his friend Achilles. However, no sooner had he sent this first message than Agamemnon has a change of heart, and sends a second message, telling Clytemnestra to disregard the first message. However, she never receives this message, as it is intercepted and destroyed by Menelaus, brother to Agamemnon and husband of the abducted Helen of Troy, who is impatient to set sail for Troy so that he can retrieve his wife.
When Iphigenia arrives at Aulis with her brother Orestes and her mother Clytemnestra, she realises she’s been duped. But Agamemnon and most of his crew (with the notable exception of Achilles, who is very nearly stoned to death by his own men for objecting to the sacrifice) insist on carrying out the sacrifice (although for a short while, Menelaus and Agamemnon had actually succeeded in changing the other’s mind, with Menelaus becoming convinced that they should not sacrifice Iphigenia). Iphigenia reluctantly consents to sacrifice herself – given she has no real choice, she decides she may as well agree to give up her life for the glory of Greece than become a passive victim.
How does the play end? Here we have something of a conundrum. One of the odd things about Euripides’ play is that he probably wasn’t the sole author, and Iphigenia at Aulis was actually a collaboration of sorts. This is because Euripides died before he could complete the play – it was only first performed a year after his death – and Iphigenia at Aulis was almost certainly finished by another writer. But many readers and scholars dislike the sleight-of-hand of this tacked-on ending, which sees Iphigenia miraculously saved: as she is preparing to go to her death, the goddess Artemis has mercy on her and switches her for a deer, which is sacrificed in her place. Iphigenia is then taken away to Tauris, safely out of harm’s way. But this raises a number of problems, not least the significance of Clytemnestra’s later revenge on Agamemnon while in the bath (memorably told in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy) for his murder of their daughter.
Like many great Greek tragedies, Iphigenia at Aulis presents us with characters confronting difficult moral dilemmas, being asked to choose between their nation and their family, the fate of their army and the fate of their own children. One of the most remarkable things about the play’s characterisation is the extent to which Euripides is prepared to show Agamemnon, the tough-minded general and heroic man of action, having second thoughts about what to do and being prepared to go back on what he’s said. He may be a hero, but he becomes a monster – but a reluctant one.
Image: Francesco Fontebasso, The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (c. 1749), via Wikimedia Commons.