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.