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Iphigenia in Aulis (or at Aulis) was written by Euripides, the youngest and most popular of the trilogy of great Greek tragedians. The play was based on the well-known myth surrounding the sacrifice of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's daughter Iphigenia. With the winds silenced by the goddess Artemis, the young girl's sacrifice at the goddess's altar would allow the Greeks to sail to Troy, win the Trojan War, and retrieve Menelaus's wife Helen. The tragedy was written sometime between 408 and 406 BCE and produced after the poet's death by his son in 405 BCE. As part of a trilogy, it won first place at the competition at the Dionysia in Athens - only the playwright's fifth first-place finish
Life of Euripides
Very little is known of Euripides' early life. Born in the 480's BCE on the island of Salamis near Athens to a family of hereditary priests, he preferred a life of solitude, alone with his books. There are even rumors - mostly dismissed - that he lived isolated in a cave. He was married and had three sons, one of whom, also named Euripides, became a noted playwright. Unlike his contemporary the elder Sophocles, Euripides played little or no part in Athenian political affairs; the one exception was a brief diplomatic mission to Syracuse in Sicily. Of his over 90 plays, 19 have survived which is more than any of his contemporaries. The poet made his debut at the Dionysia competition in 455 BCE, not winning his first victory until 441 BCE. Unfortunately, his participation in these competitions did not prove to be very successful with only four victories during his lifetime.
The Argive king Agamemnon has been told by a seer that in order to sail to Troy he must sacrifice his eldest daughter Iphigenia.
With the Peloponnesian War waging, Euripides left Athens in 408 BCE at the invitation of King Archelaus to live the remainder of his life in Macedonia. Although he may have written some of his best plays there, he left Athens embittered after seeing lesser-known playwrights win at the competition. Although often misunderstood during his lifetime and never receiving the acclaim he deserved, he became one of the most admired poets decades later, influencing not only Greek but Roman playwrights.
Years after the playwright's death, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) called him the most tragic of the Greek poets. Sophocles admired his fellow tragedian by saying that Euripides saw men as they are not as they ought to be. Classicist Edith Hamilton, in her book The Greek Way, agreed when she wrote that he was the saddest of all of the greats, a poet of the world's grief. “He feels, as no other writer has felt, the pitifulness of human life, as of children suffering helplessly what they do not know and can never understand.” (205) She added no poet's work was “so sensitively attune as his to the still, sad music of humanity, a strain little heeded by that world of long ago” (205). In his book Greek Drama, Moses Hadas said that audiences would come to appreciate his style and outlook viewing his plays as more sympathetic than those of his contemporaries. It has been said that when Athenians speak of “the poet” they are referring to Euripides.
A Brief Summary of the Play
The play begins with ships and soldiers from all over Greece gathered at the port of Aulis in Boeotia. Unfortunately, they cannot or are unable to sail because the goddess Artemis has quieted the winds, for some unspecified reason Agamemnon has angered her. The Argive king has been told by a seer that in order to sail to Troy he must sacrifice his eldest daughter Iphigenia. As the Greek armies grow restless, Agamemnon writes to his wife to bring their daughter to Aulis to marry the warrior Achilles. However, after rethinking the plan, he sends a second letter telling Clytemnestra not to come. His brother Menelaus intercedes and the letter is never received. As the two brother's debate the issue, Agamemnon's wife, daughter and infant son Orestes arrive. Iphigenia is elated at the idea of marrying Achilles. Unfortunately, the idea of marriage is news to the Greek hero. When the truth is finally revealed to Clytemnestra, Achilles and Iphigenia, they confront Agamemnon. Outside the commander's tent, the troops become more and more restive - there is the possibility of a mutiny even among Achilles own troops. Achilles stands prepared to defend his almost-bride. Realizing the seriousness of the matter, Iphigenia decides that the correct thing to do is to submit to the sacrifice. In the end - in a strange twist and possibly not part of the original play - the grief-torn Clytemnestra learns that before her daughter can be sacrificed Iphigenia disappears and is replaced by a deer.
Cast of Characters
- Agamemnon, Argive king and commander
- Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother
- Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon and Iphigenia's mother
- Chorus of women from Chalcis.
- and a Greek warrior, a servant, an infant and a messenger
Agamemnon stands nervously before his tent at the Greek camp in Aulis. He recounts a story to his elderly servant of how he met and married his wife Clytemnestra. He recalls how his brother Menelaus met and married Helen - the same Helen who ran away with Paris to Troy. Menelaus “furious with desire” now sought retribution. “So all the Greeks sprang to their arms, and now they've all come here to the narrow straits of Aulis with many ships and shields and horses and chariots. (96) Unfortunately, the winds have been calmed by Artemis, preventing the ships from sailing. Calchas, the seer, has prophesized that Iphigenia, his daughter, must be “slaughtered for Artemis, the goddess of this place. If she were sacrificed then we would sail and overthrow the Phrygians.” (97)
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In order to sacrifice his daughter, Agamemnon must first lure her to Aulis. He sent a letter to Clytemnestra asking her to bring Iphigenia to the camp with the promise that she is to marry the Greek warrior and hero Achilles - something of which Achilles is completely unaware. However, now he has had a change of heart and plans to send a second letter to stop her from coming. Speaking to his servant, “I did this wrong! Now I'm setting things right by writing this letter which you saw me sealing in the dark.” (97) The old servant leaves to take the letter to the Argive queen but soon returns with Menelaus at his side. Menelaus tells the servant ”to keep your place or you'll pay for it in pain.” (104) He takes the letter from the servant's hand despite the old man's protests. “You had no right to open the letter I carried.” (104)
Agamemnon: “…I am quite helpless, & it is the gods' will”
As Agamemnon appears, the old man hastily departs. Menelaus hands his brother the letter, threatening to share the contents with everyone. ”I was watching to see if your daughter had arrived at camp out of Argos.” (106) He asks his brother, “Have you forgotten when you were eager and anxious to lead the Greek army to Troy, wanting to appear unambitious but in your heart eager for command?” (107) He further reminds Agamemnon of the prophecies of the seer and how he had promised to slay his child. However, now the king has changed his mind allowing the “worthless barbarians” to slip away. The irritated Agamemnon defends himself by saying that Menelaus had “governed” his wife poorly. “Should I pay the price for your mistakes, when I am innocent?” (109) He adds, “…are you crazed, for the gods, being generous, rid you of a wicked wife, yet now you want her back.” (109)
Agamemnon attempts to explain his sudden change in heart. “If I were to commit this act against the law, right, and the child I fathered each day, each night, while I yet lived would wear me out in grief and tears.” (109) As a messenger enters, Menelaus calls his brother a traitor. The messenger informs Agamemnon and Menelaus that Clytemnestra, Iphigenia and the infant Orestes have arrived in camp. The Argive king responds, “What words can I utter or with what courteous receive and welcome her?” (112) Her appearance can only mean disaster. Agamemnon is close to tears. “I am ashamed of these tears. And yet at this extremity of misfortune I am ashamed not to shed them. (112) Seeing this, Menelaus tells him, “I retract my words. I stand new in your place and beseech you do not slay your child and do not prefer my interests to your own.” (113) But in a bizarre twist of events Agamemnon thanks his brother but now believes he must slay his daughter. He speaks of the army that stands outside, waiting anxiously to sail to Troy. He fears that the army will hear of the prophecy and how he suddenly annuls his promise. In retaliation, they could easily kill both he and Menelaus and then slay the young girl. “…I am quite helpless, and it is the gods' will” (116)
Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, and Orestes appear before the tent. Agamemnon emerges from inside to the delight of his young daughter. Still under the delusion that she is to marry Achilles, she says, “…it is a good and wonderful thing you have done - bringing me here.” (120) Agamemnon tells her of a “long parting about to come for both of us.” (121) He adds, “I must dispatch the armies, but there is something still hindering me.” (122) He tells her that she is to take a long “sailing.” She is to go alone, without her mother and father. After she wishes him a quick return from Troy, he tells her he must first make a sacrifice. As she leaves the tent he begins to cry.
Still maintaining the pretense of an arranged marriage of Iphigenia to Achilles, Agamemnon tells Clytemnestra of Achilles and his family - Peleus and Thetis. “So such a man is your daughter's husband.” (126) When the Argive queen asks of the sacrifice to Artemis, the king responds that he has made all the necessary preparations and that afterwards, the marriage will take place. Then, he tells her to return to Argos to care for their youngest daughters. She, of course refuses. “You go outside and do your part, I indoors will do what's proper for the maids marrying.” (128)
Achilles arrives at the tent looking for Agamemnon, telling of the anxious soldiers waiting outside: they have left their homes and families and sit “idly on the beaches” - all for a passion that has seized Greece. Clytemnestra exits the tent and speaks to Achilles, introducing herself. As he begins to leave she casually speaks of his betrothal to Iphigenia. Achilles is shocked - he has never courted her daughter. Immediately, she realizes that they have both been lied to. “My lady, perhaps it is only this: someone is laughing at us both.” (133) The old servant of the king enters and is cornered by the queen - he must tell both her and Achilles the truth. 'I'll tell you quickly. Her father plans with his own hands to kill your child.” (135) He speaks of the prophecy of Calchas and how after the sacrifice they will sail to Troy so Menelaus can bring Helen back. The marriage was a lie. She has been brought to Aulis for “death and destruction” as a sacrifice to Artemis. He adds that there was a second letter asking her to remain in Argos but it was intercepted by Menelaus. Achilles is livid. “I hear the story of your fate and misery and I cannot bear my part in it.” (137)
Clytemnestra asks him to protect both her and her daughter. “Although no marriage yokes you to the unhappy girl, but in name at least you were called her lord and her dear husband.” (138) Achilles promises to protect her and that Iphigenia will not be killed by her father. “… I cannot endure the insult and injury that the lord Agamemnon has heaped upon me.” (140) Achilles tells them they must speak to Agamemnon and persuade him, but Clytemnestra responds that her husband is a coward and afraid of the army. He advises her to speak to her husband alone. After Achilles leaves, the Argive queen meets her husband outside the tent. She calls for their daughter. Clytemnestra confronts Agamemnon with the truth. “Do you intend to kill her?” (147) He has been caught in a lie. She challenges him - he is killing their daughter just to get Menelaus his wife back. When he returns home from Troy, will he be able to embrace his children - would it be an outrage? Iphigenia asks why Paris must be her ruin. Agamemnon tries to defend himself - if he does not heed the prophecy then he cannot sail to Troy. The armies are primed to go. “Greece turns to you...and never by the barbarians in their violence must Greeks be robbed of their wives.” (153)
Achilles approaches the tent, telling them of the anxious army, an army led by Odysseus that cries for her to be slaughtered. He was even threatened with being stoned himself, being told he was a slave to marriage. However, he still promises to protect them. Iphigenia will not be killed. Iphigenia consoles Achilles, telling him that he is not to be blamed for the actions of the army. She then turns to her mother, “I shall die - I am resolved - and having fixed my mind I want to die well and gloriously putting away from me whatever is weak and ignoble.” (160) Her sacrifice will enable them to sail to Troy and be victorious. “...if Artemis wishes to take the life of my body, shall I, who am mortal, oppose the divine will? (161) Achilles speaks of her noble spirit but still wishes to stop her sacrifice. Clytemnestra begins to cry, but Iphigenia says that she does not want to be mourned; the altar of Artemis will be her monument. In parting, Iphigenia hugs her little brother. Lastly, she defends her father for he was acting against his will - for the sake of Greece. She exits. At the play's closing, the chorus speaks of her bravery as she is led to the altar.
There is a short appendix to the play - an alternate ending - which many believe is not genuine. In it Iphigenia has been taken away and a deer replaced her on the altar. A messenger tells the queen"
Clearly your child was swept to heaven; so give over grief and cease from anger against your husband. No mortal can foreknow the ways of heaven. Those whom the gods love they rescue. (174)
Iphigenia in Aulis was part of a trilogy written by Euripides. Considered to be the saddest of the great Greek poets, Euripides left his home in Athens to live the remainder of his life in Macedonia. Although it would win first prize in 405 BCE at the Dionysia in Athens, victory, unfortunately, came after the playwright's death in 405 BCE. Unappreciated during his lifetime, he would influence countless others long after he died. Some believe the play was left unfinished or rewritten only to be completed by someone else, possibly Euripides' son. Oddly, the original ending of the play has Iphigenia being led to her sacrifice at the altar of Artemis; however, a new conclusion has Iphigenia rescued and replaced at the altar by a deer. Whether the play as it now appears was the same one penned by Euripides, it was one of the poet's most popular. It is sad that he could not have lived long enough to enjoy the accolades.
Ifigenia in Aulide di Euripide. La permanenza del Classico – Palinsesti
Poet and professor, critic and politician, a fascinating figure in the intellectual landscape of Italy for half a century, Edoardo Sanguineti (1930-2010) was also a translator of classics, and especially Greek tragedies. 1 The book under review presents posthumously his translation of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, edited by Federico Condello, and completes the history of Sanguineti’s long engagement with ancient theater, the results of which are almost entirely collected in a previous volume, Edoardo Sanguineti, Teatro antico. Traduzioni e ricordi, a cura di Federico Condello e Claudio Longhi. BUR, 2006 (see BMCR 2007.06.20). This book comprises an introduction (pp. 9-60), a bibliography (pp. 61-74), a section with editorial clarifications (listing the several versions of Sanguineti’s translation) (pp. 75-86), Sanguineti’s translation (pp. 88-177), notes to the text (pp. 179-214), an appendix with the author’s variants (pp. 215-65), and an afterward by Niva Lorenzini. It concludes with a selection of photocopies of unnumbered pages from Sanguineti’s printed and handwritten manuscripts. This well-edited and exhaustive volume inaugurates the series “La permanenza del Classico—Palinsesti” of the Centro Studi “La permanenza del Classico” of the Alma Mater Studiorum—University of Bologna.
In the introduction to Teatro antico, Sanguineti remarked on the gap between his work as a translator of classics and the academic world: far from engaging in a critical study of his translations, specialists of Greek and Latin have produced mostly reviews containing rather general comments, ungrounded in the text 2 and, by extension, one could add, oblivious of Sanguineti’s thoughtful engagement with, and contribution to, the field of translation. This is not the approach of F. Condello, who bridges this gap and guides us with sharp analysis through the rich complexity of Sanguineti’s Iphigenia. In the substantial introduction, after describing the occasion for the translation of the play, 3 Condello contextualizes Sanguineti’s choices and method in light both of the possibilities offered by the Greek language, on the one hand, and, on the other, of Sanguineti’s translating trajectory, from his earlier translations of Greek plays to the last one of Euripides’ Hippolytus in 2010. Thus, in Condello’s discussion, what Sanguineti previously called “the phantom of translation” 4 receives a systematic treatment that initiates the unaware reader not only in the appreciation of Sanguineti’s rendition of Iphigenia, but also in his principles of translation more generally. We understand that the present play encapsulates both Sanguineti’s previous trends and his future tendencies. Attention to each word and to a consistent semantic rendering, regardless of more flexible possibilities shaped by the context (e.g. gignesthai always translated as ‘becoming’), and calques of the syntax (e.g. gerunds systematically used to render participles and genitives absolute) had appeared in Sanguineti’s translations before. And so had the distinctively Sanguinetian abundance of punctuation and pronouns. At the same time, in Iphigenia, more than in previous plays, respect for the ordo verborum is adamant and the reverberation of alliteration from a line to an entire metric cluster (e.g. lines 329-334) underscores moments of high pathos, devices that were to find a more complete and pervasive presence in Sanguineti’s later Hippolytus. This convergence of the old and the new in terms of the translator’s techniques, along with the coexistence of different registers, makes Sanguineti’s Iphigenia a “laboratory of style”. 5 Condello’s introduction ends with a discussion of Sanguineti in relation to Euripides’ tragic art and the position of Iphigenia in Aulis in it. A connoisseur of Euripides’ development of tragedy, Sanguineti well captures with his translation the nature of Iphigenia ’s characters, each one both divided by a fluctuating, radical change of mind, and devoid of psychological depth and, ultimately, involved in a “terribile melodramma” that Sanguineti’s language unfolds at times through ironic and, even, parodistic twists.
As Condello claims in the last page of his introduction, Sanguineti’s Iphigenia bravely reaffirms “a translating style that cannot nor does it want to become current currency within the familiar circuit of classical translations”. 6 Aware of the multiplicity of styles available to him, Sanguineti always chooses to reveal that a translation is such, thereby betraying the “travestimento” which each translator necessarily, but to different degrees, undergoes while voicing the author of the original text. 7 Forced to a brutal honesty, Sanguineti’s Iphigenia documents at once the simultaneous presence and disappearance of the translator as an author 8 and obliges the reader to become aware of the “insurmountable distance” that separates her from the classics. 9 This distance, however, can be overcome, and not only in the illusion conjured up on the stage. For Sanguineti, a translated tragedy dissolves the distance inscribed in the artificial nature of its language when it engages the reader in a “theater of interiority”, 10 when, in other words, the reader herself becomes an actor under the enthrallment of a language that is molded by the criterion of “dicibilità”. 11 In this autonomy of the tragic text and emphasis on the relationship between it and its audience we can find a resemblance to Aristotle’s ideal that a good tragedy should be able to trigger the tragic emotions, and therefore ‘theatrically’ involve its audience, by its mere narration, regardless of staged performance. 12 But if for Aristotle this effect resided in a well-constructed plot, Sanguineti attaches it to the language and style of the translation: Aristotle’s listener has become in Sanguineti ‘a performative reader’. 13 In Iphigenia too, as in other plays, our translator rejects a literary style—what he calls “letterarietà”, which does not convince him, for instance, in Pasolini’s translations and cinematic adaptations of the classics. He creates instead an eclectic, yet faithful, rendition where in the midst of different registers isolated, familiar words, usually located at the end of a line, work like anchors that momentarily capture the reader and resonate without mediation with her interiority. 14
This book is directed to an Italian audience, to both specialist and non-specialist readers, and it is of interest also for those in the fields of translation studies and classical reception. It provides a subtle and well-rounded introduction to Sanguineti’s theory of translation, which, as Condello remarks, has not yet been written, and which the present reviewer hopes will soon find its way to publication. Here, let it suffice to mention that in affirming the identity of translator and author, in questioning the presumed, yet never-fully accomplished, transparency of the translator and in his critique of fluency Sanguineti grappled with questions similar to those asked by Lawrence Venuti, 15 and contributed early on to the emerging field of translation theory a distinctive and original voice.
1. On the privileged position of Greek tragedies in his activity as translator see Sanguineti’s statement in Teatro antico : “se mi si chiedesse quali tragedie antiche desidero o avrei desiderato tradurre…dovrei rispondere tutte. Perché tutte diventano coinvolgenti non appena ci si impegna con il testo: e il tragico finisce col travolgermi” (2006, pp. 12-3).
2. Teatro antico, 2006, p. 17.
3. As with all the other translations, that of Iphigenia in Aulis was commissioned from Sanguineti for a theatrical performance ( Iphigenia in Aulide, p. 14).
5. See Ifigenia, pp. 30 and 34.
7. E. Sanguineti, “Il traduttore, nostro contemporaneo” in E. Sanguineti, La missione del critico, Genova, 1987, pp. 182-3.
8. For Sanguineti’s “stile a-stilistico” see Condello in Ifigenia, pp. 32-3.
9. “Il traduttore, nostro contemporaneo”, 1987, p. 188.
10. Teatro antico, p.15. Elsewhere, Sanguineti states “c’è teatro se c’è travestimento”, thereby making any translation per se theatrical and ‘autonomous’ (E. Sanguineti, A. Liberovici, Il mio amore è come una febbre e mi rovescio, 1998, p. 113).
11. Sanguineti defines “dicibilità” as “the word dramatically strong” and among the instruments that provide it he lists “alliterations, parentheses, and punctuation” ( Teatro antico, p. 15).
12. Aristot. Poet. 1453b1-9.
13. Sanguineti advocates a coincidence of types of translations: a translation to be read should be like a translation to be performed ( Teatro antico, p. 15).
14. Examples of this technique are, for instance, the adoption of “la mia bambina” in lines 123, 147, or the dissolution of the compound verb symploun (line 666) into “navigare…insieme” where “insieme” ends a line extremely charged in terms of “dicibilità”: “Sarebbe bello, per te e per me, portarmi a me, a navigarci, insieme”.
15. See, for instance, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, London and New York, 2008 (2 nd ed.) and The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference, London and New York, 1998.
Iphigenia in Aulis - History
Iphigenia in Aulis (a.k.a. Iphegenia at Aulis ) was left unfinished at Euripides' death in 406 BCE, and so the beginning and the ending especially are mutilated and choppy. Completed by someone else, it along with The Bacchae and the lost Alcmaeon formed a trio produced in Athens which won Euripides a fifth albeit posthumous first prize.
Agamemnon recounts the recent history of Helen's suitors, her choosing "in an evil moment" Menelaus (316), "that judge of divine beauties" showing up with his "barbaric finery" of flowery and golden fabrics (316), and the running off to Troy. "They chose me to be general. I suppose it was a favor to Menelaus, since I was his brother but I wish some other man had won this honor instead of me" (316). Stranded with the armies at Aulis due to the absence of proper sailing weather, Agamemnon has learned from the seer Calchas that his daughter Iphigenia must be sacrificed to Artemis. Agamemnon has already sent a letter to fetch her, pretending that she'll be marrying Achilles, but he has misgivings and now hopes to send another letter stalling the event. He talks with an Old Servant, and says, "I envy you, old man. I envy any man that [sic] has lived a life of quiet days, unknown to fame. Less envy have I for power and office" (317). The Servant recognizes signs of Agamemnon's troubled mind, and Agamemnon himself declares, "Ah me, I am out of my mind. I am heading for ruin" (318). He sends the Servant to his wife Clytemnestra and their daughter.
A Chorus gives us glimpses of Greece before the Trojan War, including Achilles racing a four-horse chariot (319), and then the amassing of the armies in preparation for the war (320-321). Menelaus and the Old Servant fight over possession of the letter from Agamemnon, and when Agamemnon himself enters, the Servant declares that Menelaus "has no regard for justice" (321). The brothers insult and debate each other. Agamemnon accuses Menelaus of "impudent effrontery" and "dishonesty" (322). Menelaus accuses Agamemnon of only pretending reluctance to be made a general while politicking for the honor. When they first heard that his daughter's sacrifice was required, Agamemnon was "glad at heart, and readily promised . not under duress" (323).
"Now it is my turn to criticize you. I will not be merciless or too supercilious, but considerate, like a brother. Good men tend to be merciful" (323). Agamemnon then calls Menelaus an insane cuckold. A Messenger announces the arrival of Iphigenia and Clytemnestra along with the infant Orestes. Agamemnon pities his own lot in life:
After a Chorus interlude, Clytemnestra speaks with Iphigenia briefly. Agamemnon is ambivalent and enigmatic in the face of Iphigenia's good-natured enthusiasm. Clytemnestra asks about the intended bridegroom's heritage and Agamemnon tries to send her away before the ceremony, but she is adamant that she must attend to carry out her duties as mother of the bride (332).
The Chorus, in reference to the story of Leda and the swan (Zeus), asks, "Or are these things just stories, without point or truth, brought to mankind from the pages of poets?" (333). Achilles arrives, pressured by his men to find out what the hold-up is or they'll disband "and wait no more for the dallying of the sons of Atreus" (334). When Clytemnestra speaks with him, they both realize that they are being used in a plot of which they are uninformed. Clytemnestra speaks oddly:
The Chorus sings of the wedding of Achilles' parents. Clytemnestra is weeping when Agamemnon, preparing for the ceremony, asks her what is troubling her. She demands point-blank, "This child, yours and mine -- are you going to kill her?" (342). Agamemnon prevaricates a while before realizing, "My secrets are betrayed" (342). Clytemnestra recounts briefly how Agamemnon married her "against my will" after killing her former husband Tantalus "My babe you wrenched rudely from my breast and crushed him to the ground beneath your tread" (342). But what couple doesn't overcome obstacles to their happiness? Now one of their four children must be sacrificed for the sake of Helen, "a harlot" (343)?
Iphigenia eloquently declares she lacks the eloquence of Orpheus and has only tears to make her case and implores her father not to butcher her (344). Agamemnon restates his dilemma, adding that the whole family will be killed if he reneges (345). Clytemnestra and Iphigenia fret. Achilles arrives, saying he was pelted with stones for trying to save Iphigenia, including the initial pelting by his own Myrmidons. Odysseus will be coming to fetch her. Iphigenia begins speaking resignedly, looking on the bright side of the inevitability: her good name will be remembered as noble (348-349). She asks that Clytemnestra not think ill of Agamemnon afterwards (350). Iphigenia goes off willingly to her death.
"From this point on the Greek becomes more and more suspect" (351). A Messenger reports to Clytemnestra that when Iphigenia was brought forth, Agamemnon wept. Iphigenia wowwed the crowd with her heroism and willingness to be sacrificed for the good of the Greek cause. At the moment of the knife's stroke, the girl vanished and a deer substitute was lying on the ground. Calchas told Agamemnon, "Clearly, your child has been wafted to the gods" (353). Clytemnestra wonders if she can believe such a story, but here comes Agamemnon to confirm it.
A fragment in Aelian's Historia animalium 7:39 indicates that Euripides originally had intended for Artemis, speaking deus ex machina to be consoling Clytemnestra with her plan to substitute the deer for her daughter (354).
It seems clear that the Earl of Oxford read this play in some form, as it functions as a direct inspiration for his Troilus and Cressida . About the Euripides play (and about the Shakespeare play unintentionally), Hadas says this:
Euripides. Iphigenia at Aulis . Ten Plays . Trans. Moses Hadas and John McLean. NY: Bantam, 1981. 313-354.
Roche, Paul, trans. Iphigenia at Aulis . By Euripides. Ten Plays . NY: Signet, 1998. 215-275.
Iphigenia in Aulis
Because Homer’s Nausicaa sheds light on Euripides’ Iphigenia, this chapter begins by discussing her representation in the Odyssey. Both young women have been raised to regard marriage as the culminating event of female existence, an attitude that Agamemnon exploits to lure his daughter to Aulis for a fictitious marriage with Achilles. After reviewing the internal and external chronology of Iphigenia in Aulis and the state of its text, this chapter discusses two aspects that have attracted critical attention—the play’s contemporary political resonance and its pattern of changes of mind—and then reads it as tracing a dual, reciprocal process of education. Iphigenia and Achilles both follow the pattern of the Homeric Achilles in experiencing first a crisis of disillusionment, then a crisis of empathy. Their idealism forms a contrast to the duplicity and corruption that surrounds them and the ordeals they have yet to face.
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Iphigenia in Jerusalem
On a steamy July afternoon in the ‘90s, I absently picked my way through the throngs at Jerusalem’s central bus station. All my thoughts were focused on Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis, the tragedy that I was to teach that day to students in my course on gender in Greek myth at the Hebrew University. The only notice I had given to the Yesha (the name of the settlers in the occupied territories of “Judea and Samaria”) who flooded the city on that day was to worry earlier in passing that they might make me late for school. Jerusalem with its one main access road was all too easily rendered impenetrable by any group who chose to block the way. The year was 1994, and right-wing demonstrators were protesting the “Oslo Accords.” So, for too many Sundays during that semester, I had sat sweltering in a bus worrying about missing office hours as virtually every group with a grievance against the Rabin government took its turn at barring my way to work.
The Iphigenia at Aulis is Euripides’s version of the story of Agamemnon’s daughter who, like the biblical daughter of Jephta, paid the price of her life for her father’s political and military victories. When the Greek army en route to Troy had assembled at the port of Aulis, the winds died and the fleet was stalled. The prophet declared that the winds would not rise again until Agamemnon, commander and chief of the united Greek forces, sacrificed his daughter to the goddess Artemis. The girl was sacrificed, the winds blew the Greeks to their fields of glory, and the rest of the story, if not exactly history, is played out on the epic panorama of Homer’s Iliad. Usually in such stories of child sacrifice, the child has no voice of her own. It is all her father’s story.
Euripides wrote his play on Iphigenia at the close of the fifth century B.C.E., a less than heroic time for his city of Athens, grinding toward its inexorable eclipse by the rival Greek polis of Sparta after the decades-long Peloponnesian War. Like all Athenian tragedians, Euripides uses the traditional stories of his people to think about contemporary issues — in this case, war, heroics, and glory. In the play that he wrote, his Iphigenia does have a voice and his Iphigenia, at least at first, does not want to die.
When the play begins, Agamemnon has sent a message to his wife Clytemnestra in Argos telling her to bring Iphigenia to Aulis for a glorious wedding to Achilles, the best of the Achaean heroes. Although Agamemnon has agonized over his decision to give up his child for Greece and for glory, Iphigenia arrives at the Greek camp escorted by her unwitting mother, with both expecting a marriage. When the grim truth becomes clear, Clytemnestra is desperate at the betrayal and Iphigenia begs her father for her life (all translations of Euripides by Charles R. Walker):
O, Father, My body is a suppliant’s, tight clinging to your knees.
Do not take away this life of mine before its dying time.
At this point in the play, myth and ritual potentially have reached an impasse. (Imagine this speech delivered by Isaac in the biblical Akedah.) Like the archaic bride, so, too, the sacrificial animal, however passive, must offer at least the fiction of consent for the sacrifice to be ritually valid. As for the myth, without Iphigenia’s acceptance of her role as a bride of death, there may be life, but there will be no story.
The tension between myth (the way things “have to be”) and life (“the way things are”) grows unbearable as complicated machinery is set into motion to counter the inevitability of the story. To save Iphigenia, Achilles, her fictive bridegroom, grandiosely, if unrealistically, offers to take on the whole Greek army singlehandedly. And then suddenly, Iphigenia reverses her position. She wills her own death as the bride of Greece (IA 1375–76 1396):
I shall die — I am resolved — and having fixed my mind
I want to die well and gloriously putting away from me
whatever is weak and ignoble…
To Greece I give this body of mine.
Slay it in sacrifice and conquer Troy.
In the classroom in modern Jerusalem, I ask my students to account for Iphigenia’s dramatic reversal. Does the voice that Euripides gave Iphigenia speak with any reason? Or does Euripides intend her speech as a parody of the frenzied patriotism of children intoxicated by the ideal of their own sacrifice on the altar of their father’s wars? On the final exam, the options will emerge ridiculously cut and dried:
In the Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides, Iphigenia agrees to her own sacrifice:
a) because she has no choice
b) because in all wars the young must voluntarily sacrifice themselves for the community
c) because she loves her father
d) because she wants to be the bride of Greece
e) because she wants to keep peace between her father and mother
f) all of the above
g) none of the above.
Like most multiple choice questions, this one is hopeless. Iphigenia must die simply to save the myth, in this case a Greek myth. Myth is the way things have to be, or at least the way each culture believing in its own myths believes that things have to be. In myth there are no alternative endings, and certainly no compromises. In this sense, the mythic life is an unproblematic life to live, for the collective megaplot is available to direct the story of individual lives, occluding the uncertainty and ambiguity of particular real lives as each is and must be individually lived. As Thomas Mann put it, “Myth is the timeless schema, the pious formula into which life flows when it reproduces its traits out of the unconscious.”
Aside from a comfortably fixed megaplot, myth also enlarges individual lives. In dying, Iphigenia saves the myth, but she also saves herself. Unlike the countless young girls married to strangers by the fathers of archaic Greece who simply survive as mothers, we remember the names of Iphigenia, Antigone, and Poyxena who die with glory. (The list of Greek brides of death is long.) Iphigenia correctly sees her sacrifice as her chance (her only chance) to be a hero like the male warriors who perform on an epic stage where the prize for death is immortal glory. In her choice of death, Iphigenia fully renounces “female” values of survival for “male” values of transcendence.
In her now classic The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir explained male supremacy in the context of culture’s valuation of the reasons for living above mere life. Man’s activity is seen not merely to repeat life but to transcend life, his design is not to repeat himself in time, but to take control of the future. Here de Beauvoir (like Euripides’ Iphigenia) identifies with the values of the culture that has oppressed her. What she describes are Western cultural ideals, and these ideals were first enacted on the epic plain of Homer’s Troy where war is a heroic stage and Greek heroes seeking to transcend the limits of mortality through immortal glory are the actors. In Western culture, simple survival is seen as the woman’s way.
Passion, myth, and the beautiful death — the life that is larger than life — are particularly intoxicating to the narcissist young and, of course, to old unrepentant narcissists. For confident and daring youth, war provides the grand and exciting backdrop to epic action with its absolute vision of good and evil and ultimate test of death. Peace is boring, compromising, and miniature, work for women and old men. The Iliad, described by Simone Weil as a poem of force, is a young man’s poem. Passion is a drug that expands the ego and so quite unparadoxically the drunken heroic ego, however “self-sacrificing,” inevitably performs not for the community but ultimately only for itself and often at the community’s expense.
The Odyssey, with its focus on survival at any price and by cunning, is described by the critic Longinus as the work of a man at sunset: a poem for old men by an old man ([Ps.] Longinus, on the Sublime 9.11–13). Is it mere chance that to me Odysseus has always seemed the most Jewish of the Greek heroes and that the Odyssey, the story of a survivor seeking and winning his home, the more “Jewish” of the Homeric epics? Could it be that for cultures—as for individuals—the options are either a youthful and glorious death or survival won at the price of growing up and growing old?
Not every culture has heroes. Heroism is not necessary for survival indeed it may be antithetical to survival. Heroism is Greek, western, and masculine it may be antithetical or superfluous to Judaism.
The heroic is more an attitude, a stance toward life than any particular set of actions. While heroes are particular useful for Greek culture (which has a problem with limits), Jews (for whom the line between God and man was clear cut and continually reasserted in ritual) lack heroes in the Western sense of the word. So argues Lionel Trilling in his Sincerity and Authenticity (85–86, passim):
Not all cultures develop the idea of the heroic. I once had occasion to observe… that in the Rabbinical literature there is no touch of the heroic idea…As ethical beings, the Rabbis never see themselves… They imagine no struggles, no dilemmas, no hard choices, no ironies, no destinies, nothing interesting they have no thought of morality as a drama. They would have been quite ready to understand the definition of the hero as an actor and to say that, as such, he was undeserving of the attention of serious men…. And if, in the Jewish tradition, we go back of the Rabbis to the Bible, we do not find the heroic there either… Oedipus confronting the mystery of human suffering is a hero. Job in the same confrontation is not.
The power of myth is strong today precisely because myth entails the heroic life that is larger than life, enlarged into epic proportions. And the hero is an actor, absorbed only in himself. This was the Greek way, and Athens is no longer, nor the many Hellenized Jews who fell in love with the Greeks.
The Jewish focus on God has allowed for alternative “Odyssean” strategies: to survive inglorious to live and learn another day to sneak out of the besieged city of Jerusalem at night, ignominiously, in a coffin in order to negotiate with Vespasian this was the response of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakk’ai without whom Judaism might well have disappeared after the fall of the Second Temple. A woman’s way, a slave’s way, the Greeks would say. And yet here I survive to study and teach and write as a Jew about Greeks, a child of a people whose God in the foundational text of Genesis rejected a child’s sacrifice, a daughter of those rabbis who even when martyred never saw themselves as actors, never knew that they were brave.
As I picked my way once again through the throngs at the Jerusalem bus station, done at last with the day’s lecture, I began finally to see the many faces of the Jerusalem protesters that day and they were all indistinguishable. All wore the “Iphigenia look”: the smug expression of people existing in seamless complicity with their own myths and (especially the younger faces) all drunk on glory, mad as Euripides described all Greece as driven mad (IA 412), intent on their own beautiful deaths by sacrifice, high as only heroes can be high, as they watched themselves perform their high souled epic actions on Jerusalem’s tragic stage.
Later, as I rode home, it seemed to me that I had seen too many Iphigenias in Jerusalem that day.
That was some twenty years ago. Today as I walk through Jerusalem, I see the daughters of those would-be Iphigenias from the ‘90s, together with their Palestinian sisters, all too ready to sacrifice themselves on the altar of their own and their people’s destruction. And again, I think back to R. Yohanan ben Zakk’ai who chose life with compromise over the extreme of martyrdom and who is quoted as saying: “If the children tell you come let us build the Temple, do not listen to them and if the old folks say come let us destroy the Temple listen to them. For the building of children is destruction and the destruction of elders is building.” (Avot de Rabbi Natan B 31.5–6).
Note: An earlier version of this essay was published in Hebrew in Nekuda, No. 180 (September 1994): 50–53.
Molly Levine is a professor of Classics at Howard University. She previously taught Classics at Bar-Ilan University in Israel for many years. Her research focuses on Roman Poetry, cultural diffusion and constructions, gender criticism, and the interface between early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.
Iphigenia in Aulis
So this is how it begins. Events are woven into the history of a family and reverberate through time. Iphigenia in Aulis is one of the most infamous stories, retold with supreme dramatic skill in a darkened room on a corner of 13th Street in New York City some 2500 years later. And this is the highest of compliments: it is received by its listeners not as reverent homage to any past, but as shocking news, only as old as the last hour.
Ann Washburn calls her work a “transadaptation” because she does not read ancient Greek and has depended on the translations of others, but beautifully states that while the language has passed through the hands of many “the mind which shines through it, in all of its terrible and heartbreaking lucidity, is Euripides.” The proof that she has succeeded is that the language never flags, keeps our attention through the longest speeches, and above all, moves us.
The actors do their parts to give vibrant life to this reality. Their performances are multi-dimensional each plays more than one role. I would use a word like “morph” but that implies observing some transitional change, while what they present us with, in turn, are distinct, separate characters.
First, we are addressed by Rob Campbell as Agamemnon tasked with a terrible choice. The winds are not favorable to the Greek fleet of a thousand ships poised to journey to Troy. The goddess Artemis has been offended and the seer Calchas has determined that only the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, will appease the goddess.
Reluctantly receptive at the outset, Agamemnon has had a change of heart and tries to reverse his decision. He is confronted by his brother Menelaus, whose wayward wife Helen’s actions are the trigger for the devastating events to come and continue. Amber Gray plays Menelaus, suited in armor, and she later plays Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, in a flowing robe. Rob Campbell also plays Achilles. Agamemnon has tricked his wife into bringing Iphigenia to the distant Greek camp with the false promise of marriage to Achilles.
So what we have is an inspiring display of acting and character. Gender becomes irrelevant, as it is for the ever-present chorus, but more about that in a moment. Amber Gray skillfully acts out her conflict, the heart of drama, first as Menelaus with Agamemnon, then as Clytemnestra both with Agamemnon and Achilles. Rob Campbell is on the receiving end of these pleas as Agamemnon and Achilles his impressive transformation is accomplished through a change of armor and attitude, and altered speech patterns.
Clytemnestra: “What prayers, tell me, do you intend to utter/When you sacrifice your daughter to the Goddess/What blessing will you ask, as you slit her sweet throat?”
Iphigenia (Kristen Sieh), whom we have already seen as an old man and a herald, moves us as Agamemnon’s oldest child: “…don’t tear me from/the day, it is so sweet, to see the light they say/the things beneath the earth are hard to look upon” and “I woke up this morning to a rosy sky/I thought it was a dawn/and now I find it’s sunset”
Throughout, the chorus is meant to be as strange to us as they are to the Greeks: androgynous, colorful, exotic, heavily made-up, creatures of song and dance, accompanied by drumbeats and the thump of a bass cello. Curiously, they simultaneously react to and advance the plot, externalizing emotion and reminding us of how deeply the Greeks understood theater.
The action tries in every way to veer towards the best of outcomes, but the playwright and we know the folly of war, and the baby Orestes stands alone on the edge of the stage, presaging the fate of things to come.
"A spectacularly made-over Greek chorus is the chief asset of this generally less confident version of Euripides’ 'Iphigenia in Aulis'."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"'Iphigenia in Aulis' reminds us that war brings collateral damage. The message hits home, even in a production as clumsy as the Classic Stage Company’s."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"The biggest puzzlement behind this production’s disjointed, incoherent tone. is that it was put together by two smart cookies."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Rachel Chavkin's busy production at Classic Stage is full of good components, yet so jumbled together, they jostle one another into a kind of stillness."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
A chilling 'Iphigenia' from Shotgun / Greek 'heroes' bitterly dissected
AULIS27C-C-22JUN01-DD-RAD Photo by Katy Raddatz--The Chronicle "Iphigenia in Aulis" is a Greek tragedy performed by the Shotgun Players in John Hinkel Park in Berkeley. SHOWN: Lady in white robe is Iphigenia played by Amaya Alonso Hallifax (this IS the correct spelling) man is Agememnon played by Jeff Elam. Iphigenia is trying to cheer her father, as he realizes he must kill her. Writer is Rob Hurwitt. KATY RADDATZ
IPHIGENIA IN AULIS: Tragedy. By Euripides. Directed by Patrick Dooley. (Through Aug. 12. Shotgun Players at John Hinkel Park, Southampton Place at the Arlington, Berkeley. Two hours, 15 minutes. Free. Call (510) 655-0813 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org).
Without Iphigenia's death, in other words, Aeschylus couldn't have written "The Oresteia" trilogy and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre would have had to choose some other epic to open its new theater. Which is the added bonus in seeing the Shotgun Players' "Iphigenia" that opened Sunday -- if Patrick Dooley's thoughtful, gripping production weren't reason enough to head for the old stone-terraced amphitheater in Berkeley's John Hinkel Park. It plays weekends through Aug. 12 (except for outings to Oakland's Mosswood Park on July 7 and San Francisco's John McLaren Park on July 8).
Though written a half-century later, Euripides' "Iphigenia" is the prequel that sets up the cycle of revenge in Aeschylus' "Oresteia." Written during Athens' long, disillusioning engagement in the Peloponnesian War, it's also a fiercely felt anti-war play bristling with skepticism toward all authority, whether state, military or divine (apparently left unfinished, it was probably completed by his son and first produced in 406 B.C., within a year of Euripides' death).
It helps to know your Greek myths. Euripides makes many of his points through promises, such as Agamemnon's, that his audience would know will prove false or through earnest invocations of gods or ancestors famed for treachery. Dooley and dramaturg Joan McBrien provide helpful explanatory program notes and a brief prologue, the 15-minute "The Curse of the House of Atreus" (by McBrien), that fills us in on the family's long history of betrayals, infanticides, cannibalism, incest and other such delights in a comic vaudeville equivalent of an ancient satyr play.
Dooley cannily uses the comedy to ease us into the tragedy. His "Iphigenia" opens at low intensity, with Jeff Elam's Agamemnon fretting over how to break his oath to sacrifice his daughter and a masked Amaya Alonso Hallifax as a commedia caricature of his old servant. There's a light touch in the masked lesser characters the three principals play -- Mary Eaton Fairfield as a cunning Menelaus (Helen's husband) and Elam as a cocky, vainglorious Achilles. The four-woman chorus (also masked) enters as titillated sightseers and Fairfield's Clytemnestra as a very image-conscious royal.
None of the actors seems capable of carrying the weight of Greek tragedy at first, and many line readings could be more polished. But Dooley and his cast fool you. These are the great Greek heroes reduced to self-serving politicians caught in expediencies that destroy their own families, as Euripides intended.
Elam and Fairfield almost imperceptibly rise to the occasion, their interchanges deepening from marital spats to truly tragic proportions. The ominous percussive accompaniment of the Goatsong trio (Daniel Bruno, Joshua Pollock and Andrea Weber) and Weber's sinuous choreography weave a tightening web around the family. As Iphigenia, Hallifax's horror at her father's plans and her plaintive child-woman pleas are so affecting that her transformation to willing, even proud victim -- for Greece and glory -- strikes us with as much horror and pity as it does her mother.
Iphigenia in Aulis
Iphigenia in Aulis or Iphigenia at Aulis  (Ancient Greek: Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Αὐλίδι , romanized: Īphigéneia en Aulídi variously translated, including the Latin Iphigenia in Aulide) is the last of the extant works by the playwright Euripides. Written between 408, after Orestes, and 406 BC, the year of Euripides' death, the play was first produced the following year  in a trilogy with The Bacchae and Alcmaeon in Corinth by his son or nephew, Euripides the Younger,  and won first place at the City Dionysia in Athens.
The play revolves around Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek coalition before and during the Trojan War, and his decision to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis and allow his troops to set sail to preserve their honour in battle against Troy. The conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles over the fate of the young woman presages a similar conflict between the two at the beginning of the Iliad. In his depiction of the experiences of the main characters, Euripides frequently uses tragic irony for dramatic effect.
Euripides: Poet-Prophet of Pity
Responding to the great bloodshed of young men, women, and virgins he experienced during the Peloponnesian War, Euripides exposes the horrors of war and its damaging effects on humans, particularly on women, in his war plays. Euripides’s dramatic tragedies appeal to our sense of pity and call for peace.
The acme of Euripides’s literary genius coincided with the Peloponnesian War. As such, it isn’t surprising that his later plays deal with war, slavery, and sexual degeneracy—all things that had devastated the once splendid city. Electra, Hecuba, Andromache, The Trojan Women, and Iphigenia in Aulis are all set during the Trojan War. Euripides isn’t so much depreciating the heroic ideal of that war as much as he is providing extensive social commentary on the consequences of the Peloponnesian War as the long-ago war in Euripides’s plays parallels the ongoing one devastating Greece. Moreover, his war plays examine who suffers most from the horrors of war and what becomes of humans as a result. His plays are, therefore, esoteric commentaries on the tragic consequences of the Peloponnesian War as well as reflections on the importance of pity to bring healing and peace to a battered and bloodied world.
Euripides was no proto-feminist though contemporary feminist readings often misconstrue the gynocentric nature of his plays. Euripides often depicted women as nymphomaniacs, and Aristophanes satirized this side of Euripides in Thesmophoriazusae. However, Euripides was not without a strong sense of empathy for the plight of women. After all, it is from his pen that we see the plight of women in war. Euripides’s plays are meant to shock his audience into pity, thus making him the great tragic playwright of pity in the Greek world.
The Trojan Women was written on the eve of the gambit which would ultimately bring about the downfall of Athens: the Sicilian Expedition. Athens’ current moment in history, then, mirrored that of the Argives—a sea expedition for a faraway conquest. The play may have very well been an appeal for peace. After all, Euripides loathed war and exposed its naked hollowness in his plays which do not focus on the Trojan War itself but its disastrous consequences for those involved.
In the war plays a haunting image recurs: the separation of child from mother—from her arms or womb—which ends in death. Astyanax is ripped from the arms of Andromache. Iphigenia releases herself from the warm arms of her mother. Polyxena is also taken away from Hecuba. In its more brutal form, Agave butchers her own son at the dramatic conclusion of the Bacchae, and Medea slaughters her children after having smothered them in a coldly affectionate embrace.
Iphigenia’s death, her separation from her mother, is the most noble—in some sense—of the child sacrifices that Euripides depicts in his various war tragedies. Iphigenia in Aulis conveys the image of a voluptuous woman being whisked away by lustful force. In his opening monologue, Agamemnon speaks of how the Greek army had assembled at Aulis. “He fell in love. She fell in love, and he carried her off to his ranch in the Idan hills,” Agamemnon says, referring to the elopement of Paris and Helen. Helen is taken away from the bedchambers and arms of Menelaus, thus sparking the Trojan War.
The third choral ode reminds us of the lust-infested environment of the Trojan War. Helen is the offspring of a rape. She is the daughter of Leda, thanks to the advances of Zeus. The chorus of women sing of the doom that has befallen Troy and its women: “All this because you, Helen, child of Leda and the arch-necked swan. If the story they tell is true that the swan was really Zeus or is this only fable culled from poetic annals not worth knowing?”
The master ironist ends with a poetic twist. Is it important to know the fable of Helen’s birth by rape? Euripides suggests that it is. In fact, omitting the fact that Helen was the child of such sexual violence depreciates the context and recurring images of lustful violence in Euripides’s play. Not only is Helen taken away by Paris by force, but Helen herself was the offspring of a forceful advances of a high god onto a princess. Lust knows no boundaries likewise, war knows no boundaries. What was conceived in lust will bring lust and, ultimately, misery.
Even Agamemnon, hardly an upstanding and noble figure, speaks an ironic truth when he says, “The Greek is possessed by a kind of lust to sail at once to this foreign land and put an end to the raping of Greek wives. They will kill my daughters in Argos. They will kill you and me if I break my pact with Artemis.”
It is true that Agamemnon had vowed to sacrifice his virgin daughter to procure safe passage to Troy as atonement for killing the sacred deer of Artemis, but Agamemnon’s words near the conclusion of the play also reveal the contradictions surrounding Helen’s departure from Greece to Troy and the central role of lust in inciting the Trojan War. Earlier he had said she had fallen in love with Paris and seemingly joined with him on her own free will. Here, Agamemnon reveals the darker and older account of Helen’s forceful abduction by the deviant Paris. Helen, though, is not without blame.
The circumstances surrounding her persona is one of unmitigated sexual lust, be it with Menelaus or Paris. Perhaps this is fitting given that she was born of Zeus’s uncontrollable sexual appetite. In any case, Euripides subtly reveals that the Trojan War was born from rape: first, the rape of Leda by Zeus, which gave birth to Helen second, the rape of Helen by Paris, which is implied when he says that the Greek army is intent on ending the “raping of Greek wives.”
When Achilles returns to speak with Clytaemnestra after having failed to persuade the Greek soldiers to release Iphigenia, the “uproar among the troops” reveals that in lust there can be no marriage or family. In the violence wrought by lust there can only be blood and bruises. Achilles was earlier introduced as a gullible, hot-rod boyfriend. His hair, body, and armor shined and dazzled all. He was the image of beauty and perfection. Returning to Clytaemnestra he is bruised and soiled in dirt and mud. He barely escaped with his life.
Achilles’s hatred toward Agamemnon has been well-known ever since Homer recounted their rivalry in the Iliad. If Euripides’s account of the feud between the two great Argive heroes of the Trojan War is true, then Achilles had been Agamemnon’s unwitting pawn, and it is understandable why he hates Agamemnon. Clytaemnestra and Iphigenia were under the impression that the now eligible daughter was to be wed and believed Achilles to be the chosen groom. Achilles, when it was earlier revealed that Agamemnon had used his name to deceive Iphigenia, was outraged, “No, King Agamemnon has insulted me. He should have asked my permission if he wanted to use my name to trap his child. It was my name that made Clytaemnestra bring her to him.”
Yet Achilles’s outrage is somewhat ambiguous. It seems like vanity is the primary reason for Achilles’s rage. He was distraught that his name would forever be tarnished as the lure of the innocent Iphigenia to her death. He doesn’t seem to have that much concern for Iphigenia initially, though he somewhat haphazardly redeemed himself in his attempt to save Iphigenia from the bloodlust of the army.
The atmosphere of deceit, lust, and rape is what makes the ending of the play so tragic but so powerful. Iphigenia willingly becomes the innocent sacrifice. Up to this point we have been reminded of constant misconduct and rape. Zeus raped Leda. Paris abducted Helen. Agamemnon deceived his family. In the midst of this storm that would make even Lucifer smile, Iphigenia—that white-cloaked, ruddy-faced, flowery-haired woman—stands out as the only truly noble individual in the play.
This does not make her death and separation from Clytaemnestra less tragic. It serves to magnify our rage at Agamemnon who tries to rationalize his actions and present himself as a helpless and hapless man forced to do what he did by the gods. Agamemnon refuses to take responsibility for his actions, and really no one takes responsibility for his or her actions throughout the play. The chaos can only be remedied by the one heroine who takes responsibility for her actions and assumes the responsibilities of others. That is what makes her separation from Clytaemnestra so touching and moving.
But we should not become so attached to Iphigenia’s heroic self-sacrifice which allowed the Greeks to safely journey and lay waste to Troy. That is not Euripides’s point. Instead, he wanted to show the hollowness of war itself and the tragic sacrifice of innocent victims, often virgin women.
Indeed, war and sacrifice go together, a fact which only intensifies the barbarism of war. Why did Iphigenia have to die? To secure the safe voyage of the Greek army who in a decade-long war would cause the deaths of thousands. The sacrifice of Iphigenia did not bring an end to death. It only served to bring further death. The haunting image of a fertile daughter being sacrificed for the end of war is the most scandalous image that Euripides can produce to reveal the horrifying reality of war: It is the coming-of-age daughters who suffer most from war.
What makes Iphigenia’s death stand apart from the other children torn from the arms of their mothers is that hers is willing. (Though Euripides also writes a play in which Iphigenia survives, perhaps in part due to her nobility in bearing the wrongful misdeeds and irresponsibility of all parties involved in her death.) The same cannot be said for the screaming Astyanax when he is torn from the loving arms of Andromache in The Trojan Women.
Like Iphigenia in Aulis, The Trojan Women gives a contradictory account of Helen’s role in the origin of the Trojan War. Nevertheless, lust still permeates the environment—at least concerning Helen’s role in bringing misery to Hecuba, Andromache, and the litany of other Trojan widows who are now suffering under the tyrannical yoke of concubinal slavery. As the Leader says, “Troy, unhappy Troy, where so many thousands of young men were lost all for one woman’s sake, one wanton lust!”
The death of Astyanax is a haunting image. Astyanax runs back to Andromache and hides in the comfort of her arms. Talthybius, the reluctant pawn of violence, wrenches Astyanax from Andromache’s comforting and loving arms. As he tears Astyanax away, the boy screams in pain and sorrow, and he is flung from the battlements of Troy. Such a spectacle on stage must have struck the heart of the Greek audience who fancied themselves the pinnacle of civilization and humanity. But Euripides mocks this self-conception of exceptionalism as Andromache yells at the Greek soldiers, “You barbarians, what un-Greek cruelties can you invent? Must you kill a child—wholly innocent?”
After throwing Astyanax from the walls headfirst, the Greek soldiers return carrying him on a shield. At first glance one might think that the Greeks are treating his deceased and mangled body with a certain respect and honor. They have, after all, brought him back on a shield to his mother for a burial. They have even washed him clean of the blood and dirt. But the evidence of bruises and mangled limbs makes the image of Astyanax on the shield a cruel mockery of a sleeping child.
But the mother is absent for the return. She has been sold into slavery to Neoptolemus. Instead, it is Hecuba who is present to receive the bruised and battered corpse of Astyanax. She weeps in place of Andromache and says, “It is not you but I, your grandmother, an old cityless, childless crone, that has to bury your torn body. Wasted, lost forever, all those cuddles, all that care, all that watching you while you sleep.”
Euripides’s literary genius is revealed in Hecuba’s lament. He links the image of the dead Astyanax on the shield to the image of the peacefully sleeping Astyanax with Andromache watching over him. Neither can share each other’s love anymore. This image moves the audience to tears as Hecuba embraces the lifeless body of her grandson.
In The Trojan Women, Hecuba is presented as a pitiable woman who has had everything torn away from her. Her surviving daughters are sold into slavery or killed. Andromache, more a daughter to Hecuba than Helen ever was, is also carried away into slavery. The theme of virgin desolation remains: Earlier in the play, the Greeks snatch Cassandra away from Hecuba. Hecuba laments, “I saw my virgin daughters, bred for bridegrooms of the highest rank, torn from my arms and all their breeding thrown to foreigners.”
Euripides’s plays depict war without a romantic overcoat and with all its shocking tragedies. Children are separated from mothers—into captivity or death—in the most gruesome and barbaric way.
The eponymous play Hecuba continues the ruin of Priam’s pitiable wife. Cassandra and Andromache have been taken away. Astyanax is dead. Now Polyxena, Hecuba’s last remaining daughter, is to be torn away from her. Polyxena prophesies her own death to Hecuba:
Pitiable woman, you will see me, your pitiable whelp, like a heifer bred in the mountains, torn from your arms and sent down to Hades with my throat cut, to the darkness under the earth, where I, unhappy Polyxena, shall lie among the dead.
Hecuba has nothing but hatred for Helen. This hatred is motivated by her love for Troy, for her dead children and husband, and for Polyxena. When Odysseus breaks the news of Polyxena’s fate, Hecuba implores Odysseus to kill Helen:
[Achilles] should have asked for Helen to be slaughtered at his grave. She brought him to his destruction at Troy… I beseech you not to tear my daughter from my arms. Do not kill her. We have dead bodies enough. This girl is my delight. In her I forget my sorrows. She is my comfort and takes the place of many things. She is my city, my nurse, my staff, my guide.
It is worthy to note that Hecuba associates her last surviving daughter with her city. Homer says that the bad man is he who is “lost to the clan, lost to the hearth, lost to the old ways, that one who lusts for all the horrors of war.” In a heart-wrenching moment, Hecuba offers herself as a substitute on the sacrificial pyre so that Polyxena may live.
But Hecuba’s offer of replacement is good enough for the Greeks. Polyxena must be sacrificed. In another scene that moves the heart but provokes shock and rage, Polyxena kisses her mother goodbye:
No, my dear mother, give me your sweet hand, and let me press my cheek to yours. For never again shall I look upon the radiant circle of the sun. This is the final time. You are listening to my last words. O my mother who gave me birth, I am going away to the Underworld.
Polyxena is subsequently taken away and killed at the grave of Achilles where her blood pours over his tomb.
Euripides portrays the further ruin of Hecuba: from a truly “pitiable woman” to a ravenous dog. He does so not to shun Hecuba for her own barbaric revenge on Polymestor, the killer of her youngest son, Polydorus, but to demonstrate the shocking consequences of war. Hecuba transforms from a “most unhappy woman” to a “dog with fire-red eyes” because she has been “lost to clan, lost to the hearth, lost to the old ways” and finally consumed by “the horrors of war.” The descent of Hecuba is truly tragic: Having lost her family and fatherland, she becomes a murderer like those barbarous Argives.
The play opens in the tent of Agamemnon’s captives. A specter of death looms over the play as Polydorus’s ghost is the first character to speak. Of course, the play ends in death when Hecuba and the captive women blind Polymestor and kill his sons. That which began in captivity and death ends in captivity and death. When we are slaves to war, we become conduits of death.
Euripides’s war plays center on women. Iphigenia, Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra, Polyxena, and Helen all feature prominently. This concentration on the suffering of women, as well as children, reveals the bleak truth that war is most destructive to women. We see virgin brides sacrificed and murdered. We see mothers and grandmothers deprived of the fruits of their womb. We even see a woman who once asked innocent children to be spared become a killer of innocent children when she loses her family, hearth, and homeland.
Euripides doesn’t romanticize war. He exposes its horror and bloodshed and shows us, bleakly and starkly, war’s damaging effects on humans. We mustn’t forget that Euripides composed the plays during the Peloponnesian War. Responding to the great bloodshed of young men, women, and virgins, Euripides’s dramatic tragedies call for peace.
It is hard to ascertain whether Euripides really saw the family as important as Sophocles or Aristotle does. But what is clear is that war destroys families. The death of Astyanax, the culling of the womb, is evidence of that.
To Euripides who experienced the carnage of war, those who glorify and romanticize war are often men who have never loved and never had a family. Euripides lost his own son, Xenophon, in 429 B.C. at the outbreak of hostilities between Athens and Sparta. The loss of his son in war undoubtedly prompted his sentiments toward women. A society that is enslaved by war is a society that cannot bring life into the world.
The war plays of Euripides underscore this reality and hauntingly so. But there is yet something profound and healing in these war plays: pity. Pity is the great pathological feeling that Euripides’s plays rouse. The shocking and scandalous imagery that Euripides uses prompts his audience to pity the victims of wanton sacrifice, cruelty, and butchery. Pity offers a way out of that society enslaved by hatred and war.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
Note: The citations of Iphigenia in Aulis and The Trojan Women are taken from Paul Roche’s translations. The citations from Hecuba are taken from James Morwood’s translation.
The featured image is “Andromaque” (1883) by Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.
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Euripides. Iphigenia at Aulis. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy
The book under review is among the latest in the swiftly growing series of “Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy”. Pantelis Michelakis (M.) seeks to fill the series’ mandates (as given on the back cover) by providing an accessible introduction to Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, and to the principle concerns of past and present criticism. In this he succeeds. M. has produced a volume that, while brief, will generate student interest in this important play and still be of service to more established scholars.
The volume is broken into eight short chapters, simply and accurately titled and the bulk of this review will summarize and evaluate each in turn. The book begins with “A Summary of the Play”. Following an Aristotelian structure — scenes divided by choral songs — this chapter fulfils its promise succinctly, with interpretative issues saved for later chapters.
The second chapter explores the “provocative and revisionist attitude towards myth” (9) exhibited in IA. M. identifies four points of the Iphigenia story that are subject to variation and can serve as a litmus for authorial intent: Artemis’ reasons for holding back the fleet Agamemnon’s motivation for agreeing to the sacrifice the stratagem by which Iphigenia is brought to Aulis and the sacrifice or salvation of Iphigenia. Sections on “Epic and Lyric Poetry” and “Tragedy” cover IA‘s literary predecessors, including the Iphigenia plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. M. is perhaps too confident in following Zielinski’s interpretations of fragment 605 Radt (cited by page number in Lloyd-Jones’ Loeb), namely that the play must be set in Argos, and therefore cannot include Agamemnon or Achilles as characters. Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians is also discussed. A final section, “Traditions and Innovations”, lists briefly some other possible innovations of IA and examines thematic echoes with earlier sources: the chorus’ evocation of “happier” versions of epic and lyric, for example. Iconographic evidence, limited as it is, is not discussed, although both Woodford and LIMC are suggested as further reading. 1
The next chapter, “Characters”, begins with the observation that IA is not, unlike Sophocles’ and Euripides’ earlier tragedies, built around one character, but one event — the sacrifice of Iphigenia. All characters on stage are (in principle) opposed to that event. Agamemnon, Menelaus and Iphigenia are all subject to reversal of opinion and Achilles avoids a firm moral position. Aristotle’s famous observation on the inconsistency of Iphigenia is presented, along with the various ways that this comment has been interpreted. M. suggests three factors a reader might consider when analysing the use of character: needs of the plot psychological motivations and context — how the play responds to its literary tradition. Without privileging any one of these approaches, M. discusses, in separate sections, each character in the play, along with the chorus and offstage characters: Odysseus, Calchas and (collectively) the Greek army. Only the messengers are not treated specifically, dismissed as non-Euripidean. Characters are analysed thoughtfully and in human terms (the psychological approach: Conacher’s dismissal of Menelaus, for instance, as “a dramatic convenience” is rejected 2 ) but equal consideration is given to plot function and literary context.
In “Themes and Issues” many of the issues with which the characters of the play are demonstrably preoccupied are identified throughout the chapter in bold type. The first section, “Role-Playing”, examines how characters define themselves and each other as the social fabric unravels under wartime conditions. Moral values, plans of action, roles, self-consciousness, name, body and gender are all important key words here. The second section, “Rhetoric”, examines the use and effect of persuasion in IA. Subjects exploited for rhetorical use include falsehood, friendship, reason, irrationality, freedom, necessity, fortune, patronymics, matronymics and memory.
In the fifth chapter, “Religion”, M. addresses the cultural context in which the play takes place. M. first tackles the place of “Iphigenia and Artemis in Fifth-Century Cult” — not directly relevant to the play but, as M. rightly argues, important if we are to understand the full range of imagery employed throughout IA. “Artemis and Other Gods” discusses the diminished role of Artemis and the divine in IA, as well as the deification of abstract values, a theme not unique to this play but again relevant. Sections on “Human Sacrifice”, “Animal Sacrifice” and “Marriage and Death” discuss the importance of sacrificial ritual and the ways in which Euripides explores and exploits the similarities and differences between these ritual frames. Finally, a section on “Supplication” briefly analyses the two supplication scenes, distinguishing this type of ritual in the play from the previous examples as being integral to plot, rather than contributing to imagery.
The next chapter, “Politics”, is another one of contextualization, giving a brief overview of the state of affairs in Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. Again, IA does not engage directly Athenian politics but addresses issues relevant to contemporary political thought. A section on “War” explores the disruption of social norms caused by war. In particular, M. emphasizes self-sacrifice and the conceptual Other and their position within Athenian political ideology (“civic ideology” as a phrase is not used). The next section compares “Panhellenism” of the early fifth century (and political applications of this concept after the Persian Wars) and its use in IA. The final section, “Mass and Elite”, comments again on contemporary ideology, this time the tension between the democrats and aristocrats of Athens and IA‘s presentation of the mob as a powerful but often misguided political force and its human leaders as uncertain and infallible.
“Performance” is the topic of the seventh chapter. M. is attracted to the idea of presenting IA as part of a connected trilogy (along with Bacchae and the fragmentary Alcmeon in Corinth), and spends some effort on establishing mainly thematic links between the plays. But these links — the death of a young family member at the hands of a parent, the perversion of ritual and the conflict between family structure and societal values — could be made between IA and many other late Euripidean plays. As an exercise in contextualization this section is useful but might be less constrained by the idea of the unified trilogy (this preoccupation appears earlier in Chapter 2, when M. more reasonably attempts to locate a trilogy for Aeschylus’ Iphigenia play, perhaps with Telephus and Palamedes).
In the final (and, at 26 pages, longest) chapter, M. deals with “Reception”. This includes a section on “The Text and its History”, in which M. describes the survival of the text through manuscripts L and P and attempts to diffuse the polarity that has come to exist between the textual critic and the general interpreter, who is not necessarily concerned with issues of philology. This is a particularly important and welcome discussion, and an absolute necessity for any reader approaching this text for the first time. A student can be overwhelmed when first learning about the instability of our ancient texts and (by extension) the study of Classics. IA can serve as an introduction to textual criticism. M. presents the major problems of IA carefully, identifying the prologue and epilogue as major points of textual contention. Two pages are dedicated to the reasoning behind the interpolations, rather than the validity of the interpolations themselves. Sean Gurd’s recent monograph is acknowledged in a footnote. 3 This section could have been positioned earlier in the book, as the subject comes up frequently in earlier chapters.
Also, some textual decisions are made out of hand, sometimes noted (as with the dismissal of the first messenger as non-Euripidean on page 43) and sometimes not (M. notes that the choral entry song is one of the longest in Greek tragedy (27), but only the first three of eight stanzas are considered genuine by many editors 4 ). The chariot entrance is another scene that goes unchallenged. To be fair, the scope of this volume does not allow nor require such a thorough approach to the problems of text but a small table or appendix of major issues might help a reader make sense of IA‘s complicated textual history.
In a section on “Critical Views”, M. surveys various approaches, considering first Aristotle’s dislike in Poetics and praise in Politics. In modern criticism, M. finds value in the generic studies of the early twentieth century, and favours the ironic readings of Conacher and Vellacott, 5 combined with later nuanced readings, rejecting the straightforward approach of David Kovacs. 6 In particular, M. favours the reading of Foley, whose influence is evident throughout this book, both in M.s reading of many key passages and in the footnotes. 7
A discussion of “Performance History” rounds off the chapter and the volume. Evidence of ancient performance is given — namely the second-century terracotta “Iphigenia” bowls and the musical scraps of P. Leiden inv. 510. The impact of Racine’s seventeenth-century translation and adaptation is discussed. Highlights of modern performance are given, including the frequency with which IA is paired with other plays, Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides being the most prominent example. The final pages of this section are reserved for a discussion of Cacoyannis’ Iphigenia.
The “Guide to Further Reading,” divided into smaller sections corresponding to each chapter, identifies the most useful works in English and in other languages when necessary. The bibliography, which is both thorough and multi-lingual, duplicates this information but ensures that this volume will be of use to the more serious readers.
Terminology is avoided. Most previous volumes in this series have included a glossary of basic terms such as parodos and stasimon — the back cover promises a glossary as a series feature — and this would be of great use to students new to Greek tragedy. Occasionally, a specialized term appears without context or definition. Can an undergraduate be expected to know, for example, who or what a sophist (48) is?
I find endnotes annoying at best, and these are infuriating. Many are little more than cross-references to sections (not page numbers), resulting in a great deal of page flipping, and there was much repetition.
Despite these quibbles, I am happy to recommend this work, particularly as a supplement to a senior undergraduate reading this text in Greek for the first time. Themes and interpretations are presented in an even-handed manner. A course instructor may not agree with every decision made by M., but these are conversation starters for a classroom. M. writes in a clear and easy style, a must for any work directed at undergraduate students, and the text is almost error free. 8
1. S. Woodford, The Trojan War in Ancient Art, Ithaca (1993).
2. D.J. Conacher, Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme and Structure, Toronto (1967) 258.
3. S. Gurd, Iphigenias at Aulis: Textual Multiplicity, Radical Philology, Ithaca (2005).
4. D. Page, Actors’ Interpolations in Greek Tragedy, Oxford (1934) 141-7 remains the relevant discussion.
5. Conacher, see n.2 above. P. Vellacott, Ironic Drama: A Study of Euripides’ Method and Meaning, Cambridge (1975).
6. D. Kovacs, “Toward a Reconstruction of Iphigenia Aulidensis,” JHS 123 (2003) 77-103.
7. H.P. Foley, Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides, Ithaca (1985) and Female Acts in Greek Tragedy, Princeton (2001).
8. I found only three small errors. (1) A sub-heading in Chapter One reads “Prologue (1-162)”. The prologue ends on line 163. (2) Page 85, in the second last paragraph, should read “such as Orestes” the “as” has disappeared over a line break. (3) The date of Cacoyannis’ Iphigenia is alternately listed as 1976 (171) and 1977 (128). This discrepancy may arise from different Greek and international release dates.