Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis



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) — an awareness he completely lacks in the Iliad. 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:

The heavy yoke of circumstance is on my neck. Destiny has circumvented me and shown itself much cleverer than my clever devices. Humble birth has its advantages. It is easy for such folk to weep and tell all their unhappiness. To the man of noble birth come miseries no less; but we have decorum to rule our lives and are in bondage to the mob. (325)

He blames Paris for his current dilemma. Menelaus patches things up between the two of them, advising Agamemnon not to go through with the sacrifice: “I was wrong and hasty. I did not stop to look at the thing closely and see what it means to kill one’s children” (326). ! But Agamemnon seems resigned to the tragedy. Calchas, for example, would alert the armies about the oracles. “Not if he dies first. That is easy,” says Menelaus (326). But then Odysseus would rat out Agamemnon’s reneging.

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:

Have I been abused? Have I been matchmaking when there is, it seems, no match? I am mortified! … Farewell. I can no longer look you in the face. I have been made a liar. I am humiliated. Goodbye. (335)

The Old Servant enters and tells them the real plan: “The father that begot her … will slash the poor girl’s white neck with a sword” (336). Clytemnestra is panicked, Achilles outraged. When Clytemnestra hints to Achilles about possible slaughter of her husband, the Leader of the Chorus remarks, “Motherhood is a wonderful thing” (337). Achilles blabs on at length about the slight to his name and fame, and although his resolution may be a bit unclear, it seems, and Clytemnestra rejoices that, he’ll help avert the intended murder of Iphigenia. First Clytemnestra must request Agamemnon directly that he not kill his daughter. If he agrees, no need for Achilles to intercede!

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 a deus ex machina: Artemis 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:

No shred of heroic dignity is left to the great names of the Trojan War, and hence the war itself becomes foolish as well as wicked. Not only the Atreidae and Odysseus but even Achilles, who had always been above criticism, is shown to be arrogant and incompetent and lacking in physical as in moral courage. Never again could the familiar cast and story be used for authentic heroic tragedy…. The key is now so far reduced that we are no longer angry at abuses, but actually sympathize with the little people caught in roles too big for them. (313)

Roche confirms: “Only Iphigenia, in her courage and simplicity, rises above the mediocrity and vulgarity of the rest of them” (Roche 217). And echoes occur in Henry V as well, concerning Agamemnon’s take on the lot of the privileged.

Works Cited

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.


Orpheus: Greek Plays