Iphigenia in Aulis | Study Guide

Euripides

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Iphigenia in Aulis | Themes

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In Iphigenia at Aulis, Euripides grapples with social themes important to his times. As he was writing, Greece was nearing the end of a long war between Athens and Sparta. Each city-state headed a vast alliance, which meant that all of Greece had been drawn into the conflict. Therefore, his focus on leadership, war, and social issues was highly relevant to his audience.

Personal versus Public Duty

Again and again the characters in Iphigenia at Aulis debate which is more important: the individual's duty to self and family or their duty to Greece. In 5th-century Athens, when Euripides was writing, a boy was expected to prioritize his family until he reached manhood at 18. Then, he was expected to prioritize his city. Public duty was to supersede personal duty. In Iphigenia at Aulis, most characters struggle to find a solution to this dilemma, and few seem satisfied with the solution they find. Agamemnon wavers several times in his first two scenes. For him, it is a particularly relevant matter. He is, after all, king of Argos and commander of the Greek army. His position means he has great responsibilities. In particular, thousands of soldiers look to him for leadership as they embark on a common goal—to defeat the "barbarians" of Troy. This goal cannot be reached, though, because a lack of wind has trapped the Greek fleet at Aulis. It is this situation that suddenly intrudes violently on Agamemnon's private life as a husband and father. The seer Calchas has made clear there is only one solution to the problem confronting the army: Agamemnon's oldest daughter, Iphigenia, must be sacrificed to the goddess Artemis. As Agamemnon says in the Prologos, "Ambition, sweet though it seems, brings sorrow with its near approach." Thus, the notion of human sacrifice is present from the start of the play and forms a closely linked subtheme to the theme of duty. In his plays Euripides often explores the theme of voluntary sacrifice, especially of a young virgin. Typically the sacrifice is a response to a god's demand, an oracle (as in Iphigenia at Aulis), or some other supernatural impetus. Also typically the young person's family tries to prevent the sacrifice just as first Agamemnon and then Clytemnestra do in Iphigenia at Aulis.

For Agamemnon the situation is further complicated because the war against Troy is also personal. One of the goals of the war is to bring back Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Menelaus is Agamemnon's brother, and Helen is his wife's sister. The two men confront each other in Episode 1. When Menelaus learns Agamemnon has decided not to go through with the sacrifice, he considers Agamemnon a traitor both to the state and to Menelaus himself. In the public realm he likens Agamemnon to those leaders who "are too feeble of themselves to maintain their watch upon the state." On a personal level he suggests they could not be "sprung from the same sire." However, it is not Menelaus's arguments that convince Agamemnon he must go through with the sacrifice. What convinces him results from his public role—but it is essentially personal. He realizes the entire Greek army will learn of Calchas's announcement and will expect him to perform the sacrifice. If he does not, they will not only sacrifice Iphigenia but also kill him and his family for his failure to put the state's needs first. From that moment on, Agamemnon is resolute.

This conviction leads Agamemnon into conflict with Clytemnestra, who is equally convinced there is no more cogent argument than duty to family. Husband and wife confront each other in Episode 4, when Clytemnestra argues fiercely that a person's first duty is to their immediate family. Yet she does not address the full issue. She reduces the war on Troy to no more than a personal matter—retrieving Helen, an unfaithful wife. To sacrifice Iphigenia in order to reach Troy is, she says, "to pay a wicked woman's price in children's lives! 'Tis buying what we most detest with what we hold most dear." Agamemnon, however, sees a public perspective. He suggests that if Paris can take Helen with impunity the Trojans will feel no compunction about raiding other Greek homes and stealing other Greek women. Similarly, Clytemnestra reduces Agamemnon's role as king and commander to its external trappings. She asks, "Does thy one duty consist in carrying a scepter about and marching at the head of an army?" She doesn't see that Agamemnon is trying to protect the rest of their family. He is not acting out of purely public motivation. Clytemnestra, however, is never convinced. It is Iphigenia whose change of heart allows the sacrifice to happen. When Iphigenia sees the thousands of soldiers ready to go to their deaths fighting for Greece, she realizes she can do no less. Her conversion to public duty is pure. She is not trying to save anyone; she is offering her life for the good of Greece. Although Iphigenia at Aulis raises questions about the need for a Trojan War, Iphigenia herself does not question its necessity. She accepts her father's explanation that the war is necessary to protect Greece.

Nature of War

For much of Euripides's life Athens and Sparta had been engaged in war or, at best, in an uneasy peace. While he was writing Iphigenia at Aulis, which was left unfinished when he died, it was clear Athens was going to lose. The play explores the nature of war—how it starts, what sustains it, and its effects. On the surface the Trojan War was caused when Helen ran off to Troy with Paris. However, Agamemnon expands this to an existential threat of "the sons Hellas [being] pillaged of their wives by barbarian robbery." Thus, war may be started by what appears to be a petty incident. Yet that incident indicates a great danger facing an entire nation.

Once it has begun, war becomes self-sustaining. In the play this is evident in the army's attitude. Agamemnon says in the Prologos that he was ready to have the army disbanded when he heard he was to sacrifice his daughter. However, the actions of the army a few hours later suggest this might not have been possible. In Episode 1 it becomes clear the army knows Iphigenia has arrived, and Agamemnon immediately recognizes it is too late to save his daughter. "Fortune has outwitted me," he cries. The army, he realizes, will soon learn of Calchas's "oracles" and insist on the sacrifice. His prediction is borne out in Episode 4, when thousands of soldiers approach, intending to take Iphigenia "by her golden hair" to kill her. They are not acting as individual sons, husbands, and fathers. They are acting as an army—as a mob.

The chorus presents two very different responses to war—first a naive response and later a horrified one. In the Parodos chorus members talk about the Greek sailors as "god-like heroes." They are excited to have seen the army's encampment with its tents and "gathered steeds." They list the famous warriors they saw there and describe the vast fleet with excitement. However, in Stasimon 2 they begin to describe what will happen to Troy once the fleet sails. They describe the Greek soldiers "encircling ... the ... town, with murderous war around her stone-built towers, dragging men's heads backward to cut their throats." Not only will the Greeks kill the Trojan men, but they will also sack "Troy from roof to base." They point out how the death and destruction will affect the women of Troy: it will be a "cause of many tears to maids and Priam's wife." When Iphigenia goes willingly to be sacrificed, the chorus calls her "the destroyer" of Troy and the Trojans.

Role of Women

Iphigenia at Aulis portrays women as the driving force in Greek society but simultaneously assigns them the lowest status. Superficially this can be seen as supporting the traditional view of Euripides as a misogynist—someone who hates women and considers them inferior to men. However, as modern scholarship has pointed out, Euripides's female characters tend to be not only powerful and influential but also sympathetic. In fact, Euripides has even been called a "proto-feminist." In his plays he often uses his female characters to comment on the role of women in 5th-century BCE Athens. At that time Athenian society was dominated by men. Women, who were not full citizens, were raised to be wives and mothers. Their life expectancy was short; in fact, women generally lived no more than 40 years. Laws against women committing adultery were punitive. In his plays, including Iphigenia at Aulis, Euripides shows women largely accepting such constraints but working within them to wield influence. In doing so, he presents women as strong and decisive, at times vindictive and at times noble. Among the actions of women, who traditionally lacked power, Euripides often finds heroism.

In the play women drive the major events. However, despite their central significance, what women say tends to be disregarded—unless it conforms to what men demand. Again, this reflects 5th-century Athenian social views; after all, women could not participate in society and politics as full citizens. Despite all Clytemnestra's entreaties and threats, she cannot convince Agamemnon to spare their daughter. Even Iphigenia cannot convince him. When Achilles first meets Clytemnestra, he tries to leave because he believes it would not look good for him to be talking with a woman. What convinces him to talk with her is learning that his name was used to trick her into bringing Iphigenia to Aulis. Because the situation violates his own honor, he suddenly sees value in her conversation. The army hears and praises Iphigenia—but only after she agrees to be sacrificed so they can sail to Troy for their war. In her speech accepting her own death, Iphigenia's arguments echo Agamemnon's—she must do it for Greece. At the end of the Exodos, all the men—including Agamemnon—are happily boarding the ships to sail to Troy. The only one who openly misses Iphigenia is her mother.

The women in the play, including the chorus, are aware of and accept their low status. They quietly undergo unspeakable treatment by men without causing trouble over it. In Episode 3 Achilles tells Clytemnestra if he had been asked by Agamemnon to do so, he would have let his name be used to lure Iphigenia to Aulis. He only needed to be told that "that was where our going to Ilium broke down." He adds he "would never have refused to further [his] fellow soldiers' common interest." Yet Clytemnestra ignores his statement entirely, and both she and the chorus praise him for helping Iphigenia. In Episode 4 Clytemnestra reminds Agamemnon he slaughtered her first husband and child then forced her to marry him. This reflects the reality of contemporary Athenian life. Women seldom had a choice about whom they would marry. Still, Clytemnestra has been a loving and faithful wife to Agamemnon. Agamemnon's final words to her at the end of the Exodos indicate he expects this situation to continue even after events in Aulis. In Episode 4, when Iphigenia has decided to offer herself in sacrifice, she tells Clytemnestra, "Better a single man should [live] than ten thousand women." She characterizes her death as her "enduring monument." Moreover, she doesn't want her family to mourn her and begs her mother to forgive Agamemnon. Even facing death, Iphigenia doesn't want to create any trouble for the men around her.

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