Iphigenia at Aulis
By Euripides (485-406 BC)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
First Performance
Setting
Background
Characters
Tone
Plot Summary
Conflict
Themes
Climax
Structure
Greek Theater
Questions
Essay Topics
Author's Biography
Complete Text

Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012

Type of Work

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Iphigenia at Aulis is a tragedy centering on an army general who is deciding whether to sacrifice his daughter to a goddess in order to gain favorable winds for a sea voyage to Troy.

 
First Performance

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The play debuted in Athens in 405 BC, a year after the author's death. The occasion was the annual spring festival in honor of Dionysus, the god of drama, wine, and revelry. The festival was called the Greater Dionysia.


Setting

.......The action takes place in east-central Greece at the port of Aulis, on the Euripus Strait. The strait separates mainland Greece from the island of Euboea. The time is approximately 1200 BC, just before the start of the Trojan War.

Mythological Background

.......In the ancient Mediterranean world of the second millennium BC, feminine beauty reaches its zenith in Helen, wife of Menelaus, the king of the Grecian state of Sparta. Her wondrous face and body are without flaw. She is perfect. Even the goddess of love, Aphrodite, admires her. One day, Aphrodite competes with other goddesses in a beauty contest in which the winner is to receive a golden apple. The judge is a young Trojan named Paris. Aphrodite tells him that if he selects her she will award him the most ravishing woman in the world. After Paris chooses Aphrodite, she tells him about Helen, who lives in Greece with her husband, Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Forthwith, Paris goes to Greece, woos Helen, and absconds with her to Troy, a walled city in Asia Minor (in present-day Turkey). 
.......The elopement of Helen and Paris is an affront to all the Greeks. How dare an upstart Trojan invade their land! How dare he steal the wife of one of their kings! Which Greek family would be next to fall victim to a Trojan machination? Infuriated, King Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon, king of the state of Mycenae, assemble mighty armies of brother Greeks who include the finest warriors in the land. The soldiers gather at the port of Aulis to debark for Troy in a gigantic fleet of ships.
....... While at Aulis, Agamemnon goes hunting and kills a deer. But the deer was a favorite of Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the moon. In retaliation against Agamemnon, Artemis causes the winds to die down, making it impossible for the Greeks to launch their sailing vessels. A seer named Calchas tells Agamemnon the winds will not resume until he appeases Artemis. The only way he can do that, Calchas says, is to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess. Euripides picks up the story from there. However, he makes no reference to Agamemnon's killing of a deer.  

Characters 

Agamemnon
: King of Argos, Greece, and general of the Greek armies. 

Menelaus: King of Sparta, Greece, and leader of the Spartan army. He is the brother of Agamemnon and husband of Helen (See Mythological Background).
Clytemnestra: Wife of Agamemnon and sister of Helen.
Iphigenia: Oldest daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.
Orestes: Infant son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.
Calchas: Seer who advises Agamemnon to sacrifice Iphigenia.
Achilles: Greatest of the Greek warriors.
Chorus of Women: Residents of Chalcis (on the Greek island of Euboea) who come to Aulis to see the renowned Greek warriors and the wondrous sight of a thousand ships that will take them to Troy. The chorus comments on the action, usually attempting to promote harmony and goodwill.
Agamemnon's Elderly Attendant
Messenger

Tone

.......The tone of the play is grim and ominous.

Plot Summary

.......It is dawn at the port of Aulis, Greece. King Agamemnon and his armies have gathered there to prepare for their sea voyage to Troy to wage war. When Agamemnon's elderly attendant notices that his master seems troubled, he asks why. Agamemnon replies that the seer Calchas has told him that he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis to gain favorable winds for his fleet of sailing ships. If he fails to follow this advice, no winds will blow.
.......Agamemnon says he at first refused to consider killing his own daughter. However, his brother, King Menelaus, convinced him that he must sacrifice her for the general good of Greece. Agamemnon the dispatched a message to his wife, Clytemnestra, telling her to send Iphigenia to Aulis immediately. In the message, he pretended that he had betrothed Iphigenia to the great Greek warrior Achilles and that the wedding was to take place at Aulis. Now, conscience-stricken, Agamemnon regrets sending the message and has composed a new one saying that the wedding will be held at another time. He directs the old man to bear the message to his home in Argos. Agamemnon and the old man exit.
.......The chorus of women enters and reviews events that provoked the Greeks to declare war (as explained under  Mythological Background). The chorus members also tell of the great warriors they saw in the Greek camp and of the wonder of the gigantic Greek fleet, with a thousand ships ready to sail.
.......Menelaus enters with Agamemnon's elderly attendant. The former has intercepted the scroll on which Agamemnon wrote his second message. While the old man attempts to retrieve the scroll, Agamemnon enters and discovers what has happened. Angry, he tells his brother that he has no right to interfere in his private matters. Menelaus replies that Agamemnon has a duty to Greece and his soldiers to wage war against Troy in order to teach them a lesson. However, he says, Agamemnon—previously eager to lead the Greeks—is now proving himself too weak to do so.
.......In return, Agamemnon criticizes his brother, saying he was unable to control his own wife, Helen. Now he is willing to make Agamemnon suffer because he wants his wife back. Agamemnon also hints that Menelaus is jealous of him because he is the leader of the Greek armies. Then he says that if Menelaus wishes to go to war to fight over his wife, that is his privilege. But, says Agamemnon, he will not sacrifice his daughter and burden his conscience with such a foul deed.
.......A messenger enters with news that he has brought Agamemnon's wife, his daughter Iphigenia, and his son Orestes to the Greek camp. They are refreshing themselves at a spring after their long journey. The messenger says the Greek soldiers are abuzz with questions about why their commander's family is in the camp. Some wonder whether there is to be a wedding. Agamemnon thanks him for the news and dismisses him.
.......The news unnerves Agamemnon. He had not expected his wife to come, only Iphigenia. What will he tell her? What will he say to Iphigenia?
.......Menelaus, now sympathetic toward his brother, attempts to comfort him and offers him his hand. Agamemnon takes it and says it appears that he will have to sacrifice his daughter after all. But Menelaus takes back what he previously advised, now saying that Agamemnon should spare his daughter and dismiss the army. The chorus commends Menelaus for his conciliatory words. But Agamemnon now says that if he does not revert to his earlier plan, Calchas will inform the entire Greek army of his divination. Menelaus suggests that they kill Calchas, but Agamemnon tells him that one other man already knows of the seer's pronouncement: the supremely clever Greek warrior Odysseus. Ever eager to increase his popularity with the soldiers, he would probably tell them that Agamemnon went back on his word to carry out Calchas's decree. Odysseus then might undertake to sacrifice Iphigenia himself. Therefore, Agamemnon says, he must do the unthinkable: forfeit the life of his daughter. To avoid a confrontation with his wife, Agamemnon tells Menelaus to keep her occupied when Agamemnon presides at the sacrificial rite.
.......Agamemnon and Menelaus exit. The chorus then welcomes Clytemnestra and Iphigenia when they enter with the baby, Orestes. Clytemnestra is in good spirits, believing that her daughter is about to embark on a happy marriage. She has brought a dowry. When Agamemnon returns, Iphigenia rushes into his arms to embrace him. She commends him for summoning her to the Greek camp, then calls attention to the uneasy look on his face and the tears in his eyes. He explains that he has many concerns as a king and a general and is sad because he and she will soon be separated by a long absence. Before he leaves for Troy, he says, he must make a sacrifice that she will witness.
.......After Iphigenia exits, Clytemnestra asks Agamemnon to tell her about Achilles and his family tree. Her husband then presents a brief outline of the lineage of Achilles, pointing out that he is the son of the king of the Myrmidons, Peleus, and the sea nymph Thetis. Iphigenia and Achilles are to be married when the moon is full. In a sacrificial rite that he is about to conduct, he will solicit the blessing of the virgin moon goddess, Artemis, on the marriage. When Clytemnestra inquires about preparations for the wedding feast, Agamemnon tells her that he wants her to return home to take care of their two other girls. Besides, he says, it is not proper for her to sojourn in the Greek camp with so many men. Clytemnestra, however, refuses to leave, saying a mother should be with her daughter at her wedding. She then exits.
.......Achilles, meanwhile, is looking for Agamemnon to inquire about the delay in embarking for Troy. His men are eager to make war. But he happens upon Clytemnestra and Iphigenia. Clytemnestra extends her hand in greeting, addressing him as the future husband of her daughter. Dumbfounded, Achilles says he was never pledged to anyone—not by Agamemnon or anyone else. Clytemnestra, now embarrassed, realizes that no wedding is to take place. Agamemnon's elderly attendant and message bearer enters at that moment to inform Clytemnestra that Agamemnon plans to sacrifice Iphigenia with his own sword so that Artemis will send winds that will take the Greek armies to Troy. He reviews for her details concerning the messages and Menelaus's interception of the second one. Achilles is angry that he has been used as a tool in Agamemnon's scheme. He decides that he will indeed marry Iphigenia and then protect her from harm. Clytemnestra commends him for his gallantry but says he is under no obligation to intervene on behalf of her daughter. But Achilles insists on helping. He tells her to try to persuade her husband to spare Iphigenia. However, if her remonstrations fail, Achilles says, he will intervene.
.......Achilles exits. Taking Iphigenia and Orestes with her, Clytemnestra then confronts her husband. Is it true, she asks, that he plans to kill Iphigenia? Agamemnon says she presents a cruel question. But when she persists in her questioning, he realizes that she is aware of his intentions. Clytemnestra then asks what she is to reply when someone inquires why he killed their daughter. Should she say that he did so in order that Menelaus could retrieve Helen? In other words, is he going to sacrifice Iphigenia for an unfaithful, devious woman? Furthermore, she says, what will her life be like when he is at war and Clytemnestra must look at the empty chair where Iphigenia would be sitting? What blessing from the gods will he ask for himself as he is killing Iphigenia? When he returns from Troy, how will he face his other children?
.......The chorus urges him to heed her words. Iphigenia then addresses her father tenderly in a moving plea for her life. She says she was the first of his children to call him father and the first to sit upon his knee. And he told her that he would see to it that one day she would be happy in a home of her own. She holds up Orestes, just a baby, and asks him to plead for her in his own way; for even a baby can sense when something is wrong.
.......If he refuses to follow the advice of Calchas, Agamemnon says, the Greek soldiers—mad for war with Troy—will turn on him and kill him, Iphigenia, and his daughters at home. For the sake of Greece, he says, he must do as Calchas advises. Agamemnon leaves the scene in a hurry.
.......Iphigenia laments her fate, and the chorus sympathizes with her. Achilles enters and reports that the Greek army believes that the sacrifice of Iphigenia is necessary. However, he says, he will do his best to protect her. But Iphigenia speaks up, saying she realizes that she is doomed and accepts her fate. If she lives, the Trojans might conduct raids on Greece and carry off its women, as Paris did with Helen. Greece was wronged, she says, and she does not wish to stand in the way of an army seeking retribution. Finally, she says, she—a mere mortal—cannot prevail against the goddess Artemis. If Artemis wants her as a sacrifice, then Artemis will get her. She urges her mother not to hate Agamemnon, saying he has no choice but to conduct the sacrificial rite.
.......Iphigenia exits and goes to her death.
.......A messenger later tells Clytemnestra about the sacrificial rite. As Agamemnon saw Iphigenia entering the grove of Artemis, he began to cry before the soldiers who had come to observe. But Iphigenia comforted him, saying she was willingly surrendering her life to support Greece and to satisfy the gods. She wished her father good fortune in leading the Greeks to war. When a priest slit her throat, the messenger says, she disappeared and a deer appeared in her place, spilling its blood. Calchas then said that the sacrifice of a deer was more pleasing to Artemis than the sacrifice of a young girl. What is more, says the messenger, Artemis accepted the sacrifice and decreed a resumption of the winds. The messenger says Agamemnon then sent him to Clytemnestra to report on these happenings and to say that the king will become famous throughout Greece for displaying courage in a desperate hour. As for Iphigenia, he says, she has apparently been taken up into the abode of the gods.
.......Clytemnestra is suspicious. Has she been deceived still another time? Agamemnon enters and tells his wife all is well, for their daughter enjoys the company of the gods. He bids farewell to his wife before embarking on the sea voyage to Troy.

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Conflict

.......The main conflict centers on the opposing forces in Agamemnon's mind. On the one hand, his conscience urges him to ignore the decree of Calchas. On the other, his ego urges him to carry out the decree to appease his men and thereby maintain his lofty position as general of the Greek armies.

Themes

Pride

.......Agamemnon would rather sacrifice his daughter than suffer a blow to his pride. He prizes his position as general of the Greek armies, which makes him a king of kings, and well knows that refusing to follow the advice of Calchas would lower his standing in the eyes of his war-hungry men. The thousands of soldiers gathered at Aulis from around the country would regard him as weak and spineless. He might even lose the generalship. When he has second thoughts about sending for Iphigenia, he does the right thing when he dispatches a message directing his wife to keep Iphigenia home. But after intercepting the message, Menelaus rebukes his brother as a weakling and plays on his ego when he says,
When thou camest to Aulis with all the gathered hosts of Hellas [Greece] . . . the want of a favourable breeze filled thee with consternation at the chance dealt out by Heaven. Anon the Danai [Greeks from Argos] began demanding that thou shouldst send the fleet away instead of vainly toiling on at Aulis; what dismay and confusion was then depicted in thy looks, to think that thou, with a thousand ships at thy command, hadst not occupied the plains of Priam [King of Troy] with thy armies! And thou wouldst ask my counsel, “What am I to do? what scheme can I devise? where find one?” to save thyself being stripped of thy command and losing thy fair fame.Translation by Edward P. Coleridge (1863-1936).
....... At that moment, Agamemnon realizes that his august status and his reputation as a leader are in jeopardy. Nevertheless, he still holds out against the demands of his brother. However, after Clytemnestra arrives with Iphigenia and Orestes, he changes his mind. He knows that the soldiers will likely discover why Iphigenia is in camp. To avoid their wrath—and the loss of his dignity—he resolves to go through with his plan to sacrifice his daughter.

Courage and Cowardice


.......Agamemnon yields to the will of Calchas and sacrifices his daughter to appease his army and preserve his ego. His cowardice contrasts sharply with the courage of his daughter. Although she at first pleads for her life—as anyone in her place surely would—she eventually accepts her death sentence but exhibits no bitterness toward her father. She is noble, gracious, and brave to the end. After she dies, her father attempts to assuage his guilt and pacify his wife by promoting the story that Iphigenia enjoys a privileged and happy life among the gods. 

Other Themes

Deceit: Agamemnon lies about why he wants Iphigenia to come to Aulis. After she arrives with her mother and brother, Agamemnon continues to lie about his intentions.
Revenge: Revenge against the Trojans motivates the Greek soldiers. They wish to visit retribution upon the Trojans for an outrageous offense committed against the Greeks by Paris, a Trojan prince. He ran off to Troy with the wife of Menelaus, Helen.
Ungodly god: Clearly the author sympathizes with Iphigenia. She is a young, innocent, noble girl who must be sacrificed to the goddess Artemis so that the latter will send favorable winds to fill the sails of the Greek fleet. Euripides appears to frown on a culture that places faith in such a goddess.

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Climax

.......The climax occurs when Iphigenia learns of her ill fate and—after briefly pleading for her life—accepts it without bitterness or reproof against her father.

Structure

Prologue


.......The prologue, or introduction, of the play consists of the dialogue between Agamemnon and his elderly attendant. This dialogue provides important background information. The prologue ends when the chorus enters.

Parode, Episode, Stasimon


.......The lines that chorus members sing when they first appear make up what is called a parode (or parados). In Iphigenia at Aulis, the parode takes place when the chorus of women enters and and sings of the wondrous sight of the Greek camp with its multitude of warriors and its fleet of a thousand ships.
.......The lines that the characters speak as the plot unfolds make up what are called episodes. The first episode begins when Menelaus and Agamemnon's elderly attendant struggle with each other for possession of the second message that Agamemnon wrote to Clytemnestra.
.......The lines that the chorus sings between episodes of action make up what are called stasimons.The first stasimon takes place between the first episode and the episode in which Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, and Orestes arrive in the Greek camp. The play continues to alternate between stasimons and episodes until the exodos.

Exodos

.......The lines making up the final events of a Greek play are called the exodos. The exodos begins when Agamemnon defends his position that Iphigenia should be sacrificed. The exodos ends with the last lines of the play.  

Greek Theater: Structure

Definition and Background

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.......The Greek theater was an open-air stone structure with tiered seating, a stage, and a ground-level orchestra. It was an outgrowth of festivals honoring the god Dionysus. In these festivals, called Dionysia, the Greeks danced and sang hymns called dithyrambs that sometimes told stories. One day, Thespis, a choral director in Athens, used spoken words, or dialogue, to accompany the singing and dancing in imitation of poets who had done so before. Soon, the dialogues of Thespis became plays, and he began staging them in a theater. 
......."A contest of plays in 535 [B.C.] arose when Pisistratus, the ‘tyrant' whom the common people of Athens invested with power, brought a rustic festival into the city [Athens]," drama critic John Gassner writes in Masters of Drama. Such contests became regular features of the festivals, and the theaters in which they were held were specially built to accommodate them. 

Major Sections of the Theater
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.....(1) A tiered, horshoe-shaped seating area called a theatron. The theatron faced the east to allow the audience to view playsusually staged later in the daywithout squinting. 
.....(2) A stage called a proscenium. The staged faced the west to allow the midday sun to illuminate the faces of the actors. 
.....(3) An orchestra in front of the proscenium to accommodate the chorus.
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Other Theater Sections

.....Skene: Building behind the stage. First used as a dressing area for actors (and sometimes an entrance or exit area for actors), the skene eventually became a background showing appropriate scenery. 
.....Paraskenia: Extensions or annexes on the sides of the skene. 
.....Parados: Passage on the left or right through which the chorus entered the orchestra. 
.....Thymele: Altar in the center of the orchestra used to make sacrifices to Dionysus. 
.....Machine: Armlike device on the skene that could lower a "god" onto the stage from the heavens.

Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • Write an essay explaining the extent to which the ancient Greeks relied on prophecies to make decisions. Use library and Internet research. Include in your essay a discussion of the Oracle of Delphi.
  • What is the purpose of the lines the chorus sings when it first appears?
  • Early in the play, Calchas, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Agamemnon's elderly attendant, and one other person are aware of the plan to sacrifice Iphigenia. Who is that other person?
  • In your opinion, which character in the play is the strongest emotionally?
  • Iphigenia was one of three daughters of Agamemnon. Who were the other two? Use an encyclopedia if you do not know the answer.