Iphigenia in Aulis Essay - Critical Essays


Critical Evaluation

This play is a mass of contradictions, a fact that accounts, in part at least, for its rather lukewarm reception until modern times. It is not a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense in its characters, its plot, or its theme, nor is it easily categorized with respect to any of these criteria.

Iphigenia in Aulis has been described as the tragedy of Agamemnon, who must make the horrible decision of whether to sacrifice his daughter or to abandon the war effort he has made a solemn pledge to advance. Although Agamemnon’s grief is certainly authentic, there is no real suspense as to what his ultimate decision will be. For example, he sends a second messenger to Clytemnestra, urging her to ignore his earlier summons, but only after he knows that it is too late to prevent the trip. Menelaus cares little for the fate of his niece; his only interest is in retrieving Helen, and more for the sake of his own honor than for any tender feelings for his wife. Clytemnestra berates Agamemnon, but the principal impetus for her tirade is her own welfare, not that of Iphigenia. Achilles is more concerned with the fact that Agamemnon used his name without his permission than with the slaughter of an innocent. Achilles claims he will fight to the last to protect Iphigenia, but his speech sounds hollow, and the chorus immediately follows with an ode lamenting Iphigenia’s imminent sacrifice. Iphigenia is to be killed despite her unquestioned innocence, and the resolve she appears to show at the end of the play ironically underscores the hypocrisy of the Greek cause: She is either more courageous than any of the soldiers or, at the very least, willing to pretend to be the willing victim of the sacrifice (a good omen) in order that the Greeks might retrieve Helen, who appears to have gone to Troy as a result of promiscuity rather than kidnapping.

Even the terms of the plot can be called into question. Whereas in earlier versions of the myth, the Greek fleet must put up at Aulis because of rough water and unfavorable winds, Euripides makes it clear that it is calm seas that force the layover. Greek warships, however, were powered principally by oars, not by sails, and would hardly have been affected adversely by calm seas. The final moments of the play suggest that Iphigenia is not sacrificed but transported off the island by Artemis, who demanded the sacrifice in the first...

(The entire section is 974 words.)