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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

Euripides’s play offers a story of filial loyalty and sacrifice of one’s personal well-being—and even one’s life—for the greater good of family and society. Iphigenia’s father must make a difficult decision after a seer recommends that he sacrifice his daughter so that he and his brother can wage war. Her...

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Euripides’s play offers a story of filial loyalty and sacrifice of one’s personal well-being—and even one’s life—for the greater good of family and society. Iphigenia’s father must make a difficult decision after a seer recommends that he sacrifice his daughter so that he and his brother can wage war. Her nobility ultimately relieves him of the burden of making this difficult decision.

Iphigenia’s father is Agamemnon and his brother is King Menelaus. The play provides some backstory to the more well-known classical tales of the Trojan War. Just before Iphigenia in Aulis begins, Menelaus’s wife, Helen, has been abducted by Paris, who takes her from Greece to his native Ilium (Troy). Menelaus enlists his brother’s help to retrieve her; they raise an army and ready the troops to sail from Aulis. However, there is no wind and they remain becalmed. Seeking a solution, they consult a seer named Calchas. His opinion is that the goddess of virginity, Artemis the Huntress, needs appeasing. A virgin girl is the suitable sacrifice, and Calchas tells Agamemnon he is required to sacrifice his daughter. Once accomplished, the winds will return and they can set sail.

Agamemnon is at first unwilling to accept this pronouncement, but he feels duty bound to keep his word to his brother. Once he agrees, he writes to Clytemnestra, his wife and the girl’s mother, that Iphigenia is to marry the great warrior-hero Achilles before the troops sail, and that she must bring their daughter to Aulis for the wedding, which she does.

It seems for a while that the father’s reflections will cause him to call off the sacrifice, as he realizes this is a lot to do for his brother. After he and Menelaus argue about valor and duty, both men decide they have to go through with the plan. Agamemnon rationalizes that the armies, which are ready for a fight, will believe in the seer’s message. If he backs out, the armies might see him as weak and condemn his sacrilege in defying divine will.

Still not being honest with his wife, Agamemnon tries to convince her not to attend the wedding but return to Argos. When Clytemnestra queries Achilles about his plans, he tells her the truth. Enlisting the great hero’s backing, she also gains support from her son, Orestes; they beg Agamemnon to spare Iphigenia. When he suggests the idea to the armies, Odysseus and his troops threaten to stone him to death. Even as Achilles and his men start to back Agamemnon’s forces, Iphigenia decides the issue for herself. She proves to be the noblest hero when she voluntarily gives up her life.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850

At Aulis, on the west coast of Euboea, part of Greece, the Greek host assembles for the invasion of Ilium. The war was declared to rescue Helen, wife of King Menelaus, after her abduction by Paris, a prince of Troy. Lack of wind, however, prevents the sailing of the great fleet.

While the ships lie becalmed, Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces, consults Calchas, a seer. The oracle prophesies that all will go well if Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s oldest daughter, is sacrificed to the goddess Artemis. At first, Agamemnon is reluctant to see his daughter so destroyed, but Menelaus, his brother, persuades him that nothing else will move the weather-bound fleet. Agamemnon writes to Clytemnestra, his queen, and asks her to conduct Iphigenia to Aulis, his pretext being that Achilles, the outstanding warrior among the Greeks, will not embark unless he is given Iphigenia in marriage.

After dispatching the letter, Agamemnon has a change of heart; he believes that his continued popularity as coleader of the Greeks is a poor exchange for the life of his beloved daughter. In haste, he dispatches a second letter countermanding the first, but Menelaus, suspicious of his brother, intercepts the messenger and struggles with him for possession of the letter. When Agamemnon comes upon the scene, he and Menelaus exchange bitter words. Menelaus accuses his brother of being weak and foolish, and Agamemnon accuses Menelaus of supreme selfishness in urging the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

During this exchange of charge and countercharge, a messenger announces the arrival of Clytemnestra and Iphigenia in Aulis. The news plunges Agamemnon into despair; weeping, he regrets his kingship and its responsibilities. Even Menelaus is so affected that he suggests disbanding the army. Agamemnon thanks Menelaus but declares that it is too late to turn back from the course they elected to follow. Actually, Agamemnon is afraid of Calchas and Odysseus, and he believes that widespread disaffection and violence will break out in the Greek army if the sacrifice is not made. Some Chalcian women who come to see the fleet lament that the love of Paris for Helen brings chaos and misery instead of happiness.

When Clytemnestra arrives, accompanied by her young son, Orestes, and Iphigenia, she expresses pride and joy over the approaching nuptials of her daughter and Achilles. Agamemnon greets his family tenderly; touching irony is displayed in the conversation between Agamemnon, who knows that Iphigenia is doomed to die, and Iphigenia, who thinks her father’s ambiguous words have a bearing only on her approaching marriage. Clytemnestra inquires in motherly fashion about Achilles’ family and background. She is scandalized when the heartbroken Agamemnon asks her to return to Argos, on the excuse that he can arrange the marriage details. When Clytemnestra refuses to leave the camp, Agamemnon seeks the advice of Calchas. Meanwhile the Chalcian women forecast the sequence of events of the Trojan War and hint in their prophecy that death is certain for Iphigenia.

Achilles and his Myrmidons are impatient with the delay and anxious to get on with the invasion of Ilium. Clytemnestra meets Achilles and mentions the impending marriage. Achilles is mystified and professes to know nothing of his proposed marriage to Iphigenia. The messenger then confesses Agamemnon’s plans to the shocked Clytemnestra and Achilles. He also mentions the second letter and casts some part of the guilt upon Menelaus. Clytemnestra, grief-stricken, prevails upon Achilles to help her in saving Iphigenia from death by sacrifice.

Clytemnestra then confronts her husband, who is completely unnerved when he realizes that Clytemnestra at last knows the dreadful truth. She rebukes him fiercely, saying that she never really loved him because he murdered her beloved first husband and her first child. Iphigenia, on her knees, implores her father to save her and asks Orestes, in his childish innocence, to add his pleas to his mother’s and her own. Although Agamemnon is not heartless, he knows that the sacrifice must be made. He argues that Iphigenia will die for Greece, a country and a cause greater than them all.

Achilles speaks to the army on behalf of Iphigenia, but he admits his failure when even his own Myrmidons threaten to stone him if he persists in his attempt to stop the sacrifice. At last, he musters enough loyal followers to defend the girl against Odysseus and the entire Greek host. Iphigenia refuses his aid, however, saying that she has decided to offer herself as a sacrifice for Greece. Achilles, in admiration, offers to place his men about the sacrificial altar so that she might be snatched to safety at the last moment.

Iphigenia, resigned to certain death, asks her mother not to mourn for her. Then she marches bravely to her death in the field of Artemis. Clytemnestra is left prostrate in her tent. Iphigenia, at the altar, says farewell to all that she holds dear and submits herself to the sacrifice. The Chalcian women, onlookers at the sacrifice, invoke Artemis to fill the Greek sails now with wind so that the ships might carry the army to Troy to achieve eternal glory for Greece.

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