Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974

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...

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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 place. The audience, however, must be aware that even seemingly objective narration carries with it a point of view. The messenger, after all, is a specially selected soldier in Agamemnon’s army, sent to tell the news of the sacrifice to Clytemnestra, whose wrath might possibly be at least partially assuaged by the thought that her daughter is indeed still alive. Some critics argue that the ending of the play as it now exists was written by someone other than Euripides, perhaps by his son, several years after the original production. Nothing is necessarily what it seems to be.

Euripides almost certainly wrote Iphigenia in Aulis in Macedon, while in self-imposed exile from Athens. The play was presented posthumously, along with The Bacchae and the lost Alcmaeon in Corinth, at the Dionysian festival in 405 b.c.e. Athens had been fighting the Peloponnesian Wars for more than a generation, and it was becoming increasingly clear not only that Athens would probably lose (as indeed it did the year after the play was produced) but also that imperialist overreaching would be a contributing cause to any loss. Athenian politics had been factionalized for several years, with coups and countercoups of oligarchs and of radical democrats contributing to the ferment. Euripides was a pacifist and a political conservative; it should come as no surprise either that the Trojan War is portrayed in Iphigenia in Aulis as senseless carnage precipitated by egocentricity, or that one of the greatest dangers the play describes is the chaos resulting from the inability of Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Achilles to control their respective armies. Democracy, to Euripides, was never far from mob rule. Euripides was also an agnostic if not an atheist; not surprisingly, the most bloodthirsty figure in the play may be the high priest, Calchas, who never appears but whose pronouncements incite the action.

In many senses, Iphigenia in Aulis is one of the most modern of ancient plays: The characters are complex, flawed human beings, not merely one-dimensional heroes, and the thematic material intertwines in complex and sometimes topical ways. It is easy, perhaps, to criticize the play for not adhering more rigorously to tragic norms, for taking its iconoclasm too far or for relatively frequently lapsing into melodrama. Still, the play is admirably constructed (and in conformity with the so-called three-actor rule of Greek tragedy). The movement from Agamemnon’s first letter to Clytemnestra (well before the beginning of the play) to the sacrifice itself is inexorable, and the forces of reason and compassion consistently, but inevitably, fall short of derailing the killing. All of the major characters, except perhaps Menelaus, are given speeches of exceptional eloquence, and the final messenger’s speech may be the most evocative of all. The play is rather static in theatrical terms: Agamemnon, Iphigenia, and, to a lesser extent, Clytemnestra and Achilles all engage in fairly lengthy internal debates, and the principal physical actions of the play take place off-stage.

The ambiguities of Iphigenia in Aulis make it particularly receptive to readings employing particular critical methodologies. Accordingly, the play has experienced a resurgence of interest from modern critics who analyze it through the lenses of Freudian psychology, power dynamics, and, especially, gender roles. Ultimately, however, it is probably the ambiguities themselves, not critical responses to them, that will serve as the play’s most enduring legacy.

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