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Aeschylus (c. 525 – c. 455 BCE), considered the "father of tragedy"; Sophocles ( c. 496 – c. 406 BCE); and Euripides (c. 480 – c.406 BCE) are considered the "big three" playwrights of ancient Greek tragedies. Actually, they're the "only three" ancient Greek playwrights whose tragic plays have survived...

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Aeschylus (c. 525 – c. 455 BCE), considered the "father of tragedy"; Sophocles ( c. 496 – c. 406 BCE); and Euripides (c. 480 – c.406 BCE) are considered the "big three" playwrights of ancient Greek tragedies. Actually, they're the "only three" ancient Greek playwrights whose tragic plays have survived in their entirety. We have fragments of hundreds of Greek plays, but complete plays exist only for these three playwrights.

Aeschylus wrote seventy to ninety plays, of which seven complete plays have survived. Sophocles wrote over 120 plays, of which we have seven complete plays. Euripides wrote about ninety plays, of which nearly twenty have survived more or less complete.

We know approximately how many plays each of these playwrights wrote, and the titles of those plays, because records were kept of the plays that were performed at the Festivals of Dionysus and the Lenaia Festivals held in Athens each year, along with the names of the winners of the award for the best play presented at each festival. (The prize for the winning playwright at the Festival of Dionysus was a goat. The literal translation of "tragedy" in Greek is "goat-song," which would explain the prize.)

Iphigenia in Aulis was Euripides's last known play, written in about 408 to 406 BCE and performed posthumously at the Festival of Dionysus in 405 BCE, where it won first prize. (The name of the person who accepted the goat on behalf of Euripides at the awards ceremony isn't known, but it might have been his son, Euripides the Younger, who was also a playwright.)

Iphigenia in Aulis fails as an example of an Aristotelian Greek tragedy. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because the concepts of "tragedy" and "tragic hero" had evolved considerably in the nearly seventy years since Aeschylus's plays.

Although Iphigenia in Aulis is based on Greek myths, as were most of the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides's play challenges the contemporary social order and the democratic political order. Euripides raises questions regarding the morality of war and the concept of heroism. The question of individual rights versus the common good is central to Iphigenia in Aulis.

The play does not have a true "tragic hero"—a character (usually the protagonist) who has a "tragic flaw," usually pride (hubris), which causes the character to make a serious error in judgment (hamartia) which leads to a reversal of fortune (peripeteia). The character then realizes their mistake (anagnorisis), which mistake nevertheless results in the character's demise.

The title character, Iphigenia, is a young girl who demonstrates none of the qualities of a "tragic hero," except that she's heroic in the sense that she willingly chooses to sacrifice her life for her father's honor and the good of the people of Greece. She's not the protagonist, doesn't have a fatal flaw, doesn't make any errors in judgment (except to let herself be sacrificed, of course), and therefore has no reversal of fortune and doesn't realize any mistake she's made, and she's suddenly and miraculously saved from being sacrificed to Artemis at the last minute, so she suffers no demise as the result of any mistakes.

Agamemnon, the closest thing to a "tragic hero" in the play, is the prideful protagonist, and he makes mistakes in judgment, but he undergoes no reversal of fortune, doesn't recognize that he's made any mistakes, and ultimately doesn't suffer for his mistakes.

Except for a moment of doubt about his decision to sacrifice his daughter to the goddess Artemis so that the gods will provide a favorable wind for the Greek fleet to attack Troy, the actual character of Agamemnon doesn't change during the course of the play, nor do the characters of Menelaus or Achilles. They end the play as the same flawed characters that they were at the beginning of the play.

The characters in Iphigenia in Aulis also resemble contemporary Athenians—complex, conflicted, confused human beings—rather than being the personification of the heroic, mythical figures of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Clytemnestra, and Achilles. Euripides's characters are caught up in moral dilemmas, like real people, and they're often ambivalent about the choices they must make in the play.

Iphigenia in Aulis represents a new kind of tragic play, significantly different from classic Greek tragedy, and Euripides gives a new meaning to "tragic hero" that would be explored and expanded by thousands of playwrights who lived after him.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 185


Aulis (AW-lis). Greek seaport, on the west coast of Euboea; a centrally located spot where Greek forces assemble to prepare for their invasion of Ilium. The play opens in front of the tent of Agamemnon, commander of the Greek armies. While the scene never changes, it is important that the audience know that just out of sight thousands of warriors and sailors are waiting impatiently for the wind to pick up so the fleet can set sail for Troy.

While stage directions indicate the setting, there is no certain knowledge as to how that setting was created on the ancient Greek stage. The more commonly accepted theory is that vertical prisms (periaktoi) were mounted on pivots between columns and rotated to show painted scenes. However, it is the pressure applied to the central character by the unseen thousands of men that creates the action of the play. Greek playwrights shaped much of their settings by their words and dialogue rather than actual physical objects, and the same is true of this play, even though there is the spectacle of characters entering in a chariot.


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Conacher, D. J. Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme, and Structure. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967. Excellent introduction to Euripides in general, with a particularly good discussion of Iphigenia in Aulis. Especially useful for providing mythological and literary background.

Foley, Helene P. “Marriage and Sacrifice in Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis.” Arethusa 15 (1982): 159-180. Concentrates on the similarities of marriage and sacrifice rituals, which are merged in this play. Discusses the implications of the play in terms of the politics of Panhellenism.

Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Discusses Iphigenia as a voluntary sacrifice, with particular attention to the gender implications of her action.

Smith, Wesley D. “Iphigenia in Love.” In Arktouros: Hellenic Studies Presented to Bernard M. W. Knox on the Occasion of His Sixty-fifth Birthday, edited by Glen W. Bowersock, Walter Burkert, and Michael C. J. Putnam. New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1979. Argues that Iphigenia’s acceptance of her fate is founded on a desire to protect Achilles. Also claims the extant ending to the play is corrupt.

Snell, Bruno. “From Tragedy to Philosophy: Iphigenia in Aulis.” In Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy, edited by Erich Segal. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. Places the play in historical context, with special emphasis on the concepts of knowing and doing. Claims the play is indicative of Euripides’ tendency to begin plays with confusion and end them with heroism, the reverse of Sophocles’ technique.

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