Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, Agamemnon’s Guide to Childrearing
Voltaire, and the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius long before him, held up the Iphigenia story as a parable of religious fanaticism, but this seems to miss the mark a bit- this isn’t a story of religion, but extortion. Or maybe just deal-making. Agamemnon’s trade: his daughter’s life for the Greek fleet’s quick passage to Troy: is a reminder of how dangerous it is being too close to an ambitious man.
Ismail Kadare saw parallels with the climbers in the Communist states betraying less-than-loyal family members to rise in the ranks, certainly being Stalin’s son wasn’t much help for Yakov Dzhugashvili. To be clear, we’re not talking simply about another sort of ideological fanaticism- a belief held so tightly it squeezes out all of one’s humanity; instead, the danger with the ambitious man is that he has no beliefs at all that might weigh down his climb, and so can arise in any climate.
The striver Agamemnon is literally stuck between point A and point B: the goddess Artemis has stopped the weather and frozen his fleet in the Bay of Aulis, as payback for a youthful transgression. In order to get to Troy, he needs to placate the goddess, and to do that he needs to offer his daughter Iphigenia as a blood sacrifice for reasons that are never entirely clear, but satisfy both the divine blood lust and the audience’s desire to see characters struggle through impossible predicaments in tragedies.
From the beginning to the end, the plot churns forward like a conveyor belt to a very bad place. We know that he’s going to sacrifice Iphigenia, tricking the girl and her mother Clytaemnestra into believing she is coming to marry the heroic Achilles; and yet, nothing, even the inevitable unmasking of his scheme, seems to make any difference. Achilles does the right thing, standing up to Agamemnon for the first time- the Iliad details their feud during the war with Troy. Clytemnestra rails against her husband desperately- when he returns from the war, she and her lover will butcher him for killing her daughter. Even the soldiers seem ready to abandon the whole plan.
But Iphigenia is ready to die. Her resolve is horror-inducing. Euripides is expert at inducing dread and revulsion. Here he holds out hope for her rescue, repeatedly, before having her stroll to the altar, not a bride but a forfeiture. Agamemnon’s motivations are too human to be incomprehensible, but what about Iphigenia? Why does she die? Is it to spare her father the disastrous outcome, or those Greeks who will likely be slaughtered if the ships don’t make it to Troy? Is her father’s betrayal too much to bear? I suspect the most likely reason is that classic Greek motivation of honor. Iphigenia will be remembered well for dying for her country; Greek heros always want to leave behind a good-looking corpse. Her heroism is ironic and an apt image of war as the sacrificial slaughter of the young by the old. It’s almost too much to bear, which was surely Euripides’s intention.
Endnote: Thanks to Scott for finding this online text of the play.