|The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Jan Havickszoon Steen (1671).|
Iphigenia in Aulis (Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Αὐλίδι) is the last surviving play of Euripides, written between 408 - 406 B.C. and performed after his death in 405 B.C. And, it's hard for me to believe, but it's my second last play on my Euripides list: the final play, which I'll read this afternoon, is Rhesus which is generally (but not absolutely certainly) attributed to Euripides and whose date is unknown.
Iphigenia at Aulis is a tragedy and tells the story of how Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia. Very unusually the play does not begin with a lengthy prologue explaining the background of the play (in fact the only Euripides play without such a prologue is Rhesus); it begins with a conversations between Agamemnon and his attendant that reveals the events leading up to the action. The fleet is ready to set sail to Troy however the ship is unable to move as their is a complete lack of wind (I believe the proper term is "becalmed"): Calchas, an Argive seer who, thanks to the gift of Apollo, is able to interpret the flight of birds, believes this is a punishment from the goddess Artemis (whose Roman equivalent is Diana) who Agamemnon previously insulted. To appease her, Calchas advises that Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter. And so Agamemnon has sent for his wife Clytemnestra, telling her to bring Iphigenia to be married to Achilles, however he regrets his decision and sends another message telling her to remain. However the message is not received (due to the intervention of Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother) and Clytemnestra soon arrives with Iphigenia and the very young Orestes. Agamemnon and Menelaus talk further: Agamemnon is unwilling to sacrifice his daughter but Menelaus wishes it; his wife is Helen, who as we know is the very reason for the Trojan War. However both end up changing their minds: to placate the restless fleet and to win the war Agamemnon resolves to sacrifice Iphigenia whilst Menelaus begins to have doubts over the killing of his niece. Meanwhile Achilles discovers his name has been used to lure Clytemnestra and Iphigenia and he vows to defend her. However, when all is revealed, Iphigenia heroically consents to the sacrifice, despite her mother's heartbreak, after initially trying desperately to get Agamemnon to change his mind. Yet, when the sacrifice takes place, as told to Clytemnestra by a messenger, Iphigenia disappears at the crucial moment, her body replaced by a deer. It is uncertain whether this was the original ending by Euripides, but it is in keeping with Euripides' earlier play Iphigenia in Tauris (416 - 412 B.C.).
It is a dark and unsettling play, made all the more disturbing by the lack of resolve of Agamemnon and Menelaus, and indeed Iphigenia. Their lack on conviction in the sacrifice makes this play a tragedy and Euripides handles the matter with great sensitivity. Unlike Aeschylus' Oresteia, in which Clytemnestra revengefully kills Agamemnon and is in turn killed by Orestes and his sister Electra, Euripides does offer some hope: in his telling of the Iphigenia tale, Iphigenia does get a happy ending. It is a great play, and another new favourite of mine, and it went on to inspire Racine's Iphigénie (1674) which I hope to read fairly soon, and several operas, most notably Iphigénie en Aulide by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1774), which I look forward to listening to!
The Plays of Euripides
Iphigenia at Aulis | Rhesus