Agamemnon: I envy you, old man, as I envy
Anyone who’s lived a quiet life,
Unrenowned. How little I envy
Positions of power!
Retainer: But that’s where all the glory is.
Agamemnon: A dangerous glory, and ambition
However sweet lies close to grief.
A little irreverence and the gods
Swoop; and sometimes human beings
Through prejudice and misconception
Tear one apart (219).
Iphigenia: But the remarkable thing, Mother, as I think it over,
is that I am willing to die—and die gloriously,
after putting every petty thing behind me.
On me the sailing of the fleet
and overthrow of Phrygia,
on me the remedy against any barbarian
carrying off our women from a happy home—
should such a thing enter his head.
All this my death accomplishes,
and my name shall be blessed as the liberator of Greece.
So I must not cling to life.
I was born from you not simply for your sake
but for the common good of Hellas (266-267).
Iphigenia: A single man is worthier
to look upon the light than ten thousand women.
If Artemis is determined to have my carcass
shall I a mortal female cheat the goddess?
No, I give my body to Hellas.
So sacrifice me and sack Troy (267).
The story of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis is a precursor to plays like Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, which chronicles the murder of Agamemnon and the subsequent event. This play presents the sacrifice that sets all of that in motion. Just before the beginning of the Trojan War—ten years prior to the Oresteia—the Hellenic fleet was gathered at Aulis trying to sail for Troy, but there were no winds. Finally Agamemnon—king of Mycenae and commander of the Greek army—receives a prophecy from the seer Calchas, which says he must sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis before she will give the fleet any winds. Euripides’ play opens with Agamemnon having already sent word to his wife, Clytemnestra, to send Iphigenia under the pretext of a wedding to the hero Achilles. But now Agamemnon is sending a second letter trying to tell Clytemnestra not to bring Iphigenia, but this letter is intercepted by Menelaus, Agamemnon’s brother. Although Menelaus accuses Agamemnon of waffling back and forth about his decisions, Menelaus shows no more resolve when faced with the actual prospect of killing Iphigenia than her father does. Both men waver back and forth (generally at opposite times), before finally Agamemnon resolves to carry out the sacrifice. But this is neither a gesture of devotion to the goddess nor a selfless giving of his daughter for the good of Hellas—Agamemnon’s fear is that word will get out (from either Calchas or Odysseus) that he had failed to meet the demands of a goddess, and Agamemnon and his family would not only be shamed, but the enraged army would kill them anyway.
This is about the moral level of all characters in this play (with the exception of Iphigenia herself). No one at the end of the day is particularly likable. Both Agamemnon and Menelaus are indecisive—one is tempted to say spineless—vain, and selfish. Achilles is superficial and self-flattering. Clytemnestra is a bit pathetic in her stubborn refusal to allow Iphigenia to be sacrificed, even when the girl herself declares it the right thing to do, and she is vindictive (more about that below). Even the elderly retainer, who brags to Menelaus about his loyalty proves disloyal when he betrays Agamemnon to Clytemnestra and Achilles.
Iphigenia is the only admirable figure in the play, and she is the most humble. I think Euripides likes Iphigenia because he presents her as being without affectation, and almost without ego. When she initially pleads for her life, the appeals are never about her fear of death or her own desire to keep living, her appeals center on spending more happy times doting on her father. But soon after it becomes clear that her death is fated and that Artemis will have her blood, Iphigenia accepts the inevitable with an admirable stoicism and argues to her mother that through her own death Iphigenia will be eternally elevated as a savior of Greece. Iphigenia accepts both her fate and her duty calmly and almost happily.
The bit I find particularly interesting is that when Clytemnestra asks what she should do for Iphigenia after her death, the daughter tells her mother not to mourn her death or hate her father. Iphigenia’s injunction is against revenge or even resentment of Agamemnon. This is particularly ironic (purposefully so) because Euripides was probably responding to Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra in the play Agamemnon, in which she speaks powerfully and movingly of why she should take vengeance for her daughter. In this play we see that Clytemnestra actually does act out for her own selfish ends, and not in the way Iphigenia would have wanted. This throws into question any sympathy we had for Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra by tainting her righteous revenge with the suggestion of selfishness against her daughter’s wishes.