Monday, October 26, 2015

A Dangerous Glory

Iphigenia in AulisIphigenia in Aulis 
by Euripides

"Agamemnon: I envy you old man.  I envy a man who lives a life without a name.  But those that have power--I envy them least of all.

Old Man: But such men have a life of glory.

Agamemnon:  A glory that is filled with danger.  Yes, power is sweet, but it stands on the brink of grief.  Sometimes it is the gods who destroy a man's life.  Sometimes it is the minds of men, vicious and beyond number, that bring ruin." (pp 11-12)

Near the end of Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia has offered herself as a sacrificial victim: 
"I have decided that I must die. And I shall die gloriously."(p 58) At this point the Chorus echoes her praises, but one wonders at the events that have led to this point and the event that will come to follow this moment as the ending turns the drama on its head.

The story told in this drama by Euripides is one that Athenians knew well. It was told by Aeschylus in his drama Agamemnon, the first play in the trilogy known as The Oresteia. Thus it would have had a tremendous impact on this audience and that impact has continued to this day.  In Aeschylus's play the Chorus, made up of the old men of Argos, enters and tells the story of how the Trojan Prince Paris stole Helen, the wife of the Greek king Menelaus, leading to ten years of war between Greece and Troy. Then the Chorus recalls how Clytemnestra's husband Agamemnon (Menelaus' brother) sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia at Aulis to the god Artemis to obtain a favorable wind for the Greek fleet.   

Euripides' play raises serious questions about the value of an individual life, and under what circumstances that life can be taken. Is the play's central event, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, a pointless waste, or a tragic necessity?  Do the players, her father Agamemnon, Achilles, and Iphigenia herself,  have a choice or is their fate determined by the gods (Artemis in particular)?  Is the war that will be fought as a result of her sacrifice a just cause, or a petty quarrel over individuals and the fate of the beautiful Helen?  Is her decision to offer herself an act of heroic patriotism?  Acceptance of the inevitable or possibly a sign of madness?  These questions and more linger in one's mind during and after reading this powerful drama.  

In Euripides play Iphigenia invokes values important to the Greeks (p 58-9); including obedience to the gods, "Artemis has determined to take this my body--can I, a mere mortal, thwart a goddess's will?"; that the community is more important than the individual, the Greeks must prevail over the barbarians, that men are more valuable than women, and that death in defense of these values is glorious and brings everlasting fame, "Sacrifice me and destroy Troy. That will be my epitaph for eternity. That will be my glory,".  That the glory that she seeks is one determined by men is an open question.  The play also raises questions about the importance of the family as her mother, Clytemnestra and supposed suitor, Achilles, take on important roles.

The translation of this play by Nicholas Rudall is both lucid and poetic in an attempt to capture some of the music that Euripides was famous for. His tragic irony shines through the dialogue. The questions raised in this play are universal in the sense that we still are concerned over the nature of heroism and fidelity to one's community. Euripides won a prize for this drama even though he was no longer present in Athens and had died the previous year. I would recommend this to all who are interested in these questions and their presentation in one of the singular dramas of the Western tradition.

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Brian Joseph said...

This and other works by Euripides are indeed embedded deep in our culture.

It has been a while since I read this. I remember that despite the fact that Agamemnon's actions seem horrendous one is able to also deeply empathize with him in this work.

James said...


You make some excellent points. Agamemnon had second thoughts and Euripides depicts his dilemma in a way that allows for empathy with his situation even though it is a horrendous choice.