Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


an analysis of the play by Euripides

The following essay on Iphigenia at Aulis was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 314-6.

The Iphigenia at Aulis, which, like the Bacchae, was not exhibited till after its author's death, bears evident traces of interpolation. In all probability it was the latest of the poet's works, and being left in an unfinished condition, was completed and prepared for representation by the younger Euripides, in whose name it was first produced. To trace in detail all the later insertions is a difficult task, which has given rise to the utmost diversity of opinion. But there are certain passages about which most editors are agreed. The dull and lengthy descriptions of the first chorus, and the messenger's confused account of Clytemnestra's arrival, may be regarded with a fair amount of certainty as the work of the adapter. The commencement of the play is also very unusual. It opens with a vivacious dialogue in anapaests between Agamemnon and his attendant. But in the middle of this dialogue is inserted, in the clumsiest fashion, a long and formal narrative, composed in the iambic metre, and in the usual style of the Euripidean prologue. The obvious inference appears to be that portions of two alternative openings have somehow been combined; but how this came about, and whether either or both were composed by Euripides, is a matter of pure conjecture.

In addition to the insertions of the adapter, the play in later times underwent still further alterations. In its original form it concluded with the appearance of the "deus ex machina." After Iphigenia had been led away to sacrifice, Artemis descended from heaven, and consoled the weeping Clytemnestra by informing her of the substitution of the deer, and the future immortality of her daughter. This termination seems to have disappeared at some later epoch, and to have been replaced by the present scene, in which the details of the sacrifice are related by the messenger. The concluding part of the substituded scene was itself lost in course of time, and its place is now taken by the barbarous composition of some medieval grammarian. Hence the last fifty lines of the play, as they now appear, represent the second variation from the original conclusion.

In spite of its imperfect condition, the tragedy is a work of great beauty and interest. It is true that in some places it exhibits the defects of the poet's later manner. The choruses have little immediate bearing on the course of the action; Clytemnestra's appeal to Agamemnon is somewhat forensic in tone; and Achilles occasionally shows a disposition to lecture on moral science. Moreover, the trochaic tetrameter is employed with far greater frequency than in any other drama; and though it is an admirable metre for violent altercations, such as that between Agamemnon and Menelaus, it is hardly so effective as the iambic in the more dignified and pathetic portions of the dialogue. But these occasional deficiencies are balanced by conspicuous merits. The irresolute character of Agamemnon, his hesitation between the calls of love and policy, and his peevish discontent at the ill-success of his frauds, are drawn with peculiar mastery; and the confusion with which he receives the affectionate greetings of the daughter whom he is deceiving gives occasion to a scene of great tenderness and passion. Equally effective is the meeting of Clytemnestra with Achilles, and the extreme astonishment of the one on being greeted as a son-in-law, and the embarrassment of the other on finding that the supposed marriage is a fiction. The sudden change of mood in Iphigenia, from terrified despair to heroic self-devotion, when she finds that the fate of all Greece depends upon herself, has been censured as an inconsistency by Aristotle. But though the transition might perhaps have been made less abrupt, it is difficult to see why it should be regarded as unnatural.

The sacrifice of Iphigenia was a favourite subject with ancient artists. Of all the numerous representations of the event, the most celebrated was that of Timanthes of Sicyon, a painter who flourished at the end of the fifth century, and whose picture represented Agamemnon as covering his face with his mantle, while the knife was raised to slay his daughter. The old critics were profuse in their admiration of the artist's skill and delicacy, in adopting this method of depicting a father's agony. The question has often been raised whether the idea was originally due to Timanthes himself, or whether it was taken from the present tragedy, in which the description of the sacrifice corresponds with the representation in the picture. But if, as seems almost certain, the conclusion of the play was a later addition, the question of priority is at once settled. Possibly, however, the attitude of Agamemnon during the death of his daughter formed part of the old tradition on the subject, and was merely adopted, and not invented, by Timanthes.

Back to Euripides