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Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides: Analysis & Themes

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Euripides presents several themes in his play ''Iphigenia in Aulis.'' Two of the more prevalent themes are war and family. To a lesser extent, he explores the theme of heroism. Hidden beneath these, Euripides also presents the theme of gender.

War

When Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis opens, the Greek army is waiting to set sail. They are growing impatient. They want to go into battle and claim their glory, for they view war as a glorious thing. But glorious for whom? The survivors? Then, what of those who perish? Their names are remembered, and they will live on in stories. Their lives, however, are over.

The loss of innocent lives is a high price to pay, especially when one considers this war is over one woman. Menelaus has lost his wife, Helen, to Paris. She is in his clutches in Troy. Menelaus wants nothing more than to take her back. He and the Greek army must wait for Agamemnon to appease the goddess Artemis over a perceived slight.

For the winds to blow again and allow the ships to set sail, Agamemnon must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. She is a young girl, but an innocent. Her life must be sacrificed for the sake of war. Menelaus eventually realizes the price that must be paid for his revenge. He attempts to retract his desire, but by this time it is too late. The first of many innocent lives will soon be lost for the lust of war.

Heroism

Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army and king, along with Achilles, the bravest and best soldier in the Greek army, perhaps even the world, might best be seen as heroes because of their actions and leadership. Euripides doesn't present them as such, however. Agamemnon faces a dilemma that will cost him greatly no matter how he decides, while Achilles also bows down to peer pressure.

Agamemnon must choose the life of his daughter or lose the respect of his army. This really shouldn't be a difficult choice, but the honor associated with leading the world's greatest army is difficult to toss aside. Instead of displaying characteristics of a hero, Agamemnon shows himself to be a coward as he deceives those around him while procrastinating with some of his responsibilities as a leader. These develop into problems with his family and the Greek army.

Achilles too yields to pressure. In his case, it is that of the Greek army and their lust for war. Despite his best efforts to calm their rage, he nearly gets torn apart. The one person who emerges as a hero is also the one least expected. Iphigenia decides to sacrifice her life for the glory of Greece.

She gives up the most precious gift she can: her life. She goes to her death, so her father won't have to carry the guilt of sending his daughter to her death. She yields to no one and in so doing leads by example. She acts selflessly, and does what is in the best interest of the country rather than for the individual.

Family

The theme of family is best exemplified in Iphigenia's decision to sacrifice herself, for it shows the great love she has for her father. She knows that he deceived her into believing she was going to marry Achilles. He did so to protect her. She pleads with him to spare her life. He cannot. She sees in this decision the pain that afflicts him in making it, and knows the reason why he makes his choice. As a result, she can do nothing more than honor her father.

Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife, and mother of Iphigenia, doesn't view events through the same spectrum. She sees a man who chooses his daughter's life to appease an army. She doesn't see him as a loving husband and father. She sees a man who foregoes his paternal duty to protect his daughter. As a result, the family unit becomes fractured. The fissures in the familial relationships reveal the importance of family, especially when compared to country and honor.

There is one more matter of family, and it is between brothers. Agamemnon and Menelaus argue over whether to sacrifice Iphigenia. Initially, Menelaus wants to sacrifice Iphigenia in order to get his wife back. He eventually realizes that Iphigenia's happiness means more than his own. And he can always get another wife. Agamemnon changes his mind several times before deciding that the sacrifice is necessary for the greater glory of Greece. In their interactions, one can see how men perceive the value of family.

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