Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

EURIPIDES: Iphigeneia at Aulis

Here’s the situation. Paris is a handsome young prince from Troy. While vacationing in Greece he meets a beautiful young lady named Helen. He asks her to go back to Troy with him and she says yes. But here’s the problem: Helen is already married to Menelaos. When Menelaos finds out she’s left him he gets mad as a hornet. He’s not just Helen’s husband, he’s also a king. His older brother named Agamemnon is also a king and they decide to call all the Greeks together to invade Troy, loot the city, and bring back Helen. All the Greeks have gathered at Aulis for the expedition and are raring to go. But here’s the problem. The wind won’t blow. And if the wind won’t blow they can’t get to Troy. And the wind won’t blow unless/until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia to the gods. That’s where Euripides’ play Iphigeneia at Aulis begins.

Agamemnon has a real moral dilemma here. He loves his daughter and is responsible for her safety and upbringing. But he’s also leader of the Greek expedition and is responsible for their success or failure in their war against the Trojans. Here’s the choice he has to make: either (1) sacrifice the life of Iphigeneia and win glory and victory for the Greeks, or (2) save Iphigeneia’s life but go home in disgrace with all the rest of the Greek army. This is just another version of an age-old question: which is more important, your family or your country? The answer to that question depends on who you ask.

In the play we get several different answers depending on who's doing the talking. CLYTEMNESTRA takes a mother’s point of view and says: There is (no justice) in offering up your daughter as a victim of the army…Turn back, be wise. Every good mother wants to protect her child. It’s natural to take this point of view. However, in war many parents have to face a much larger context. It’s not just about me and my child; it’s about other parents and their children too. It’s about our whole country. It’s about our pride and honor. AGAMEMNON takes pride and honor seriously when he says: Being Greeks, we must not be subject to barbarians, we must not let them carry off our wives. This isn’t just an arrogant husband speaking. Agamemnon knows what he’s talking about. He himself killed Clytemnestra’s husband and father in warfare and then carried off Clytemnestra to be his own wife. Iphigeneia was the result of their marriage.

IPHIGENEIA is afraid at first. But she’s also young and idealistic. After giving it some thought she comes to the conclusion that Because of me, Greece will be free… She’s willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good of the Greek cause. ACHILLES is also young and idealistic. At first he says that he will act from a simple heart. If the commands of the sons of Atreus (Agamemnon and Menelaos) are just, I will obey them. If not, I will refuse. But by the end of the play he’s come to terms with human limits and admires Iphigeneia’s courage to accept her fate calmly: You are no match for the gods…you have reconciled what should be with what must be.

Finally, there’s the CHORUS. Iphigeneia and Achilles may think it’s noble to die for one’s country but the Chorus is having none of it: It is the role of destiny in this, and the role of the goddess, that are sick…The gods are not worshipped that way. Do the gods really require that we sacrifice our own children for the glory of our country? If that’s the case then maybe Greece isn’t worth saving. It’s a lesson for all times and all places.


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