A Four Handkerchief Tragedy

Euripides: Iphigeneia at Aulis

translated by W.S. Merwin, translated by George E. Dimock Jr.
Oxford University Press, 128 pp., $8.50 (to be published March 23)


a film directed by Michael Cacoyannis

In the early spring of 406 BC, as the three Athenian poets selected to compete in the dramatic festival announced the subjects of their plays and presented their actors and choruses to the public at a preliminary ceremony known as the Proagon, the news reached Athens that Euripides had died in Macedonia, far to the north. As a tribute to his fellow-tragedian, who had been his younger rival for nearly half a century, Sophocles, who was not to outlast the year himself, appeared dressed in black and brought his actors and chorus on without the customary festive garlands on their heads. Euripides, according to a later tradition, had been killed by a pack of hunting dogs.

Scholars are justifiably wary of the sensational stories of the death of poets current in antiquity (Sophocles for example is presented in one account as a victim of his own punctuation—he lost his breath reading aloud a long passage from Antigone), but anyone who has ever been chased on a Greek hillside by shepherd dogs will not dismiss the story out of hand. It has, in any case, a symbolic rightness: Euripides had for close to fifty years played the part of Athens’s bad conscience, perplexing, shocking, and depressing his contemporaries. “He was a harsh man,” writes Seferis, “and his friends were few. / The time came, and the dogs tore him to pieces.”

But the news of his death (whatever the manner of it may have been) was not the last Athens was to hear of him. He left behind him three new plays, which were produced in Athens by his son, Euripides the Younger. One of them has not survived; another, the Bacchae, is universally recognized as a masterpiece; the third, Iphigenia at Aulis, has met with a mixed reception.

It is an exploration in depth and at considerable length of the situation recalled by the old men of the chorus in the opening stasimon of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon: the Greek fleet, poised for the invasion of Troy but held fast at Aulis by adverse weather; the dilemma of Agamemnon—to sacrifice his daughter and thus release the ships or to disband the army. The king faces an agonizing decision—“Pain both ways and what is worse? Desert the fleets, fail the alliance?”—but when he makes up his mind, his mood hardens—“once he turned he stopped at nothing seized with the frenzy.”1

Euripides’ Agamemnon, however, is made of softer stuff: the play is full of indecision, its psychological plot line is, in fact, a series of sudden changes of mind. Before the play’s opening, Agamemnon has already sent for his daughter Iphigenia, with the false promise (kept secret from the prospective bridegroom) that she is to marry Achilles. In a brilliantly poetic prologue, a night scene in the windless calm at Aulis, he changes his mind abruptly and sends a trusted servant with a letter to his wife, instructing her to keep the girl in Argos. The letter is intercepted by Menelaus; a…

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