Euripedes: The Trojan Women, Iphigenia at Aulis, Iphigenia in Tauris

Similar to last week, the three plays I read over this weekend have women at the center of the story.

The Trojan Women

The Trojan Women (TW) deals with the immediate aftermath of the fall of Troy. All of the major Trojan heroes such as Priam and Hector are dead, and the women’s fate are to be decided. The play’s focus shifts across three women: Hecuba (wife of Priam), Andromache (wife of Hector), Cassandra (daughter of Hecuba), and Helen (wife of Menelaus and the main reason for the whole war). Being a play focused solely on women, it is rather disappointing and surprising that the women are not given much active roles to play. In contrast to the redemptive, almost heroic Hecuba we see in Hecubathe Hecuba in TW is reduced to constant lamenting, complaining, and reacting horrifically to revelations of what will happen to each woman. None of the other women do anything either; the dominant perspective is that things are done to them. They are reduced to being mere objects, prizes of war. At best, they are liabilities, as seen in one of the dramatic climaxes of the play, when it is revealed that Andromache’s still infant son with Hector, Astyanax, is to be killed, as the Greeks are fearful that the son of such brave a father could be left alive.

That being said, Euripedes does let the women speak. The reaction becomes the action of the play. The treatment of Helen illustrates this combination of passivity and of the characters well: she is dragged out by her hair, hated by everyone as she is viewed as the root cause of the horrible war. Menelaus wants to kill her, and Hecuba is not too sad about that: “For she ensnares the eyes of men, o’erthrows their towns, and burns their houses, so potent are her witcheries!” As Menelaus confronts her, she desperately asks for a chance to defend herself, trying to argue that her affair with Paris was the working of Athena, and she was taken away by force, first by Paris and later by his brother Deiphobos. But both Hecuba and the chorus are firmly on the other side, debunking her excuses. Helen can only beg for her life, but Menelaus is firmly resolved to bring her back and make her die a shameful death in order to deter other women from doing the same thing.

Just as we have seen in Hecuba and The Heraclidae, there is an emphasis on accepting fate, especially in the case with Cassandra, a character who in all plays always comes about as being a bit unhinged. It is decided that she is to marry Agamemnon. While Hecuba is horrified (as she had been set apart to be a chaste priestess), Cassandra seems to welcome her fate, lifting a marriage torch and imploring her mother to rejoice. Or at least she is sarcastically or madly doing so. Being cursed with the gift of unbelievable prophecy, she is probably keenly aware of the sequence of events that will happen to her (being murdered with Agamemnon by Clytemnestra, as told in Agamemnon), and logically there is nothing she can do to alter her fate. Andromache also displays resignation at the decreed death of Astyanax, lamenting his fate loudly but not making much physical movement to resist. In fact, she does say that Polyxena, having been dead as part of a sacrifice, is enjoying a better fate than her.

To conclude, I think that there is opposition or contrast in TW in the form of Cassandra and Andromache, who are relatively resolute in accepting their fate, and Hecuba and Helen, who lament loudly and attempt to struggle.

Iphigenia at Aulis

The sacrifice of Iphigenia just before the start of the Trojan War was the initial spark that drove the tragic, bloody events of the OresteiaThis play gives a version of the events that ends up in a semi-happy ending: at the very last moment Iphigenia is magically rescued by the gods, suddenly disappearing from the altar when everybody is looking away, with a deer left in her place (for a modern reader, this might evoke an echo of a similar episode with Abraham’s son Isaac in Genesis). The central drama in Iphigenia at Aulis (IA) is no doubt the battle over Iphigenia’s fate occurring in the mind of Agamemnon. In the beginning, it’s a conflict between him and Menelaus. Having heard a prophecy from the seer Calchas assuring him that Iphigenia’s death will ensure good winds for the journey, Agamemnon has written a letter which will ask her to be fetched to Aulis (where the army is assembled), but he changes his mind. He is at first opposed to the idea of sacrificing his own daughter for the sake of recovering Menelaus’ wife (Helen, which started the whole war) – why doesn’t Menelaus have to sacrifice his own daughter Hermione instead? Euripedes chooses to present this internal conflict as a series of ups and downs – at first Menelaus vehemently opposes Agamemnon, then he relents, but when he does so Agamemnon has changed his mind again, as he fears incurring the anger of the army if he does not sacrifice Iphigenia. They have apparently heard the prophecy from Calchas as well. Once again we see the character of Agamemnon depicted as easily swayed like an open vessel waiting to be filled, whether by a seer, the army, Hecuba, or Clytemnestra.

Agamemnon’s character is contrasted with the resoluteness of Achilles, who initially was used by Agamemnon to trick Clytemnestra into sending Iphigenia – he pretends that he is really calling her to be wedded to him. A lot of colorful words are used to describe the great anticipation towards the wedding, resulting in a powerful sense of dramatic irony, similar to that in Hecuba regarding the death of Polydorus. A particular scene that stands out is a stichomythic exchange between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, the latter inquiring the former about the details of the wedding. The ruse falls apart when Clytemnestra herself approaches Achilles and asks about the marriage. But Achilles, having found out about the plan, fearlessly vows to rescue Iphigenia by any means possible, even if the army turns against him, despite her being a stranger to him. Ultimately he fails to succeed through persuasion, and is about to be prepared to defend her life to the death when Iphigenia intervenes.

(Apart from the matter of Achilles, I think Clytemnestra’s meeting with Achilles is remarkable in that the reveal is discovered by a main character herself, instead of by a messenger revealing the truth, for example in the cases of the messenger revealing Hercules’ conflict with Eurystheus in The TrachiniaeTalthybius in TW revealing the sentence for Astyanax, or a messenger revealing the death of Polydorus in Hecuba. Deception and mistaken perception of things that are dramatically corrected in the course of the play, resulting in climactic emotional points, seem to be a central feature of Greek drama in general.)

Iphigenia’s intervention is in the mould of Macaria in The Heraclidae and Polyxena in Hecuba – she asks Achilles to not waste his life for saving her, because “Better a single man should see the light than ten thousand women” and she has a duty and opportunity to become a hero for Greece – “I have no right at all to cling too fondly to my life; for thou didst not bear me for myself alone, but as a public blessing to all Hellas.” What’s the basic idea behind this? Given the repeated mention in all these episodes of the uncharacteristically feminine bravery of the young woman sacrificing herself, it seems that either Euripedes or the Greek public liked the idea of women transcending” their perceived inferior and secondary position as women by sacrificing themselves. A little bit of contrast to Polyxena or Macaria is that Iphigenia is not in this state from the very beginning – in a vivid, heartbreaking scene of family confrontation she embraces her father and pleads with him to spare her life.

The final resolution of the play, where Iphigenia is magically whisked away somehow, is basically deus ex machina in its purest form, despite that no gods make a direct appearance in the play. From a literary point of view I would say that it makes the play weaker, a kind of artificially forced, saccharine happy ending. It’s not clear which is the main reason for the gods sparing her – is it because of Clytemnestra’s pleas, her inherent goodness as a person, or some general moral principle? That is not clear to me.

Iphigenia in Tauris

Here we jump to long after the Trojan War, even long after the events of the Oresteia. Somehow, Iphigenia has ended up in the land of Tauris, where she is a priestess in the temple of Artemis. She is practically imprisoned there, not being able to leave the island of her own accord. In a brutal twist of irony she has the regular task to ritually sacrifice any foreigners who arrive upon the shores of the land. T en Orestes (her brother) and his brother-in-law Pylades arrives, and they eventually hatch and execute a plan where Iphigenia takes them out to the sea in the guise of cleansing them, but escapes instead in their ship.

The play evokes echoes of Electra, with a long-lost brother returning disguised or unrecognized to meet his sister. This creates another sort of dramatic irony between the characters. In a dramatic scene (but not as dramatic as that in Sophocles’ Electra) Orestes’ identity is revealed. I don’t think I have much more to say about this play, other than that it is a play amply featuring characters with clever tricks and ruses for deception, similar to the deception in Electra.

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