Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 28.

Pantelis Michelakis, Euripides: Iphigenia At Aulis. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2006. Pp. 176. ISBN 0-7156-2994-8. UK£11.99.

Betine van Zyl Smit,
Classics, University of Nottingham.

This is another in Duckworth’s series of Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy aimed at providing accessible introductions to the ancient plays. The present volume succeeds admirably in this goal. Pantelis Michelakis is well versed in Greek tragedy and its reception[[1]] and brings this expertise to bear on the Iphigenia at Aulis (IA) to provide a clear and wide ranging guide to the play, its text, context, performance, interpretation, and influence.

In the preface (pp. 9f.) Michelakis eloquently lists the features that mark the IA as one of Euripides’ last works: ‘the play’s provocative and revisionist attitude towards myth, its engagement with and critical stance towards contemporary culture and politics, its concern with gender and intergenerational conflicts as well as with moral and political corruption, the clash between civic and family values, the tension between individuals and masses, its metatheatrical self-awareness and preoccupation with plot reversals and with the visual display of suffering’ (p. 9). All these characteristics are examined in the book with close reference to the text of the IA and the environment in which it was created.

A detailed summary of the play occupies the first chapter (pp. 11-20). In addition to a synopsis of the action, the review also includes some textual commentary, for instance the possibility of the existence of an alternative prologue, and the uncertainty of the composition of the Chorus in the second scene (ll. 590-97).

Chapter 2 (pp. 21-29), ‘Myth’, explores key aspects of the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice: Artemis’ reasons for requiring the sacrifice, Agamemnon’s motives in consenting, the method by which he lures his daughter to Aulis, and the question of whether she is really sacrificed, or, if replaced by an animal, her subsequent fate. There is an overview of the way the myth was represented in earlier literature and art, in the Cypria, the Catalogue of Women, Stesichorus’ Oresteia, Pindar’s Pythian 11.22-25 and in earlier tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and Euripides’ own Iphigenia among the Taurians. The chapter ends with a discussion of tradition and innovation in IA and broadens the range by including intertextual echoes from other works, such as the hint of a possible repetition of the Homeric quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon.

Michelakis persuasively argues in Chapter 3 (pp. 31-46), ‘Characters’, that IA does not focus on one central figure, but rather on an event, the sacrifice of Iphigenia. This event is probed by presenting the attitude of the different characters to it. In his analysis of the characters Michelakis makes use of three approaches: the needs of the plot, the psychology of the characters, and the relationship between this play and the literary and dramatic tradition. He then examines the roles of Agamemnon, Menelaus, Clytaemnestra, Iphigenia, Achilles, the Chorus, the old servant, as well as the off-stage characters Odysseus, Calchas, and the Greek army.

Further analysis of IA is presented from a thematic perspective in Chapter 4 (pp. 47-59) in which the aim is ‘to explore the complex grid of ethical issues, intellectual concerns, and social values and practices to which the characters return again and again and which provide the narrative of the play with a purposeful dramatic thrust: these include themes that dominate the linguistic fabric of the play such as persuasion, falsehood, friendship, reason and irrationality, freedom and necessity; but also wider intellectual and cultural issues which can shed light on the conceptual universe of the play such as role-playing, memory, identity and gender’ (pp. 47f.). The detailed study that follows is closely based on the text and is illuminating and thought- provoking.

Separate chapters are devoted to ‘Religion’, (Chapter 5, pp. 61-72) and ‘Politics’, (Chapter 6, pp. 73-81). In the former, three major aspects of religious practice as they appear in the IA are investigated: animal sacrifice, wedding rites, and funeral rites. Also examined is the worship of Iphigenia and Artemis as well as the role of the gods in other plays of Euripides such as Bacchae. Michelakis concludes that the diminished role of Artemis in IA places more emphasis on the drama of human motivation and responsibility. The next chapter situates the play in the political context of the period when it was written and considers how the themes of war, patriotism, self-sacrifice, pan-hellenism, the strains between individual and community, distrust of prophets and politicians, the tension between rhetoric and politics, and the lack of a moral framework, reflect the realities of the contemporary world of the first audience.

The last two chapters both deal with the afterlife of IA. Chapter 7, ‘Performance’ (pp. 83-103), starts with description of the circumstances of the original performance in Athens at the Dionysia. From the physical surrounds of the staging of the play, the discussion next moves to the internal demands of the IA; how the setting near the harbour and the army camp would have been accommodated technically and what effect this setting would have on the atmosphere of the performance. Further details of production, such as the allocation of parts to the three actors, movements, masks, and the expression of feelings are discussed with constant reference to the text. Similarly the text is the basis for a description of the probable entrances and exits of characters in the course of the play. This chapter also investigates the musical features of the IA, the role of mute persons, and the props that would probably have been used.

Chapter 8 (pp. 105-29) is called ‘Reception’ but falls into three parts. First the text, its authenticity, and questions about its transmission are considered. The second part deals with the reaction of critics through the ages to the IA, from Aristotle through scholars and translators of the Renaissance period, up to commentators of our era. Finally Michelakis details the performance history of IA in both the ancient and modern world. He discusses material evidence as well as stage adaptations, such as Racine’s Iphigénie. Modern productions of IA that are put on together with Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy or part of it, notably Ariane[[2]] Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides in Paris (1990-1993) are briefly described.[[3]] The chapter ends with a short but incisive review of Cacoyannis’ film Iphigenia (1977).

Although the body of the book, from the preface to the end of the last chapter, takes up no more than one hundred and twenty pages, they are packed with information and form an ideal introduction to the play for any student or theatre enthusiast. Detailed references to up-to-date scholarship are provided in the endnotes while the ‘Guide to further reading’ (pp. 145-54) gives information arranged according to various topics, for example: ‘Critical editions, translations, commentaries’. There is a separate bibliography and a selected chronology that lists some of the best known plays, poems, novels, and stage productions that feature the myth of Iphigenia. Although promised on the cover, there is no glossary. Perhaps it was not felt to be necessary as Michelakis uses very few technical terms. An index is also provided.

Euripides: Iphigenia at Aulis is a worthwhile addition to Duckworth’s series and will be very useful to all newcomers to this intriguing play. The book also provides much of use and interest to more experienced students of Greek drama and its reception.


[[1]] His publications include Achilles in Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 2002) and he is co-editor of Homer, Tragedy and Beyond: Essays in Honour of P. E. Easterling (London 2001) and of Agamemnon in Performance 458 BC to AD 2004 (Oxford 2005).

[[2]] Written ‘Arianne’ on pp. 126 and 127. In general there are few typographical errors, but note that on p. 85 ‘as’ seems to have fallen out between the fourth and fifth line of the second paragraph.

[[3]] It is strange that there is no mention in Michelakis’ book of Agamemnon in Performance of which he is co-editor and in which both Mnouchkine’s production and many other dramas as well as operas based on the Euripdean Iphigenia plays are extensively analysed. The Agamemnon volume appears neither in the guide to further reading , nor in the bibliography. One can only surmise that some delay occurred in the publication of the present volume so that, although it follows chronologically, it may actually predate Agamemnon in Performance.