Reading Backwards

Book reviews by your favorite Git.

Iphigeneia at Aulis

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By Euripides. Translated by W. S. Merwin & George E. Dimock.
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Read: October 2006
Rating: Mixed.

This is the Oxford University Press edition, with both a scholar and a poet working on the translation. The play itself is only, say, 1/3 of the book itself. (Brings back memories of Ayn Rand’s Anthem.) This was a blessing, as I’m reading this for a class.

Iphigeneia is set slightly prior to the Trojan War. Helen has been stolen by Paris and taken to Troy. Menelaus, her legit husband, has called upon the rest of the Greeks to help him get her back. They are camped at Aulis, waiting to say for Troy–but the wind is against them.

Agamemnon, Menelaus’ brother, has been told by an oracle that if he sacrifices his eldest daughter, Iphigeneia, the wind will change, the Greeks can sail to Troy, and they will win the war. The play opens with him regretting his hasty decision to summon his daughter to Aulis for the slaughter. He put together what he thought was a clever ploy–telling his wife that he wanted to marry Iphigeneia to Achilles–that is now rapidly coming undone around his guilty feet. The play is the back and forth of trying to manage who knows about the mix up and trying to manage the repercussions.

It’s easy reading, thankfully. The translation is good–it walks a fine path between difficult Olde Speache and th straightforward. Unlike some Greek stories, it doesn’t expect you to already know how everyone is related to everyone else and who owes who a favor. It’s much more in the moment.

Of course, you might have some culture shock if you’ve never tried to read one of these ancient Greek things. Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon and mother of Iphigeneia, appeals to Achilles for help in saving Iphigeneia’s life–because he was her husband-to-be in name only. The poor guy had no idea about it until she said “Hey, you’re marrying my daughter, right!” Nevertheless, he agrees to help.

Spoiler Paragraph
Here’s why this earned the new ‘you call that love?!’ tag (I always go back through the archives and update them when I add new tags, btw): Iphigeneia ultimately decides that she wants to be sacrificed, for the good of Greece. Achilles is charmed by her bravery and, yanno, wishes her could marry her! The ancients had very silly ideas of what adds to a tragedy.

It was short, it was interesting, and it made me go ‘dude…’ more than once. Don’t fear it. There’s plenty to learn from it in terms of gender roles, importance of the army, sacrifice for country, and how plays were structured way back then.


Written by Shen

October 7, 2006 at 4:12 pm

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