The Meaning of Sacrifice
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard compared Abraham’s sacrifice of Issac to Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia, the former as the Knight of Faith and the latter the Tragic Hero; In this play, Euripides presented Agamemnon in a rather different light, not so much a hero who sacrificed his most beloved daughter to perform the duty dictated by a sacred oath and defend the honor of the whole of the Greeks, as a wavering, crowd-fearing man who sacrificed his daughter to protect his own domain and interest.
The hero, or rather heroine, of this play is Iphigenia. Euripides’ brilliant and vivid dialogues enable the audience and readers to witness the transformation of Iphigenia, from an innocent girl full of life and spirit, to a courageous and dignified woman who not only accepted the cruel fate she was subjected to, but also transcended it and turned her own death into a meaningful and sublime act.
Listen, mother; hear what thoughts have passed across my mind. I am resolved to die; and this I fain would do with honour, dismissing from me what is mean. Towards this now, mother, turn thy thoughts, and with me weigh how well I speak; to me the whole of mighty Hellas looks; on me the passage o’er the sea depends; on me the sack of Troy; and in my power it lies to check henceforth barbarian raids on happy Hellas, if ever in the days to come they seek to seize her daughters, when once they have atoned by death for the violation of Helen’s marriage by Paris. All this deliverance will my death insure, and my fame for setting Hellas free will be a happy one. Besides, 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! shall countless warriors, armed with shields, those myriads sitting at the oar, find courage to attack the foe and die for Hellas, because their fatherland is wronged, and my one life prevent all this? What kind of justice is that? could I find a word in answer? Now turn we to that other point. It is not right that this man should enter the lists with all Argos or be slain for a woman’s sake. Better a single man should see the light than ten thousand women. If Artemis is minded to take this body, am I, a weak mortal, to thwart the goddess? Nay, that were impossible. To Hellas I resign it; offer this sacrifice and make an utter end of Troy. This is my enduring monument; marriage, motherhood, and fame — all these is it to me. And it is but right, mother, that Hellenes should rule barbarians, but not barbarians Hellenes, those being slaves, while these are free.
This I say, without regard to anyone. Enough that the daughter of Tyndareus is causing wars and bloodshed by her beauty; then be not slain thyself, sir stranger, nor seek to slay another on my account; but let me, if I can, save Hellas.