Euripides’ play Iphigenia at Aulis contains valuable lessons that can serve as a source of inspiration in the modern world. For teachers in particular, empathy, as highlighted in the play, is of vital importance.
In the summer of 2019, I had the rare opportunity to see Yannis Kalavrianos production of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis. It was quite a magical experience to see an ancient Greek play performed at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus.
I was also interested in seeing the play because I had my students read the tragic story. One would expect Euripides’ play to be read by classics or ancient history students, but my students were neither: they were aspiring teachers.
When my students read the story, they were uncertain what to make of it. I simply asked them to muse on the question, “Why would a narcissist or sociopath make a bad teacher?” But before answering this question, let me go over Euripides’ play.
Iphigenia at Aulis
Sometime between the conventional dates of 1260 BC and 1180 BC, a Greek army gathered on the beaches of Aulis about 70 km north of Athens. What brought this army together was not to defend Greece from a foreign invader, but to defend Greece’s honor.
A few months earlier, Menelaus, the king of Sparta, did what most honorable Greeks did at the time. He welcomed a guest into his home. This was no ordinary guest though, it was Paris, a prince of Troy. Menelaus slaughtered his finest cow for Paris, gave him shelter in his regal palace, and cared for Paris as if he was his own son.
While Paris was in Menelaus’ palace, Menelaus had to leave for a short trip and told Paris he was welcomed to stay as long as he wished and that he hoped to see him when he got back. When Menelaus returned from his trip, he found that all his gold and furnishings were gone, and that his queen had run off to Troy with the handsome young prince. Menelaus was naturally furious.
Paris committed one of the most despicable acts of his time. He took advantage of another’s hospitality or philoxenia. At the time, when one was welcomed into another’s home, the host honoured his guest the same way that he would want to be honoured if he were staying with his guest. Paris broke this code.
Paris knew full well that no Greek would tolerate his actions. But Paris was a prince and he knew that his father Priam, the King of Troy, would have no choice but to defend his son, because defending one’s son and family was the highest honour in all of the Aegean world.
After Menelaus discovered that Paris had abducted his wife, he called on his brother, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, to help him. Agamemnon, the most powerful king in Greece, had at his disposal one of the largest and most disciplined armies in Greece. He was also always looking for a good fight.
Agamemnon called on his fellow Greeks to gather on the beaches of Aulis where they would set sail for Troy once all the Greeks arrived. While Agamemnon and Menelaus waited at Aulis, they decided one day to pass the time by going for a hunt. The two brothers, and a few of their men decided to walk up a mountain above the beach. As they walked up, Agamemnon noticed a stunning stag drinking from a shallow stream.
As the cool wind blew down the mountain, and as the sun shined its rays through the trees, the men waited for the deer to pop its head up. Agamemnon carefully placed an arrow on the string of his bow, pulled the arrow back, and shot the deer as it was about to run off. His arrow struck the deer and the animal quickly fell to the ground. As the men approached the deer, the winds abruptly stopped, the streams ceased to flow, and the birds scattered from the trees.
They all stood staring at the deer. One of the men happen to notice that this was no ordinary deer, but it was the goddess Artemis’ prized deer. Everybody in the group froze in place and remained silent. Everybody, but Agamemnon. Agamemnon casually walked up to the deer, dragged it by its antlers, and said, “Screw the goddess and her deer,” and ordered the other men to help him carry the carcass down the mountain.
When the men finally arrived back to the camp, word spread fast regarding what had happened. All knew that there would be a heavy price to pay for killing the goddess’ deer. Angry at Agamemnon and the Greeks, Artemis ordered the god Aeolus to cease blowing his winds. Now, the Greeks could never set sail for Troy. Artemis also sent a plague down to the Greek camp, causing many of the men to get sick and die.
Days and weeks passed, and the soldiers became restless. With no winds to sail, the Greeks would have no choice but to go back home. So, Agamemnon had to do something quick. He consulted with his high priest and the priest informed him that the only way to travel safely to Troy was for Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis. Agamemnon took the priest’s words and sent a messenger to Mycenae to notify his daughter that Achilles, the uber-Greek, wanted to wed her and that she was to report to the camp at once, before he changed his mind.
While the other men at the camp passed the time drinking, gambling and frolicking with prostitutes, Achilles trained all day by racing battle horses on the beach, which he easily outpaced. He was the ultimate Greek hero: courageous, handsome and strong. When he is later killed by Paris’ poison arrow, all of Greece mourns his death.
But Achilles, like Iphigenia, was unaware of Agamemnon’s plot. When Iphigenia finally arrives at Aulis with her mother Clytemnestra, Agamemnon insists that his wife go back and leave Iphigenia.
But Clytemnestra, like any good mother, is determined to stay with her daughter and help her prepare for her wedding.
As Iphigenia and Clytemnestra wait in their tent for the wedding, they hear a voice coming from outside their tent. Clytemnestra walks outside to see who it is:
Hail thee, son of the Nereid goddess! I heard your voice from within my tent and thus came out.
O modesty revered! who can this lady be in front of me, so richly dressed, with beauty’s gifts?
No wonder you don’t know me, seeing that you never before set eyes on me; I praise thy reverent address to modesty.
Who art thou, and wherefore art thou come to the mustering of the Danai-thou [Greeks claimed to be descendants of Danai], a woman, to a fenced camp of men?
The daughter of Leda I; my name Clytemnestra; and my husband is king Agamemnon.
Well and shortly answered on all important points! but it ill befits that I should stand talking to women.
Stay; why seek to fly? Give me thy hand, a prelude to a happy marriage.
What is it thou sayest? I give thee my hand? Were I to lay a finger where I have no right, I could ne’er meet Agamemnon’s eye.
The best of rights hast thou, seeing it is my child thou wilt wed, O son of the sea-goddess, whom Nereus begat.
What wedding dost thou speak of? words fail me, lady; can thy wits have gone astray and art thou inventing this?
All men are naturally shy in the presence of new relations, when these remind them of their wedding.
Lady, I have never wooed daughter of thine, nor have the sons of Atreus ever mentioned marriage to me.
What can it mean? thy turn now to marvel at my words, for thine are passing strange to me.
Hazard a guess; that we can both do in this matter; for it may be we are both correct in our statements.
What! have I suffered such indignity? The marriage I am courting has no reality, it seems; I am ashamed of it.
Someone perhaps has made a mock of thee and me; pay no heed thereto; make light of it.
Farewell; I can no longer face thee with unfaltering eyes, after being made a liar and suffering this indignity.
‘Tis “farewell” too I bid thee, lady; and now I go within the tent to seek thy husband.
Euripides’s description of Clytemnestra and Achilles meeting is quite comical even for someone reading it today. Eventually, both Clytemnestra and Achilles figure out Agamemnon’s sinister plot to kill Iphigenia. They both vow to stop Agamemnon. Achilles even threatens to take his army and leave.
In the end, however, Iphigenia insists she be sacrificed as an act of honor and courage to her father and nation. Before her sacrifice, she gives a patriotic speech which rallies the Greeks to go on and fight. She is sacrificed on a stone alter. Her mother cannot bear to watch her daughter murdered, so she confines herself in her tent where she sobs for days.
After Iphigenia is killed, they tell Clytemnestra that as the executioner’s sword was about to fall upon her daughter’s neck, a deity magically whisked her away and replaced her with a deer.
She knew that this wasn’t true, and they only said this to make her feel better. Agamemnon on the other hand feels nothing. After his daughter is killed, he orders his men to take down their tents, gather their weapons and belongings and set sail for Troy.
Agamemnon only cares about getting his army to Troy, defeating the Trojans, and getting back home victoriously. Iphigenia suffers a heavy price for her father’s ambitions.
Narcissists and sociopaths make bad teachers
Agamemnon is the quintessential narcissist, arrogant, shallow, self-serving, controlling, but most of all he lacks empathy.
Iphigenia on the other hand, is the typical anguished child of a narcissist – she is always longing for her father’s love while willing to do anything to receive the smallest bit of affection and recognition from him, only to be perpetually let down.
Why would a narcissist and sociopath like Agamemnon make a bad teacher? Many believe that narcissists and sociopaths would not be good at anything, but the truth is they can be successful businesspeople, surgeons, and even generals like Agamemnon.
But a narcissist and sociopath could never be successful in teaching. They cannot take criticism well, nor can they put themselves in someone else’s shoes. One of the greatest attributes of successful teachers is their keen ability to relate to their students. One cannot effectively teach their students if one does not understand their students.
Most of my students are aspiring teachers. Many have gone on to become successful teachers.
On the first day of class, I jokingly warn my students, that if any of them think that they may be a narcissist or sociopath they should reconsider becoming a teacher. Many of them start laughing, but the truth is that it would be very difficult for them to be successful teachers if they were a narcissist or sociopath because of a lack of empathy.
Empathy is not a weakness, but a strength of social emotional intelligence, which is an advanced human quality. It’s a quality that distinguishes humans from most other mammals. No other living species in the world could relate to the degree that humans relate to one another.
In Denmark, children are taught the importance of empathy. Preschoolers and grade school students are taught to recognize different emotions, articulate experiences, and connect with each other.
Denmark’s children are some of the best educated in the world and it is in large part because of this early training in empathy.
Most humans have the ability to feel another’s pain, to feel love, to miss someone, to feel hate or to be angry. It’s humankind’s emotional sixth sense, and great teachers have a strong sense of empathy.
Teachers often know what a student is going to say before they say it, they know their students likes and dislikes, they know if their students are happy or sad, and they know how to reach their students.
Empathy is also the ability to be able to reflect, to work well with others, to take blame, to apologize for one’s mistake, to welcome criticism and learn from it, to plan and to work towards making the wrong right. This is what all successful teachers do and while not blatant in his plays, this is what Euripides tells us about teaching.
About the Author
Dr. Theodore G. Zervas is professor of education at North Park University in Chicago. He has previously taught in Mexico, China, and Egypt. You could read more about what is takes to become a teacher in Dr. Zervas’ most recent book, With Grit and a Big Heart: A Beginner’s Guide to Teaching
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