To most modern readers, a tragedy with a happy ending is a contradiction in terms: if promised a tragedy we expect to see a play like Oedipus or Hamlet, in which the characters we have come to care about are dead or in misery at the end of the play. In antiquity there was no such firm expectation, and tragic poets not rarely produced as tragoidiai plays where the sympathetic characters, after a harrowing escape, reach safety and the prospect of lasting happiness. In the fifth century tragoidia, unlike “tragedy” in English, meant a dramatic representation of the deeds of heroes of myth, in contrast to a komoidia (comedy), which is about ordinary characters in the present day. (The only dramatizations of myth that fall outside the category tragoidia are satyr plays like Cyclops.) In his Poetics Aristotle cites Iphigenia among the Taurians almost as many times as he cites Oedipus the King to show what a tragic dramatist can and should do.
In Aristotle’s view, the tragic dramatist tries to generate in his audience the tragic emotions of pity and fear by means of a pathos, a deed of violence, usually between close kin. In a play like Oedipus this deed of violence has taken place before the opening of the play, and Oedipus discovers that it was his father whom he killed on the road to Thebes. This discovery or recognition (anagnorisis)
brings about a peripeteia or swift change of fortune as Oedipus realizes that he has committed a horrible crime and is the most unblest of men. But Aristotle recognizes that there is another way to achieve the tragic emotions: dramatize a situation in which the deed of violence between kin is on the point of happening but is in the end avoided. Though Aristotle says very little about the “metaphysics” of tragedy, the world view it exhibits, the common element in the two kinds of tragoidia would seem to be that both sorts of play demonstrate the radical uncertainty of human life, the limitations of mortal knowledge, and man’s dependence on the power of the gods.
In a play like Oedipus we see the malignity of Apollo, who is determined to bring to an end the cursed race of Laius and whose management of circumstances known to him but not to the characters is breathtakingly cruel. In the other sort of play the gods operate, overtly or covertly, to bring about rescue and blessing for the principal characters. That is what happens in Iphigenia among the Taurians.
The story of the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to Artemis to calm the adverse winds holding the Greek fleet at Aulis was either unknown to or (more likely) suppressed by Homer, who mentions Agamemnon’s three daughters, Chrysothemis, Laodice, and Iphianassa as still alive in the ninth year of the Trojan War. It first appears (in extant works) in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, where the Chorus describe the terrible choice of Agamemnon (be a “deserter” and call off the expedition or sacrifice his daughter) and the ruinous consequences the sacrifice had for him in the hatred of his wife Clytaemestra. Other tragic poets, including both Sophocles in his Electra and Euripides in his