N.P. GRINTSER: ‘True’ and ‘false’ names in Iphigeneia in Aulis

Nikolay P. Grintser (School of the Advanced Studies in the Humanities, Moscow, Russia)

‘True’ and ‘false’ names in Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis

In the first part of my paper, I will try to argue that in classical Greek tragedy we are dealing not just with a scattered bunch of puns and ad hoc etymological wordplay, but etymology of the main characters’ names becomes a somewhat additional compositional device organizing and structuring the overall narrative by underlining and recurrently stressing its main themes. This technique is partly inherited from the previous literary tradition, and at the same time is related to the contemporary intellectual debates on etymology and language. To illustrate this technique, I will focus upon Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis that turns out to be one of the most striking examples of Euripides’ ‘poetics of etymology’. I will try to demonstrate that in the course of the play, both male protagonists, Achilles and Agamemnon prove themselves to be “inadequate” to the names they bear. Achilles whose name from Homer on, is taken to mean the ‘one who brings sorrow (ἄχος) to one’s army/people (λαός)’, at first tends to act in accordance with it, but then steps back. It is rather significant, therefore, that in the central dialogue of the play both Clytaemnestra and Achilles are constantly referring to the very name (ὄνομα) of the hero stressing the etymological underpinning of hero’s choice. The same is true for Agamemnon whose behavior is also set against the ‘true essence’ of his own name (understood as ‘steadfast’, from ἄγαν+μένω), and to the name of his father Atreus (usually treated as ‘fearless’, from α privativum + τρέω  ‘to shake, to run in fear’). Conversely, within the play Iphigeneia’s father is constantly reproached for changing his mind and displaying cowardice. On the contrary, Iphigeneia is the only character who acts in full accordance with her name meaning ‘truly noble’ (from ἶφι and γεν-). This correspondence is maintained by direct etymological references to it both in her own monologue, and in the words of Achilles and the chorus. Hence, throughout the entire tragedy we are dealing with a subtle opposition of ‘true’ and ‘false’ names emphasizing the key dramatic conflict and helping us to understand properly the play that is sometimes blamed for lack of internal consistency.