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The play revolves around Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek coalition before and during the Trojan War, and his decision to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis and allow his troops to set sail to preserve their honour in battle against Troy. The conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles over the fate of the young woman presages a similar conflict between the two at the beginning of the Iliad. In his depiction of the experiences of the main characters, Euripides frequently uses tragic irony for dramatic effect.
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AGAMEMNON: Old man, come hither and stand before my dwelling.
ATTENDANT: I come; what new schemes now, king Agamemnon?
AGAMEMNON: Thou shalt hear.
ATTENDANT: I am all eagerness. 'Tis little enough sleep old age allows me and keenly it watches o'er my eyes.
AGAMEMNON: What can that star be, steering his course yonder?
ATTENDANT: Sirius, still shooting o'er the zenith on his way near the Pleiads' sevenfold track.
AGAMEMNON: The birds are still at any rate and the sea is calm; hushed are the winds, and silence broods o'er this narrow firth.
ATTENDANT: Then why art thou outside thy tent, why so restless, my lord Agamemnon? All is yet quiet here in Aulis, the watch on the walls is not yet astir. Let us go in.
AGAMEMNON: I envy thee, old man, aye, and every man who leads a life secure, unknown and unrenowned; but little I envy those in office.
ATTENDANT: And yet 'tis there we place the be-all and end-all of existence.
AGAMEMNON: Aye, but that is where the danger comes; and ambition, sweet though it seems, brings sorrow with its near approach. At one time the unsatisfied claims of Heaven upset our life, at another the numerous peevish fancies of our subjects shatter it.
ATTENDANT: I like not these sentiments in one who is a chief. It was not to enjoy all blessings that Atreus begot thee, O Agamemnon; but thou must needs experience joy and sorrow alike, mortal as thou art. E'en though thou like it not, this is what the gods decree; but thou, after letting thy taper spread its light abroad, writest the letter which is still in thy hands and then erasest the same words again, sealing and re-opening the scroll, then flinging the tablet to the ground with floods of tears and leaving nothing undone in thy aimless behaviour to stamp thee mad. What is it troubles thee? what news is there affecting thee, my liege? Come, share with me thy story; to a loyal and trusty heart wilt thou be telling it; for Tyndareus sent me that day to form part of thy wife's dowry and to wait upon the bride with loyalty.
AGAMEMNON: Leda, the daughter of Thestius, had three children, maidens, Phoebe, Clytaemnestra my wife, and Helen; this last it was who had for wooers the foremost of the favoured sons of Hellas; but terrible threats of spilling his rival's blood were uttered by each of them, should he fail to win the maid. Now the matter filled Tyndareus, her father, with perplexity; at length this thought occurred to him; the suitors should swear unto each other and join right hands thereon and pour libations with burnt sacrifice, binding themselves by this curse, "Whoever wins the child of Tyndareus for wife, him will we assist, in case a rival takes her from his house and goes his way, robbing her husband of his rights; and we will march against that man in armed array and raze his city to the ground, Hellene no less than barbarian." Now when they had once pledged their word and old Tyndareus with no small cleverness had beguiled them by his shrewd device, he allowed his daughter to choose from among her suitors the one towards whom the breath of love might fondly waft her. Her choice fell on Menelaus; would she had never taken him! Anon there came to Lacedaemon from Phrygia's folk the man who, legend says, adjudged the goddesses' dispute; in robes of gorgeous hue, ablaze with gold, in true barbaric pomp; and he, finding Menelaus gone from home, carried Helen off with him to his steading on Ida, a willing paramour. Goaded to frenzy Menelaus flew through Hellas, invoking the ancient oath exacted by Tyndareus and declaring the duty of helping the injured husband. Whereat the chivalry of Hellas, brandishing their spears and donning their harness, came hither to the narrow straits of Aulis with armaments of ships and troops, with many a steed and many a car, and they chose me to captain them all for the sake of Menelaus, since I was his brother. Would that some other had gained that distinction instead of me! But after the army was gathered and come together, we still remained at Aulis weather-bound; and Calchas, the seer, bade us in our perplexity sacrifice my own begotten child Iphigenia to Artemis, whose home is in this land, declaring that if we offered her, we should sail and sack the Phrygians' capital, but if we forbore, this was not for us.