Clytemnestra has been driven to hate her husband by his sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon was persuaded that only by making this sacrifice would the winds become favourable for his battle fleet to sail to Troy and make war. In the broadest sense, this myth is about a terrible, core truth of war—all war—that it is always predicated upon the older generation sacrificing the lives of the younger. What gives it particular poignancy in the particular story of Iphigenia is the gender of the sacrificed child. One undercurrent of the myth is that girls matter less than boys; indeed, that girls don’t matter at all. Euripides’ play puts that pitiless perspective into the context of gender. The Telephus sets Agamemnon’s terror at the prospect of losing his infant boy against the background of his indifference to the death of his daughter. That her sacrifice resulted not in the sack of Troy buy only in a mistaken attack on a completely different country, followed by an ignominious return home to plan a second expedition, only adds to the tragic irony.
The Telephus is a play profoundly interested in the relationship between the ‘worthy’ and the ‘worthless’—kings and beggars, men and women, adults and children, gods and mortals. More, Euripides is developing a thesis about the ways the former depend upon the latter.