Thoughts on Iphigenia in Tauris

The title of Euripides’s Iphigenia in Tauris can literally be translated as ‘Iphigenia Among the Taurians’. The term Tauris is not actually a place, but it refers to the Greek word for the Crimean Peninsula (Taurike). The Iphigenia story has fascinated and horrified artists since antiquity. Several later versions of the Iphigenia story were created, including one by Goethe, among others, and Euripides also wrote another play about Iphigenia, believed to be his last play or even published posthumously, called Iphigenia at Aulis.

Who is Iphigenia? Iphigenia is the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra of Mycenae (recall their downfall in Aeschylus’s masterful Oresteia). The story of Iphigenia becomes relevant as Agamemnon is en route to the fight in the Trojan War. He offends the goddess Artemis, there are conflicting stories throughout mythology as to how exactly he offends Artemis – some claim she is angered at all the young men who will surely die in Troy, and others claim Agamemnon committed an affront to Artemis by slaying one of her sacred animals. At any rate Agamemnon and the armies of Hellas are prevented from reaching Troy, by great winds and plagues, unless Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia. In one version of the story she is sacrificed on a pyre and dies, however in another version of the story Iphigenia is rescued by Athena and replaced at the last moment with an animal so no one would notice. This latter version of the story is the one Euripides employs in his play.

Euripides’s play begins ‘among the Taurians’ as Iphigenia laments her family’s fate as she believes Orestes has died, per a recent dream. She has been rescued by Athena and placed in captivity on this remote island. However, two foreign men from come ashore from Hellas, later revealed to be Orestes and his associate, Pylades. Iphigenia questions them until eventually Orestes concedes, in lament, and identifies himself as Orestes. He tells the story of the fall of Troy and the subsequent misfortunes that befell his household, the house of Atreus. Once they realize they are brother and sister, Orestes and Iphigenia hatch a plan to escape together back to Greece on Orestes’s ship. However Thoas, king of the Taurians, soon discovers their plot but it is too late. Athena appears to Thoas and waylays his concerns so Orestes and Iphigenia can escape. Thus concludes a summary of the play.

The plot is wholly similar to Euripides’s play Helen. Both plays offer the story of a woman honorably banished to a remote part of the world, convinced that their hero is dead, only to find moments later that he is alive when he rescues her. Together they escape the wrath of a jealous king who is prevented from chasing them by divinities.

Iphigenia is more of a romance or a comedy, and less of a tragedy. It presents a more hopeful version of the Iphigenia story, and offers a pleasant ending to the house of Atreus – a subject that Euripides was apparently fascinated with in later life. The play is presented as a tragedy, but it diverges from the standard formula: the tragic fault or tragic choice (hamartia), the punishment of hybris, the conflict of characters, inevitable rivalries and jealousies. These can be disregarded in Iphigenia. Instead, Euripides is interested in the ‘How’ rather than the ‘Why.’

The examination of meter in Greek tragedy instructive. By metrical analysis scholars like Richmond Lattimore believe the play was written somewhere between 410 BC-414 BC. The date is important because of the internecine war, the Peloponnesian War, which lasted roughly from 431 BC-404 BC. Euripides decided to drop the patriotic, pro-Athenian themes of his earlier plays (i.e. HeracleidaeAndromacheThe Suppliants) and instead embrace then new wholly Greek identity, the love of broader Greece and Greek culture. This key change in the Greek way of life will cultivate the soil for a broader Hellenism under Alexander “The Great” of Macedon.

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