Iphigenia in Taurus
EURIPIDES c. 414 B.C.
To a modern audience, there is very little dramatic intensity in Iphigenia in Taurus. Those who hunger for action, deep emotion, or sharp irony may find this straightforward play “boring.” Iphigenia in Taurus seems a strange combination of tragedy and romance because although tragic conditions precede the events of the play and tragic events nearly happen, no one dies or ends in misfortune in this play. The misfortunes plaguing both Orestes and Iphigenia already exist before the play begins and by the end they are freed of their problems with little effort. The characters talk about past or potential traumas, then neatly dismiss or avoid them. All of the dangerous action occurs offstage or outside of the events of the play itself. Thus, in addition to its traditional classification as a tragedy, Iphigenia in Taurus has been called a “romantic melodrama.”
But the play does meet Artistotle’s definition of a work that releases pity and fear through exciting and then resolving these emotions (as a tragedy should). The prolonged scene wherein Orestes and Pylades refuse to reveal their identities to Iphigenia and she fails to reveal her own, allows a build up of pity and fear that are released when Iphigenia pronounces her brother’s name. This moment of recognition constitutes one element that Aristotle considered key to tragedy: a reversal of situation and recognition.
Iphigenia in Taurus lacks the heightened sense of drama often associated with tragedies, yet it is not Page 155 | Top of Articleunworthy of study, for it opens up a window to the ancient Hellenic mind, which enjoyed the quiet contemplation of the ironies of expectation versus fulfillment. It is a play that explores the mirror image of what is commonly called tragedy: not the descent of a tragic figure but the rise from tragic fate by characters who sidestep human sacrifice and still achieve ritual purification. In that respect, Iphigenia in Taurus is a kind of ancient Greek “escape” literature.
As far as historians can tell, Euripides was born in the Greek city-state of Athens around 484 B.C. to parents affluent enough to provide their son a good education and a library of philosophical works. He received training in athletics and won prizes in athletic competitions. Euripides also served briefly in the army, an obligation of Athenian youths. He then became a scholar and moved among the rich intellectual environment of the Sophist thinkers, although he always maintained his independence from them. Euripides knew the philosopher Anaxagoras, who speculated that energy from tiny “atoms” of matter drove the universe, not the gods; he socialized with the Sophist Protagoras, who ostensibly read his radical treatise, Concerning the Gods in Euripides’s home; and he was a friend and contemporary of the great playwright Socrates (Electro), who frequently attended his plays.
While such a life seems rich and fulfilling, Euripides’s halcyon pleasures did not last: during his life the philosophical mood of Athens swung from free-thinking optimism to a kind of fascist conservatism, wherein Anaxagoras barely escaped with his life, Protagoras died trying to escape, and Socrates was executed a few years after Euripides’s death. Politically, Athens underwent a number of major changes as well. When Euripides was in his early twenties, the democrats, led by Pericles, seized power in a bloody coup. Pericles’s rule would usher in the Golden Age of Athens, but this period would meet its cataclysmic demise at the end of the Peloponnesian Wars, which coincided with the final years of Euripides’s life.
These extremes of political and philosophical moods contributed to the pessimism and uncertainty of Euripides’s dramatic tragedies. In his lifetime Euripides won few prizes for his work (only four wins at the Dionysia play festival compared to
Sophocles’s twenty-four). Perhaps this lack of recognition led the aging Euripides to withdraw from the world to live in a cave on Salamis. At the advanced age of seventy, he left his beloved Athens, which was collapsing in the final throes of the Peloponnesian Wars, for Macedonia, to help the Macedonian king establish a cultural center there to rival Athens. He died there in 406 B. C.
There are historical references to ninety plays by Euripides; of these, only nineteen have survived to the modern era, although eighty of the titles are known. The best-known of Euripides’s work include Medea (431 B.C.), Iphigenia in Taurus (c. 414 B.C.), Orestes (408 B.C.), and Bacchae (produced posthumously, c. 406 B.C.). After Euripides’s death, his plays were carried from Athens to Alexandria, then to Rome, and finally to the Byzantine Empire. One measure of his renown is that Aristophanes dedicated three plays to burlesquing him. The extant versions of Euripides’s plays probably stem from Byzantine texts. Over the ages, the original plays were most likely corrupted as they were copied and recopied and as various performers embellished the scripts, yet the unique essence of Euripides’s style has survived.
The playwright’s characters have more psychological depth than those of his dramatic predecessors, Page 156 | Top of ArticleAeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides broke with traditional Greek theater in his examinations of realistic humans and their motivations—as opposed to characters manipulated by the will of the gods. He also challenged preconceptions regarding plot, heroes and heroines, and use of stock characters, yet he mostly confined himself to the form and structure of traditional tragedies. He explored the plight of women in seven plays and he challenged religious thought through his radical ideas about the gods and society. Some called Euripides an atheist, but he did not reject religion—he merely had the courage to challenge and denounce its shortcomings.
Iphigenia in Taurus takes place in a temple to the goddess Artemis along the shore of Taurus. It opens with a prologue spoken by one of the main characters, Iphigenia. In Euripidean prologues, the events preceding the story are recounted and the upcoming action foretold. Iphigenia explains why she was yet alive after ostensibly being sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon, who offered his child in order to dispel storms preventing his fleet from departing for an important battle.
Artemis, the virgin goddess of childbirth, had once extracted from Agamemnon the promise to sacrifice the loveliest creature born in a twelvemonth period. His wife Clytemnestra had borne Iphigenia, and Artemis demanded her blood. Agamemnon contrived a false pretext for stealing his daughter, asking Clytemestra to prepare the child to wed Achilles. But once on the altar of sacrifice, Artemis snatched the young maiden away, placing a deer in her place to fool the humans. Artemis magically transported Iphigenia to Taurus, a “barbarian” land and made her a priestess in her temple. Ironically, Iphigenia often prepares her fellow Hellenes for sacrifice upon the shrine.
Iphigenia further relates a strange dream she had the previous night, in which an earthquake crumbled her father’s house and left only one column standing. This column wore brown hair and Iphigenia weeped over it and prepared it for the deadly ritual of Artemis’s temple. Iphigenia interprets her dream to mean that her brother, Orestes, has died and that she cannot properly bury him. She retreats into the temple to pour libations for him.
As she departs, Orestes and his friend Pylades enter from the ocean shore. He and Pylades have been sent by the oracle of Phoebus in retribution for avenging his father’s death by killing his mother, Clytemestra (who killed Agamemnon because he sacrificed Iphigenia). Phoebus, the sister of Artemis, has ordered Orestes to steal her statue from Artemis’s temple and give it to Athens. Only by this act of courage will Orestes be freed from the furies who have pursued him since he killed his mother. The two friends discuss how they can accomplish their mission and decide to hide in the caves of the sea cliffs until nightfall.
The chorus enters and sings of Artemis’s temple and rituals. These are the girls who assist Iphigenia in her ritual preparations, and she shares with them her interpretation of her dream. They echo her mourning chant and then draw her attention to some herdsmen approaching the temple. The herdsmen explain to Iphigenia that while driving their cattle to the seashore to wash them, they saw two young Hellene men in one of the sea caves. They decided to capture the two to sacrifice to Artemis, according to their local custom. Then one of the strangers began to babble like a madman about “fiends from Hades” attacking him (this is the work of the furies that torment Orestes). Orestes slays some of the cattle, thinking they are the furies, and the herdsmen respond by stoning the two and taking them as prisoners to the king. The king ordered the prisoners sent to Iphigenia for purification and then sacrifice. Iphigenia commands the men brought before her; the “loss” of her brother makes her eager to sacrifice these two strangers.
Iphigenia once again recalls the horror of her aborted sacrifice, this time mentioning poignant details that create empathy with the audience, as she addresses the chorus. She ends by saying she believes the gods could not have caused her pain—that men blame the gods for their own evil actions. The chorus support her prayer to return to her home in Athens. In appraising the two approaching Hellenes, the chorus indirectly reminds the audience that human sacrifice is not allowed by Hellenic law.
Iphigenia has the prisoners unbound while she interrogates them about their identity and the events back in Athens. Out of pride, Orestes refuses to tell his name. He even recounts the story of murdering Clytemestra as though another committed the act and speaks of himself in third person. There are moments when the audience understands the dramatic Page 157 | Top of Articleirony of comments such as Iphigenia’s wish that her own brother might be as noble as the man standing before her and Orestes’ s wish that his sister might be the one to purify him before his sacrifice.
The pair earn Iphigenia’s respect, so she devises a plan to let one of them go, as long as he carries a message back to her brother. When she leaves to get the letter, Orestes and Pylades remark on her knowledge of their city. It seems as though they might recognize who she is, but instead Pylades expresses concern that he will be accused of killing Orestes. Iphigenia returns and she and Pylades trade oaths that they will accomplish what they promise. Pylades will go free and deliver the letter.
To assure that Pylades cannot fail by losing the letter, she has him memorize it. It is during the recitation of the letter that the two men recognize Orestes’s sister. Orestes turns in joy to Iphigenia, but the chorus accuses him of desecrating her holy robes. Iphigenia demands proof that he truly is his brother and is not merely trying to trick her so that he may go free. When he proves himself, Iphgenia bemoans the crimes she nearly committed.
After Iphigenia explains how it is that she is still alive, the three strategize an escape plan. They cannot kill the king because that would violate the “law of guest and host.” Iphigenia devises a plan to pretend that they have desecrated the statue Orestes must steal. She will tell Thoas that she must cleanse it and the two prisoners in the sea. That will allow them to make a run for Orestes’s ship. Iphigenia prays to Artemis for help, and the chorus sings encouragement.
King Thoas enters with his guards asking the whereabouts of Iphigenia. She enters with the statue and silences him with the news that “impurity” has violated it. He agrees to honor her desire to purify it, after hearing her say the prisoners are guilty of horrific deeds at home. Her demand for solitude during the purification does not make him suspicious because she asks him to purify the temple with fire while she is busy at the sea. Keeping onlookers away from the unholy statue, she makes her way to the sea with her two “prisoners.” The chorus sings the story of Artemis and Phoebus, ending with a story about the unreliability of dream interpretation.
A messenger rushes up to tell King Thoas that the two prisoners have fled in their ship, along with Iphigenia. Despite the trio’s successful getaway, the ship is in danger of grounding near shore. Thoas orders horsemen to capture them, but he is stopped by Athena, goddess of reason, who informs the king that Apollo wants Orestes to convey the holy image to Athens. Athena orders the end of human sacrifice and decrees that all accused will be given the benefit of a fair trial in which a majority vote will decide their fate—treatment that Orestes received when he was judged for Clytemnestra’s murder. Thoas agrees, and Athena applauds his decision, saying that even the gods must end to Necessity.
The goddess Athena appears at the end of the play to order King Thoas not to pursue the fleeing Hellenes. She represents wisdom and the disciplined aspects (rather than the aggressive aspects) of war, and she announces that human sacrifice will no longer be practiced. She also announces that it will henceforth take a majority of votes to condemn a man for a crime. Finally she blesses the safe return of Orestes, Iphigenia, and Pylades. The goddess supports the interests of the Hellenes, not the Taurians.
The chorus consists of female attendants to Iphigenia. These are captured Greek women who occupy a lower social status than Iphigenia. Their choral strophes comment upon and generalize the events of the play, transforming tragic events to moments of lyric beauty.
The herdsman is a messenger who supplies the part of the story concerning the capture of Orestes and Pylades by the Taurians. He is one of the men who discovers and surrounds the two strangers, and his own account of the fight shows the Hellenes better warriors than the barbarians, who fought with stones.
Euripides was known for his striking portrayals of female characters, and Iphigenia is no exception, although she lacks the dramatic depth of his Medea and Electra. Iphigenia, haughty and proud, has for twenty years grimly led her countrymen to Artemis’s sacrificial altar whenever the barbarian Taurians captured them in their land. Although she longs for her culture, she vehemently hates her countrymen for what they did to her. She loves only her siblings
and laments that she cannot pour libations on Orestes’s grave after misinterpreting a dream as an omen that he is dead. Discovering from the stranger Hellenes that he is alive brings her some respite from her misery, which quickly turns to elation when the stranger turns out to be Orestes. Her quick thinking and formidable bearing facilitate their escape. Iphigenia is daring, cool, and passionate.
In a long descriptive monologue, this messenger informs Thoas that Iphigenia is not purifying her prisoners but escaping with them. The messenger threatens the chorus of captive Greek temple attendant that they will pay for having protected their mistress.
Orestes lives under the curse of the Furies, who torment those who spill the blood of relatives. He has avenged his father’s death by murdering his mother and has been acquitted of this crime by an Athenian jury; but he can find no peace until he satisfies the command of Apollo to retrieve the altar statue at the temple of Artemis in Taurus. Orestes is plagued with bouts of madness, caused, perhaps, by the Furies, perhaps by his own sense of guilt. Orestes shares a close friendship with Pylades, his sister Electra’s husband. When Iphigenia offers to spare one of them, Orestes insists on sacrificing himself rather than to live at the expense of Pylade’s life. Orestes ultimately accomplishes the task assigned him by Apollo and receives Athena’s blessing, thus presumably ending his curse.
Pylades epitomizes friendship, having accompanied Orestes on his dangerous mission, simply to keep his friend company. Pylades is married to Electra, Orestes’s sister. When Iphigenia strikes a bargain to set free one of her prisoners, Pylades at first refuses, wanting to die with his friend. But he submits to Orestes’s reasoning: that it is Orestes whom Apollo sent on this mission and that Pylades must not desert his wife.
Thoas is king of Taurus. He is a barbarian (barbarian then meaning stranger, not savage) king, in the eyes of the Hellenes. He proves a rather unthreatening enemy to the Hellenes. Although he questions Iphigenia about her disposition of the prisoners, she easily deludes him. He submits to her order to purify the temple with fire while she goes to the ocean to purify the statue and prisoners. When he learns of Iphigenia’s trickery, he commands his soldiers to follow the escapees but once again submits to the voice of reason, this time in the form of Athena.
The theme of sacrifice dominates the play Iphigenia in Taurus. Sacrifice holds a double bind over Iphigenia, in that she was to be sacrificed by her father as homage to Artemis, and was then “rescued” by that goddess, who made Iphigenia serve in her temple, preparing the ritual sacrifice of other Hellenes.
Although human sacrifice was not practiced during the fifth century B.C. in Greece, its symbolic stand-in, animal sacrifice, was integral to Greek religious culture. Animals to be slaughtered were reared with care, promenaded to the altar with dignity, and the sacrifice itself was an occasion of silent solemnity. Only young, beautiful animals were chosen for sacrifice. Their innocence made the offering more valuable and served to intensify the Page 159 | Top of Articlereligious experience. Iphigenia was an innocent maiden who thought she was being prepared for a marriage when her father Agamemnon took her to the sacrificial altar. Her innocence would have been a poignant matter to a culture that regularly experienced the sacrifice of innocent creatures. Artemis snatches the young maiden away before she is destroyed.
A reversal of this event nearly happens to Orestes. He thinks he is about to be sacrificed but does not know that his blood relation, Iphigenia, would have led him to the altar, just as their father led Iphigenia. Iphigenia’s duty is to prepare victims for sacrifice in the temple of Artemis, and the usual victims are her fellow Hellenes, whom she now passionately hates because of their cold-blooded intent to use her as a means to placate the gods. Thus she holds an office similar to her father’s when he set out to sacrifice her. Her position as temple priestess is a tragic irony: she avoided sacrifice only to facilitate sacrificing others.
Interestingly enough, it is her office that enables her to escape her bondage to the Taurians. She has an aura of mystical power because of her priestess station, so she is able to tell Thoas to stay away from her and the defiled prisoners, allowing them space enough to escape. The reason behind both sacrificial necessities is war. Agamemnon chose to sacrifice his young daughter to appease Artemis, who held his ships in bay with a strong wind. The Taurians sacrifice Hellenes because of a current war between the two groups. The theme of sacrifice is further foretold in the dramatic irony that Iphigenia might actually sacrifice her own brother, whose death she thinks her dream has foretold.
Finally, it is under the ruse of preparing for the ritual sacrifice of Orestes and Pylades that Iphigenia and her cohorts escape. The Taurian king, Thoas, trusts this foreign temple priestess who has already killed so many Hellenes on Artemis’s altar. Although human sacrifice looms large in this play, it never is actually committed. In each case, though, the question is raised whether this particular person should be sacrificed by the one preparing to do so. The Greeks, who were inclined to generalize from particulars, would see the larger question as whether or not human sacrifice should be committed at all. Athena cleary answers no, when she comes in at the end to explain that sacrificial offerings will henceforth require only a drop of human blood, not a whole human life.
The theme of mistaken identity, as it occurs in many of William Shakespeare’s plays such A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night in which two characters are mistaken for each other or purposely dress up to elude identification, is not common in Greek drama. The ancient Greeks were more familiar with human transformations to and from inanimate objects, as evidenced in the stories of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The mistaken identity of both Iphigenia and her brother, Orestes, constitutes the dramatic irony of Iphigenia in Taurus.
Characters mistake blood relatives for strangers. Iphigenia assumes that the man she will prepare for sacrifice could not possibly be her brother—because her dream has already told her that he has died. The irony consists in the possibility that she herself may kill him. At the same time, Orestes assumes that his sister died on the Athenian altar to Artemis, never expecting her to perform a like service upon him.
In any play of mistaken identity, the crisis resolves in a recognition scene. The artful recognition scene is painfully drawn out, as the characters Page 160 | Top of Articleapproach and retreat without recognizing what the audience sees with agonizing clarity. To Athenian audiences, being in exile in a foreign land, suffering long absences, and nearly killing a blood relative resonated with the plight of citizens of a city at war with a sister Hellenic city. The irony and double-meanings within the lines would intensify their response to the play.
The prologue precedes the action of the play with a description of what will happen in the subsequent narrative. This may seem odd to modern theater-goers, who expect to experience surprise in watching a play. But the purpose of theater and therefore the purpose of the prologue was different in ancient Greek times. Fifth century Greek theater was closely aligned with solemn religious ceremony. The audience was attending a ritual performance that was a form of serious entertainment. The topic of the performance would be intimately familiar to all present. The prologue served not to introduce a novel situation but to hint at the subtle variations to a common theme this particular performance would explore. Both Euripides and Sophocles (in his Electra) explored the same material, yet each author brought his own subtleties to their respective dramas.
Before Euripides’s time, the prologue was spoken, chanted, or sung by a chorus, but it had by now evolved into a speech presented by one of the players. Euripides’s plays often begin with a single actor addressing the audience directly, recounting the story leading to the events about to be portrayed. Iphigenia in Taurus opens with a monologue by Iphigenia, saying simply, “I am Iphigenia” and then summarizing the pivotal event of her past, when her father tried to sacrifice her. (This event is the focus of another Euripides play, Iphigenia at Aulis.)
Euripides made less use of the chorus than did his elder Sophocles, who demoted the chorus from a protagonist role to that of speaking spectator. Euripides reduced its role even further and employed it in a slightly different way. For Sophocles the chorus still served as a major character in the play; Euripides removed it from the action almost completely.
The chorus in Euripides’s plays transforms the intense, personal emotions of the central characters into poignant statements about the situation in general. For example, after Iphigenia, Orestes, and Pylades depart from the temple on their way to the sea and freedom, the chorus sings of another brother and sister, Apollo and Artemis, in a moment when Apollo demands restitution of the gods for a wrong committed against him. Zeus applauds his pluck and restores reason to the earth. The story of Apollo foreshadows Athena’s intervention on behalf of Orestes and Iphigenia. Euripides also demoted the chorus by giving it fewer songs and lines than did other poets; thereafter it disappeared completely from ancient Greek theater.
Deus ex Machina
The “deus ex machina,” literally “god from a machine,” was a common closing device in ancient Greek theater. Normally, a god would descend from the heavens to bring the action to a close. On the ancient Greek stage, the descent would have been accomplished by means of a large crane hoisting the actor playing the god. In Euripides’s final scene, the goddess Athena appears from above the temple porch and prevents Thoas from pursuing the fleeing Hellenes. Athena informs Thoas that the gods ordered Orestes to steal the statue. She projects her voice to the fleeing Orestes as well, and she tells him to build a special temple to contain the statue, and to name the new temple after Taurus.
Furthermore, Athena hands down other laws, including the forbiddance of further human sacrifice. Instead a mere drop of human blood will now signify reverence to Artemis. Her closing words reinforce the rituals being celebrated by the Athenian audience.
The Peloponnesian Wars
The Peloponnesian War waged off and on for twenty seven years (431-404 B.C.), finally ending with the near total destruction of Athens by its economic rival Sparta. Pericles, for twenty years the
military general—the Greek equivalent of a president—of Athens, had engineered Athens rise to greatness through his superior oratory skill and his determination to build a true democracy through the education of Greek peoples. But he aggravated the rivalry between Athens and Sparta, sparking the Peloponnesian War, thus named because Sparta led the league of southern Greece called the Peloponnese.
The war waxed and waned between years of intense fighting, siege warfare, and periods of stalemate. Athens held the advantage at sea, while the Spartan army dominated land conflicts. Eventually, Sparta allied with Persia, obtaining needed funds to develop a naval force, and Athens, already weakened at sea, was undone. The political basis for the conflict lay in Sparta’s adherence to oligarchy, which was threatened by the presence of Athen’s democratic ideology. The psychological effect on Athenians of the decimation of its population and finances. The final, crushing blow came in admitting defeat to an enemy whose political philosophy was abhorrent to Athenians.
Greek Oracles and Omens
The importance of accurately interpreting dreams, omens, the ambiguous messages of oracles and the intentions of others certainly intensified during the long years of the Peloponnesian War. It was a time of deep superstitious belief. All humans experience the desire to foresee the future; during Page 162 | Top of Articlethis time of crisis in Athenian life and culture, this desire became paramount.
The fifth-century historian Herodatus notes the profusion of oracles that flourished before and during the war. Archeologists have found leaden tablets listing questions as mundane as whether purchasing a piece of land would lead to prosperity as well as indications that some generals made no moves without the encouragement of an oracle or omen. Knowing this, political factions could and did manipulate the omens to sway decision-makers.
Iphigenia plays upon Thoas’s superstitions in Iphigenia in Taurus; she convinces him that the two Hellenes are too impure to sacrifice, having committed the crime of matricide. Under the guise of purifying the statue and the intended sacrificial victims, she is able to lead them freely to the sea, first assuring that Thoas averts his eyes to avoid contamination. She also busies him with purifying the temple with fire. Even prisoners could gain a measure of control through the skillful manipulation of their conqueror’s superstitions.
Plays in fifth-century Athens were performed annually in honor of the Great Dionysia, a religious festival that took place on the agora, or marketplace. There was a wooden platform for the chorus and performers at the center of a bowl-shaped site that provided excellent natural acoustics for the audience. An altar to Dionysus lay at the center of the stage, a remnant of the fertility ritual that was the predecessor of the Dionysian festival. Players wore masks and chanted their lines, with little body movement. The festival also included a dramatic contest, where playwrights submitted and directed tetralogies consisting of tragedies and a satyr play, the latter a comic fertility rite.
Euripides wrote Iphigenia in Taurus before he wrote Iphigenia in Aulis, making Aulis a kind of “prequel” to Taurus. Euripides is one of a trio of great tragedians in fifth-century Greece: Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. Euripides was renowned during his lifetime, but he was not nearly as popular as either Sophocles or Aeschylus. Sophocles admired Euripides as a master playwright and honored the latter’s death by having the participants in the subsequent Dionysian festival dress in mourning rather than in their usual festive costumes.
Philip Vellacott, a twentieth-century translator, explained in Ironic Drama that “as a poet he was revered; in his function as a ‘teacher of citizens’ he was misunderstood.” A century later, Euripides gained more notoriety, if not appreciation. During the fourth century B.C., his plays were more commonly produced and adapted than those of his fifth-century rivals. Aristophanes (448-380 B.C.) dedicated three whole plays to burlesquing—ridiculing—his style. This simple historical fact implies that Athenian audiences must have been familiar enough with Euripides’s plays to make Aristophanes’s jibes recognizable—Euripides’s plays were an institution of drama during this period. While his theater was legendary, it was for his poetry and dramatic artistry for which Euripides was appreciated, not his ideas. Euripides was considered a fine poet with a misguided message. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) used four of Euripides’s works to illustrate various concepts of tragedy in his Poetics, wherein Aristotle defined the standards for drama. In that work he referred to Euripides as “the most tragic of the poets” who nevertheless had many “faults.”
Euripides’s skepticism was not condoned in the rather conservative fourth century. Greek culture was in decline, and as it declined even further, Euripides’s plays were carried to Alexandria, and then to Rome, and the Byzantine culture. Plutarch (46-c. 120 A.D.) related three historical anecdotes of Hellenes who were allowed to escape their enemies by showing proficiency in reciting Euripidean poetry; this evidence corroborates Euripides’s reputation, at least as a poet, in ancient Greece.
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the very aspect of Euripides’s ideas that alarmed his contemporaries, his criticism of the pan-Hellenic gods, fueled an interest in his work by scholars, especially humanists such as Erasmus. Dante mentioned Euripides in his Divine Comedy and Ben Jonson used one of his plays as a model. Euripides’s plays (along with those of Aeschylus and Sophocles) were required reading for the classical education valued during the Renaissance. In the seventeenth century Jean Racine adapted many of his plays and considered Euripides his master. John Milton (Paradise Lost) also expressed his admiration.
The eighteenth century lost interest in Euripides because his work was too innovative for the classical revival then in progress. Then Johann Page 163 | Top of ArticleWolfgang von Goethe (Faust) paid him the ultimate Romantic period compliment by calling his work “sublime.” Goethe created a new version of Iphigenia in Taurus that follows the original closely. It was of Euripides that Goethe wrote his oft-adapted expression: “Have all the nations of the world since his time produced one dramatist who was worthy to hand him his slippers?”
In the nineteenth century, Robert Browning made conspicuous allusions to certain plays by Euripides, and the Greek playwright was once more instated as a cornerstone of a good, classical education. Gilbert Murray’s accessible translations in the early twentieth century made Euripides’s work available to the larger public.
Twentieth-century literary criticism holds a reserved judgment regarding Euripides. Modern critics appreciate his championing of the under-dog—slaves, women, the elderly, and children—and his lampooning of religious and secular hypocrisy. But he remains a shadowy figure whose actual political and religious beliefs are difficult to discern. Twentieth-century critics are more wary than earlier critics of associating ideas in an artist’s works with his personal philosophy. The move toward New Criticism, with its emphasis on the text itself, has had a negative impact on Euripides’s reputation in this century.
Under such assessments, Euripides, once again, does not measure up to Sophocles or Aeschylus. Furthermore, twentieth-century readers are accustomed to works of more dramatic intensity than Iphigenia in Taurus, which is considered a “romantic melodrama.” Contemporary classical scholars find it interesting for its complex replication and reversal of certain paradigms found in the Oresteia, such as the near sacrifice of a blood relative. It seems unlikely that Iphigenia in Taurus will ever regain the popularity it enjoyed in its day, since its specificity to the status of the Hellenic state in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars lies at the heart of the play.
Hamilton is an English teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina. In this essay she explores the multi-layered ironies of Iphigenia in Taurus and suggests that to probe these layers sharpens the drama student’s critical thinking skills.
Because Iphigenia in Taurus is not as tragic or as compelling a story as such works as Sophocles’s Oedipus the King or Antigone, (or even Euripides’s own Medea), it is not produced as often on the modern stage or studied in the classroom as frequently. This play, written by a septuagenarian Euripides, pales in comparison to the violent action films of today’s cinema, a genre of entertainment familiar to most students. Iphigenia in Taurus does not carry the legitimizing title of tragedy; it is often more accurately labeled a melodrama or romance. It has also frequently been dismissed as ancient Greek “escape” literature.
In a 1974 article for Classical Journal, R. Caldwell compared the play to a “pleasant day dream” because “the danger is quite unreal, the escape is quite fantastic, the gods are clearly literary inventions. We are invited to indulge our fantasies, to subject repression to a process of catharsis, precisely because the work of art assures us, by its tone, that the dangers of such a task are not to be taken seriously.” Yet despite these judgements, this play has much to offer contemporary viewers. The world of television and cinema is filled with sensationalism—violence, profanity, exaggerated special effects. Subtle works such as Iphigenia in Taurus can be a thought-provoking antidote to such mind-numbing sensationalism, offering an invitation to the art of active thinking while viewing.
Iphigenia in Taurus is filled with subtle ironies. It has been said that the ability to detect irony is a sign of mental aptitude, but this aptitude requires practice if it is to be developed to its full potential. To perceive irony the viewer must follow closely the unraveling of the plot, yet also remain aloof enough from the action to compare what is seen with his or her own experience and to make judgements accordingly. This means that the viewer cannot subsume critical thinking to emotional involvement or passively submit to the ideas presented in the play. Euripides knew this, and he portrayed the foolishness of accepting things at face value. Both Iphigenia and Orestes model the negative consequences of submitting passively to one’s anticipated fate: they each assume the other is dead and only begin to use their own thinking capacities
fully when they find each other alive and begin to work out a plan of escape.
Irony is a reversal of expectations, a difference between appearances or perception and reality. One can express irony through tone of voice, saying one thing and meaning another, such as when Shakespeare’s Antony repeatedly states that “Brutus is an honorable man” in Julius Caesar when it is clear from his inflection and body language that he thinks the exact opposite. Dramatic irony consists of situations that the characters themselves accept at face value but which the audience understands in a different, usually opposite, way. Iphigenia in Taurus abounds in moments of dramatic irony where the audiences perceives a truth to which the characters are blinded, for various reasons.
Euripides’s characters misread situations, such as when Iphigenia misinterprets her dream of one column still standing in the House of Atreus as an indication of Orestes’s death, rather than considering the possibility that the standing column may mean her brother is alive. Orestes, in a moment of madness, stabs wildly at cattle which he misper-ceives as the Furies. At these times as well as in
numerous verbal or situational oxymorons, the audience easily recognizes the true meaning that the characters themselves do not fathom or guess.
Iphigenia’s oxymoron, a “just evil” aptly describes both the necessity and the criminality of Orestes’s murder of his own mother. The phrase takes on added dimension for the audience who know that she is speaking of a crime designed to avenge her own sacrifice at the hands of her father, Agamemnon. When Iphigenia wishes that her brother might resemble the young man before her who chooses to die in place of his friend, the audience recognizes the irony that her wish is only too true, and that she will destroy her brother. When Orestes wishes that his sister, meaning Iphigenia, could pour his libations, the audience knows that this wish might also, tragically, be fulfilled.
In each case, it is important for the audience to infer the reasons that the character fails to perceive the reality behind appearances. At the first level, Iphigenia fails to recognize her brother simply because he has not yet told her his name; but at another level of perception, she has a disinclination to feel empathy for any Hellene, because her father’s betrayal has embittered her heart. Orestes is likewise blinded by his overwhelming sense of guilt, which has driven him partly mad. Thus he is unwilling to reveal his true nature to the one person who would accept him.
In places, the irony is not so obvious, making it more difficult for the audience to infer the deeper meaning of the characters’ actions. This deeper irony demands a perceptive viewer, reader, or listener to detect it. The irony resides in the “gap” that Euripides’s translator Philip Vellacott, in his introduction to the play, explained “must exist in the work of every profound and creative dramatist between what he knows he has put into a scene and what he knows most of his audience will receive from it.” Most of Euripides’s Athenian audience would have noted the irony that when Iphigenia tells Thoas she must purify the altar statue, she deceives him with the very means that landed her in Taurus to begin with—the desire for purification through sacrifice. She manipulates the appearance of her actions, to make Thoas think that she intends to purify the altar and sacrifice another Hellene; instead she intends the opposite: to set free and purify the Hellene, not the Taurians, and to purge the temple of its altar, not purify it.
Likewise, an ironic reversal occurs when Orestes, asks Iphigenia to save him (by procuring the statue), whereas just moments before she was desperately attempting to contact him to come and save her: the tables have now turned. Recognizing an event in which the “tables are turned” is the province of the sophisticated audience. Athenian audiences were better prepared to notice these subtleties,
having plenty of time to contemplate the play and being unused to the onslaught of violent and extravagant performances that daily bombard the modern audience. The twentieth-century student of Euripides will benefit greatly from slowing down to appreciate and contemplate this profound and quiet masterpiece. Insights always reward the careful study of a work of great literature, but with Euripides’s Iphigenia in Taurus, such analysis is critical to understanding the play as Athenian audiences understood it.
A deeper level of irony detection lies in the correspondence between the events of the play and the social or political context of the audience. Here the modern viewer may feel hamstrung by the distance of almost fifteen hundred years and the paucity of information about Euripides’s opinions regarding the issues of his day. However, human nature has changed very little over the centuries; much of what Euripides has to say is perfectly comprehensible to contemporary human thought.
Orestes, we recognize, has fallen under the cloud of fatalistic thinking: he assumes the herdsmen will defeat them on the shore and only raises his arm to avoid dying a coward. The towering walls of the Taurian temple so intimidate him that Pylades has to convince him not to run away. Both of these instances pit appearances against reality, and Orestes remains stuck on appearance. Orestes has succumbed to the belief that his fate lies in the hands of Apollo, that he cannot change it, and he blames the gods rather than taking responsibility for his own decisions.
Iphigenia is similarly afflicted: years of enforced service in the temple have clouded her thinking, causing her to misinterpret her dream as an omen that Orestes is dead. In her case, appearances do not make the same impression on her as they would on another Hellene. The audience would identify with the siblings’ difficulties. An attitude of embittered fatalism had become the norm to the Athenians, who had suffered catastrophic losses during eighteen years of strife with Sparta (and were further decimated by a plague). The Athenians were beginning to realize that despite their philosophical superiority, they could lose the Pelloponnesian War. The parallels between the doomed House of Atreus and the besieged city of Athens would have been painfully apparent. As the chorus chants “blow after blow staggers the cursed city,” the substitution of Athens for Argos would have been automatic.
Another of Euripides’s ironic comments involves the efficacy of human sacrifice for purification purpose. Cedric Whitman in his 1974 book, Euripides and the Full Circle of Myth, explained that the goal of purification lies at the heart of this play. “All must be purified, Orestes of his madness, Iphigenia of her involvement in human sacrifice, and Artemis of a cult unworthy of a Hellenic deity.” Iphigenia says that “The rites I celebrate are unfit for song.” The happy ending restores three Hellenes to their land and exorcises the Furies from further tormenting Orestes, whom the Athenian court has acquitted of a justified homicide. Thus besides resolving the individual characters’ misperceptions and terminating the curse upon the House of Atreus, the ending also confirms the Athenian urge to trust in themselves rather than succumb to the fatalism and despondency of interpreting the omens of the gods. The ending is an exhortation communicated through the medium of irony to use the “double” vision of irony to see through appearances to the reality underneath.
Source: Carole Hamilton for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
In this essay, Walcot provides an overview of Euripides’s play.
The Iphigenia in Tauris is the type of romantic melodrama with a happy ending characteristic of the later work of Euripides. Its setting is appropriately exotic: the forecourt of a temple of Artemis on the Taurian coast in the modern Crimea. The play tells how Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon, is serving as a priestess of the Taurians, having been rescued when on the point of being sacrificed at Aulis by her father, who was leading the Greeks to Troy. Her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades come to the Crimea in search of a statue of Artemis Page 167 | Top of Articlewhich will release Orestes from his sufferings. A report that a pair of men has been captured is brought to Iphigenia whose responsibility it is to sacrifice arrivals from Greece on the altar of Artemis. When they meet, brother and sister fail to recognise one other, but a desire on the part of Iphigenia to have a letter smuggled back to Greece leads to a realisation that the two men are Iphigenia’s own brother and his companion. Now reunited, they plot an escape to Greece together with the statue, but their plan is threatened by the arrival of King Thoas who, however, is persuaded that the statue must be cleansed in the sea. Once they reach the shore, escape is achieved, but only after a fight and a most opportune intervention by the goddess Athene. Throughout the play intense excitement is sustained by the seemingly endless twists and turns of a far from simple plot.
Iphigenia delivers a lengthy prologue of a type common in Euripides’ plays. This does more than just impart basic information; it also reveals the pathos inherent in the woman’s present plight. Furthermore, we learn of a dream which, ironically, is both optimistic (in depicting Iphigenia’s restoration at home) and pessimistic (in seeming to anticipate the sacrifice of Orestes). It appears almost inevitable that as Iphigenia vanishes into the temple, Orestes and Pylades should take her place, busying themselves in careful examination of the bloodstained altar of Artemis. A reference to the goddess’s statue and the instruction from Apollo to present it to Athens completes all we need to know in the way of information; Orestes’ hesitation but Pylades’ stern determination to fulfil their mission similarly complete our picture of the play’s major characters.
The herdsman’s account of the capture of Orestes and Pylades is certainly long, but any danger of tedium is eliminated by vivid description of an Orestes stricken by madness as he imagines himself pursued by a Fury and falls upon cattle in a belief that these too are Furies. The actual capture is almost hilarious as the herdsmen are scattered and then regroup and stone the young men into submission. The chorus finds a story so rich in detail astounding. And Iphigenia herself has another long speech in which, yet again, a heavy vein of irony is exploited: believing her brother dead Iphigenia declares her heart now to be hardened while, at the same time, delivering a pathetic account of how she came to Aulis ostensibly to be married, and then indulging in typical Euripidean philosophizing when she claims that it is men and not the gods who are evil.
The scene between Iphigenia and Orestes, who both talk vigorously but at cross-purposes, is a masterpiece of misunderstanding although it does reveal that Orestes is still alive. At every point it is expected that the full truth will come out, but it never does and our expectations are constantly frustrated. Euripides has a fondness for simple stage-props and one is then introduced: Iphigenia offers not to kill Orestes if he will carry a letter back to Argos for her, but Orestes proposes that Pylades performs the mission and proceeds to persuade his friend to do this in an exchange of an especial appeal to a Greek audience (deeply appreciative as it was of the art of rhetoric). But a complication is raised: what if Pylades’ ship sinks and the letter lost but Pylades saved? The obvious solution to this dilemma is to tell Pylades the contents of the letter and this information, thus conveyed in such a way as not to strain credulity, identifies Iphigenia to the captives.
It is also quite natural that Iphigenia should delay the planning of their escape by seeking all the family news from Orestes. If Euripides drags out this episode at what initially appears inordinate length, it is done deliberately to heighten suspense. Less realistic, but again characteristic of Euripides, is the request for secrecy made to the chorus. But Thoas has still to be deceived, and Iphigenia’s claim that the intended victims were unclean and so unfit for sacrifice and that Artemis’s image must be purified illustrates, again surely to a Greek audience’s considerable delight, its proponent’s cleverness and superiority over a “barbarian.” There remains one more drawn-out exposition: the messenger’s description of the actual escape. In spite of their suspicions, the guards entrust the prisoners to Iphigenia; eventually they decide to investigate and find a Greek ship ready to depart and the two heroes climbing on board; both groups fight with fists in an attempt to secure Iphigenia and the Taurians are forced to fall back and use stones; the Greeks Page 168 | Top of Articleretaliate with arrows as Orestes carries his sister and statue safely aboard the ship which sails away but is then driven to the shore again by the wind. Thoas and his men make off to the shore, and it is at this point that Euripides plays his last card—the goddess Athene appears and orders Thoas to desist. The playwright has wrung an audience’s every emotion and brought the most devious of plots to a happy conclusion. But Euripides adds a last detail with the obvious intention of pleasing his Athenian audience: Athene also orders the building of a sanctuary on the borders of Attica to house the statue of Artemis. The establishment of a local cult centre gives the play a special relevance to the original spectators and stresses the Athenian context of the drama.
Source: Peter Walcot, “Iphigenia in Taurus” in The International Dictionary of Theatre I: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 372-73.
Michael J. O’Brien
In this essay, O’Brien examines the plot of Euripides’s play and compares its plot points to prevalent legends during the playwright’s time. He argues that Euripides had a specific agenda in building his drama upon the history and legends of ancient Greece, although there are significant points at which the play differs from history.
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Source: Michael J. O’Brien, “Pelopid History and the Plot of Iphigenia in Taurus,” in Classical Quarterly, Volume 38, no. i, 1988, pp. 98-115.
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A thorough description of the function and form of theatrical performances in ancient Greece and Rome.
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This work describes the daily life, religion, philosophy, and political world of the Greeks, written in a conversational style with excerpts of famous speeches woven into the narrative to give a better sense of the Greek mind.
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Lucas describes some of the innovations of Euripides’s plays and how his work influenced later generations of writers.
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A landmark work describing the historical context of Euripides’s Athens, including the Peloponnesian War and the rise of the Sophists. Murray describes the function of such dramatic elements as the prologue, chorus, and messenger, and explains Euripides’s unique use of them.