Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502
Iphigenia in Tauris is one of several extant dramas about the character Iphigenia, who also appears in Homer’s Iliad. As with most Greek dramas, the play would have been performed by three actors and a chorus. The actors and chorus would all have been men, as women were not allowed to act in plays during this period. The three actors appeared in multiple roles, changing masks and costumes during choral performances in order to assume different roles.
Iphigenia was the daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, the sister of Orestes and Electra, and a priestess of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. In Homer’s Iliad, she was sacrificed at Aulis by Agamemnon in order to provide favorable winds for the Greek fleet. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon on his return from Troy, in part in response to the sacrifice of her daughter. In this play by Euripides, Iphigenia has not died but instead has been rescued at the last moment by Artemis, who has left a deer in Iphigenia’s place. Artemis then transports Iphigenia to the land of the Taurians, where she serves as a priestess of Artemis. In this capacity, Iphigenia is responsible for seeing that all strangers who arrive in Tauris are ritually sacrificed, a duty which Iphigenia does not like. Nor does she like Tauris; indeed, she yearns throughout the play to return to Greece. At the end of the play, Iphigenia accepts Athena’s command that she establish a temple to Artemis in Attica and serve as priestess there.
Orestes is the brother of Iphigenia. He has killed his mother, Clytemnestra, as revenge for her killing his father, for which he is now being pursued by the Furies. When he flees with his friend Pylades to the land of the Taurians, where he intends to steal a statue of Artemis in order to release himself from the Furies’ wrath, he is captured and due to be sacrificed to Artemis. He is recognized by his sister, and she arranges his escape.
Pylades is a friend and sidekick of Orestes. He is the husband of Electra, sister of Iphigenia and Orestes, and is an admirable character, being intelligent, sensible, and loyal. He is ready to die alongside Orestes rather than escape and save his own life.
Thoas is the king of the Taurians. While he enforces the barbaric law which requires human sacrifice, he is mainly seen as a foolish rather than a cruel ruler, being easily deceived by Iphigenia.
Athena is the goddess of wisdom, and in this play as well as works by Aeschylus she is a voice of reason, justice, and reconciliation, who offers a solution that satisfies Artemis while saving Iphigenia, Orestes, and Pylades.
The chorus is composed of twelve women (originally played by male actors) who are Greeks acting as Taurian servants to the goddess Artemis.
A Taurian herdsman reports that Orestes and Pylades have been captured and explains Orestes’s madness.