Iphigenia in Tauris

by Euripides

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Critical Evaluation

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Iphigenia in Tauris is not, strictly speaking, a tragedy but a melodrama. Iphigenia, after years in a barbaric land, may at first still have hatred for her kin, the Greeks, who were willing to kill her to fight a pointless war, but her sentimental longing to return to Argos, her birthplace and the scene of her happy childhood, is intense. She describes her feelings most touchingly. The play abounds in breathtaking situations of danger and in sentimental passages of reminiscence. The recognition scene is perhaps the most thrilling, if not the most protracted, in the classic Greek drama.

Like William Shakespeare, Euripides turned to the melodrama, or romance, in his later years to convey a more optimistic view of the world. In fact, he invented this new dramatic form. Iphigenia in Tauris is one of the few surviving examples. As a play, Iphigenia in Tauris is masterly. It is carefully plotted, full of suspense, and genuinely moving. The setting is distant, dangerous, and romantic. A wistful love for Greece illuminates the action, especially in the beautiful choral odes. The characters are realistically drawn, and their reactions at tense moments are both unexpected and credible. The mixture of accurate psychology and miraculous occurrences is typical of Euripides. Further, the long recognition scene between Iphigenia and Orestes is thrilling in its execution. It would be hard to find a better piece of pure theater in the repertoire of classical drama. This play also has the penetrating depth of Euripides’ finest works, in addition to being high entertainment.

Euripides seems to have been fascinated by the legend of the House of Atreus. From the final years of his life five plays on the subject have survived. Iphigenia in Tauris, lektra(413 b.c.e.; Electra, 1782), Helen(412 b.c.e.;Helen, 1782), Orstes (408 b.c.e.; Orestes, 1782), and Iphigeneia en Aulidi(405 b.c.e.; Iphigenia in Aulis, 1782) treat this story in different ways. Sometimes the depiction of a character varies from play to play, particularly in the cases of Orestes and Helen. Of these works Iphigenia in Tauris comes closest to Helen in mood and plot. Both are romances in which a woman has been supernaturally transported to a remote, barbaric land and there held in chaste captivity. Iphigenia and Helen long for one deliverer whom they believe to be dead. Promptly they meet the man and a recognition scene follows. Then they plot a means of escape, trick the king, and return home by divine intervention. The similarities are remarkable and suggest that one of these plays attempts to repeat the success of the other, although Euripides may have written more plays along these lines.

The plot of Iphigenia in Tauris has two major climaxes and can be divided into two parts. The first part begins with Iphigenia believing her brother, Orestes, to be dead and ends with her accepting the captive Orestes. The second part begins with the two of them planning the escape and ends as they overcome all obstacles with Athena’s aid.

Euripides uses an interesting technique. Often a character will state a principle by which he or she intends to act and then immediately betray the principle. Thus, in lines 350-353, Iphigenia states her intention of being harsh to the Greek captives because of her own misery and melts on hearing news of her homeland, offering to spare Orestes. In this case the technique points up her intense homesickness for Greece and Argos, a passion that animates not only her but also the chorus of Greek maidens, Orestes, and Pylades.

With Orestes, Euripides...

(This entire section contains 988 words.)

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varies the technique in relation to a major theme. When Orestes appears before Iphigenia as a prisoner, he says he disdains self-pity; a few lines after, when Iphigenia asks his name, he replies sullenly, “Call me unfortunate.” The method indicates his misery. It also underscores his nobility of character later when he insists on being sacrificed to free his friend, Pylades. Disinterested love is always a sign of redemption in Euripides.

The barbarian king, Thoas, claims no barbarian would murder his mother, as the Greek, Orestes, did. However, he has no compunction about ordering a massacre of all Greeks, including the temple virgins. Euripides uses Thoas as a gullible, vengeful foil to the clever Greeks.

However, the most important theme of the play has to do with divine injustice and human suffering. Iphigenia is in thrall to the goddess Artemis, a victim who is offered up for sacrifice, transported far away from home, and then set to aid in the sacrifices of all strangers and Greeks, a task she loathes. Artemis is the perpetrator of the whole sequence.

Artemis’s twin, Apollo, visits similar suffering on Orestes, causing him to kill his mother, to be pursued and driven mad by Furies, and to be sent to Colchis (not Tauris), where he is captured for sacrifice. At first glance the gods Apollo and Artemis appear to be archvillains ruthlessly dealing out anguish.

There is another perspective, however, that mitigates this view. Orestes is working out his redemption and must face death before he can free himself of the guilt of matricide. He is offered a chance to live, but he chooses to save Pylades. Presumably Apollo sends him to Colchis for that very purpose, to act as a free man rather than as an embittered victim. Once this choice occurs, things begin falling into harmony. Iphigenia accepts him as her brother and contrives an escape. Orestes repays the favor by saving her life as they board the ship. Then in the moment of greatest danger the goddess Athena arrives to rescue the Greeks, showing that the gods give help to those who help others.

Euripides is showing that as long as a people regard themselves as victims they can only suffer. When they act freely and unselfishly, their suffering ceases and the gods come to help. Through disinterested love, divine injustice is transmuted to true justice.