Iphigenia in Taurus

by Euripides

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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.

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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.

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 attendants 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.

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