Iphigenia in Taurus

by Euripides

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Historical Context

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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 this time of crisis in Athenian life and culture, this desire became paramount.

The fifth-century historian Herodotus 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.

Greek Theater
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.

Literary Style

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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...

(This entire section contains 570 words.)

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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 hisElectra) 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.

Compare and Contrast

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5th century B.C.: Greek tragic theater is produced in March for the ritual celebration of Dionysus, the god of wine. Everyone in the city attends the festival and the overall mood is festive though respectful and serious. Theater lies at the heart of Greek culture, integrated with religious ceremony and serving as a bond for the community.

Today: Theater no longer has ties to religion, although dramas for religious rituals are produced in some organized religions for important holidays. In the public theater, the sense of solemn ritual as experienced by the Athenians has no counterpart today. Theater is a form of entertainment that holds a rather peripheral status in modern society.

5th century B.C.: The conflict between Sparta and Athens, the "super powers" of ancient Greece, has raged for ten years and a seven-year truce has just ended as Iphigenia in Taurus is first produced. The wars, which will ultimately last twenty-seven years, are devastating to Athens; Sparta plunders the city, destroys hundreds of valuable warships, and decimates Athenian population.

Today: The United States has enjoyed over one hundred years of peace on its North American territory. Although its armed forces have engaged in wars in other countries, Americans and their way of life have enjoyed little threat from outsiders. The threat comes rather from within, from urban violence and from a slow erosion in moral values.

5th century B.C.: Athenians value their democratic political and social system. Words have more power than weapons. Any citizen accused of a crime can defend himself (women did not share Athenian men's rights) before a jury. While slavery and other unsavory civil practices are common, the society is primarily democratic and free.

Today: Democratic privileges extend to all citizens of the United States. Although inequalities still exist in practice, the American legal system guarantees citizens its rights and provides professional legal representation to those accused of crimes.

Media Adaptations

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In 1779, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe created a prose version of Iphigenia in Tauris in five acts that closely follows Euripides's plot line.

In 1779, Christoph Willibald Gluck produced an opera version of the play, called Iphigenie en Tauride that is still produced. A recording of the opera is available on compact disk from Phillips.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Barlow, Shirley A. The Imagery of Euripides, Bnstol Classic cal Press, 1971.

Caldwell, R. "Tragedy Romanticized: Thelphigema Taunca" in Classical Journal, Vol 70,1974, pp. 23-40.

Decharme, Paul. Euripides and the Spirit of His Dramas, Kenmkat Press, 1968.

Dodds, E R. "Euripides the Irrationahst" in the Classical Review, Vol 43,1929, pp 97-104.

Dodds, E. R. The Greeks and the Irrational, University of California Press, 1951.

Paas, Ekbert. Tragedy and After, McGill-Queens University Press, 1984.

Grube, G. M A The Drama of Euripides, Methuen, 1961.

Halleran, Michael The Stagecraft in Euripides, Barnes & Noble, 1985.

Hopper, R J The Early Greeks, Barnes & Noble, 1976 Kerford, G B The Sophistic Movement, Cambridge, 1981.

Kott, Jan. The Eating of the Gods- An Interpretation of Greek Tragedy, Random House, 1970.

Melchinger. Siegfried Euripides, Frederick Ungar, 1973.

Michelini, Ann. Euripides and the Tragic Tradition, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Folk Religion, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961.

Rankin, H. D. Sophists, Socratics, and Cymes, Canberra, 1983.

Segal, Ench, Editor. Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Vellacott, Phillip. "Introduction'' in The Bacchae and Other Plays, translated by Vellacott, Penguin, 1973.

Vellacott, Phillip. Ironic Drama, Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Verrall, Arthur Woollgar. Euripides the Rationalist: A Study in the History of Art and Religion, Russell & Russell, 1967.

Whitman, Cedric. H. Euripides and the Full Circle of Myth, Harvard University Press, 1974.

Bieber, Margaret. The Greek and Roman Theatre, 1961.
A thorough description of the function and form of theatrical performances in ancient Greece and Rome.

Kitto, H. D. F. The Greeks Penguin Books, 1991.
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.

Lucas, F. L. Euripides and His Influence, Marshall Jones, 1923.
Lucas describes some of the innovations of Eunpides' s plays and how his work influenced later generations of writers.

Murray, Gilbert. Euripides and His Age, Oxford University Press, 1955.
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.


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