Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781
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 religious 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 clearly 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 approach 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.