Iphigenia in Tauris


The Story of Iphigenia in Tauris

Before the Trojan War, Agamemnon gathered the Greek armies at the port of Aulis. The goddess Diana sent unfavorable winds to prevent the Greeks from sailing. Her oracle set a condition for Agamemnon: to earn the right to sail forth and destroy an innocent country, he must sacrifice his own daughter. Agamemnon accepted these terms and killed his young daughter Iphigenia on the altar. In his play Iphigenia in Tauris Euripides imagines that Diana plucked Iphigenia from that altar and delivered her to a temple in distant Tauris, where Iphigenia served the enemy Scythians as Diana’s high priestess—but Iphigenia’s family believed her dead.


Fifteen years later a storm batters Diana’s temple at Tauris. Iphigenia and the other priestesses—all of them captives from Greece—beg the gods for safety and peace from the storms raging both outside and within their embattled, homesick hearts. Iphigenia relates a dream: her home was destroyed; her father was mortally wounded by her mother, Clytaemnestra, who gave her a dagger; her brother Orestes cried out to her for help, but she was forced to kill him. The priestesses grieve with Iphigenia over these baleful images and urge her to hold out hope that she will see Orestes again.

The Scythian king, Thoas, comes to Iphigenia in despair, followed everywhere by omens and voices calling for his downfall. Oracles have ordered him to sacrifice every stranger to the country to quiet his torment. His soldiers come with news of new captives—two Greek men—and Thoas orders Iphigenia to slaughter them on the altar. The Greeks are brought in—one is half-mad, haunted by past crimes, the other defies Thoas. They are imprisoned as the Scythians call for blood.


The strangers are Orestes and his lifelong friend Pylades. Orestes, who has killed his mother and is pursued by the Furies, lives on the edge of madness; now he feels responsible for Pylades’ imminent death. Pylades calms Orestes with a loving pledge that they will die together. Pylades is taken away, and Orestes sinks gradually into sleep. But the Furies stalk him even in his dreams. He awakens from a nightmare to find Iphigenia standing before him. Without revealing her identity she questions him about the royal family in Mycenae, and he tells her all: Clytaemnestra murdered Agamemnon to avenge the death of Iphigenia, Orestes struck down Clytaemnestra to avenge his father and then, he adds, Orestes killed himself. Iphigenia sends the stranger to be shackled to the altar, and—now without country, kindred or hope—mourns the loss of her family.


Iphigenia resolves to save at least one of the Greek captives (she feels a strong kinship for the troubled dreamer) and to send the survivor to Mycenae with a letter for her sister, Electra. Pylades, who has been tortured, is reunited with Orestes, and Iphigenia tells them Orestes must live and carry the sealed letter. Pylades is happy to die for his friend’s life; Orestes, determined that he himself should die, seizes the sacrificial knife and threatens to take his own life if Iphigenia will not spare Pylades. Iphigenia gives Pylades the letter and helps him escape.


Iphigenia tries repeatedly to perform the sacrifice, but she cannot bring herself to harm the stranger and cries out angrily against Diana. Orestes, touched by Iphigenia’s sadness and her concern for him, tries to embolden her to strike the blow, calling out in the final moment, “Iphigenia, beloved sister, thus also did you perish at Aulis.” Sister and brother realize the truth.

Thoas bursts in: Iphigenia’s plot has been discovered. He orders the Greek sacrificed immediately and is about to slaughter Orestes himself when Pylades returns with Greek soldiers to save his friend. Thoas is killed in the fray, which is halted when Diana herself appears to pardon Orestes, quiet the Furies, set the Greek women free, and send prince and princess home to Mycenae—and the first happiness they have known since before the Greeks set sail for Troy.

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