Iphigenie auf Tauris

Iphigenie auf Tauris; Iphigenia in Tauris (first prose version written and performed 1779; final blank verse version written 1786-87, published 1787, first performed in 1800)

Iphigenie auf Tauris; Iphigenia in Tauris is written in blank verse (unrhymed iamblic pentameters). It is a reworking of the ancient Greek drama Iphigenia in Tauris (written between 414 and 412 BC) by Euripedes (circa 480-406 BC).


The heroine, Iphigenie, is the sister of Orestes and the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Iphiginie was about to be sacrificed by her father Agamemnon, the commander of the Greeks, because the oracle told him that this was the only way to calm the weather so that the Greeks could sail to Troy. But Iphigenie was saved from her sacrifice by the goddess Diana and taken to the island of Tauris to serve as Diana’s priestess. Back in Greece, Agamemnon returned home from the Trojan War only to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus. In order to revenge his father’s murder, Orestes killed his mother, Clytemnestra. Now he is pursued by the revenging Furies, three monstrous women who punish guilt with a whip made of scorpions. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi has told Orestes that the only way to escape from the Furies is to steal the statute of Diana from Tauris.

Goethe’s Version

Goethe’s version differs from the classical original in two important ways. In the original version by Euripedes, Orestes is freed from his guilt by a god (Apollo), and the Greeks are forced to betray Thoas, the King of the Taureans, and steal his statue. In Goethe’s version, the human beings work things out for themselves, without the assistance of gods, and – crucially – they do this without betraying Thoas. Iphigenie’s terrible gamble – to tell the truth to King Thoas – pays off. Goethe’s play suggests that the cycle of violence which haunts Greek mythology (and the whole of human history) can be stopped, if only people have the courage to tell the truth to each other.

Round about the midpoint of the play, in Act Three, Scene 1, Orest (Orestes) says to Iphigenie: ‘zwischen uns / Sei Wahrheit!’; ‘between us / Let there be truth!’ (lines 1080-81). This is emblematic for the play as a whole, which suggests that wounds can only start to heal once the truth has been told. In Act Five, Scene 3, Iphigenie describes telling the truth as an ‘unerhörte Tat’; an ‘unheard-of deed’ (line 1892), that is to say, a form of (feminine) heroism which contrasts with the traditional masculine form of bravery (which is to commit acts of violence).

Iphigenie auf Tauris is therefore a drama of civilization. Iphigenie is an idealist in the best sense of the word. She is not deluded about reality: she knows that people often treat each other brutally, but she is determined to improve them by telling them the truth. Unlike Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, she knows that the truth can be unpleasant and dangerous, and she knows how to choose her words very carefully indeed.

In Act One, in her opening monologue, Iphigenie declares her homesickness for Greece, and compares the fates of men and women (lines 24-34). Arkas reminds her that she has helped to end the custom of sacrificing strangers to the goddess Diana, and that she also has a good influence on King Thoas, whose rule has grown milder. Thoas appears and repeats his proposal of marriage to Iphigenie. She refuses and in order to make him desist, she reveals that she is descended from Tantalus who was punished by the gods for his cruel deeds; her family is cursed. Thoas still wants to marry her and in order to pressurize her, he says he will reintroduce the custom of human sacrifice, starting with the two strangers who have just arrived on the island.

Act Two opens with the two strangers: Iphigenie’s brother Orest (Orestes) and his friend Pylades. They have come to Tauris in order to steal the statue of Diana. They don’t know that Iphigenie survived. Pylades meets Iphigenie. Concealing his identity from her, he tells her how Klytämnestra (Clytemnestra) and Ägisthus (Aegisthus) murdered Agamemnon.

In Act Three Orest confesses to Iphigenie how he murdered Klytämnestra, and describes his torment by the Furies. Iphigenie reveals her identity to him and shows him pity. Orest begs her to end his misery by sacrificing him. However, thanks to Iphigenie’s influence, Orest starts to feel released from the pursuit of the Furies.

In Act Four Orest reveals that the oracle of Apollo had prophesied that the curse would be lifted if he brought ‘the sister who lived on Tauris against her will’ back to Greece. Orest and Pylades thought that they were supposed to bring the statue of Diana, Apollo’s sister, back to Greece. Pylades wants Iphigenie to tell Thoas that that the statue must be washed in the sea because it has been tainted by the presence of strangers. Pylades will then prepare a ship for them to escape. Iphigenie does not want to deceive Thoas and steal the statue, but Pylades insists that deceit is necessary.

In Act Five Iphigenie reveals the truth to Thoas including the plan to steal the statue and explains her brother’s story to him. She convinces Thoas that she is telling the truth, but Thoas insists that he will not let the Greeks take the statue of Diana. Then Orest explains that he had misunderstood the prophecy: it did not refer to Diana, Apollo’s sister, but to Iphigenie herself, Orest’s sister. Iphigenie persuades Thoas to let her and Orest leave in peace. She also asks Thoas for his blessing. The play ends as Thoas gives his blessing, letting them go with the words ‘Lebt wohl!’; ‘Fare you well!’ (line 2174).

English Translation

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Iphigenia in Tauris, trans. by Roy Pascal, intro. by Martin Swales (London: Angel Books, 2014)

Further Reading in English

David Barry, ‘“Ist uns nichts übrig?”: The Residue of Resistance in Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris’, German Life and Letters 49:3 (1996), 283-96

Christa Bürger, ‘Classical Processes of Dissociation: Goethe’s Iphigenia’, in Peter Bürger and Christa Bürger, The Institutions of Art, trans. by Loren Kruger (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), pp. 123-36

E. M. Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935; reprint: Boston, MA: Beacon Hill, 1958), section on Iphigenie, pp. 93-105

Frank M. Fowler, ‘The Problem of Goethe’s Orest: New Light on Iphigenie auf Tauris’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 51 (1981), 1-26

Edith Hall, Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris: A Cultural History of Euripides’ Black Sea Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Francis Lamport, ‘ “Und Götter auf der Erden”: Humanity and Divinity in some Eighteenth-Century Versions of the Iphigenia Story’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 40 (2004), 41-55

Francis Lamport, ‘Adventures and Misadventures of Iphigenie – in Tauris and After’, Oxford German Studies 42:3 (2013), 259-64

Horst Lange, ‘Isaac, Iphigeneia, Christ: Human Sacrifice and the Semiotics of the Divine’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 78:3 (2009), 166-88

R. C. Ockenden, ‘On Bringing Statues to Life: Reading Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris and Torquato Tasso’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 55 (1986), 69-108

Roy Pascal, ‘An English Iphigenie – A Version for Broadcasting. I’, German Life and Letters 8:4 (1955), 264-72, and ‘An English Iphigenie – A Version for Broadcasting. II’, German Life and Letters 9:1 (1955), 20-25

Susan Helen Reynolds, ‘Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris and its Classical Background’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 57 (1988), 55-74

Lesley Sharpe, ‘Schiller and Goethe’s Iphigenie’, Publications of the English Goethe Society 54 (1985), 101-22

Martin Swales, ‘“Die neue Sitte” and Metaphors of Secular Existence: Reflections on Goethe’s Iphigenie’, Modern Language Review 89:4 (1994), 902-15

Martin Swales, ‘The Human Epiphany: Reflections on Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale’, in The Present Word: Culture, Society and the Site of Literature. Essays in Honour of Nicholas Boyle, ed. by John Walker (London: Legenda, 2013), pp. 10-21

Irmgard Wagner, Critical Approaches to Goethe’s Classical Dramas: ‘Iphigenie’, ‘Torquato Tasso’, and ‘Die natürliche Tochter’ (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1995), pp. 5-90

Further Reading in German

Stefan Matuschek (ed.), Mythos Iphigenie. Texte von Aischylos bis Volker Braun. Anthologie (Leipzig: Reclam, 2006)

T. J. Reed, ‘Iphigenie auf Tauris’, in Goethe-Handbuch, ed. by Bernd Witte et al., 4 vols (Stuttgart and Weimar: Metzler, 1996-99), II: Dramen, ed. by Theo Buck, pp. 195-228

Markus Winkler, Von Iphigenie zu Medea. Semantik und Dramaturgie des Barbarischen bei Goethe und Grillparzer (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2009)

Web Link


English translation of Iphigenia in Tauris by Anna Swanwick (1813-1899)