Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Iphigenia In Tauris (Iphigenie auf Tauris)

Act I

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2023 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose. Conditions and Exceptions apply.


Translator’s Introduction

Iphigenia in Tauris is a reworking by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) of the tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. It describes the chance encounter between Iphigenia, Agamemnon's daughter - now serving as the priestess of Artemis on the wild coasts of Tauris - and her estranged sibling, Orestes. The story follows the siblings’ escape from the local custom of ritual sacrifice.

Goethe was in Italy, and Sicily, from 1786 to 1788, his visit having a profound influence on his poetic and philosophical development. Closer contact with the remains, in Rome, of the Roman Classical world, and, in Sicily, with Classical Greek architecture, deepened his knowledge and understanding of ancient Greek and Roman culture, influenced as it had been by the writings of Winckelmann. Classicism tempered his initial leanings towards Romanticism throughout his later career. Iphigenia in Tauris (1787), the Roman Elegies (1795) the prose journal Italian Journey (1817), and the second part of Faust (1832), bear particular witness to this.

Iphigenia in Tauris

Iphigenia In Tauris - Frontis

Character List

Iphigenia - Princess of Mycenae, the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra

Thoas - King of the Taureans

Orestes - Prince of Mycenae, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra

Pylades - Prince of Phocis, cousin and friend to Orestes

Arkas - confidant to King Thoas

Act I: Scene I

(A grove in front of the Temple of Diana)

Iphigenia Shuddering deeply, as at first, I step

Among dark shadows, you waving branches,

Entering your ancient, sacred, leafy grove,

Your silent sanctuary of the goddess;

Nor does my spirit grow accustomed

To this holy place, nor will it ever

While that proud will to which I yield

Keeps me here, concealed, many a year.

For I am always, as at first, an exile.

The sea has parted me from all I love,

So that, day long, I walk upon the strand,

My spirit longing for the shores of Greece,

While only the sombre roar of the waves

Returns an answer to my weary sighs.

Day long, I walk upon the strand

‘Day long, I walk upon the strand’

Woe to those far from family and parents,

Leading a lonely life, consumed by grief

That snatches the hope of joy from their lips.

Their every thought turns to their homeland,

Where the sun first showed them the heavens,

And they, and their playmates, ever closer

Were bound, by gentle bonds, to one another.

I must not quarrel with the gods; although

A woman’s fate proves ever full of sadness.

In warfare, as at home, men hold the sway,

Well-knowing how to gather foreign spoils.

Possession pleases, conquest crowns them,

And then, a most honourable death awaits!

How constrained is a woman’s happiness.

Obedience, even to a brutal husband,

Must be her duty, marriage her consolation;

Wretched if hostile fate drives her afar!

So royal Thoas ever detains me here,

Held in this sacred bondage like a slave!

Goddess, my shame is great, for I confess,

I serve your rites with silent reluctance,

You who protected me! To you, my life

Should, if I were free, be offered freely.

My hopes I now, as ever, place in you,

You, Diana, who in your gentle arms,

Gathered this outcast daughter of a king.

Yes, daughter of Zeus, if you have guided

The man whose daughter you demanded,

The godlike Agamemnon, who delivered

His beloved child to your high altar,

Home from Troy to his kingdom, in glory,

Back from those besieged and ruined walls,

Preserving his wife, and son, and Electra;

Three whom he treasures, return me, now,

To my dear family and, in so doing,

As once before, prevent me from dying,

Release me from this life, this second death!

Act I: Scene II

(Iphigenia, Arkas)

Arkas King Thoas has sent me to you, his orders

Are that I wish health to Diana’s priestess.

On the day when Tauris thanks her goddess

For the army’s new and splendid victories,

I’ve hurried here, ahead of the royal host,

To say that he’s arriving, and draws near.

Iphigenia We stand ready to receive them fittingly.

The goddess will, with favourable gaze,

Welcome the sacrifice that Thoas offers.

Arkas Of, if I could but see her priestess’ gaze,

(Yours, O Holy Virgin, who are most dear

To us, and revered) shine clearer, brighter,

A sign of grace to all! Mysterious grief

Still clouds, it seems, your inmost thoughts;

And we have waited many a long year

For some heartfelt word, in confidence.

This gaze of yours has made me shudder

Ever since I first saw you grace this place,

Your spirit as if bound with iron bands,

Forged in the inmost depths of your being.

Iphigenia As befits the stranger and the exile.

Arkas Are you an exile, then, a stranger here?

Iphigenia Can foreign shores replace those of our home?

Arkas Your homeland’s shores are foreign to you now.

Iphigenia The very reason my wounded heart heals not!

In my first youth, the spirit, newly bound

To father, mother, and to my fair siblings

(Like new tender shoots pressing upwards

From the fair stem of our ancient house)

An unhappy fate seized me, and tore me,

From those I loved, so severing the bond.

Then youth’s first joys, and early promise,

Were blighted, vanished, and, though saved,

I have been left but a shadow of myself,

While life has failed to flower in me again.

Arkas If you would seek to call yourself ill-fated,

Then I might choose to call you ungrateful.

Iphigenia You’ll ever have my thanks.

Arkas Not those true thanks,

That gratitude, that prompts our charity,

The joyful glance, the life of contentment

That reveal a gracious heart to one’s host.

When some profound, mysterious, destiny,

Brought you, long years ago, to this temple,

Thoas came, with reverence and affection,

To greet you, as a gift sent from the gods,

These shores were friendly to you, benign,

That every foreigner had come to dread,

For none before you had reached our realm,

Without dying, a blood-stained sacrifice,

On Diana’s sacred altar, as was the rite.

Iphigenia Simply to breathe, scarcely makes a life.

What life is this, that I must linger here,

And be confined to this sacred place,

Like a shadow haunting her own grave?

Do you call this joy and contentment

Dreaming the hours away, in idleness,

Preparing for the grey and listless days

The mournful swarm of the dead endure

In self-forgetfulness beyond dark Lethe?

A useless life that leads to early death?

That fate, a woman’s destiny, is mine.

Arkas I pity you, and can, equally, forgive you

For the pride that feeds your discontent.

It robs you, it seems, of all enjoyment.

Have you achieved naught, in coming here?

Have you not lightened the king’s dark mind?

Have you not, through gentle persuasion,

Supressed that ancient and cruel custom

By which strangers were ever sacrificed

On the blood-stained altars of Diana?

Many a captive, doomed to certain death,

Have you not restored to their homeland?

Has not the goddess, quelling her anger

When denied her former offerings, sought

Rather to fulfil your gentle prayer?

Does Victory not hover above our armies,

In joyous flight, or speed on in advance?

Do not all here enjoy a happier fate,

Now that King Thoas (who so long has led

His people here, with wisdom and courage)

Rendered benign, softened by your presence,

Has eased our life of silent submission?

Do you call it valueless, if from yourself

A healing balm flows, that aids the many?

When to those to whom a goddess brought you

You prove an endless source of happiness,

And to the stranger, on this deathly shore,

A saviour, who returns them to their home?

Iphigenia The little we achieve soon fades from view,

We look ahead to what we yet must do.

Arkas Should we praise those who scorn their own efforts?

Iphigenia And yet we censure those who sing their worth.

Arkas As much as those who overprize their worth

We censure those who disregard their value.

Trust me, pay heed to the counsel of a man

Devoted to you, one both true and honest:

If the king should speak to you today,

Be gracious, and give ear to all he says.

Iphigenia Your words are kind, yet they trouble me.

I’ve made every effort to evade his offer.

Arkas Weigh all, and think of what is best for you.

Ever since our King Thoas lost his son,

He trusts but few, and those less than before.

He looks jealously on every noble’s son

As his successor to the throne, and fears

An old age of solitary helplessness,

With some uprising hastening his death.

The Scythians are devoid of eloquence,

Not least their king, accustomed simply

To command, or oversee men’s actions,

Unskilled in the art of conversation,

And how to guide it firmly to his goal.

Hinder him not with stubborn refusal,

And wilfully seek to misunderstand him;

Choose rather to meet the man half way.

Iphigenia Should I encourage, then, what threatens me?

Arkas Do you call his courtship of you, a threat?

Iphigenia To me, it’s the most dreadful threat of all.

Arkas Put your trust in his profound affection.

Iphigenia When he seeks first to free my mind from fear.

Arkas Why do you hide your lineage from him?

Iphigenia An air of secrecy becomes a priestess.

Arkas No secrets should be hidden from a king.

And though he may not demand to know,

He stills feels, deep in his noble spirit,

That you are, endlessly, wary of him.

Iphigenia Is he, then, angry and displeased with me?

Arkas It would seem so. True, he speaks not of you,

But the odd word he lets fall has taught me

That in his heart he desires to wed you,

And is possessed by the wish to do so.

Oh, leave him not to his own devices!

Displeasure festering there, in his heart,

May bring you to despair and, with regret,

You may, all too late, recall my counsel.

Iphigenia What! Does this monarch then intend

What no decent man who’d be thought honest,

Or shows reverence for the gods above

Would dare intend? Would he seek, by force,

To drag me from the altar to his bed?

Then I ask the gods, Diana above all,

To aid me; she will grant protection

To her priestess, one virgin to another.

Arkas Be calm! No sudden rush of blood will drive

Our monarch to commit, as some youth might,

An act of violence. As to what he’ll do,

I fear lest he’ll intend some harsh measure

Which he’ll seek, steadfastly, to enact,

Being of so immovable a nature.

Trust him, I beg you; show your gratitude,

If you can offer the man nothing more.

Iphigenia Oh, tell me whatever else you might know.

Arkas Learn all from him. For here the monarch comes.

He has your respect; your own heart tells you

To greet him in a kind and friendly manner.

A man is often guided by a woman’s

Gentle word.

(He departs, and she remains alone.)

Iphigenia Yet, indeed, I see no way

In which to pursue so wise a counsel.

Nonetheless, dutifully, I will show

My gratitude, for all his charity,

Hoping that I may speak truthfully,

And still, in doing so, please the king.

Act I: Scene III

(Iphigenia, King Thoas)

Iphigenia May the goddess bless you with royal gifts!

May she grant victory and joy to you,

Wealth, and the well-being of your House,

And every honest wish of yours fulfil!

So that you, concerned for the many,

May enjoy rare happiness amongst them.

Thoas I’d rest content with my people’s praise;

Let others joy in conquests more than I.

Whether king or subject he is happiest

Who gains his well-being from his home.

You shared my deepest sorrows when the sword,

Borne by the enemy, took my son from me.

The last, the finest, torn from my side.

As long as revenge possessed my spirit

I could not feel the emptiness death left,

But now, at home once more, a battle won,

A realm destroyed, and my son avenged,

Nothing of my own House pleases me.

The delight in obeying me that once

I saw in every eye, is now quenched,

And, in its stead, I view disquiet, concern.

All ponder on the state of things to come,

And serve a childless man because they must.

Many a time I’ve visited this temple,

To ask for victory, now I offer thanks.

And, in my heart, I bear a long-held wish,

One that, I think, is not unknown to you,

Hoping that you, who are a true blessing

To my people and myself, I might see

As my bride, and a blessing to my House.

Iphigenia Your offer is too great for a mere stranger,

Royal sire. I stand ashamed before you,

A fugitive, one who owns nothing here

But the peace and shelter that you grant her.

Thoas That veiled in mystery, as when you came,

You yet hide from me, as from my people,

Would not seem right, or just, in any land.

Strangers hold this shore in dread; the law

And necessity demand it. From you alone,

Who possess every sacred privilege,

You, a welcome guest, that every day

Enjoy the free exercise of your will,

From you, I hoped to win the show of trust

That every decent host might well expect.

Iphigenia If I hid my parents’ names and my house,

It was from embarrassment, not mistrust.

A shudder of horror would seize your heart

If you but knew who stands before you,

And what accursed head you now protect.

Rather than see me there beside your throne,

You’d drive me swiftly from your realm,

To seek the fated end to my wandering,

Before I might return to seek my own,

Doomed to the misery every exile finds

Awaiting them with cold and alien hand,

Once they’re evicted from their house and home.

Thoas Whatever the counsel of the gods may be,

Whatever the fate of you and your house,

Heaven has only blessed me since you

Came to live here among us and enjoy

The sacred hospitality shown to guests.

It would prove difficult to persuade me

That, in you, I chose to shelter the guilty.

Iphigenia It is the gift and not the guest that blesses.

Thoas What’s granted to the guilty cannot bless.

Put an end to your silence and refusal.

He that asks it will never prove unjust.

The goddess entrusted you to my hands;

Sacred to her, so are you sacred to me.

Let her approval act as if it were law,

And if you once see a way to win home,

I’ll forego every thought of marriage.

But if the homeward path is closed forever,

Your House expelled and extinguished,

By some monstrous and cruel destiny,

Then, I’ll have every right to wed you.

Speak openly! You know I’ll keep my word.

Iphigenia My tongue reluctantly must break its bonds,

And so, divulge a long-concealed secret,

That once unloosed can never more be hid,

Nor enshrined again in the heart’s depths,

But, as the gods will, and as they decree,

Must work its harm, all safety foregone.

Attend to me! I am of Tantalus’ line.

Thoas You speak that momentous name so calmly!

Do you name that Titan as your ancestor,

The world thought favoured by the gods on high?

That Tantalus whom Zeus himself admitted

To his council and table, one whose wisdom,

Whose experience, could engage the gods

In that oracular speech that brought delight?

Iphigenia Such was he; yet the gods should not converse

With mortals as they do with one another.

Human beings are far too weak not to find

Unaccustomed heights may induce vertigo.

He was noble in himself, and no traitor,

Far too great to be a slave to the mighty,

Yet, while the Thunderer’s friend, a mere man.

Even his crime was human; his punishment

Severe; the poets say treachery and pride

Hurled him from the heights of Zeus’ table,

To the shameful depths of ancient Tartarus,

Divine hatred then pursuing all his line!

Thoas Was that their ancestor’s fault or their own?

Iphigenia Although his heirs inherited his stature,

And the strength within that he possessed,

Yet Zeus bound a bronze band round their foreheads.

Patience and wisdom, sense and moderation,

He hid from their reticent, gloomy eyes.

Every desire in them was turned to anger,

And the rage within spread beyond bounds.

Even Pelops, Tantalus’ beloved son,

Though strong of will, won his lovely bride,

Fair Hippodamia, by murderous treason,

She the daughter of King Oenomaus.

Two sons she bore, Atreus and Thyestes.

Envying their father’s love for Chrysippus,

His first-born son by another woman,

Joined in hate, they slew their half-brother.

The father deemed his wife the murderess,

And grimly demanding his son from her,

She, Hippodamia, then…destroyed herself.

Thoas You fall silent? Speak out as you will!

Do not repent of your trust, but speak!

Iphigenia Those who recall their ancestors with warmth

Are blessed; those who can joy at their deeds,

Can celebrate their greatness, see themselves

As one more link at the end of a lovely chain.

For it seems that one House will seldom bear

Both the demi-god and the vicious monster.

A line that first shows itself as good or evil,

Will, in the end, bring joy or bring terror

To the world. After their father Pelops’ death,

Thyestes and Atreus ruled their state together.

But that first show of unity could not last.

Thyestes dishonoured his brother’s wife.

In revenge, Atreus drove him from Mycenae.

Thyestes, planning treachery, long before

Had drawn a son of Atreus to his side,

And secretly had raised him as his own.

Urging him on to anger and revenge,

Thyestes sent him to the royal city,

To kill, in this ‘uncle’, his own father.

The plot though was discovered, Atreus

Cruelly punishing the would-be assassin,

Thinking him his brother’s son. Too late,

He learnt whom he had tortured and killed

In his drunken state. Desiring vengeance,

To expunge the deed from his mind, he planned

Unheard-of horrors. With a show of calm

Indifference, he then enticed his brother

With his two sons to join him in the city.

These two children he murdered, secretly,

And served them, a vile and dreadful dish,

At the next meal, to the unknowing father.

When Thyestes had sated his hunger

On his own children’s flesh, moodily,

He sought for his sons, thinking that he heard

Their footsteps, and their voices, at the door.

Then Atreus, smiling with malicious glee,

Hurled in their severed heads, and their feet!

You turn your face away and shudder, Sire;

Just so the Sun turned its face from them,

And its great chariot from the endless round.

These are the ancestors of your poor priestess.

Many are the men doomed to evil fate,

Many the deeds of the misguided mind,

That night conceals beneath shadowy wings,

And of which we view the dreadful twilight.

Thoas Hide them in silence, then. Enough of these

Abominations! By what miracle

Did you spring from so savage a tribe?

Iphigenia Atreus’ eldest son was Agamemnon.

He is my father, and, to tell the truth,

I saw in him, from my earliest days,

The very pattern of the perfect man.

Clytemnestra bore me, the first fruit

Of their love, then my sister, Electra.

As king he ruled Mycenae in peace,

And the House of Tantalus, long known

For its troubled fate, was granted rest.

My parents now only lacked a son,

And scarcely had their wish been fulfilled,

And Orestes, the darling of the House,

Joined his sisters, when fresh misfortunes,

Came to disturb our safe and quiet city.

News of that war will have reached you,

Whereby all the powerful lords of Greece,

Laid siege to the mighty walls of Troy

To avenge the abduction of fair Helen.

Whether they took the city, in revenge,

I have not heard. My father led that host.

At Aulis they sought a favourable breeze,

All in vain, for Diana, angered by him,

Delayed their passage, and demanded,

By Calchas’ prophecy, his eldest daughter.

My mother and I were lured to the camp.

I was dragged to the altar, consecrated

As a sacrifice to the goddess, so that she

Might be appeased; granting me my life,

She then cloaked me in a mist to save me.

She then cloaked me in a mist to save me

‘She then cloaked me in a mist to save me’

Awakening from dreams of death, I found

Myself in this same temple. I am, indeed,

The grandchild of Atreus, and daughter

To that king, Agamemnon; and am hers

That speak with you; beholden to Diana.

Thoas And I shall honour and respect the princess

No more nor less than I did my unknown

Guest. I shall now repeat my first request.

Come join with me, and share all that I have.

Iphigenia How should I dare to venture such a step?

Has not the goddess, alone, who saved me,

The right to dispose of a life now hers?

She chose to grant me sanctuary here.

Here she perhaps preserves me for my father,

Punished enough by my apparent death,

To prove the dearest joy of his old age.

Perhaps a sweet return is drawing near.

Should I, inattentive to her design,

Commit myself to stay against her will?

I’ve sought a sign as to what I should do.

Thoas The sign she gives is that you still remain.

Why try so anxiously to seek evasions?

Far fewer words are needed to refuse:

The listener only hears the one word ‘No!’

Iphigenia These are not words said merely to deceive.

I have revealed my heart’s depths to you.

Do you not see yourself how I must yearn

To see my parents, my sister, my brother,

There in that ancient hall, where in mourning

Sorrow still murmurs my name; where joy

Would entwine the pillars with fair garlands

As if she welcomed a new-born infant?

O, send me to that place, aboard some ship,

And you will grant new life, to me and mine!

Thoas Go then! Choose to do as your heart dictates.

Ignore the voice of reason and good sense.

Play the woman who yields to every impulse,

Driven to and fro by unrestrained emotion,

Whenever some passion burns in her heart.

No sacred bond can keep such from a traitor,

No tie that binds her to husband or father,

Once lured from their trusted and faithful arms.

Swiftly the glow of those affections fades.

In vain the golden tongue of persuasion

Loses its truth and power, and is stilled.

Iphigenia Remember your royal and noble word!

Is this the way you would repay my trust?

Yet you seemed prepared to hear the truth.

Thoas Though unprepared for what was not expected;

Yet should have been, indeed; did I not know

That it was such a woman I must deal with?

Iphigenia Why slander our sex, for seeming weaker?

A woman’s weapons are not glorious

Like to yours, yet not ignoble either.

Believe me, I surpass your powers in this:

That I know what will grant you happiness

More than yourself; in ignorance of us two,

You think the marriage bond will unite us.

Filled with good intentions and goodwill,

You urge me to yield, and be satisfied,

Yet I must thank the goddess who grants me

The firmness not to contract a marriage,

Of which she, as I think, does not approve.

Thoas Not the goddess but your own heart speaks.

Iphigenia So, deities speak to us, through the heart.

Thoas Have I not then an equal right to hear them?

Iphigenia A violent storm drowns out the gentle voice.

Thoas Is it heard then, by her priestess alone?

Iphigenia A prince should hear it above all others.

Thoas Your ancestral right and sacred office

Place you, with the gods, far nearer to

Zeus’ high table than an earthbound savage.

Iphigenia And now, I must atone for the confidences

You’ve extorted, and so forced me to share.

Thoas I am but a man; it’s better to end here.

Hear my word then; remain the priestess

Of the goddess, of Diana, who chose you.

But may she forgive me, that unjustly

Though with self-reproach, I have withheld

The sacrificial victims she once received.

No stranger wilfully approached our shores,

A death from old age was here denied them.

You, with a kind affection that seemed,

At times, to show a daughter’s tender love,

At times, an inclination towards marriage,

Bound me tight, as with some bond of magic,

So tightly, in truth, that I forgot my duty.

You had lulled my senses so completely,

I failed to hear the murmurs of the crowd,

Who cry out that my son’s untimely death,

Through this error, must be laid at my door.

I’ll no longer suspend, then, for your sake,

Those sacrificial rites that they demand.

Iphigenia I never asked it of you for my sake.

Those who think the gods want human blood

Misunderstand their nature, and simply

See, in those on high, their own cruel desires.

Did not the goddess snatch me from her altar,

Seeking my service rather than my death?

Thoas It’s not for us, by some deft use of reason,

To interpret the Celestial Ones’ actions,

Or direct them according to our wishes.

Do your duty, as you see it; I’ll do mine.

We have found two strangers sheltering

In a cavern on the shore, who’ll bring us

Nothing good; that pair are in my power.

With them we may resume Diana’s rites;

I’ll send them here; serve her as you know how.

(Thoas departs)

Iphigenia Gracious goddess, in your veiling mist

You cloak the innocent, the persecuted,

And, snatching them from Fate’s cruel grasp,

You bear them far away across the waves,

To wherever seems to you a safer place.

You are wise; you foresee what is to come.

The past, for you, is never done and ended.

Your gaze rests on all those who are yours,

As your bright moon, enlivening the night,

Rests, and reigns supreme upon the Earth.

O goddess, let hot blood not stain my hands!

For such can never bring rest and blessing;

While the shade of one murdered by ill-chance,

Will haunt the sad unwilling murderer,

In many an evil hour, and terrify.

You yet show your love for human beings,

Scattered so widely, and of every gender,

And, willingly, you extend our brief lives,

So that, for a while, we may gladly gaze

On the sight of your everlasting heavens.

The End of Act I of Goethe’s ‘Iphigenia in Tauris’