Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Iphigenia In Tauris (Iphigenie auf Tauris)

Act II

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

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Act II: Scene I

(Orestes, Pylades)

Orestes It is the path to death that we now tread.

With every step, my soul grows calmer.

When I asked of Apollo that he remove

The vengeful band of Furies at my back,

He seemed, with his divine words of hope,

To offer me both his aid and safety both,

Here, in the shrine of his beloved sister,

Diana-Artemis, who rules all Tauris.

Yet now the prophecy will be fulfilled:

That only with death will my woes end.

How easy it is for me, my heart crushed

By the hand of the god, my mind numbed,

To renounce the lovely light of the sun!

Atreus’ grandson shall not achieve

A glorious end, it seems, in warfare;

But as my ancestors were, as my father,

Must be sacrificed to a sadder fate.

So be it! Rather here, before the altar,

Than in some wretched corner where my kin

May spread the vile nets of the assassin.

Leave me, for now, you infernal Furies,

You that, like unleashed hounds, scent the trail,

The blood-stained track, that marks my path!

To your realm I’ll sink down soon enough;

The light of day should not know me or you.

The green and lovely carpet clothing Earth,

Should not provide a stage for evil things.

I’ll seek you there; there, where an equal fate

Binds all in gloomy, everlasting night.

Yet I’m reluctant, Pylades, dear friend,

A comrade, guiltless of my every crime,

To drag you downwards to the mournful realm

Before your time! Your life and death alone,

Are things that stir both hope and fear in me.

Pylades Orestes, I am not eager, as you seem,

To descend, and greet that shadowy realm.

I still would navigate the tangled ways

Of darkest night that yet appear to lead,

Tortuous though they may be, to life.

I think not of death; I listen within,

Seeking to hear if the gods prepare

Some means for us to evade this fate.

Death is inevitable, feared or not,

Yet, though the priestess, with uplifted hand,

Stood ready to shear our consecrated hair,

My only thought would still be of escape.

Rouse your spirits; quit this melancholy!

Your lack of hope increases our danger.

Apollo has granted us his word: here solace

And help await us at his sister’s shrine.

The words of the gods are not ambiguous,

As sufferers think, in the depths of sorrow.

Orestes Life’s dark coverlet was wrapped around me,

While my mother caressed my tender head.

Then I grew to be the image of my father,

Though my silent look was, ever, a bitter

Reproach to my mother and Aegisthus.

How often, when Electra, my dear sister,

Sat there, silent, in the depths of the hall,

I clung tightly to her, and stared on seeing

How the bitter tears flowed from her eyes.

Then I sought to know more of our father.

How I longed to be with him, to see him!

I wished myself at Troy, wished him there.

Then, came a day…

Pylades Oh, speak not of that hour,

Let hellish Furies talk of it, by night!

Recount the memories of fairer times,

Such as might spur our hearts to noble deeds.

The gods need many a good man to serve

Their purposes on this wide Earth of ours.

They yet count on you. Their will was not

That you should accompany your father

When he sank down, unwillingly, to Orcus.

Orestes Would that I’d seized the border of his robe

And then, in doing so, had followed him!

Pylades Those that received you here, have also

Cared for me. What would become of me

Had you not survived, indeed I know not,

Since with you, and for your sake alone,

I’ve lived since childhood, and wish to live.

Orestes Remind me not of those pleasant times,

When your House chose to give me shelter.

Your noble father, both wise and loving,

Nursed the half-blighted tender plant,

While you, ever the most cheerful friend,

Brought fresh delight to my weary spirits,

Like to some brightly-coloured butterfly

Fluttering every day round a dark flower,

Such that I, forgetting all my troubles,

Was filled with the enthusiasm of youth.

Pylades So, my own life began, befriending you.

Orestes Say that your woes began, and you’d speak true.

The direst aspect of my destiny,

Is that, a plague-ridden exile, I must bear

Both anguish and death hidden in my breast.

That, where I go, the healthiest of faces,

The fairest flowers growing in that spot,

Soon show the dreadful signs of a slow dying.

Pylades If ever your breath was poison, Orestes,

Then I would surely be the first to die?

Am I not still full of the lust for life,

And that courage, which with the former,

Makes us fit to undertake great deeds?

Orestes Great deeds? Yes, I recall when we foresaw them.

Those days when we pursued the hunt together,

Chasing wild creatures, among hills and valleys,

Matching our ancestors in skill and daring,

Hoping, with sword and club, to track a robber,

Or perhaps a monster, to some rock-bound den.

And then at twilight, above the open sea,

When sitting quietly, leaning on each other,

The waves appeared to break beneath our feet,

The world seemed so vast, so wide before us,

That, of a sudden, one of us would grip his sword,

While future glories shone above like stars,

From every quarter, innumerable, in the dark.

Pylades Unending is the labour that the soul

Would seek to accomplish. We desire

To make our every deed as great indeed

As deeds become when the poets sing them

Throughout every country on this Earth.

What our forefathers did, appears so fair,

When, reclining in the still of evening,

Youth devours it, to the sound of the harp.

Yet what we do, toilsome and incomplete,

Was, as their effort seemed to them, in vain,

Mere patchwork; and so, we chase what flees,

Ignorant of the path on which we tread,

Scarcely heeding our ancestor’s footsteps,

Or the very traces of their lives on Earth.

Always hastening after their every shadow,

While godlike they recline, in far distance,

On golden clouds, on some mountain-top.

I put no faith in those who think themselves

Such as the crowd seek to exalt and praise.

Thank the gods alone, that in your youth

They have already wrought so much through you.

Orestes When they command a man to do good deeds,

Such that he wards disaster from his own,

Extends his empire, or secures its borders,

When his former enemies are slain, or flee,

Let him be grateful then! A god has granted

To him, the first and last of life’s pleasures.

The gods doomed me to play the slaughterer

To be the murderer of my dear mother,

Shamefully avenging a shameful deed.

And ruined me with that command of theirs.

It was their vengeance on Tantalus’ House,

That I the last of that line, should not die

Free of guilt, or be crowned with honour.

Pylades The gods will not take vengeance on the son

For the father’s fault. Each of us, good or bad,

Reaps the due reward for his own actions.

He has his parent’s blessing, not their curse.

Orestes No blessing from mine, I think, led us here.

Pylades It was the will of the gods above, at least.

Orestes Then the gods’ will it is that destroys us.

Pylades Do as they bid; and await the outcome.

Bear his fair sister’s statue to Apollo,

That they might be together at Delphi,

Honoured and revered by a noble people.

The celestial pair will, for that deed,

Show mercy to you, and will save you

From the grasp of the infernal Furies,

Who already avoid this sacred ground.

Orestes Then, at least, I shall die a peaceful death.

Pylades My thoughts are otherwise, and not unskilled

Am I in reading both past and future,

Conjoining them, in silent meditation.

The great event perhaps has been ripening,

Many an hour, in the minds of the gods.

Diana would depart this barbarous shore,

And quit its blood-stained human sacrifice,

And we are chosen for that lovely deed.

It is assigned to us, and most strangely

Have we two been urged on, to its threshold.

Orestes With rare skill, you entwine your wishes

With the divine intentions of the gods.

Pylades What use is all our foresight if it fails

To pay attention to the will on high?

Some god calls a noble man, who erred,

To perform a dangerous act and achieve

A thing that seems impossible to us.

The hero succeeds and, in atoning,

Serves the god, and an adoring world.

Orestes If I am destined to life, and to action,

Would that a deity might quench this fever,

And dispel the heaviness from my brow,

That urges me along that slippery path

Stained with a mother’s blood, to my death;

And, in mercy, render dry the fountain

That spurts from my mother’s dreadful wounds.

A source of blood that endlessly defiles me!

Pylades Wait, patiently! Or you’ll advance the evil,

And take the Furies’ role upon yourself.

Be still, and let me think on this! And if

Our united powers are needed for action,

Then I will summon you, and cautiously,

Yet boldly, we’ll advance towards success.

Orestes I hear the voice of Ulysses!

Pylades Mock me not.

Every follower must choose their own hero,

Behind whom they might climb to Olympus;

And cunning, and prudence, it seems to me

Never detract from those who do brave deeds.

Orestes I honour him that’s bold, and straightforward!

Pylades And therefore, I’ll not seek advice from you!

One step I’ve already taken. I have gleaned

Much information from those who guard us.

I’ve learned that a foreign maiden, held sacred,

Prevents them following their blood-stained rite.

Incense, and prayer, and a heart that’s pure,

She offers, instead, to the goddess. They praise

Her highly, and the people say that she is born

Of the race of Amazons, and that she fled

From their realm, to avoid some great disaster.

Orestes It seems that her powers have lost their sway,

At the coming of the guilty man, whose curse

Pursues him, shrouding him in darkest night!

Their pious thirst for blood renews the custom,

Free now of all constraint, to our ill-fortune.

Their savage king’s intent will yet destroy us.

Nor can she save men faced, thus, with his wrath.

Pylades Although, it’s well a woman plays the role!

The best of men, may yet become so used

To cruelty, become so harsh from habit,

That they lay down as law, or sacred rite,

The very things they formerly abhorred.

A woman may retain the frame of mind

She first embraced. It is far safer to depend

On such a woman, whether for good or ill.

Quiet now, here she is! Leave us alone.

I dare not speak our names or purpose yet,

Nor fully place my trust in her. Go now!

Before you talk with her, we’ll meet again.

Act II: Scene II

(Iphigenia, Pylades)

Iphigenia What land do you hail from, Stranger; tell me!

You seem, to me, more Greek than Scythian.

(She unties his bonds)

The freedom I grant will prove dangerous.

May the goddess avert what threatens you!

Pylades O sweet voice! Most welcome are the tones

Of one’s native tongue in a foreign country!

Though captive, I see, with joy, before my eyes

The azure mountains of my own fair coast.

May this joy convince you that I am Greek!

Viewing that lovely image in my mind,

I nigh forget the aid I long for from you.

Oh, tell me, if some Fate seals not your lips,

From which of our Greek clans do you derive?

And what the source of this, your sacred role?

Iphigenia Her priestess whom the goddess chose herself,

And likewise sanctified, now speaks to you.

Let that suffice. Now tell me who you are,

And what ill-omened fate has brought you,

You and your companion, to these shores.

Pylades I’ll tell you, readily, what ill pursues us,

What dire company follows at our backs.

Would that you, priestess, could as readily

Grant us, in turn, a ray of hope and joy.

We are from Crete; two sons of Adrastus;

I am his youngest, Cephalus by name;

While he is Laodamas, and the eldest.

The middle brother grew to be a savage,

Whose wildness often troubled our games,

Spoiling the joyful comradeship of play.

Obediently, we heeded our mother,

While our father led his men to Troy.

But when, rich with the spoils, he returned,

And soon thereafter died, a fierce quarrel

Sprang up between my two elder brothers,

Over his vast wealth, and the succession.

I supported Laodamas here, who slew

The other, for which the relentless Furies

Now hound one who committed fratricide.

But to this savage shore, the god of Delphi,

Apollo, sends us, and we are full of hope,

Prophesying that, within his sister’s shrine,

We might expect her blessed hand in aid.

We were captured, and were brought here,

Now doomed, as you know, to be sacrificed.

Iphigenia Is Troy fallen then? Come, man; confirm it.

Pylades It has. Oh, assure me that you’ll save us!

Hasten the help that Apollo promised.

Take pity on my brother. Speak some word

Of kindness, and yet spare him if you would,

I implore you; for the heart within him

Has been gripped tightly, and then shattered

By grief, and joy, and now cruel memory.

A feverish madness comes upon him,

That leaves him, once a beautiful, free soul,

Open to the vengeance of the Furies.

Iphigenia As great as your misfortune is, I ask you

To neglect it for a while, and speak of Troy.

Pylades That mighty city that, for ten long years,

Withstood the siege by the Grecian host,

Lies in the dust, never to rise again.

But many a grave that conceals our finest,

Rouses remembrance on that savage shore.

There lies Achilles, by his noble friend.

Iphigenia Even those godlike men are turned to dust!

Pylades Not Palamedes, nor Telamonian Ajax,

Shall ever see the light of home again.

Iphigenia (To herself)

He speaks not of my father; names him not

Among the slain. Why, he may yet be living;

And I yet see him. Oh, hope still, my heart!

Pylades More blessed were the thousands that died

A bittersweet death at those Trojan hands!

For those who returned, instead of glory,

A hostile and a wrathful god prepared

Sudden wild terror, and a mournful end.

Does the voice of rumour never reach you?

As far as its sound will reach, it carries

The tale of those outrageous happenings.

Are they a secret to you, all the sorrows

That fill the halls of distant Mycenae

With unending sighs? For Clytemnestra,

With Aegisthus’ help, bewitched her husband;

On his return they murdered Agamemnon!

Why yes, you reverence that royal House!

I see your troubled breath contends in vain

Against this news, so dire and unexpected.

Are you some ally’s daughter, or were you

Born there, within Mycenae’s mighty walls?

Conceal it not; nor hold it now against me,

If I am the first to tell you of that crime.

Iphigenia Then, speak! Say how the evil deed was done.

Pylades On the day of his return, the monarch bathed,

And rose from his bath, refreshed and calm.

When he asked his wife to hand him his robe,

She threw the tangled garment’s artful folds,

Over his noble head, and round his shoulders,

Then, as he tried to free himself once more,

The traitor, Aegisthus, struck with his blade,

And, a mighty prince, thus trapped, joined the dead.

Iphigenia And what reward did her accomplice win?

Pylades A realm, a bed, that was already his.

Iphigenia It was lust, then, provoked the shameful deed?

Pylades And an old and deep desire for vengeance.

Iphigenia How had the king injured Clytemnestra?

Pylades With a most dreadful deed that might excuse

His murder if there were excuse for murder.

He lured her to Aulis, to which the goddess

Had constrained the fleet, the wind adverse.

And there doomed Iphigenia, his daughter,

To be offered at Diana’s altar,

A blood-stained sacrifice, to aid the Greeks.

His actions so disgusted her, they say,

And planted such abhorrence in her heart,

She surrendered to Aegisthus’ advances,

Then entangled the king in that fatal net.

Iphigenia Enough! You shall meet with me again.

(She departs)

Enough! You shall meet with me again

‘Enough! You shall meet with me again’

Pylades It would seem the fate of the royal House

Touches her deeply. Whoever she may be,

That dynasty must be well known to her;

While she, of some noble family, has been

Sold into bondage, to our good fortune.

Be calm my heart, and let hope’s shining star,

Still our guide, grant us patience and courage.

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