Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Iphigenia In Tauris (Iphigenie auf Tauris)

Act V

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

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Act V: Scene I

(Thoas, Arkas)

Arkas I must admit, surrounded by confusion,

I know not where to direct suspicion.

On the captives, now in furtive flight?

On the priestess, who aids and abets them?

There’s a rumour that the vessel of theirs

That brought them here lies hidden in some cove.

The stranger’s ‘madness’, the new lustral rites

Some religious pretext for all this delay,

Call the more for our vigilance and care.

Thoas Summon the priestess to attend, swiftly!

Then be as swift to search along the shore;

From the headland there, to the sanctuary.

Avoid its sacred depths, but set an ambush,

Then attack them, and seize them, when you can.

(Arkas exits)

Act V: Scene II

(Thoas remains alone)

Thoas The anger in my heart rages fiercely;

First against the one whom I thought blessed,

Then against myself, for fostering treachery,

Through excessive kindness and indulgence.

Human beings soon adapt to servitude,

And even learn to obey more readily,

If they’re wholly deprived of liberty.

Fallen into my ancestor’s harsh hands,

If their sacred anger had let her live,

She would have been glad of her salvation,

And thankful for the kindness of her fate,

Would have shed a stranger’s blood at the altar,

And have called necessity her duty.

But now, lulled by my kindness, a desire,

An audacious longing, has gripped her heart,

I had hoped, in vain, to bind her to me,

Instead, she now shapes her own destiny.

She won my heart through flattery, and now

When I oppose her, seeks to gain her end

Through cunning and deceit; treats my kindness

Like some old expired claim to ownership.

Act V: Scene III

(Thoas, Iphigenia)

Iphigenia You summoned me here? What’s the reason?

Thoas You’ve delayed the sacrifice; tell me why.

Iphigenia Yet I’ve made the whole thing clear, to Arkas.

Thoas I wish to hear more details from yourself.

Iphigenia The goddess has granted time for reflection.

Thoas A delay that seems most opportune for you.

Iphigenia If your heart is set on cruel sacrifice,

Then you should not have come to me, like this!

A king who demands what is inhuman,

Will find servants willing enough to share

Half the guilt, for a reward and pardon,

So, the monarch’s hand remains untainted.

Veiled in a cloud, he hides, far from death,

Since it is his hirelings who bring ruin

And destruction, upon some wretch’s head,

While he sits unmoved, upon the heights,

Like a god, quite untouched above the storm.

Thoas A wild song, priestess, issues from your lips.

Iphigenia Not ‘priestess’; say Agamemnon’s daughter!

You deferred to the words of an unknown;

Do you seek to command the princess? No!

From my childhood I was taught to obey

First my own dear parents, then the gods,

And, in obeying, felt my soul was free,

And fine; only the many harsh decrees

Of men, have I rejected, there and here.

Thoas An ancient law, not myself, commands you.

Iphigenia Our desires most readily grasp at laws

That can be used as weapons to sate them.

Another rule speaks to me, more ancient,

That tells me to oppose you; its command:

That every stranger we welcome is sacred.

Thoas These men must be close to your heart, it seems,

Since your emotions and sympathy lead you

To forget the first guiding rule of prudence,

That one should not provoke the powerful.

Iphigenia Whether I’m silent or I speak, you may know

All that is, and ever will be, in my heart.

Does not reflection on our common fate,

Persuade even the hardest heart to pity?

How much more it does mine! I see myself

In them. I once trembled before the altar

And the solemn shadow of an early death

Surrounded me, as I knelt there. The knife,

Was already poised to strike at my breast,

While, in my heart’s depths, I felt the terror.

My vision failed – yet the goddess saved me.

Are we not bound to grant those in distress

What, by divine grace, we received ourselves?

You know this, and myself, yet you insist!

Thoas That you enact the rite, not obey the king.

Iphigenia No, no! Don’t try to veil your show of power,

While delighting in a woman’s powerlessness!

I am as freely born as any man.

If Agamemnon’s son stood before you,

And you demanded what was not your due,

Well, he too has a strong arm, and a blade,

To defend all that’s his, and dear to him.

I have only words, yet a noble man

Is obliged to respect a woman’s word.

Thoas So, I do; far more than a brother’s sword.

Iphigenia The power of the blade shifts to and fro,

No prudent warrior scorns his enemy;

Nor has Nature left the weaker party

Without aid, against force and harshness.

She granted folk cleverness and cunning,

Delay, evasion, leading to escape.

The powerful deserve to be thwarted so.

Thoas Prudence is, wisely, opposed to cunning.

Iphigenia Nor should a pure spirit need to use it.

Thoas Do not, imprudently, condemn yourself.

Iphigenia Oh, do you not see how my soul struggles

Against the evil fate that seeks to seize it,

Hoping to, bravely, foil your next attack?

Do I not stand before you, powerless?

You scorn the fair request, the olive-branch

Mightier than the sword, in a woman’s hand.

What have I with which to defend myself?

Must I ask the goddess for some miracle?

Have I not strength in my spirit’s depths?

Thoas It would seem the fate of these two strangers

Concerns you excessively. Who are they,

These two that have so aroused your interest?

Iphigenia They are – or seem – I take them to be – Greeks.

Thoas Your countrymen? And no doubt they have stirred

The pleasing thought in you of returning home?

Iphigenia (After a moment’s silence)

Have men the only claim on noble deeds,

Have they the sole unique right to clasp

The impossible to their heroic breasts?

What do we praise as great? What inspires

The soul, roused by some oft-repeated tale;

If not those deeds, unlikely to succeed,

That the brave achieved? Must some man

Who steals into the enemy camp at night,

And, like fire, rages through it, suddenly,

Slaying the folk there, as they sleep or rouse,

Till, driven out by his foes on horseback,

He departs with the spoils – be praised alone?

Or one that, boldly scorning the beaten path,

Roams the forests and the mountain-sides,

Purging the land of its thieves and villains?

Is nothing left for us? Must a woman

Renounce her inborn right to tenderness,

And contend, a savage against savages,

Like an Amazon, to wrest power from you,

In order to avenge, in blood, oppression?

A bold plan of action stirs in my heart,

Yet I shall not escape many a reproach,

Nor a wealth of trouble if it goes awry.

I lay this on you alone! If, indeed,

You truly deserve the praise you win,

Show it by your actions, and, in me,

Honour the truth when spoken! Attend!

A plan was forged in secret. Ask in vain

After the captives, they have gone to seek

Their companions, aboard ship, by the shore.

The elder, who was seized by madness here,

And has now recovered – is Orestes,

My brother; the other his childhood friend

And confidant, who is named Pylades.

Apollo sent them from Delphi to this shore,

The god’s divine command requiring them

To steal Diana’s image from her shrine,

And so, allow his sister to re-join him,

For which the god promised the guilty man

Freedom from the Furies who pursue him,

He having shed his own mother’s blood.

Thus, the last scions of Tantalus’ House

I place in your hands; slay, if you’re allowed.

Thoas (Ironically)

Think you the savage Scythian will hear,

The voice of truth, and of humanity,

That Atreus the Greek once failed to hear?

Iphigenia All hear it, that are born beneath the sky,

In whose veins the stream of life yet flows

Unconstrained. What now is your intention,

As regards me, in the inner silence

Of your thoughts. Is it death? Then kill me first!

Since I see no hope of escape remains,

Only the dreadful danger into which

I have, incautiously, thrust those I love.

Alas! I shall soon see them tightly bound!

How should I say farewell to the brother

Whom I’m required to murder? Never more

Shall I gaze into those much-beloved eyes!

Thoas So, do they, such betrayers, weave a net

Of skilfully-composed words about one

That, long secluded, gives ready credence

To their speeches, and wishes to believe.

Iphigenia No, no! I would swear these men are true.

And if, great king, you find them otherwise,

Then let them be slain, and cast me out,

Exiled, in punishment for my folly,

To some rock-bound island’s gloomy shore.

But if one proves to be my dear Orestes,

My long-awaited brother, set us free,

Be as kind to the brother as the sister!

My father fell at the hand of his wife,

She at her son’s hand, and on him alone

Rest the last hopes of the House of Atreus.

Let me depart, and with pure hand and heart

Make atonement for the errors of our clan.

Keep your word to me! You said: if, ever,

I might safely return then I could do so.

That time is now. A king should never grant

A petition to be free of the supplicant,

Nor promise what he hopes not to pay.

When he brings long-awaited happiness,

Only then does he achieve nobility.

Thoas Impotently, as fire contends with water,

And seeks, hissing, to consume its foe,

So, in my heart I fight against your words.

Iphigenia Oh, then, let mercy, like the holy light

Of the silent altar’s flame, wreathe me about

With a blaze of praise, thanksgiving and joy.

Thoas How often has this voice soothed my spirit!

Iphigenia Oh, join hands with me, as a mark of peace.

Thoas Great are your demands in so short a time.

Iphigenia Brief thought is needed before doing good.

Thoas Much thought! For evil often follows good.

Iphigenia Hesitation may make evil out of good.

Cease to think; do what you feel is right.

Act V: Scene IV

(Iphigenia, Thoas, Orestes armed)

Orestes (To his followers off-stage)

Redouble your efforts, men; push them back!

Once more, for a moment; now, don’t waver,

Keep a path free to the ship for my sister,

And for myself!

(He addresses Iphigenia, while failing to notice Thoas)

Come now, we are betrayed!

Swiftly, for there’s but little time for flight!

(He suddenly perceives the king)

Thoas (Reaching for his sword)

No man bears a naked blade in my presence,

And goes unpunished.

Iphigenia (To Orestes)

Profane not the shrine,

The house of the goddess, with violence,

Tell your people to be still. Listen now

To the voice of the priestess, your sister.

Orestes Who is this, that threatens?

Iphigenia Respect the king,

Who became a second father to me,

Forgive me brother! My childlike heart

Has placed our fate wholly in his hands.

I revealed our plan of escape to him,

And thereby saved my soul from treachery.

Orestes Will he permit us to depart in peace?

Iphigenia Your drawn sword forbids a peaceful reply!

Orestes (Sheathing his blade)

Speak then. You see, I wait upon your word.

Act V: Scene V

(Iphigenia, Thoas, Orestes. Pylades enters followed by Arkas, both with swords drawn)

Pylades Delay not! For our friends are at their last;

Gathering their strength for one more effort,

They are yet in slow retreat towards the sea.

Is this a meeting of princes, I find here,

And this the honoured person of the king?

Arkas Calmly, sire, you stand amidst your foes,

As befits one who defies all enemies.

Soon their insolence will be punished.

Their forces now give way. The ship is ours,

A word from you, and it sinks in flames.

Thoas Go! Order my troops to stay their hand.

Spare the enemy while we yet converse.

(Arkas exits)

Orestes (To Pylades)

I concur. Go now, my faithful friend,

Gather our folk together, and await

Whatever end to our plan, the gods decree.

(Pylades exits)

Act V: Scene VI

(Iphigenia, Thoas, Orestes)

Iphigenia Yet free me from concern, before we speak.

I fear more strife if you refuse to hear

The gentle voice of mercy, mighty king,

Or you, my brother, fail to curb your ardour.

Thoas As the older man, I will contain my wrath.

Tell me what proof you offer that you are

Agamemnon’s son, and this one’s brother?

Orestes This is the very sword with which he slew

Many a valiant warrior at Troy.

I seized it from his murderer, and asked

The gods above to grant me his courage,

Achievements, and strength, yet a nobler death.

Choose a nobleman from your followers,

And I will face the very best of them.

No stranger is denied such proof of honour,

Wherever a hero’s son lives on this Earth.

Thoas The custom here, of old, is not to grant

Such a privilege to random strangers.

Orestes So, let you and I, here, forge a new one.

A whole nation will consider it the law,

In imitation of our noble deed.

And let me fight not only for freedom,

But, as a stranger, for every stranger.

If I should fall, then let their fate be mine.

But if good fortune grants me victory,

Let none tread this distant shore and yet fail

To meet with looks of sympathy and love,

Or, once restored, depart again in peace!

Thoas You seem, to me, young man not unworthy

Of the ancestry you pride yourself upon.

Many are the valiant men who attend me,

But, though advanced in years, I ever stand

Myself against a challenger, and so

Stand ready to chance my arm against you.

Iphigenia No, no! There is no need to prove the thing

In blood! Remove your right hand from the sword!

Think of my fate. Rash combat may render

A man immortal, his death praised in song,

But later generations forget the tears

Some forsaken woman shed endlessly.

The poets neglect the thousand days

And nights that are occupied in weeping,

In which an anguished soul consumes itself,

Seeking to summon one so swiftly lost.

I was ever concerned that some deceit

Might lure me to slavery, from this place.

And so, I questioned every circumstance,

Demanded proof, but here I am certain.

See the mark on his right hand, three stars;

At his birth, indeed, the priest proclaimed

It one destined to act some dreadful deed,

And then this double scar convinced me,

That splits his eyebrow, for, when a child,

Elektra, who was careless by nature,

Let him fall from her arms, and he struck

His forehead against a metal tripod.

He, it is! Shall I offer up his likeness

To his father, as proof? Or this deep joy,

In my heart; a witness to my certainty?

Thoas Even if your words banished every doubt,

Even though I quench the anger in my heart,

Yet our weapons must decide the outcome.

I see no peace. They seek to steal the image

Of the goddess, as you yourself confessed.

Should I be content for them to do so?

The Greeks ever cast a covetous eye

On the treasures of our ‘barbarous’ lands,

Fair daughters, fine steeds, a golden fleece;

But violence and cunning are not always

Sufficient to see the thieves safely home.

Orestes The sacred image shall not divide us.

We now see the error, like to a veil,

With which Apollo clouded our minds,

In ordering our journey. I had asked

For his counsel and for my deliverance

From the dire attentions of the Furies.

He replied: ‘Bring my sister back to Greece,

Who, unwillingly, remains in Tauris,

Return her, and the curse shall be lifted!’

His words applied to Artemis’ statue,

And led us here! The harsh bonds that kept us

From you are severed, sister; you are ours

Once more. Embraced by you, I felt myself

Restored; in your arms, madness touched me

With its claw, next shook me to the marrow,

Then was banished, like a snake to its pit.

Now I see again the broad light of day,

The counsel of the goddess blazes forth

In all its beauty, and its glory.

She bore you, our House’s protectress,

Like a sacred image to which some oracle

Has attached the destiny of a city,

Far off, to preserve you in holy calm,

To bring blessing to your brother, and ours.

When all means of our escape seemed lost,

You inspired every hope in us once more.

Mighty king, let our thoughts turn to peace.

Do not thwart my sister from achieving

The consecration of our royal House.

Return me to those halls, thus purified,

And set the ancient crown on my brow!

Repay the blessings she has brought you;

Let my fraternal right take precedence.

The strength and cunning that men boast of,

Are shamed by the truth of this noble soul,

And her childlike trust, her purity,

Must prove reward enough for any man.

Iphigenia Think of your promise; receive my words

As spoken by a true and faithful tongue,

Behold us, noble king! It is not often

That so fine an opportunity occurs.

You cannot fail to act. Free us swiftly.

Thoas So be it!

Iphigenia Not so! For, noble king, I cannot go

Without your blessing, and against your wish.

noble king, I cannot go Without your blessing

‘…noble king, I cannot go Without your blessing’

Dismiss us not forever, let us claim

The right to warmth and hospitality

From you, and not be parted forever,

Banished and excluded. You are as dear

To me as was my father, Agamemnon;

That feeling is impressed upon my soul.

If the voice of even the humblest man

From this land should recall your voice to me,

Or likewise his style of dress recall Tauris,

I would joyfully receive him like a god.

I would beg him to sit beside the hearth,

While I prepared a bed so he might rest;

And then ask only of your health, and you.

Oh, for your kindness, and your actions,

May the gods grant you a fitting reward!

Farewell! Oh, turn your face on us, and grant

A sweet word of farewell in return!

So shall the breeze fill our sails more gently,

And the tears, on parting, flow less sadly

From these eyes. Farewell! And allow me

To clasp your right hand as a true token

Of our long-held friendship. Thoas, farewell!

Thoas (Clasping her hand, in return, with emotion)


The End of Act V, and of Goethe’s ‘Iphigenia in Tauris’