Von dem Geschick des Königs-Hauses scheint
Sie tief gerührt. Wer sie auch immer sei,
So hat sie selbst den König wohl gekannt
Und ist, zu unserm Glück, aus hohem Hause
Hierher verkauft. Nur stille, liebes Herz,
Und laß dem Stern der Hoffnung, der uns blinkt,
Mit frohem Mut uns klug entgegen steuern.
The fate of this royal house seems
To touch her deeply. Whoever she may be,
She appears to know the king himself well
And is to our fortune from a noble house,
Sold here into slavery. Be calm, dear heart,
And let us set our course with happy resolve
Toward the star of hope which shines down on us.
—Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Iphigenie auf Tauris, act ii, sc 2 (1786) in Goethes sämtliche Werke, vol. 3.1, p. 185 (K. Richter ed. 1990)(S.H. transl.)
Goethe’s Iphigenie is a work that occupied him over many years and it exists in several forms; it clearly plays a central role in his intellectual life. And it’s interesting to see it in the context of the intellectual currents and countercurrents of his time. About this time, Mozart has composed and performed Die Zauberflöte and Beaumarchais is busy at work on Figaro. Goethe’s work can be placed alongside these two in many levels. He is consumed by the idea that humanity can save itself through the use of reason, that it develops social conventions which it can quickly outgrow and must therefore necessarily reform, that religion if left static and if appreciated only at a superficial level can be more a hinderance than help to humanity. On the other hand, Goethe’s work is highly stylized and soaked with earnestness; it lacks the lightness of tone and the humor which act as saving graces for Mozart and Beaumarchais. Still, Goethe’s work is as far as could be imagined from the Enlightenment’s countercurrent–the early Romanticists, with their stress of emotional rupture, natural language and political reaction (and in the case of Germany especially, an extreme nationalism). Goethe turns his back on the national; he stresses the universal, or at least the European common roots. He sees a humanity plagued by barbarity and always poised to sink back into it at times of political crisis. He praises as noble those who resist such a temptation, who are moved by a religious spirit but not captive to an excessive celebration of tradition, and who see in humankind the prospect of something greater and better than its current state. Iphigenie is about this civilizing force, and indeed the character of Iphigenie herself is its embodiment.
In the original Greek narrative, Agamemnon sacrifices his oldest daughter, Iphigenie, to the goddess Artemis, convinced that he must do so to succeed in his war against Troy. However, Artemis takes Iphigenie from the altar and delivers her to the shores of the Black Sea, where she is raised as a priestess. Believing that Agamemnon actually killed their daughter, Clytemnestra then murders Agamemnon. Their children (Iphigenie’s siblings), Orestes and Elektra, are so repelled by the murder of their father that they conspire to murder their mother. An oracle of Apollo then tells Orestes that he must go to Tauris to find his sister, that this is the only way he can lift the curse that has been placed upon him. That sets the bloody background for Iphigenie, a story which revolves around the house of Atreus, perhaps the most dysfunctional family in world literature.
As Goethe unfolds the narrative, however, injustice and inhumanity take the center stage. The people of Tauris, who are quite literally what the Greeks call “barbarians” (i.e., non-Greeks), have adopted the polar opposite of the rule of hospitality. They believe in seizing and sacrificing any foreigner who lands on their shores. Indeed, they make this a part of a sort of religious ritual. And Iphigenie, as a priestess, is involved in its performance. When Orestes and his trusty friend Pylades land on the shores of Tauris, Iphigenie discovers them and faces a dilemma. She is supposed to turn them in and then perform her role in the sacrifice. But she sees this law and religious ritual as unjust and repulsive. Still, instead of simply concealing the fact, she goes to the king and tells him the truth. She then persuades him that the law and ritual is perverse and should be set aside. In doing this, she risks death–both that of her brother and his friend, and her own. But her power of reason wins the day.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the play is this passage, quoted and translated above, an aside by Pylades following his initial encounter with Iphigenie. In it he sees deeply into Iphigenie’s character. She is moved by the fate of the royal house, he notes. At one level that is a reference to the house of Tauris, at another to the house of Atreus, but ultimately the house that moves Iphigenie is humankind and its fate. As a priestess she is tied to law and ritual, but she takes her charge critically and her concern for the fate of people overwhelms her religious charge. But in the following lines we see this civilizing principle is externalized, it is called a guiding star, and nautical references are introduced. This mirrors the Iphigenie legend in a marvelous way, since indeed the avoidance of barbaric cruelty (practiced first by the Greeks, then by the literal Barbarians) occurs through swift movement over great areas–the goddess Artemis snatching Iphigenie and whisking her to Tauris, whereas the humans aspiring to be more godlike learn the science of navigation through study of the stars. Thus the guiding star is an externalized image, but the employment of human reason allows man to gain hope from it.
Goethe received his patent of nobility in 1782, as he was working on the Iphigenie material. He selected as his coat of arms “the magnificent morning star, six-pointed, silver upon a field of blue.” And this passage from Iphigenie helps us understand what this symbol meant to him: hope in the context of human development and artistic creation.
Listen to Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F major, Op. 59, No. 1 (“Rasumovsky”)(1805-06) and especially the third, adagio, movement, here in a performance by the Highbury Quartet. T.W. Adorno, in an essay on Goethe’s Iphigenie cites the “star of hope” passage and comments: “Hope commands the suspension of artistic production, but without it, no art would come to pass. Consequently, hope is summoned in the literature only in a desultory fashion.” This expression of hope, he continues, is perfected in the adagio of this Beethoven quartet.