BMCR 2024.02.07

Euripides: Iphigenia in Tauris

, Euripides: Iphigenia in Tauris. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023. Pp. xi, 330. ISBN 9781107041806.



Kearns’ contribution to the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series joins what is suddenly a crowded field of anglophone commentaries on Iphigenia in Tauris (Kyriakou 2006 and Parker 2016) in the last 20 years alone. In that light, while focusing primarily on the edition’s own merits and on the manner in which it fulfills the series’ mission to make the play “accessible” to a broad range of students, this review will also, though to a lesser extent, discuss how it compares to other recent commentaries.

The introduction consists of seven sections: 1) a biography of Euripides; 2) the Iphigenia story in prior and contemporary literary, mythical, and cultic traditions, and 3) IT’s engagement with those traditions; 4) the dramatic production, both of tragedy in general and of IT in particular; 5) some major themes of the play (genre classification, sacrifice, family relations); 6) the manuscript tradition; and 7) the later reception of the play

In most sections, Kearns begins with general overviews (e.g. on the basic conventions of Athenian dramatic productions) that will be helpful for readers with very little experience reading Greek tragedy, before moving to detailed analyses of vexing questions that are more geared towards relative experts in the field. The presentation of the former is generally exceptional: Kearns’ presentation of the manuscript tradition of the alphabetic plays, for example, is excellent; her explanation of how we use metrical resolution to tentatively date IT and other Euripidean tragedies is as clear and concise as any I have read.

In approaching more complex questions (e.g. the sequence of and connections between various versions of the Iphigenia myth), the argumentation is always measured but sometimes rather condensed. Kearns brings her expertise to bear on the contested question of whether or not the play’s aetiologies referred to actual cult practice, arguing persuasively that the rituals described by the play must have reflected “the direct experience of many in the audience” (p. 12). A particular highlight of the introduction is the exploration of the play’s themes (section 5). Kearns’ discussion of Iphigenia’s attitude towards her sacrifice, particularly in the light of other Euripidean sacrificial victims, is more thorough than that of other recent commentaries, her discussion of the presentation of the “barbarian” other more balanced. Kearns also ably situates IT within a broader, and not simply Euripidean, tradition of tragedies with happy endings, though here it might have been best to avoid comparisons to Alcestis, given its peculiar status as a “prosatyric” drama.

All the other material in the Introduction is handled well, though in an occasionally catalogic manner. With the section on reception this is as it should be, since readers who would like to learn more can easily consult Edith Hall’s relatively recent book on the subject (Hall 2013). In tracing Euripides’ engagement with the various traditions concerning Iphigenia and Orestes, however, I might have liked to see more. Kearns neatly untangles the complex webs of relations between IT and Sophocles, Hyginus, Herodotus, and the cult at Brauron, among others, in a concise, if at times dense, fifteen pages. But here it would be helpful to have a sense of what to make of Euripides’ insistence on using his dramas to engage with those other traditions, and perhaps especially cult practice, about which less has been said in recent years.

On the whole, the Introduction is successful in its aims. Instructors may want to be judicious in assigning selections for undergraduate students because of the level of detail in the body of most sections, but the overviews that Kearns provides at the beginning of each will be useful. On occasion the density of the prose and concise manner of argumentation could be frustrating, but at other times those same qualities made me eager to dive into the play to discover more – surely a positive side-effect.

The commentary follows the standard format of the series, providing a line-by-line breakdown of subjects ranging from grammatical tidbits, problems with the manuscript tradition, different but comparable treatments of the material in the Greek literary tradition, explanations of contemporary ritual practice, and general relevance to Athenian social and cultural issues.

In most cases, frequent users of the Cambridge series will not be surprised by either the form or content of the commentary: questions of grammar and translation are handled competently but not exhaustively; problems with the textual tradition are presented with lucidity and potential resolutions are suggested with justifiable caution; a broad range of aspects of Athenian culture are illuminated.

But Kearns excels in handful of areas, and I learned much as I reread the play alongside her commentary. It is not, perhaps, surprising that the commentary is to some degree a showcase of Kearns’ deep knowledge of ancient Greek religion. A handful of examples may suffice to show how she applies her expertise to improve our understanding of the play. At line 243 we read πρόσφαγμα καὶ θυτήριον, two words that appear rather redundant. From Kearns, however, we learn that “the root sphag- relates to the slaughter aspect of sacrifice … [while] thy– words are more neutral and general terms for sacrifice” (p. 142), a distinction that is ignored by other recent commentators. Equally emblematic of the commentary’s strength in this regard is the comprehensive explanation of the aetiological references to the “Choes” of the Anthesteria in Orestes’ description of his reception by the Athenians (see esp. pp. 227-28), or of the manner in which the measures Iphigenia claims she will take to “purify” the statue of Artemis reflect contemporary practice (p. 238).

Kearns also handles complex questions of staging in a judicious and illuminating manner, as we see (for example) in her presentation and consideration of the presence and movements of mute attendants in the main episode of the play (pp. 175-76). Similarly, I appreciated the emphasis on moments in which “it is left to the audience to decide” how to interpret matters on stage (quote on p. 287, but see also the comment on line 569 on p. 186). Kearns also spends more time than her recent predecessors on the psychology of the characters, a process that is at times rewarding, for example when we learn that Orestes might speak a line “with some indignation” in response to an “unknown woman [i.e. Iphigenia] weep[ing] for Agamemnon’s death” (pp. 283-84).

Throughout, Kearns illuminates the connections between IT and other literary treatments of the Iphigenia myth, drawing our attention to important similarities and differences between the details and themes of IT and those of other texts (in particular Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Euripides’ later Iphigenia at Aulis). As in the Introduction, however, Kearns might have usefully dedicated more space to exploring how we and/or the original audience might understand this metapoetic endeavor, or at least provided more references to Torrance’s 2013 book on the subject (surely one of the most important monographs on the play in the last decade). Here again the discussion of Orestes’ “silent” reception in Athens is representative: where Kearns excels in unpacking the aetiological relevance of the narrative, with respect to his engagement with the literary tradition we learn only that Orestes “inserts an episode before the trial [with the Erinyes]” most memorably staged in Aeschylus’ Eumenides (p. 225).

To be brief, this edition is an excellent complement to the recent commentaries and monographs on the play. Scholars and students more interested on meter or possible interpolations may look to Parker; Kyriakou places more emphasis on the epistemic gap between divine and mortal in the play, and presents a more skeptical viewpoint on the aetiologies of the play; but concerning the questions outlined above, and indeed many others, Kearns’ edition makes a sizable contribution to the resources now at our disposal in reading IT, and does so in a format more conducive for those coming to the play for the first time. The volume will thus be a valuable companion to scholars working on the play, and a fine choice for instructors of upper-level undergraduates (and beyond) who are looking for a text and commentary as a primary course text.


Works Cited

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

Kyriakou, P. 2006. A Commentary on Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Parker, L.P.E., ed. 2016. Euripides: Iphigenia in Tauris. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Torrance, I. 2013. Metapoetry in Euripides. Oxford: Oxford University Press.