The second half of the eighteenth century saw a new impetus in the relationship between Europeans and classical literature. There was a clear move away from what had become perceived as artificial forms of expression based on baroque notions of proper restraint. Preoccupations with history and prose inspired by classical models gave way to a renewed interest in the more emotional genres of art, philosophy, and poetry. The new emphasis was on gaining a deeper understanding of classical models, and this contributed to the success of classically inspired works from the mid-eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. Highet (1985, 355) goes so far as to say that "most of the European writers of the epoch 1765-1825 knew much more about classical literature than their predecessors, and were more successful in capturing and reproducing its meaning." He remarks that Goethe, for example, "knew more Greek than Klopstock" (Highet 1985, 355). But, of course, the attempt at deeper understanding was nevertheless colored by contemporary subjectivities.
When the mostly self-taught cobbler's son J. J. Winckelmann began publishing on Greek art and literature in the mid-eighteenth century, he captured the imaginations of many influential Germans of the period, including Herder, Lessing, Schiller, Goethe, and Humboldt. The classical ideal of Greece was to prove an important inspiration for all these in their writings. Although clearly influenced by the work of men like the Earl of Shaftesbury in England, the publications of Winckelmann are commonly seen as marking the beginning of a new preoccupation with Greece in German thinkers at that time. (1) Winckelmann was primarily concerned with the visual arts, especially sculpture, and he propounded the association of Greece with nature, beauty, and freedom while the contemporary baroque world was shown as unnatural and corrupt. This subjective understanding of Greece is clear in Goethe's Iphigenie. The title character is cast as a pure and moral soul, who can claim that she is "as free as a man" (see below). It is noteworthy also that one of Goethe's sleights of hand in adapting the Euripidean original is to dispense with the statue of Artemis, which Orestes must retrieve from the land in order to be rid of the Furies. In Goethe, Apollo gives the ambiguous oracle to rescue "the sister," which Goethe's "Orest" belatedly understands as meaning his own sister rather than Apollo's. Thus, the statue of Artemis in Euripides has become, in Goethe, the statuesque Iphigenie, a living, breathing, classical ideal of a statue. (2) In a similar vein, the slogan quoted by E. M. Butler in the context of Goethe as disciple of Rousseau "Back to nature; back to the noble savage!" (Butler 1935, 97) admirably suits Goethe's product Iphigenie, in which the "savage" king Thoas is described as "noble" in Iphigenie's prologue speech and is persuaded during the course of the play to abandon violence.
In truth, the Iphigenie really marks the first completion of one of Goethe's forays into the adaptation of Greek literature, and one of the earliest classically inspired pieces from the German Renaissance. (3) Goethe's engagement with Greek literature would become more and more apparent throughout his career. Before publishing the Iphigenie in prose form in 1779 (the verse form was published in 1787), he had already begun work on his Prometheus, though this was not published until 1830. Goethe found inspiration in mythical figures, particularly those from epic: Elpenor, Nausicaa, Achilles, Pandora, and Helen. (4) Indeed, Goethe was fascinated by the ambiguous figure of Helen and the combination of her beauty with her propensity to disappear, evident in Euripides' Helen, a play whose plot structure is very similar indeed to his Iphigenia in Tauris. Helen will appear in Goethe's Faust II. Although the hero manages to conjure up Helen and marries her, she disappears, leaving him holding her empty veil. (5)
In 1818, in his essay Antik und Modern, Goethe wrote "Jeder sei auf seiner Art eine Grieche! …