When we are first introduced to Iphigenie, she laments her life as a woman, and contrasts it with the life of a man. Goethe's Iphigenia in Tauris abounds with references to gender roles: behavioral norms considered appropriate for an individual based on their gender. However, while Iphigenie is portrayed as the epitome of a feminine being (compassionate, gentle, pure/devout, honest and effective at communicating1), her interactions with the male characters challenge the construct of traditional gender roles. Instead of being limited by her femininity, Iphigenie proves herself to embody characteristics that are considered quintessentially male traits (assertiveness, rationality, and resolve2) to a greater extent than the male characters in the play. Thus, Iphigenia in Tauris can be read as an argument against the idea of strict gender expectations.
Throughout the drama, there is a strong emphasis on gender. Characters often refer to their own genders, as well as the gender of others, using them as a way of explaining or predicting personality traits and actions. The audience is quickly introduced to the subject of gender roles in society during Iphigenie's opening soliloquy. The character sorrowfully expresses self-pity about her limitations as a woman:
I will not judge the counsel of the gods;
Yet, truly, woman's lot doth merit pity...
How circumscrib'd is woman's destiny!
Obedience to a harsh, imperious lord,
Her duty, and her comfort;
sad her fate... (Act 1, Scene i)
With these words, Iphigenie is not only reflecting on the role society has placed upon her, but on how constricting this role can be.
Frequently, the male characters make claims about the traits of Iphigenie based on her womanhood. These claims are often manipulated to fit the situation the character finds himself in. When Thoas is upset by Iphigenie's denial of his proposal and her request to return to Greece, he attributes this perceived fickleness to her gender: “Be quite the woman, sway'd by each desire,/that bridleless impels her to and fro.”(Act 1, scene ii) Shortly after this Pylades contradicts the idea that women are capricious when he tries to reassure Orestes about their fate at the temple :
That 'tis a woman is a ground for hope!
A man, the very best, with cruelty
at length may so familiarize his mind,
His character through custom so transform,
That he shall come to make himself a law
Of what at first his very soul abhorr'd.
But woman doth retain the stamp of mind
She first assum'd. (Act 2, Scene i)
This contradiction in the way the males see Iphigenie shows that they adapt the judgements they make about Iphigenie in order to meet their needs. This denotes Iphigenie as a victim of feminine idealization by the men. When the male characters are in agreement about their perception of Iphigenie, their idea of her character contradicts the way Iphigenie sees herself, and how her actions reflect her. Prandi writes:
...Iphigenie's self-concept stands in striking relief...