SOPHOCLES c. 409 B.C.
Sophocles’s Electra, written around 409 B.C., is based on the legend of the House of Atreus, a story which contemporary Greek audiences would have known from childhood. The major themes of this story concern retribution for crimes committed within the family of Atreus, who was Electra’s grandfather. Electra’s duty in the play is to avenge her father’s murder, but this involves killing her own mother, another crime which will have consequences down the line.
Sophocles’s tragedy deals with the fate of mortals such as Electra and her brother Orestes, who act out lives which seem on the one hand to be determined by the gods, yet on the other hand are shaped by decisions made by seemingly autonomous individuals. One reason why Sophocles’s plays were so successful was that he was able to articulate this complex and problematic relationship between humans and gods in a probing yet eloquent manner. His audiences responded to Electra’s filial duty to avenge her father’s death, for this was an honorable deed, and they were affected by the tragic consequences which it involved.
The powerful characters in Electra express many emotions with which Athenian audiences identified. Many of these themes still prove captivating centuries later, for they are universal human feelings of love and hate, suffering and triumph. Critics have noted that in other versions of the same story, such as Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, events Page 84 | Top of Articleare presented as the result of destiny, whereas Sophocles brings the action down to the human sphere and causes his audience to wonder at the level of responsibility which man has for his own actions.
Sophocles was born in Colonus, near Athens, Greece, circa 496 B.C. The son of a prosperous family, he was well-respected in his day for his dramatic writings as well as for his civic and religious service. When Athens defeated the Persians in the naval victory at Salamis in 480 B.C., the sixteen-year-old Sophocles led an important choral performance in a ceremony celebrating the Athenian victory. A friend of Athenian leader Pericles, he served as a general in the Samian War (440-439 B.C.). He was also a priest of the minor deity Amynos and demonstrated religious devotion by taking the sacred snake of Asclepius (the god of healing and medicine) into his house while a shrine was being prepared for it.
Sophocles studied tragedy under Aeschylus, defeating his mentor in the Great Dionysia of 468 B.C. The Dionysia were yearly festivals held in Athens in honor of the god Dionysus and featured drama competitions between rival playwrights. Sophocles won first prize in 468 B.C. with his Triptolemos, one of his many lost plays, and is said to have won first prize more than twenty times at the festival. He never placed below second in these competitions, an unequaled record. Of his work which survives, there are seven complete tragedies and fragments of ninety other plays or poems; he was believed to have written one hundred and twenty-three plays in total. The best-known of his works are the plays Antigone (c. 442 B.C.), Oedipus the King (c. 430 B.C.), and Electra (c. 409 B.C.).
Much of Sophocles’s success can be attributed to his innovations in the theater. Perhaps the most important of these modifications was the introduction of a third actor in his tragedies, which allowed for more complex dialogue and interactions between the characters. Traditionally, there had been only two actors in each episode of a play, along with the chorus. Sophocles also altered the composition of the chorus, reducing its size to fifteen members (compared to the fifty members that Aeschylus used). Additionally, he brought an element of realism to the stage itself by introducing painted scenery, addtional props, and more expressive masks (the masks were worn by actors to differentiate characters).
Sophocles died c. 406 B.C. in Athens. His death nearly coincided with the end of Athens’s dominance of Greek culture, when the powerful city-state was defeated in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). Indeed, his life spanned Athens’s Golden Age, and his plays contributed significantly to the rich cultural life of his time. After his death, a cult was founded to honor him as a hero.
The play opens at dawn in Mycenae, where Paidagogos and Orestes stand before the palace of the slain Agamemnon, discussing how best to revenge the murdered king. The god Apollo instructed Orestes to seek revenge, not by “shield nor army” but “secretly” and with his own hand. Orestes plans to have Paidagogos enter the palace carrying an funeral urn full of ashes and announce that Orestes has been killed in a chariot race.
Electra enters alone, mourning the fate of her murdered father, Agamemnon, and hoping for the arrival of her brother, Orestes, so together they can seek revenge. A Chorus of Myceneaen women enters, singing a “kommos,” or song of lament. The Chorus suggests that Electra accept her fate, reminding her that the weak cannot destroy the strong and offering stoic advice to accept life’s troubles—after all, everyone dies. Above all, they urge her to be reasonable, advising her: “Do not feed your frenzy.”
Electra’s sister Chrysothemis enters, and Electra urges her to help revenge their father’s murder. Chrysothemis refuses, seeming at times both reasonable and cowardly. Chrysothemis leaves, and Electra continues her lamentation, as the Chorus continues urging her to be reasonable—though they concede the justice of her vengeful intentions.
Chrysothemis re-enters, telling Electra that when their mother’s new husband, Aegisthos, returns, he plans to hide Electra away to punish her for her public mourning. Chrysothemis tells Electra about their mother’s dream. Upset by the dream, Clytemnestra ordered Chrysothemis to put offerings on the grave of Agamemnon.
Clytemnestra appears and argues with Electra, attempting to justify Agamemnon’s murder, done in Page 85 | Top of Articlepart to avenge the death of their daughter Iphigeneia, whom Agamemnon sacrificed to the gods. Like her father, however, Electra saw the sacrifice as necessary to appease the will of the gods, who would have prevented the Athenic fleet from sailing to Troy unless Iphigeneia was offered. Also, Electra asks why, if revenge for Iphigeneia was her sole motivation, Clytemnestra has married her husband’s killer?
Paidagogos enters, disguised as a traveler who offers the false news of Orestes’s death. Clytemnestra’s feelings are mixed: she is sad that her child has been killed but relieved that her husband’s avenger is no longer pursuing her. Electra is distraught over the news of her brother’s death and again the Chorus urges acceptance. Clytemnestra is relieved she has no revenge to fear from Electra.
Chrysothemis enters, telling Electra the good news that their brother Orestes has arrived. Chrysothemis has found offerings to Agamemnon at the grave, which she assumes were left by Orestes. Electra tells her Orestes has been killed, and now they both mourn. This is tragic irony, as both mourn for Orestes who is alive and nearby.
Orestes enters, disguised as a traveler who tells Electra about Orestes’s death. Overcome by his sister’s outpouring of grief, however, Orestes reveals his true identity and his plan for revenge. Orestes and Paidagogos perform a ritual purification, then enter the palace, followed by Electra. The Chorus narrates the action as Clytemnestra is killed.
Aegisthos returns, happy to hear the news of Orestes’s death. He enters the palace to see Orestes’s body but uncovers instead the body of Clytemnestra. The play ends as Orestes leads him offstage to be killed.
Son of Thyestes, Aegisthos is Clytemnestra’s former lover (and now husband) who conspired with her to murder Agamemnon.
Chorus of Mycenaean Women
The Chorus provide background information and narrates the off-stage violence. While they recognize the justice of Electra’s cause, they urge her to take a stoic position. They deplore Clytemnestra’s crime but advise Electra, rather than
seek revenge, to leave revenge to the gods and to accept the fact that all people, being mortal, die.
Daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Chrysothemis is the sister of Electra and Orestes. She refuses to help Electra with her planned revenge against their mother, Clytemnestra, for murdering their father. Chrysothemis urges Electra to be reasonable, though Electra accuses her sister of cowardice.
Agamemnon’s wife, who, along with her lover Aegisthos, killed her husband, because of the role Agamemnon played in sacrificing their daughter, Iphigeneia.
The daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Electra’s sister is Chrysothemis and her brother is Orestes. Iphigeneia, whom her father sacrificed to the gods, was also her sister. Electra is a strong character, determined and directed, though she is incapable of heeding the moderating voice of the Chorus or the explanations of her mother. She publicly mourns her father’s death and her mother’s Page 86 | Top of Articlemarriage to his murderer. When she believes that Orestes is dead, she mourns for him but is overjoyed to learn he is alive and participates in his revenge against Clytemnestra and Aegisthos.
Son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes is brother to Electra and Chrysothemis. After her father’s murder, Electra protected Orestes by sending him off to Phocis, where he was raised by Paidagogos. Orestes fakes his own death to gain access to the palace, then kills his mother Clytemnestra and her husband Aegisthos. The play ends here, but according to myth, Orestes was pursued and punished by the Furies for his act of matricide.
A loyal friend of Agamemnon, Paidagogos hid, protected, and raised Orestes when, after his father’s murder, Electra entrusted her brother into his care. Paidagogos returns to help Orestes and Electra avenge Agamemnon’s murder, first pretending to be a traveler with news of Orestes’s death and later helping Orestes storm the palace.
Revenge drives all of the action in Electra. The family history involves a horrific crime and most of the tragedies which follow are crimes committed to compensate for an earlier crime. Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigeneia, for which Clytemnestra kills him. For her crime, Orestes kills his mother, for which he is pursued by the Furies (although this aspect of the legend is not addressed in Sophocles’s drama).
Public vs. Private Life
Since tragedy, according to Aristotle’s definition in his Poetics, involves a central figure of more than common stature, key figures are often kings or other prominent political or national figures. Consequently, this makes it possible to interpret tragedies as both explorations of private psychology and public politics. For example, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about murder, revenge, and madness, but it is also about the failure of proper political succession and ill-gotten power (Hamlet’s uncle murders his brother the king, marries his widow, and assumes the throne, bypassing Hamlet’s birthright of ascendancy). The same is true of Electra, where, after Agamemnon’s death, his son, Orestes should have assumed the throne. The play then becomes one about the usurpation of power, and in that sense, merges public and private action.
Guilt and Innocence
The issue of guilt in Electra depends on the perspective from which one evaluates the actions. Is Clytemnestra guilty of murdering Agamemnon for political/romantic reasons (so she may marry Aegisthos who will assume her dead husband’s monarchy) or is she simply avenging her daughter’s sacrifice? Is Orestes guilty of Clytemnestra’s murder for similar political reasons or is he merely executing her for murdering his father, Agamemnon? Ultimately, guilt or innocence is central to the world of Greek tragedy, where characters are destined by the gods but also act freely.
Duty and Responsibility
This theme becomes particularly complex in Electra, where various characters often have contradictory, even mutually exclusive responsibilities. For example, as a father, Agamemnon must protect his daughter, Iphigeneia, but as a king, his duty is to sacrifice her for the good of his kingdom. As a son, Orestes must love his mother, but also as a son, he must avenge his father’s murder.
A series of short—usually one line—dialogue exchanges between or among characters. The words are often confrontational and language seems to act as a substitutes for physical violence. Originating in Greek tragedy, stichomythia occurs in Roman (i.e. Senacan) tragedies and also in the Elizabethan plays influenced by classical predecessors such as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Richard III. In Electra, stichomythic dialogue takes place between Electra and Chrysothemis early in the play and between Electra and Orestes during the revelation scene.
Irony is a sophisticated rhetorical strategy whereby a character is led to believe one thing, when in fact, the opposite is true. While it serves a dramatic function, it also serves a thematic one, reminding the characters and audience of the limitations of
human knowledge: what we know to be certain may not be; and the uncertainty of human circumstances—what we know to be good may turn out badly, while assumed evils may result in good.
In Electra, there are several examples of tragic irony. One occurs when Electra thinks that Orestes is dead (while Chrysothemis thinks him alive) when he is alive all along. It recurs later, when Orestes, in disguise, tells Electra of his own death, until her grieving makes him confess the truth.
In his Poetics, Aristotle defines a tragedy as a play which recounts the fall or destruction of a person of elevated position. In Classical and Renaissance tragedy, the person is usually a king, though tragedy can befall anyone elevated in politic, ethical, or spiritual terms. For example, Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus is tragic, for, though Faustus is not a noble, he is socially elevated as a great scholar and falls by his own hand in the service of his intellectual pride.
Tragic heroes fall in part because of fate, but their fall is usually not due to destiny alone but rather is complicated by some character flaw; “hubris” or pride usually precipitates such a fall. In the case of King Oedipus in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, it is his desire to know the cause of the plague that afflicts his kingdom; the plague was brought on when he killed his father and married his mother. In the case of Hamlet, it is his inaction and hesitation. Because of the offenses of her ancestors, Electra’s family is cursed to suffer. This fate or destiny generally dictates her tragedy, but the specific cause is her failure to balance passion (grief at her father’s murder) with reason (her mother’s guilt is partially mitigated by the role Agamemnon played in their daughter Iphigeneia’s death).
Athens and the City-states
Although the exact date of Sophocles’ s Electra is not known, it was probably written and first performed around 409 B.C. (at that year’s Dionysia), when the playwright was in his eighties. At this
time, the Greek states were battling one another in the Peloponnesian War. The city-state of Athens had established itself as the dominant region in Greece, following its decisive role in the defeat of the Persians in the battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.
After the Persians were expelled from Greece, the city-states banded together to form the Delian League. This alliance ensured the mutual protection of each state and was ostensibly a confederacy of equals. Each city paid an annual tribute to maintain the strength of the alliance. However, Athens gradually became the leader of the Delian League, and Pericles, head of the Athenians, used the surplus tribute to rebuild the Athenian Acropolis rather than for the common good of all the states.
Under Pericles, the Parthenon and other architectural masterpieces were constructed on the Acropolis at this time (approximately 450 to 405 B.C.). Predictably, members of the other Greek states were angered at Pericles for using their tribute money to beautify his own city. Because of this and other affronts, they waged war against Athens in the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C. Athens ultimately fell to the military strength of Sparta.
Tragedies such as Electra were presented in the annual Dionysia festivals in Athens, where playwrights competed with each other for a prize. At the Dionysia, each writer presented a group of four plays: three tragedies, which often formed a trilogy on a given subject—such as Sophocles’s Oedipal trilogy (Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus, and Oedipus Rex)—and a satyr-play, which was a form of comic relief. The tragedies concerned mortals who were at the mercy of their fate and who evoked pity from the audience. Greek audiences expected to be moved by the drama unfolding before them, experiencing a catharsis, or a purging (purification) of the emotions of pity and fear. These emotions were associated with the fall of a great person, the tragic hero.
In contrast to the cathartic effect of the tragedies, the satyr-plays provided a lighthearted antidote. In these plays, the chorus dressed as satyrs, figures who were half-man and half-beast, and performed rough but witty routines which can be likened to later forms of light entertainment such as slapstick or vaudevillian comedy. The third genre of Greek drama, comedy, was not performed at the Dionysia. However, there are many surviving comedies Page 89 | Top of Articlefrom the fifth century B.C., and these seem to have served the function of providing an emotional release also. In addition, comedies were directly political and provided a vehicle for authors to offer thinly-veiled commentary on the happenings of the day.
The Legend of the House of Atreus
Electra concerns one part of the story of the House of Atreus, a doomed family which was cursed from its inception. According to legend, the patriarch Atreus was the grandson of Tantalus, who killed his own son and served the pieces of his body to the gods at a feast. Because this was an atrocious crime, the gods sentenced Tantalus to eternal punishment in the underworld. They also restored his son, Pelops, to life. Pelops, a favorite of the god Poseidon, won a chariot race which enabled him to claim the beautiful Hippodamia as his wife. However, he was only able to win the race because Hippodamia bribed the other charioteer to lose on purpose. When the charioteer came to claim his bribe, Pelops killed him and the charioteer uttered a curse on Pelops and his descendants as he died.
Atreus, who became the king of Mycenae, was one of the sons of Pelops and Hippodamia. He was cuckolded by his brother, Thyestes, and, in a fit of anger, killed Thyestes’s sons and served them to his brother at a banquet, in a crime similar to that of his forbearer, Tantalus. Thyestes, upon finding out what Atreus had done, cursed him and his house as well. In order to avenge his sons’ deaths, Thyestes learned from the Delphic Oracle that he had to father a child by his own daughter Pelopia; the product of this union was Aegisthus.
Atreus, however, believed the boy to be his own son, and raised him as such, since he had in the meantime married Pelopia. But when Aegisthus learned that Thyestes was his true father, he killed Atreus. Thus, Atreus’s real sons Agamemnon and Menelaus were forced into exile as Thyestes took over the throne of Mycenae. The rivalry between Agamemnon and Aegisthus, central to the story of Electra, had begun.
Agamemnon married Clytemnestra, producing their daughters Iphigeneia and Electra and their son Orestes. When Agamemnon departed for the Trojan War, Clytemnestra took his rival Aegisthus as her lover and plotted to kill her husband when he returned. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus succeeded in murdering Agamemnon, and the plot of Electra centers around Electra and Orestes’s plans to avenge their father’s death by killing their mother and Aegisthus.
Sophocles’s audience would have been familiar with the legend of the House of Atreus and would have recognized the disparities between his version of the legend and other plays which dealt with the same cursed family. It was not necessary for the classical audience to be presented with the entire legend in any given play; rather, each play concentrated on one major aspect of the larger story, assuming the audience was already familiar with the general legend.
Since the time of their first production in the fifth century B.C., scholars and critics have contended that the tragedies of Sophocles represent Greek drama in its purest and most highly-attained form. Aristotle used elements of Sophoclean tragedy as the main concepts of his general theory of drama in the Poetics. According to Aristotle, a tragedy is most successful when the moments of recognition (what he termed anagnorisis) and reversal (peripeteia) occur at the same time. Aristotle claims that a tragedy is not merely the imitation of an individual but of a life. By this he means that an individual’s actions are more important to the development of the play than the particulars of his or her character.
Aristotle criticizes plays which include lengthy speeches solely for the purpose of expressing character and praises those works which sacrifice such elements in favor of a meaningful and well-structured plot. Sophocles is considered a master at characterization, particularly in Electra, providing just enough necessary information about each character through succinct and direct lines.
The twentieth century writer Edith Hamilton praised Sophocles’s characterization, particularly in comparison to his contemporary (and teacher) Aeschylus. In her widely-read book The Greek Way, Hamilton claimed that Sophocles surpasses Aeschylus in technical ability, though he falls short in sheer dramatic power. According to Hamilton, when Sophocles wrote a play, it would be done as Page 90 | Top of Articlewell as it possibly could be in terms of craftsmanship. In Electra, there are no words wasted, no time spent on details which detract from the main thrust of the plot.
Hamilton noted that in this play, Electra’s character is conveyed in the terse, compact dialogue exchanged between she and Chrysothemis. The depth of Electra’s suffering, expressed in the lament sung between Electra and the chorus, is brought into relief when contrasted with Chrysothemis’s compliance and acceptance of her miserable situation. Electra is clearly the stronger and more noble character, striving to avenge their father’s murder and not accepting the tyranny of their mother silently. As Hamilton claimed, Sophocles is able to convey the essential elements of his characters and draw the audience into their stories through intense, compressed dialogue which is charged with meaning.
In terms of dramatic power, Hamilton believed that Sophocles does not achieve the emotional heights of which Aeschylus was capable. For example, she wrote that Sophocles passed over the murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes, in order to get to the real climax of the play, the killing of Aegisthos. In her opinion, Sophocles missed a moment of great dramatic opportunity. After Orestes kills Clytemnestra, Electra and her brother discuss the deed only briefly before Aegisthos enters and they prepare to kill him as well.
Hamilton concluded that Sophocles made the matricide into punishment for Clytemnestra’s own crime, which would have been accepted by the audience and would not have moved them into the higher feelings of pity and awe. She argued that the high passion which could have been invoked by the matricide was beyond the reach of Sophocles’s talents and that he knew he could not adequately convey such passion. Therefore, she concluded, he did not attempt to write what he could not do perfectly.
Virginia Woolf wrote a brief essay entitled “On Sophocles’ Electra” in 1925 (published in Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays), in which she commented on the way Electra is presented as a tightly bound character, unable to move or act on her own. Woolf claimed that Electra’s cries, even in moments of crisis, are bare and consist of mere expressions of emotion. However, these cries are crucial and shape the movement of the play. Woolf even compared Sophocles’s use of dialogue to that of the British novelist Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), claiming that Austen’s female characters, like Electra, are bound and constrained by their social roles yet are able to express much through simple phrases. Though their words may be direct and simple, these women are able to shape the outcome of the drama at hand, even when they themselves are not the most active characters in the story.
Another twentieth century critic writing in the same critical collection on Sophocles (Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays), Thomas Woodward, also discussed how Sophocles’s Electra progresses while seemingly bypassing the heroine altogether. Like Woolf, Woodward noted that Electra stands in the midst of a drama which involves the men in the story; she lives in a world of suffering while the men are able to act in a more noble realm. Yet, Electra finds her place in the larger sphere outside of her own feelings, and, according to Woodward, her strength and passion overpower the men’s plot; she fully deserves to have the play centered around her.
Though she does not perform the climactic murders herself, Electra is a truly heroic character by virtue of her depths of emotion and her righteous motivation for revenge. Indeed, Sophocles emphasizes her importance by giving her one of the longest speaking parts in Greek tragedy and by having her remain on the stage for nine-tenths of the play. Through all of this, however, the audience is made aware of Electra’s isolation as a woman confined to a life inside the palace walls. While Orestes and the other men are able to act on their plans, Electra can only lament. Yet it is perhaps her lamentations which cause the gods to send Orestes back—and so she is able to provoke action, even if she is restricted from acting herself.
Woodward and other modern critics have also asserted the importance of props as dramatic devices in Sophocles’s work. In Electra, the urn which Orestes carries when he enters the “recognition” scene dominates the stage. It is the focus of the scene: Electra addresses it in a lament while holding it in her arms, almost as if it were a living actor. It is, in fact, a surrogate for Orestes, until he reveals himself to her. Because of how Electra acts towards the urn, Orestes ceases to conceal his true identity from her. The urn therefore is critical to the tragedy—once Orestes reveals himself to Electra, she is
released from her sorrows and the play quickly draws to its bloody conclusion.
Schmidt received his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, where he specialized in literature and drama. Exploring the cycles of violence in Electra leads him to consider the play as an allegory of the law.
Ordinarily, a hero is a righteous person who stands on the side of justice, fighting oppression. In many ways, Electra’s personality, strong and determined, is admirable and heroic. Her desire to avenge the murder of Agamemnon, her father, regardless of the consequences, is commendable, but her situation is more complicated that of an ordinary hero. In the world of Electra, heroism depends on one’s point of view. From Agamemnon’s perspective, Electra would be heroic, but from Clytemnestra’s
point of view, her daughter may seem admirable but misguided. The fact that right and wrong change places depending on how the circumstances are considered is significant. It raises the possibility that an absolute standard of justice may elude us. Further, since this is a blood feud with a long history, the rights and wrongs almost fade into the fog of time.
The play’s moral high-ground shifts back and forth, as victims of crimes become criminals themselves—and visa versa. The play attempts to distinguish between what was done—the crime—and who was to blame—the criminal—and why they acted as they did. It explores differences between the fact of the crime and the personal guilt or innocence based on premeditation, intention, and free will, for which an individual can be liable. It raises questions not of Justice (is this a crime against the law?), but of Equity (yes, it’s against the law but are there extenuating circumstances).
For example, two people steal money. One is a poor man who has never stolen anything before in his life; out of work, he needs money to buy medicine to save his dying daughter’s life. The other man is a multi-millionaire who has been convicted of stealing half a dozen times now, who wanted the money because he wanted the money. Yes, they both stole. They’re both guilty of breaking the law, but are their crimes the same—in other words, should they be punished identically? They are identical in regard to the letter of the law but in terms of equity—fairness, they differ. The poor man’s crime seems understandable and justified—to some extent, at least—while the rich man’s criminal act appears motivated solely by greed.
Part of the problem—in the previous example as in Electra—stems from a conflict between and among different types of law: divine law or the will of the gods; natural law, based on blood relationships; and human law, ordained by the state. In the world of the play, human law is the weakest of the three. Solutions to grievances depend more on an ethic of revenge rather than on justice. How else can a victim seek remedy for injustice? The answer lies in a society’s stages of development.
In primitive society, loyalty to the family surpasses loyalty to the state and without a powerful state government to make and enforce law, vengeance remains necessary. Crime demands retribution and since the intermediary third party, the state, is weak and unable to impose a just settlement, the family seeks revenge. One of the things embedded in Electra’s story, though, is an end to this cycle of revenge and the initiation of a modern, rational system of justice.
From Agamemnon’s perspective, killing Iphigeneia was just. After all, the king of all gods, Zeus, Page 93 | Top of Articleordered him to undertake the Trojan War and Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter in the service of that cause, obeying what he believes to be the will of the gods. Agamemnon’s actions may violate natural law, a father killing his child, and human law but they seem in accordance with divine law as the Greeks understood it; this is the highest law and Agamemnon obeys.
Clytemnestra privileges natural law, the love of a mother for her child, over divine law, the need to sacrifice Iphigeneia to prosecute the war. Clytemnestra admits to violating human law in killing Agamemnon, but is pleased that Iphigeneia’s sacrifice (what she sees as Agamemnon’s greater crime) mitigates her guilt. As she tells Electra: “I killed him. . . . Because that man who you still cry for / Was the one Greek who could bear to sacrifice / Your sister,” Iphigeneia.
Electra strikes an uneasy balance between natural and divine law. She appeals to natural law in condemning her mother, saying, “You issue yourself remorse and punishment. / For if a killer merits death / You must die next, to satisfy that justice.” Electra’s position is not pure, however, for she ignores the claims of natural law that called for Iphigeneia’s revenge, which Clytemnestra has satisfied in killing her husband. On this point, Electra appeals to divine law, asking what else Agamemnon could do, under orders from the gods to fight the war and believing his daughter’s sacrifice was the only way to free his fleet.
Complicating the debate between them is Clytemnestra’s marriage with Agamemnon’s murderer, Aegisthos. Electra calls her mother’s appeal to natural law an “ugly pretext. . . . To join with a mortal enemy in marriage.”
Orestes’s position is unique, as he finds himself punished by one divine entity, the Furies, for obeying another divine entity, Apollo. By revenging his father and killing his mother at the insistence of the gods, he obeys divine law and violates natural law. After all, Orestes should by nature have been the avenger of his mother’s death, except for the fact that he is her murderer. Finding himself persecuted by the Furies, Orestes too feels it is wrong for him to be punished for doing what the gods ordered.
Chrysothemis is a militant centrist, trying to hold a middle ground. She recognizes that Clytemnestra’s actions are evil and that Agamemnon should be revenged. She also realizes that she has no real power and is ready to accept necessity. She
echoes the position recommended by the Chorus, who see and proclaim against evil but advocate stoic acceptance of life’s tribulations. As Chrysothemis says, “be reasonable. . . . Helpless as you are, yield to the strong.”
In Electra, there are a series of wrongs present: Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia; Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon; Orestes (aided/supported by Electra) kills Clytemnestra. All are wrong yet all have reasons which justify their actions—and in that sense, all are justly motivated. We might ask: is Orestes his mother’s murderer or executioner? Is he murdering her or serving justice to her for killing Agamemnon. She might reply that she did not kill Agamemnon but “executed” him for his role in the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigeneia. To which Agamemnon might reply, it was the gods who prevented the fleet from moving unless Iphigeneia was sacrificed—is not her death the fault of the gods?
Remaining within the narrative history of a single play in this family drama, it is impossible to escape this cycle of accusation and recrimination. The myth—and the drama—continues in Aeschylus’s Eumenides, where it can be seen to tell the origin of Attic democracy. After killing Clytemnestra, Orestes flees, pursued by the avenging Furies. He finds solace only in the temple of Athena, who appreciates his predicament. She decides his case cannot be adjudicated by the gods alone and so sets it before a human jury in the Court of Areopagus.
Critics see this symbolizing the birth of the Greek rule of law, a movement from an ethic of revenge to a system of justice and equity (a system that supports and informs modern justice). Based on reason, the decision of human jurors ends this cycle of blood feuding. The story of Electra’s family concludes with the classical endorsement of reason’s role in moderating passion.
Source: Arnold Schmidt, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
J. Michael Walton
Walton provides an overview of Sophocles’s Electra in this essay. He differentiates Sophocles’s version of the story from similar works by his Greek contemporaries Euripides (a play also titled Electra) and Aeschylus (who chronicles the legend in his trilogy the Oresteia).
Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, arrives back in Argos from exile to avenge the murder of his father by his mother. A plot is hatched which leads to the death of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, but the play centres on the character of Electra, Orestes’s sister, and her sufferings at the hands of Clytemnestra.
The Electra plays of Sophocles and Euripides share plot and main characters, if not title, with Libation-Bearers, the middle play of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. The relationship between the two Electra plays is a subject of constant debate, as no firm date can be assigned to either. The approach is so different that a case can be made for either Electra having been written as a riposte to the other. What is not in doubt is that at the time of writing his Electra Sophocles and Euripides each knew Aeschylus’s Libation-Bearers and could be confident that their audience did too.
Sophocles declares his independence from any previous version in the opening scene with the arrival back in Argos of Orestes and Pylades with Orestes’s Servant or Tutor, a new character in the story, who is to play a major role in carrying out Orestes’s revenge on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. When Orestes has announced his intentions, the Tutor persuades him to leave before the entrance of Electra. The rest of the play is effectively Electra’s; she remains on stage, a picture of mounting desperation, as she continues to mourn her father despite her mother’s plans to have her put away. She loses her last hope with the news that Orestes has been killed in a chariot-race. She resolves to take action herself, with or without the help of her sister Chrysothemis. With no more than a quarter of the play to run, she finds herself confronting the urn containing her brother’s ashes.
But his death is, in fact, only supposition. The audience know that her brother is alive and holding the urn himself. It was the Tutor who told the story of the fatal race. It is all part of the plot, and only Electra’s passionate grief weakens Orestes’s resolve to keep her in the dark until he has succeeded in his revenge. Electra’s plight runs parallel to Orestes’s return, but until late in the play has no effect upon it. Indeed, when brother and sister are reunited their extravagant behaviour almost sabotages the plot.
The recognition scene, which Aeschylus placed early in his Libation-Bearers, is delayed by Sophocles so as to provide an emotional climax that the violent end of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus barely matches. The use of a stage-property, in this case the urn, is a device used elsewhere by Sophocles to concentrate and externalise an issue; Ajax’s sword in Ajax, and the bow of Heracles in Philoctetes offer similar examples of the stage power residing in an object. The urn has the extra dimension of being both a mechanism in the plot and a trigger to the release of Electra from her captivity.
The powerful emphasis on Electra’s character is at the expense of the moral dilemma of Orestes. Aeschylus based the Oresteia on the paradox inherent in the demand of a God that a son avenge his father, when to do so involves the killing of his mother. Euripides in his Electra stresses the horror of the act of matricide with an Orestes driven reluctantly to commit an unnatural act. For both of these playwrights the climax was the murder of Clytemnestra—with Aegisthus killed first in order not to distract from the mother and son confrontation.
Sophocles reverses the order of the murders. Aegisthus is away from the palace when the Tutor tells of the chariot-race and when Orestes introduces the urn to confirm the story. Clytemnestra’s death is simply an appropriate act accompanied by neither the threat of the Furies which hounded Aeschylus’s Orestes, nor the conscience and revulsion which torment him in Euripides’s version. For Sophocles, Apollo has authorised Clytemnestra’s death and that is enough. When Aegisthus does appear, Clytemnestra is already dead, a sheeted figure he takes for the body of Orestes. The revelation that it is Clytemnestra offers as macabre a moment as any in Sophocles and leads rapidly to the conclusion of the play. Though Orestes and Electra are now united, her oppressors dead, her story continues to run parallel to that of her brother without the two truly overlapping.
By consciously bypassing the issue of matricide Sophocles returns to a Homeric notion of justice. In the Odyssey Orestes had been held up as a model of filial behaviour with no questions raised about the rightness of his actions. But in Homer Aegisthus was the principal villain and there was no Electra. Aeschylus had added the moral dimension Page 95 | Top of Articlewith the clash between Apollo, demanding that Orestes avenge his father, and the Furies demanding their due for the murder of a mother. Sophocles does not dodge this issue. He deflects it, by introducing new characters and a novel dramatic structure, in order to point to Electra herself. Few Greek plays are as single-minded in their presentation of the individual.
Source: J. Michael Walton, “Electra” in The International Dictionary of Theatre 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, p. 218.
John A. Hawkins
In this review, Hawkins encapsulates the plot of Electra and appraises a 1987 production of the play.
High on the wall of the scenae frons for this production of Sophocles’ Electra is hung a gigantic reproduction of Schliemann’s so-called “mask of Agamemnon.” This giant face, its mouth rendered much more severe than in the original—so severe that under many of the lighting conditions of the performance, it seems to harden into a scowl—stands as mute witness to this play, with its bizarre remnants of his great Mycenean kingdom. Hanging profusely, even haphazardly, below the face are black curtains which catch the light at certain times in the play, looking at these moments like a blood-streaked shroud, littered with slashes. More significant use might have been made of the face: although it possesses an attitude, we do not sense that the characters do what they do because the face impels them.
At the start of the performance, the center door opens slowly, lit from behind like a great red furnace. It comes up like an automatic garage door, and the slowness and ominousness with which it rises sets the rhythm for the first section of the performance. Then the actors file in through the door in a dumb-show that at first seems too long, too tedious: they seem to be entering merely in order to introduce the characters. They walk in a kind of death march, and their gradual massing on the stage, in the half-light, gives a mounting sense of both grief and fore-boding. The dumb-show ends with a re-enactment, in silence and slow-motion, of the murder of Agamemnon—but done in such a spare manner that we are sure only of the death blow, and the plucking of the crown from the head of the falling figure by the female murderer, as all actors exit. Then the center door slowly closes, and Sophocles’ play begins.
After the brief prologos, in which Orestes seems almost bewildered, as if he had wandered in from another play (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, perhaps), we have the most striking clue that we are about to witness a remarkable performance: the entrance of Electra. This production, from first to last, is rooted firmly in Marietta Rialdi’s startling portrayal of Electra. To begin with, at her entrance, she really does not enter at all. The center door opens, and we see (or think we see, with the light in our eyes) an ambulatory bed, a kind of hospital gurney, at the head of which is a ghostly figure in dark glasses—the attendant, apparently. On the bed is a strange, stunted figure, whose voice we can locate only because of the fluttering of its arms. The figure on the bed is Electra, crying in a kind of hysterical lost-child’s voice—exhausted, it seems, from having done this for days, months, years. Has she been confined to this bed because of mental illness, strapped in out of fear that the madwoman will harm herself? She has the shrill demented sound of the profoundly insane.
The remarkable achievement of Rialdi is that she portrays a constant emotional state of being in extremis—on one shrill note that seems never to waver, conveying Electra’s total commitment to the cause of keeping alive the memory of her slain father—yet never tires us. Her cries become a kind of accompaniment that has a stylistic rightness to the events which have given it impulse. She cannot relent, and we begin to enter her vortex of grief and despair. She moves us easily from vicarious experience—the second-hand experience of the audience—toward an experience that seems direct, that feels like our own. Rialdi keeps us engaged by modulating, phrasing, slightly varying her pace and her pitches, a striking vocal achievement. She seems to draw no breath, and we discover ourselves gasping, taking them for her. She goes from grief to grief without flagging: her speech of despair later on in the play, to the urn supposedly containing the ashes of the dead Orestes, which she embraces fiercely,
like a lover, is the most spectacular reminder to us that any true grief is bottomless, wretched, unremitting.
Her entrance sets the tone for all of this. Lying on the gurney, she is only partially visible to us—she remains inside the inner below for a long portion of her speech. We see her forearms flapping, as if to punctuate her speech, but they seem ineffectual, like vestigial wings. Then the gurney is wheeled in to Left Center, and parked there, abandoned. Electra’s vocalizations and her emotional extension do not waver through any of this. Continuing her strange aria, she gradually struggles to a sitting position, then throws her legs over the edge of the gurney, then stands on the floor, then waddles away on her own. Rialdi, who is tiny in physical stature, is brilliant throughout this section. Her struggle to walk is inept, uncoordinated. Her body seems to have atrophied from her time in bed, and her limbs seem incapable of response. Her physical appearance is dwarfish, warped.
One is grateful to Rialdi for daring to exhibit herself so unattractively in order to convey with such realism and poignancy the dementia of Electra. She gives us much of Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s insight into this character, and serves Sophocles with it brilliantly. Her dementia has a further extension: at the moment of Orestes’ revelation of his identity to Electra, the audience responds with greater relief and enthusiasm than she does. We are momentarily baffled by Electra’s seeming not to notice. She takes in this information only insofar as it means that the revenge can now be resumed. She is so steeped in her own habits of grief and self-pity that she cannot alter her pattern of behavior, even as she is delivered from them. Rialdi’s is a thoroughly original performance.
In the important scene between Electra and Clytemnestra, much is revealed to the audience of the similarities between the two women. Electra has waited years for her revenge, as did Clytemnestra, but the latter’s hatred has since metamorphosed into fear. As with Electra, the central emotion goes deep, to the core of her self. Rialdi’s Electra—the demented soprano—and Thalia Calliga’s aging Clytemnestra—all contralto profundissimo—argue in a duet skillfully handled in its sustained, slow movements, and deliberate, forceful vocalization. Their passages of stichomythia make sharp contact between the adversaries, as Clytemnestra, edgy and defensive, refuses to face Electra, and stands looking at us—the ambiguity in her face impossible to decipher.
Minor objections aside, the production stands on the achievements of Marietta Rialdi, who has given a startling and bold interpretation of Sophocles’ play and of his central character. Her success is in no small measure due to her acting, based as it is upon her willingness to expose the last indignity of Electra. But Rialdi refuses to allow us the comfort of sympathy for her; instead, she makes us face the ugly reality. Electra’s hatred has consumed her utterly.
Source: John A. Hawkins, review of Electra in Theatre Journal, Volume 39, no. 3, October, 1987, pp. 387-89.
Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way, W. W. Norton (New York), 1930, pp. 258-70.
Woodward, Thomas. “The Electra of Sophocles” in Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Woodward, Prentice-Hall, 1966, pp. 125-45.
Woolf, Virginia. “On Sophocles’s Electra” in Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Woodward, Prentice-Hall, 1966, pp. 122-24.
Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece, Harvard University Press, 1995.
This book illuminates the world of women in Sophocles’s time, revealing that although their roles were limited, they contributed to the cultural and artistic life of Ancient Greece.
Nardo, Don, Editor. Readings on Sophocles, Greenhaven Press, 1997.
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This is a collection of critical essays on Sophocles, which also includes a useful appendix on Greek theatrical production and a biography of the playwright.
Woodward, Thomas, Editor. Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1966.
Woodward’s collection of essays includes his own article, “The Electra of Sophocles,” and Virginia Woolf’s essay, “On Sophocles’s Electra.” The collection also offers an excellent critical overview of many of Sophocles’s dramatic works.