Notes on Sophocles’s Electra

It is said that Sophocles’s Electra is the closest portrayal of the story of Orestes that Homer would have known. The Aeschylean Oresteia cycle became the more enduring tragedy than other prior accounts. In this way, Aeschylus represents a vital link between the “Dark Ages” of Homer and the new civilization of classical Athens.

The tragedy of Orestes is told mainly through the eyes and sufferings of Orestes’s sister, Electra. Her rage is expressed to the Chorus – she is enraged at her mother, Clytemnestra and her betrayal of their father, Agamemnon. Together with her co-conspirator and suitor, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon at his home on Argos upon his return from the Trojan War. In the Odyssey it is alluded to as a warning of what could come for Odysseus if he does not return home honorably. The Oresteia is a warning, though the distinctions between Orestes and Telemachus are many.

Clytemnestra tries to provide an apologia for herself while alone on the stage, reminding the audience that Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphigeneia, at the request of Apollo, and that he also brought concubines home from the war. She redirects guilts: Agamemnon has violated their marriage (though he has honored the gods). Which of the two virtues proves superior? Aeschylus seems to suggest Agamemnon’s acts of honoring the gods (including the slaying of his own daughter) is preferable to honnoring his marriage compact. However, when forced to choose between the two, man will only find sorrow and tragedy.

Curiously, the Sophoclean version of Orestes’s story is devoid of the divine. The gods make no appearance, unlike the Aeschylean Oresteia. Instead, in Sophocles Orestes arrives with his pedagogue, or tutor, who announces to the house that Orestes has died in a chariot race and an urn is delivered. Electra is mad with sadness and neither she nor Orestes initially recognize one another. After their mutual recognition, Orestes enters the palace and slays Clytemnestra off-stage. Then they both reunite as Aegisthus enters the scene and is made aware of the situation. Orestes tells him he killed her off-stage, inside the palace on the altar where his father, Agamemnon, was killed.

Electra is a tragedy, but not of a pitiable Euripidean kind or character. Instead, it has redemption, in vengeance, for Electra. Her sufferings are short-lived in the play. On the underside of sorrow is joy. Notably, Euripides later wrote his own Electra. Whereas in other depictions of the tragedy Clytemnestra is depicted as maniacal (a la Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth), in Sophocles’s version, which Cicero considered a masterpiece, the audience is exposed to the emotional extremes of Electra, a powerless but memorable character who watches the drama unfold in her own house and iterates the deep feelings of the audience in an extreme way.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore and David Grene edition with a translation by David Grene.

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