Notes on Sophocles’s Electra

It is said that Sophocles’s Electra is the best example of the Oresteian story that Homer would have known. The Aeschylean Oresteia cycle became the more enduring tragedy.

The tragedy 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’s, betrayal of their father, Agamemnon. Together with her co-conspirator and suitor, Aegisthus, they 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.

Clytemnestra tries to justify herself, reminding the audience that Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphigeneia, at the request of Apollo, and that he also brought concubines home from the war.

Curiously, the Sophoclean play is devoid of the divine. The gods make no appearance, unlike the Aeschylean Oresteia. Instead, 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 willed killed 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, 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 of observers in an extreme way.

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