Paedagogus, Orestes’ old tutor, has returned to the royal palace in Mycenae. Before the play began Clytemnestra murdered Orestes’ father, Agamemnon, and now Orestes has returned to avenge his death. Orestes tells Paedagogus that the Delphic oracle has told him how he should be revenged on those who murdered his father. Orestes tells Paedagogus to falsely report Orestes’ death. In the meantime, Orestes and Pylades will visit Agamemnon’s grave, and, when they return to the palace with an urn (which they will say contains Orestes’ remains), no one will be expecting them to strike against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
A cry is heard from inside the house, and Orestes and Paedagogus exit. Electra enters, making a long prayer to “Holy Light”. She is in constant mourning for her father’s death, hardly sleeps, dresses in unsightly and poor clothes, and refuses to stop calling on the gods to bring vengeance. The Chorus argue that she should mourn within normal limits, and no more, and Electra rejects their argument. She longs for Orestes to return to avenge her father’s death. It is impossible for her to behave moderately, she says, when she is surrounded by evil.
Chrysothemis, Electra’s sister, enters with burial offerings. She asks Electra why she is still shouting publicly about her father and her longing for vengeance. Then, Chrysothemis continues, she herself would be openly angry if she had strength. She, however, chooses to be deliberately silent – a decision which Electra then scorns. Chrysothemis argues that Electra’s fury will be the undoing of her, only for Electra to reply that she would welcome death.
Chrysothemis is taking burial offerings from her mother to Agamemnon’s grave. Clytemnestra has sent the offerings after being frightened by a dream in which she saw Agamemnon revived. Electra persuades Chrysothemis not to take Clytemnestra’s offerings to the grave.
The Chorus predict Justice coming and “foreshadowing a just victory”. Clytemnestra enters, surprised to see Electra walking outside, and an argument ensures between mother and daughter. Clytemnestra says that she was just to murder her husband, as he sacrificed her daughter Iphigenia. Electra then launches into a long speech, which tells another version of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, and interrogates the “eye for an eye” logic that Clytemnestra puts forward. This rant becomes increasingly more personal, with Electra even eventually telling Clytemnestra that she would have Orestes kill her if she could. Clytemnestra, left alone, makes a prayer to the gods, hoping that all will be well for her.
Paedagogus, disguised as a messenger, comes in and tells a long story about Orestes’ supposed death. Electra is devastated, and Clytemnestra torn between being delighted and mournful. Clytemnestra goes into the house with Paedagogus. Electra resolves to bring about her own death: without Orestes, she has nothing to live for. The Chorus try to comfort her. Chrysothemis enters, having found Orestes’ hair on Agamemnon’s grave, to tell Electra that Orestes has come to the palace. Electra tries and fails to persuade Chrysothemis to help her murder Aegisthus. Electra resolves to do the deed alone.
Orestes enter disguised, and reveals himself to Electra, proving with Agamemnon’s signet ring that he is indeed Orestes. He then goes inside to murder Clytemnestra, and Electra goes inside the house. The Chorus begin an ode, which is interrupted by Electra running back outside. Clytemnestra is heard screaming from inside the palace, and Electra shouts encouragement to Orestes from outside.
Orestes enters from the palace, and Electra asks him if all is well. Orestes replies that all is well, if Apollo prophesied well. At that, Aegisthus approaches, Orestes goes inside, and Electra greets Aegisthus. Bringing on a covered body (Orestes in disguise again), they tell Aegisthus it is the dead Orestes, though when it is uncovered, it is in fact the murdered Clytemnestra. Aegisthus is taken inside the palace to be murdered by Orestes, and – before we see or hear the deed – the Chorus end the play.
About Electra by Sophocles
As with many extant Greek tragedies, we have no exact date for the the writing of Electra, though scholars have argued that some of its stylistic features suggest it was written towards the end of Sophocles’ life.
The story of Orestes’ revenge is a fascinating one, not least because it is perhaps the only story for which we have a complete surviving treatment from each of the three major Greek dramatists: Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. Homer delves briefly into the story of Orestes’ matricide in the Odyssey, but it is not until Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a play against which Electra must be read to unlock its full richness, that the Orestes story is really explored in depth. Aeschylus’ play has Orestes, after the death of Clytemnestra, pursued by Furies (personifications of the anger of the dead) and eventually brought to trial before Athene, a trial in which the rights and wrongs of what he has done are weighed and considered. Euripides’ version is markedly different from Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ treatments — though it shares Sophocles’ name, Electra. Euripides’ play pokes fun at Homer, and (it seems) at previous versions of the myth, though it is important to note that scholars do not know whether Sophocles’ or Euripides’ version came first.
When compared to Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Euripides’ Electra, Sophocles’ treatment of the story is unusual for several reasons. First, it takes a story which Aeschylus had centered around Orestes, and entirely changes its focus to Electra. Thus, the play as Sophocles writes it becomes less about patterns of vengeance and abstract (or divine) ideals of justice and revenge, and more about humans. What we see most clearly through Sophocles’ focus on Electra herself is the product of the unpleasant circumstances she has been forced to live through.
Second, Sophocles omits Aeschylus’ justice from his play, and makes no final arbitration about whether or not Orestes’ matricide is just or justified. There are no Furies, no final trial, and no vote by the jurors or by Athene. The gods, indeed, are reduced to simple Oracles and prophecies, and make no direct appearance. This is a tragedy on a particularly human scale, even to the extent that the final judgment must be made by the audience, not by the gods. Sophocles asks questions, but provides no answers.
Third, and perhaps most significant, Sophocles’ Electra is a strikingly different character from her counterparts in Aeschylus and Euripides. She is bitter, angry, furious, and decidedly “unfeminine” in the traditional ancient Greek sense. She spends the whole play outside, refusing to go inside the house. She is, it has often be argued, not a sympathetic protagonist, but one still somehow admirable if only by the sheer force of her will. She is Electra recast as a Sophoclean protagonist: extreme in nature, refusing to compromise or back down, and willing to pursue her desires to the very end, regardless of the cost to herself or the morality of the outcome. The other characters, as David Grene has written, are included “principally so that we should know more about [Electra] when we see her dealing with them”. Sophocles’ is thus a personal play, rather than a play about events; yet – like all great drama – its themes touch both broad and intimate subjects. It is, Grene goes on to argue, “the best-constructed and most unpleasant play that Sophocles wrote.”
Electra is the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and the title character of the play. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia Electra sings songs of mourning, prays, and goes meekly inside when it comes to the moment of Orestes’ murdering Clytemnestra. Aeschylus’ Electra is, in the words of Simon Goldhill, “a good girl”.
Sophocles’ Electra is quite a different prospect. She is furiously angry and bitter about the way her mother has murdered her father and partnered with Aegisthus. She refuses to cease mourning, and is prone to huge, bellowing cries of grief and rage. She is desperate for her brother Orestes to return. Significantly, she trusts nothing and no one, and believes in deeds rather than words – which is perhaps why her own language is so painfully raw and stripped back.
She is the central character of Sophocles’ treatment of this story, though interestingly, not of the story itself. The other characters in the play, alway catalysts of the plot to a greater degree, seem to pale in insignificance when compared with her: for sheer force of will, and force of hatred, she is – in this play, as well as in many other extant tragedies – simply unmatchable.
Agamemnon was the husband of Clytemnestra, and the father of Electra and Orestes. He was murdered by Clytemnestra before the play began, and the play documents Orestes’ vengeance on his mother for that act. He does not appear in Sophocles’ Electradirectly, but is still in many ways a key character.
A pedagogue – a tutor – as suggested by his name, now old, who looked after Orestes when he was younger. He narrates the false story of Orestes’ death in a chariot race, and, as he and Orestes plan early in the play, no-one recognises him as he now has grey hair. Paedagogus is not a major character in the play, though he does, at several key moments, try to push the plot out of words and towards action. It seems likely that – as he does not appear later in the play – the actor playing him doubled another role (perhaps Aegisthus).
The son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and the brother of Electra and Chrysothemis. Orestes, in other retellings of this same story, is undoubtedly the principal character: certainly in Homer, and also in the Oresteia (a trilogy which, notably, bears his name!). Not so in this play. Electra is very much central to Sophocles’ conception of this play, though Orestes is still important.
Moreover, Orestes is important largely because he does not seem the hero we might expect from other versions of the same story. This is an Orestes who is more than prepared to use false words, so long as they get the right outcome: the means, in other words, are absolutely justified by the end. David Grene describes him as “cautious and rather colourless”.
Orestes returns to the House of Atreus to revenge his father’s murder by killing his mother, and, at the end of this play, kills Clytemnestra and is about to kill her lover, Aegisthus.
A group of women of Mycenae, who look onto events, and attempt to advise Electra. The most unusual choral moment in the play comes when Electra interrupts their ode (of only twelve lines) by coming out of the palace, and back onstage to commentate on Orestes’ murdering Clytemnestra.
Mother of Orestes, Electra and Chrysothemis. Previously married to Agamemnon (before she murdered him!) and now married to Aegisthus.
Clytemnestra in the Oresteia is quite a terrifying prospect: savage, murderous and totally unashamed of what she has done. Sophocles takes this savage, terrifying woman and, without reducing her fury , gives her a human streak. This Clytemnestra suffers from nightmares and, when she appears and justifies her killing of Agamemnon (by recourse to the Iphigenia story) she seems somewhat more reasonable than Electra!
Clytemnestra has a central argument in the middle of the play with Electra, whose fury knows no bounds towards her, before she is eventually murdered in her palace by Orestes.
Sister of Electra and Orestes, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Chrysothemis’ role is a similar one to Ismene in Antigone: she advises Electra to be cautious, not to make things worse unnecessarily, and to try and keep her feelings under wraps.
Chrysothemis says at one point in the play that she feels as angry and upset as Electra does – only she doesn’t go around making it quite so clear because she wants life to be as bearable as possible. She is, in the apt words of David Grene, ‘timid, sensible, and unattractive’, and she has disappeared from the play by the time the murder takes place.
Husband of Clytemnestra, and a descendant of the House of Atreus. Aegisthus only makes one appearance in this play, late towards the end, where Sophocles establishes him as a bully and a self-regarding tyrant. He taunts and mocks Orestes even when he is about to die, and before that, spends most of his time handing out brisk orders to anyone who will listen. He is not a major character in the play, but important to anyone looking closely at the circumstances which have created Electra.
Daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, sister to Orestes, Chrysothemis and Electra. Iphigenia was sacrificed by Agamemnon, her father, to appease the wrath of the goddess Artemis – an act which provoked Clytemnestra to kill Agamemnon. She does not appear in Sophocles’ Electra, but is nevertheless an important motivating factor for its events.
A friend of Orestes. Stays by his side and assists him with Clytemnestra’s killing.
Glossary of Terms
An Ancient Greek playwright, most famous for writing the Oresteia, and whose work influenced Sophocles.
The Greek god of the truth, light, and the sun. Orestes goes to Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi in order to find out how he should be revenged on Clytemnestra earlier in the play, and the Oracle gives him a message from the god.
the capital of Greece today, and a hugely important city in Ancient Greece.
Atreus was Agamemnon’s grandfather (and Pelops’ father). Thyestes, brother to Atreus (and son of Pelops), was the father of Aegisthus. Therefore the conflict between Agamemnon and Aegisthus plays out within one family – and indeed, the House of Atreus (it is the palace of Atreus in front of which the play takes place) is cursed to destroy itself. The curse on the House of Atreus is the starting point for many of the stories contained in Greek drama.
An oracle is someone or something supposed to be able to give infallible information. The Oracle at Delphi gave out prophecies inspired by the god Apollo – and, in the Electra story, the Oracle is usually supposed to have ordered Orestes to go home and avenge his father’s death. Sophocles’ play opens with Orestes recounting what the Oracle told him.
a sombre, melancholy song, usually associated with being sung on the occasion of a death, or at a funeral.
A libation was a ritual pouring of liquids, as a form of worship of, or an offering to, a god (or gods). Clytemnestra is usually supposed to pour libations at line 636 of Sophocles’ play.
A settlement south-west of Athens, in Greece. In the Ancient world, Mycenae was one of the major centres of Greek civilization, and a military stronghold.
Pelops wanted to win the horse race that would decide whether he got to marry Hippodameia. He went to Myrtilus, and asked him to hinder his opponent, Oenamaus, and allow him to win the race: in return, Myrtilus would be allowed the first night with Hippodameia.
Myrtilus replaced Oenamaus’ bronze chariot pins with beeswax, which meant that, as the race took place, they overheated, melted, and in the accident which followed, killed Oenamaus, who cursed Myrtilus with his dying breath.
Myrtilus tried to seduce Hippodameia, but she repelled his advances, and Pelops then murdered Myrtilus by throwing him into the sea.
Greek word for ‘household’, but can also mean ‘family’ or ‘bloodline’
in Greek, literally means “dancing space”). The central, circular area of the Greek stage, usually flat, and a space on which the chorus would perform.
A trilogy of plays by Aeschylus that dramatise the events before Agamemnon’s murder right up until Orestes’ acquittal by a court of the crime of matricide. The first play, Agamemnon, shows Clytaemestra killing her husband Agamemnon on his return home.
The second play, Libation Bearers dramatises the same part of the story as Sophocles’ Electra: Orestes’ killing of Clytaemestra in revenge for his father’s murder.
The third play, Eumenides deals with Orestes being pursued by the Furies for the matricide he has committed, and his trial for matricide in front of Athena and a jury, where he is eventually acquitted.
the adjective meaning “from Phocis”. Phocis was an important district in Ancient Greece.
the Greek for a ‘signet’: it is Agamemnon’s signet which Orestes uses to help Electra recognise him in this play. A signet was a seal associated with only one person.
a song, sung by the Chorus, standing still – usually after they have taken up their place in the orchestra.
A kind of vase, usually without handles, often with a wider center, with a narrow neck and narrow bottom. In classical times, urns were often specifically associated with funerals: and the urn which Orestes brings with him in this play is supposed to contain his ashes.
This is a key word in this play, and for this story in all of its representations. What is right? Is it just to revenge, or is it better to just to let nature – and the gods – take its course?
Justice is a word closely related to “judgment” and “judge”, and a key question of the play is “who has the right to judge?” Should Clytemnestra have killed Agamemnon? Should Orestes kill Clytemnestra? Should Electra be bound to kill Clytemnestra and/or Aegisthus if Orestes were dead? What is the right thing to do? Many characters, Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra among them claim that they are acting in the interests of justice. In the end though, with no trial and no divine intervention, Sophocles finally leaves the question of justice with his audience.
Cause and effect
How does one thing lead to another? What should our reaction to events be? How can a group of circumstances create specific results?
These are all questions central to Sophocles’ play, which is a close examination of cause and effect — the very stuff of drama, maybe, but here problematized and questioned. The death of Iphigenia leads to the death of Agamemnon, which leads to the death of Clytemnestra; as the play ends, it seems the death of Aegisthus will follow. Moreover, Electra herself has often been read as the product of her unhappy circumstances: someone turned bitter and angry as the result of a horrible situation. It is an interesting theme to trace through the play, examining how one thing might be ascribed to its result.
Electrais deeply concerned with the idea of vengeance, particularly with an examination of “eye for an eye” logic. If someone hurts you, should you hurt them back? Does one death justify another? When – and this is a significant question for the play as a whole – does revenge end? Surely an “eye for an eye” will leave the whole world blind? One murder leads to another, and, by locating the Aegisthus murder just outside of his play, Sophocles creates the impression that the line of deaths might stretch out forever.
Gender roles are given specific prominence by Sophocles from the moment he decides to call his treatment of the Oresteia story not after the man, Orestes, but after Electra.
Chrysothemis specifically challenges Electra in their final argument that she cannot even consider killing Aegisthus herself, as she is a woman and not a man. Indeed, throughout the play, Sophocles explores the idea of Electra as a woman with a man’s heart and a man’s fury: like her mother before her, she refuses to behave in the way society expects a woman to behave.
Sophocles explores our expectation of men and women, and interrogates the nature of both roles. Why should a man be allowed to do something that a woman is not allowed to do?
Blood and bloodlines
The play explores the bloodline of the House of Atreus, and Agamemnon and Aegisthus, both of whom have a common ancestor in Atreus. It is easy to forget sometimes that when characters talk about “blood”, they often refer to “bloodline”. To kill one’s mother is not just a crime in blood but a crime in bloodline: it stops the continuance of the family name. Blood in Sophocles is a key idea: it is both a reality and a metaphor for the family line stretching out, backward and forward, and is thus inextricably tied to “eye for an eye” logic.Disguise
This is announced very early on as a key theme, when Orestes resolves that his words are going to be false – and that it does not matter, so long as he ultimately achieves his intention. It is an interesting logic, and the first clue toward a theme that resounds throughout the play: that the truth can easily be disguised.
Everyone apart from Electra in the play could be accused of role-playing, either literally – like Paedagogus or Orestes, both of whom literally assume false roles – or metaphorically – like Chrysothemis, who despite her anger is still prepared to play the part of the meek, mild girl.
This is a play which constantly juxtaposes truth and falsehood, but which never truly tells us what lies behind the mask (itself, naturally, a key symbol in the ancient theater). Trust nothing, interrogate everything.
Familial v. civic duties
Very often in Sophocles, starting with Oedipus Rex, and continuing on to several of his protagonists, there is a tension between the duties one owes to one’s family and the duties one owes to one’s country. In this play, for example, Electra tells Clytemnestra that she in no way could ever be justified in murdering her husband, because of her wifely duty. On the other hand, Clytemnestra felt she was duty-bound to revenge her daughter. Familial duty against familial duty – and that is even before one even poses the question of whether murder can ever not be morally wrong.
It is famously true of tragedy that a protagonist can find him/herself caught between two “wrong” options: whichever way he/she goes, he/she will be in the wrong according to one or another set of duties. It is well worth examining the patterns of familial and bloodline duties against broader ideas of right and wrong – and asking whether there is any “right road” that Sophocles’ characters could have or should have taken.
Quotes and Analysis
Before a man leaves his house, sets foot on the path,
let us hold our parley. We are where
we must not shrink. It is high time for action.
Electra (trans. Grene) l.20-2
This is Paedagogus’ incitement to action. Talking is over, he says, and it is time to “do”. It is the first explicit mention of action in the play, and yet, it is ironic that it is spoken – not, as it were, “done”. Throughout the play, Sophocles explores the relationship between doing and saying, and how words can dissemble in ways actions never can.
When I came to Pytho’s place of prophecy
to learn to win revenge
for my father’s murder on those that did the murder,
Phoebus spoke to me the words I tell you now…
Electra (trans. Grene) l.33-6
Orestes has been to the Oracle to ask the gods’ advice. Yet, as Greek tragedy shows everywhere, you have to be very careful how you phrase your question, and what Orestes has asked is “how should I be revenged?”, not, as he seems to assume, “should I be revenged?” Do the gods approve of his matricide; is that implicit? Or has he just asked the wrong question?
In such a state, my friends, one cannot
be moderate and restrained nor pious either.
Evil is all around me, evil
is what I am compelled to practice.
Electra (trans. Grene) l.306-9
Here Electra announces her unwillingness to be moderate in her grief, and that she will know no bounds when it comes to her mourning. Moreover, and more problematically, she announces the “eye for an eye” retribution logic of the play: because of the evil which surrounds her (in the persons of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra) she herself will also be evil. It is, to say the least, a problematic moral standpoint, and one which will animate the rest of the drama.
For if he that is dead
is earth and nothing,
and they shall never in their turn
pay death for death in justice,
then shall all shame be dead
and all men’s piety.
Electra (trans. Grene) l.243-9
Electra here combines two key ideas of the play: “death for death” – in other words, the “eye for an eye” logic of vengeance – and the promise of “justice” – a word which resounds throughout the play and which never receives a satisfactory definition. Even Electra’s own conception of justice is never made clear, for, though she advocate Clytemnestra’s death, she rejects the fact that Agamemnon’s death was meant to avenge Iphigenia’s.
There is no denial in me. Justice,
Justice it was that took him, not I alone.
You would have served the cause of Justice if
you had been right-minded.
Electra (trans. Grene) l.526-9
Clytemnestra throws Electra’s accusations back in her face, claiming that it was “Justice” (one of the play’s key words) that she murdered her husband, as he had so cruelly sent Iphigenia to her death. Clytemnestra herself argues that she personally takes no blame for the murder: she wasn’t acting as an individual, but abstractly in the interests of justice. This is a key question of the play: can the circumstances of a killing – the justification for it – affect how we morally look at the killer?
My son, my son,
pity your mother!
You had none for him,
nor for his father that begot him.
Electra (trans. Grene) l.1410-3
This is the key moment of Clytemnestra’s murder, and a moment which creates a real frisson when held up against Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Clytemnestra asks for pity from Orestes, just as she does in Libation Bearers – yet her begging does not prompt a pause from Orestes to consider the morality of what he is doing. Instead, Electra screams back at her mother from outside the house (the murder is taking place inside the house), arguing that she didn’t pity Orestes or Agamemnon. It is, quite literally, Aeschylus’ moment of pause transformed into a brutal avowal of “eye for an eye” logic.
Oh! I am struck!
If you have strength – again!
Electra (trans. Grene) l.1415
This is perhaps the most unusual thing that Sophocles could have had a female character say on stage: not only is Electra (unlike her Aeschylus counterpart) onstage for the murder, rather than offstage, but she is shouting encouragement to her brother to kill her mother. Moreover, it is not just that she wants Clytemnestra dead, but she wants her dead in the most brutal way possible: shouting to her brother to stab her again.
Orestes, how have you fared?
In the house, all
is well, if well Apollo prophesied.
Electra (trans. Grene) l.1423-4
This is the key moment, and one of the key ifs in all of drama. Is it complete? Electra asks. Have we been revenged for our father’s murder? The audience familiar with Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers may well be waiting for the Furies, the spirits of revenge, to come creeping after Orestes – for he himself has now committed matricide. But nothing happens. And even Orestes’ answer is deeply ambiguous: everything is fine, if the Oracle made a correct prophecy. And, as the first quote in this section shows, whether or not the Oracle’s prophecy should be interpreted as Orestes interprets it is another source of ambiguity.
Spare me all superfluity of speech.
Tell me not how my mother is villainous
nor how Aegisthus drains my father’s wealth
by luxury or waste. Words about this
will shorten time and opportunity.
Electra (trans. Grene) l.1288-92
Here again, language is cast aside in favor of action – though, ironically enough, through the means of dialogue. The play tantalizes the audience with the promise of action, but a key question is whether it really delivers it – the double murder Orestes intends is only half done as the play ends.
O race of Atreus, how many sufferings
were yours before you came at last so hardly
to freedom, perfected by this day’s deed.
Electra (trans. Grene) l.1508-10
These are the final words of the play, spoken by the Chorus. They predict, as you can see, after a long line of sufferings, that the house of Atreus (who was Agamemnon’s father) has finally come to “freedom”. Where has this “freedom” suddenly come from? From the deed of that day: from the murder of Clytemnestra. For any readers of Aeschylus, it is a very uneasy resolution. Where is the trial from the final play of the Oresteia to decide whether Orestes has committed a crime? Where are the Furies – and Orestes’ profession of guilt for what he has done? How can the play end so suddenly, and without tying up so many of its strands? These questions are, characteristically for Sophocles, left unanswered.