The Electras of Sophocles and Euripedes

Having finished reading all of the Aeschylus plays in GBWW Volume 4, I decided to proceed with the two Electra plays by Sophocles and Euripedes. If you don’t remember, Electra is the sister of Orestes, whose father Agamemnon was killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon in revenge for having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia. In the second play of the Oresteia trilogy, The Libation Bearers (also known as The Choephori), Orestes disguises himself as a stranger to obtain admission to the court of Aegisthus and his mother, after which he murders both of them. The Electra plays cover the same sequence of events of the surviving children of Agamemnon murdering their mother and her lover in revenge for her murder. The three plays have some common elements which indicate that the story must have existed as a popular legend before the plays were written; however, there are important differences in perspective that we can notice when comparing them directly. In this post I shall compare the different perspectives or retellings of the legend which are offered by the three plays.

Electra in the Focus

True to their shared title, one of the major differences is that in these two plays Electra plays a more prominent and active role in the plot. In The Libation Bearers, Electra is not present for any of the scenes of the murders of her mother and her lover, nor does she play any active role in creating the plot. She does not appear on stage again after the elaborate chanting scene where she and Orestes invoke the spirit of Agamemnon to aid them in carrying out their revenge. It’s useful to note that The Libation Bearers opens with an extended soliloquy by Orestes, where he places the two locks of his hair on his father’s tomb. Electra is described as following the chorus (playing the role of the libation bearers), and the latter sing their usual extended opening song first before she gets to say her own speech.

In contrast, both Electra plays pay a lot of attention to developing the titular character’s personality. In Euripedes’ version, the first scene features a conversation between Electra and her peasant husband, which establishes the narrative background of what happened after Agamemnon was murdered (she was banished from the court and forced to marry a low-ranked man). The peasant husband is given the first extended speech, but it focuses solely on Electra’s story. She herself then makes a grand entrance wearing “mean clothes” and carrying a vessel of water to establish her “degraded” status. Only after this does Orestes enter the stage, describing his background. In Sophocles’ version, the first few speeches are still focused on Orestes: the Paedagogus opens the play with an extended speech about what happened to Orestes after the murder (he was raised by the Paedagogus in secret until adulthood). But Orestes is suddenly interrupted by the cries of Electra, who is lamenting the death of her father. She enters the stage, “meanly clad” (as in the Euripedes version), and all individual characters exeunt except her. She then has an extended lament scene for herself, in conversation with the choir. The focus is clearly on Electra’s psychological state.

Looking wider than just the first scene, we notice that Electra participates actively in the plot to murder Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In Sophocles’ version, she doesn’t do the murder, but she (and the Paedagogus) lets Orestes and Pylades into the palace. The murder is done off-stage, and we get to see it from the perspective of Elektra:

Ah, dearest friends, in a moment the men will do the deed; — but wait in silence.

How is it? — what do they now?

She is decking the urn for burial, and those two stand close to her.

And why hast thou sped forth?

To guard against Aegisthus entering before we are aware.

Sophocles seems to make a deliberate effort to underline Electra’s participation in the murder. A few seconds later, after Clytemnestra is dead, Electra converses with Aegisthus and steers him toward the same room where Orestes and Pylades are waiting for him.

In Euripedes’ version, Electra’s role is even more central: she proposes the plot to murder Clytemnestra herself, which is to lure her into her hut under the pretext that she has just given birth to a son. Once again, the murder is done offstage and by Orestes, but Electra’s guilt afterwards is highlighted, pointing to the importance of her role in the murder.

Electra as a Character

So we’ve established that Electra is indeed presented as the focus of both plays. But what do we glean about her actual character from this presentation? Electra’s distinctive characteristic seems to be her strong-willed, unwavering desire for revenge, which drives her to be bold enough to go beyond her station and upend the established new order set up by the murderers of her father. This is particularly apparent in Sophocles’ version, where her more timid sister Chrysothemis is set up as a foil to her. The sisters clash directly in a match up between pragmatism and loyalty to familial ties:

Why, sister, hast thou come forth once more to declaim thus at the public doors? Why wilt thou not learn with any lapse of time to desist from vain indulgence of idle wrath? Yet this I know, — that I myself am — grieved at our plight; indeed, could I find the strength, I would show what love I bear them. But now, in these troubled waters, ’tis best, methinks, to shorten sail…Nevertheless, right is on the side of thy choice, not of that which I advise; but if I am to live in freedom, our rulers must be obeyed in all things.

Chrysothemis recognizes the truthfulness of Electra’s claims (at least in words), but she is simply too practical and afraid to do anything. In other words, she is a selfish and opportunistic coward. Electra chastises her, accusing her of betraying her family.

…But thou, who tellest me of thy
hatred, hatest in word alone, while in deeds thou art with the
slayers of thy sire. I, then, would never yield to them, though I
were promised the gifts which now make thee proud; thine be the richly-spread table and the life of luxury.

Electra is an idealist fighting for the primacy of familial ties, fueled by rage and hurt. But what adds a different dimension to her claims is that she is advocating for killing her mother to punish her for killing her father. In turn, her mother killed Agamemnon in revenge for him killing his own daughter. Why couldn’t Electra view it from that perspective? For some reason, she regards her father as more of her kin than her mother or the dead Iphigenia. If we continue from the snippet above:

…But now, when thou mightest be called daughter of the noblest father among men, be called the child of thy mother; so shall thy
baseness be most widely seen, in betrayal of thy dead sire and of thy kindred.

Maybe we can explain this by harking back to the discussion of the third play in the OresteiaThe Eumenides, where Apollo argues for the justness of Orestes’ deed by stating that the father is the “truer” parent compared to the mother. You can also theorize that the presence of Aegisthus partially discredits the claim that Clytemnestra was acting purely out of love for Iphigenia, or that Electra did have a unique attachment to her father (such that Freud used the term Electra complex for the female version of the Oedipus complex). But it might be that Sophocles was simply reinforcing the prejudices of his time.

Electra’s strong-willed character is even more on display in Euripedes’ version, where we have already mentioned that she takes an active role in plotting Clytemnestra’s demise. Interestingly, in this version Clytemnestra is given a full speech to explain her actions to Electra. Here, we get an explicit explanation for her actions. In line with our hypothesis that Electra’s line of thinking was heavily influenced by the moral prejudices of her time, she replies:

[after giving the reasons for her murder]…Speak all that is in thy heart, and prove against me with all free speech, that thy father’s death was not deserved.

Justly urged! but thy justice is not free from shame;
for in all things should every woman of sense yield to her
husband. Whoso thinketh otherwise comes not within the scope
of what I say.

That being said, this is not the whole story. Electra then points to the presence of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra’s habits even before she learned of Iphigenia’s death to show that she was not a good wife, allegedly hoping that Agamemnon would never return from Troy. Electra questions why she did not turn over the kingdom to Orestes and her after the murder, if she did it purely to avenge Iphigenia, instead banishing them and degrading her. Clytemnestra replies that Electra simply loves her father more than her, which is part of her nature. The dialogue is clunky, almost forced, as if Euripedes is speaking in Clytemnestra’s voice:

Daughter, ’twas ever thy nature to love thy father. This too one finds; some sons cling to their father, others have a deeper affection for their mother. I will forgive thee, for myself am not so exceeding glad at the deed that I have done, my child.

Another interesting point is that Electra isn’t a complete psychopath in Euripedes’ version. Right after the murdered is accomplished and Orestes recounts it in detail, she cries out for her “poor mother,” exclaiming that “I have done an awful deed.” Despite all of her strong-will and one-minded focus on revenge, she is ultimately a vulnerable human born into a cursed family.

Orestes’ Reveal Scene

Another common feature in all three plays is the use of deception by Orestes’ character. To prevent him from being recognized, he poses as a traveler bringing news about Orestes’ death to the palace. In both Electra plays, he reveals himself to Electra in secret before they get together to plot the murder. In Sophocles’ version, this reunion scene is artfully constructed. Orestes in disguise recounts the alleged story of his death by chariot racing. He then reveals that the urn he is carrying contains the purported ashes of the body, and instructs the attendants to “bring it and give it her, whoe’er she be; for she who begs this boon must be one who wished him no evil, but a friend, or haply a kinswoman in blood.” From this it seems that Orestes did not at first reveal himself for the purpose of testing her identity and loyalty (in the plot, this meeting also occurred years after they last saw each other as much younger children). Electra receives the urn and makes an extended, moving speech about Orestes. Upon this, Orestes is overcome with emotion, fully convinced that the woman he was speaking to was truly his sister:

Alas, what shall I say? What words can serve me at this pass? I can restrain my lips no longer!

What hath troubled thee? Why didst thou say that?

Is this the form of the illustrious Electra that I behold?

It is; and very grievous is her plight.

Alas, then, for this miserable fortune!

This beautiful stychomythia extends for many more lines. Note that such a series of one-liners is something which is rarely utilized for two main characters in Aeschylus’ plays. At first Orestes is filled with pity after Electra recounts what has happened to her in the court in the meantime. Seeing this, she starts to suspect that the stranger is a kinsman of some sort, as “thou art the first who ever pitied me.” A moving scene of reunion occurs, as Orestes asks her to return the urn to him, but she resists, adamant that she wants to honor her brother by burying the ashes properly. By this, Electra goes beyond the demands of Orestes’ test of her loyalty; he has to physically take the urn himself from her before revealing who he is. Here we see the vivid and effective use of a stage prop to convey the emotion present in the scene, something never done in Aeschylus’ plays, which have no props. You could maintain that Sophocles’ invocation of pathos through the urn is excessive enough to border on the sentimental and saccharine, but you could also argue that the urn contains some deeper symbolism: of lamentation and pessimism, but also duty and ties of kinship. When Orestes reveals himself, there is no more need for Electra to preserve her ties to her brother through a material object; her “chief treasure” (as she herself puts it) is no longer a dead urn but the living brother himself. Thus the urn had to go before the reveal happens.

Other Observations

I’ve noticed that in the Greek plays we’ve read, all of the murders are conducted offstage. Is this perhaps to preserve some standard of decency at the time? In all cases, the victim is driven into a room or building to be murdered, with their cries being heard offstage. In The Libation Bearers this practice is followed zealously to the point that even after publicly ridding himself of any last hesitations to murder Clytemnestra, he drives her to a different room to do the deed instead of killing her on stage. In Sophocles’ Electra, the murder of Aegisthus doesn’t even occur in the play; it ends with him being driven into a room to be murdered after a long speech. Contrast this with Shakespeare plays, where a substantial number of murders are committed on stage, sometimes for shock effect. This points to the suggestion that Greek drama isn’t about physical action, but the progressing of plot through words, as eloquently expressed in dialogue, choral chant and song.

Likewise, In Euripedes’ Electra, the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes is done offstage then recounted in detail by Orestes to Electra afterwards (likewise with his murder of Aegisthus), which is sufficient to make her recoil with horror and regret her actions. In this case, we can guess that Greek playwrights must have liked the power of narrative (telling rather than showing, in contrary to most of the advice you’ll get from teachers of creative writing). This will also be seen in the next set of plays I’m reading (the Oedipus trilogy), where a lot of drama occurs due to elaborate and colorful retellings of past events. Clearly, while straight narrative can be more difficult for modern audiences to follow, it does give you a chance to get inside a character’s head, and add vivid details to scenes that would not have been very colorful if acted out explicitly (perhaps due to the unavailability of elaborate props and costumes). I’m reminded of the problems supposedly encountered when James’ The Portrait of a Lady was to be turned into film: the most memorable scenes were conducted entirely inside Isabel’s thoughts, making them inaccessible in a straight dramatic or cinematic retelling. Surprisingly then, what we see is the lack of extra-textual props and elements becomes an impetus for development of imaginative language, something which is almost entirely lacking in cinema today. Such is the power of Greek drama, inventing the art of language thousands of years before Shakespeare came about.

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