Sophocles’ Electra

Sophocles’ play Electra retells the basic story of the revenge of the children, Electra and Orestes, of the murdered Agamemnon, slain by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Unlike Aeschylus’ earlier and equivalent play, Libation Bearers, Sophocles’ version does not at all task itself with the questions about the morality of killing one’s mother. Instead, it is a simple revenge story that hides, as the introduction to the play by David Grene pointed out, a meditation on the character of Electra. Grene’s thesis is that Electra is driven by hatred to a place where she is barely human, and certainly without creative power. Electra herself recognizes this (“Evil is all around me, evil / is what I am compelled to practice,” she says, with other equivalent utternaces; she also notes her status without the love of a husband or children).

Electra the play seems more than this, though. To me, it seems a meditation on the inability of humans to know clearly, and specifically to know divine justice. Electra and her sister, as well as her mother, argue over whose “concept of justice” is correct. Both Clytemnestra and Electra plead the cause of Justice as justification for their murders. Clytemnestra argues that the sacrifice by Agamemnon of their daughter Iphigenia warranted his murder (“Justice it was that took him, not I alone”), while Electra argues that Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband Agamemnon requires her death. Electra seems unable to realize the irony of her argument to her mother: “If we shall kill one in another’s requital, / you would be the first to die, if you met with justice.” The equivalence of Electra and Clytemnestra is also indicated by their prayers to the same god, using the same epithet: both entrust their lives to Lycaean Apollo. Perhaps connected with this inability of humans to know the cause of justice is the presence of a very long lie by Paedogogus, the teacher of Orestes, who recounts the death of the latter, still alive. (The length of this lie in the context of the play is paralleled by the lie of Lichas in The Women of Trachis.) The lie persuades Clytemnestra to lower her guard, thus leading to her death at the hands of Orestes.

Other points of interest:

The roles of, and the disagreement between Electra and her sister recall those of Ismene and Antigone. The threatened punishment of Electra (spending the rest of her days in a cave, without light) recall Creon’s threat to starve Antigone to death in a rocky tomb.

In this play, unlike others that treated the same matter, the death of Aegisthus is not presented (it will certainly happen just after the play’s conclusion.) One effect of this decision is focus the attention of the audience not on the act of vengeance, but on the character of Electra who has longed for it.

Finally, it would be interesting to know a precise date for this play, which is not, in the end, datable. Was it after Euripides’ Electra play? Unfortunately, the notes and introductions in the edition I am using are woefully incomplete on such background questions. In the end, Euripides’ Electra is the more active character, actually murdering her mother, while Sophocles’ Electra is portrayed as a victim of her own strangling hatred. What will she do now that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are dead?