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Electra is arguably Sophocles best-illustrated character drama. The author uses the main protagonist, Electra, to revisit the themes of justice and revenge in a world full of corruption, lawlessness, chaos, deceit and meaningless murder of people. Though the story features other main characters, Sophocles specifically places Electra in the full focus of his version of the play, where he uses her to evoke different themes meant to provoke the minds of its audience. The most prevalent themes he dwells on includes justice and judgment, revenge, family, duty, ethics and morals, and betrayal among others.
In his version of the play, Sophocles presents Electra successfully plotting and supervising the revenge of her father’s death (Segal 251). Some critics have argued that Sophocles intended to promote the theme of revenge as he seemed bent to her side and gave her mission such a wide coverage than any other character. However, on closer analysis, the author is innocent, and he is cleverly resenting his ideas to his audience, and requiring them to do their own synthesis. Thus, this paper will seek to prove that Sophocles was not advocating for vengeance of Agamemnon and neither does he advocate for the raw justice through torture and cold murders as some allege. The text will further work to prove that the author took a neutral stand all along, and left the audience to generate their own judgments of the then ancient Greek society.
How it works
The play is set up in the ancient Greece, I a town of Mycenae. The neighborhood is ruled by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, the two having risen to power after plotting the murder of King Agamemnon. Clytemnestra was the wife of the former king who conspired with her current lover to kill her husband due to the bitterness that grew to her regarding Agamemnon since he went to the Trojan War. After the murder of her father after return from war, Electra realizes her young brother’s life was at risk since he had a claim to the throne, smuggling him to the town of Phocis where she hoped he would grow and return to avenge his father (Finglass 17).
The play starts exactly two decades after the cold murder of Agamemnon, and Oreste is a grown-up man, who has returned to Mycenae to have his revenge. With him, he brings his childhood friend Pylades and the loyal old slave who smuggled him to safety. The three have devised an illustrious plan on how they will execute their motive. The own man is to head straight into the royal palace and pretends to be a messenger who brought the sad news of the untimely demise of Oreste, with the intention of making queen Clytemnestra and his illicit lover drop their guard since their arch rival to the throne, and a threat to their lives was dead. In the meantime, Oreste and his colleague head to the royal graveyard still in disguise to pay their last respects to their father.
Upon receiving the tragic news of the death of Oreste, the Queen grieves, the grief of a mother who has failed in her quest to guide her offspring. However, she recovers fast, realizing her greatest enemy was no more. She ushers in the old messenger into the palatial hall for the celebration of the news. On the other side Electra, who chose to remain behind in Mycenae after saving his brother, is brought into the limelight. She is shown being mistreated and harassed by the royal couple for she refused to recognize their authority after they murdered her father. For this reason, she is in a sort of house arrest, enjoy minimal interactions and pleasures of the outside world.
Every day she mourns her father, and in her grief, she wishes her younger brother would come and avenge their father. The buildup of the hatred and desire for vengeance makes her being always on in heated arguments with her mother, who tries to justify her reason for murdering her husband (Ringer 131). Her main reason being the decision by Agamemnon to sacrifice her daughter Iphigenia to the gods during the Trojan War. Electra hears none of it. On the other hand, her sister Chrysothemis warms up to the authority of her mother, leading to a perpetual rivalry between the two sisters. Upon receiving the sad news of the death of Oreste, the fake news shakes Electra to the core she mourns bitterly.
Her only hopes of bringing justice to the two murderers are dashed and settle to take actions herself. As she prepares to sharpen her sword amidst tears, Oreste and Pylades appear, but she doesn’t even pay attention. There was much rejoicing when Oreste sheds his disguise after identifying his sister, and the two quickly resolves to carry out their motive which they had all along. Oreste enters the palace, and an awful scream of his mother is heard, he had already taken revenge against his own mother. Just as he steps out of the palace with the body of his mother in a bag, Aegisthus comes along still celebrating the news of the death of their rival Oreste. It takes a little moment for his fate to be sealed too, bringing the play to an end.
One of the reasons many critics have suggested that Sophocles was advocating for justice through revenge is the way he focuses almost his entire play on Electra. The author makes this lady his play’s epicenter, dwelling mostly on her prayers and desires to avenge her father. All along, the life of Electra has been presented in a way to intentionally meant to make the viewers and readers pity her unfortunate state. Her father is murdered in cold blood, her brother’s life is threatened by her own mother, she is mistreated and despised for almost two decades for not warming up to the authority of the new king and queen, she is distanced from her sister who decides to join her enemies, and she lastly mourns the sad fake news alleging her brother to be dead.
The audience will be forgiven for concluding that the author sought mercy for Electra by laying out all her motives, beliefs and moral principles (Woodard 169). A clear emphasis is laid out for the need to have justice done to those who were against Electra in the first stages of the play, though the writer does not dwell much on the concept of revenge. Everyone going through the drama will feel that there was a general feeling of wanting or wishing the queen and her lover character to be visited justice someday.
However, on closer analysis, one will notice that some of Electra’s sufferings and pain are of her own making. For all those years, she has held on grief and pain day by day, developing a twisted urge for self-torture. In one of the chorus there is a warning directed to her, that if she maintains the kind of hatred she kept in her heart, it will burn her soul. Sophocles writes the following “Electra: yet suffer me, dear women! Mighty force compels me. Who that had a noble heart and saw her father’s cause, as I have done, By day and night more outraged, could refrain?(483-484)” indeed there are several other instances where she becomes too irrational and emotional due to her overindulgence on the self-imposed hatred.
This revelation is enough evidence that Sophocles was not only biased in projecting Electra in a positive light, but also gave hints that such a path she was taking was destined to her own destruction. She is too consumed with her rage and hatred that she leaves no room for logical reasoning, for instance when her mother tries to justify her deeds, she pays her no attention (Segal 253). Her mother cites her husband’s murder of her daughter as the turning point to her morals that she started plotting his downfall, which in some way are quite reasonable to justify partly why she took his life.
Another reason why Sophocles is unfairly targeted by critics is the reason that he downplays the matricide that takes place at the end of the play. Unlike the other versions of Electra, Sophocles surprisingly omits any guilt or sense of wrongdoing after Oreste and his sister murder their mother in cold blood. As a matter of fact, a sense of satisfaction and pleasure can be noted from the two perpetrators, who are relieved that at last, they avenged their father. The other versions of the same mythical story show Oreste attacked by the furies, spirits of the dead that punish people who commit murder. However, Sophocles deliberately ignores to pronounce such kind of justice upon Electra and Oreste, further fueling the notion that the author was advocating for the type of justice the two desired, that of murdering their mother and her lover.
However, it should not be forgotten how the character of Clytemnestra has developed all along. Sophocles portrayed her as a very rude and outrageously cruel (Ringer 136). For instance, after she and her lover planned the heinous plot to slaughter her husband on his first day after returning from war, she went ahead to slaughter the innocent concubine Agamemnon had taken after he had destroyed Troy. The alleged concubine was the daughter of the king of Troy. Thus she had no other choice rather than follow the orders of the man who conquered her city and enslaved her many, as was the tradition back then.
Thus, the innocent lady deserved not to die in such a manner, as a woman, Clytemnestra ought to have set her free, back to her land of birth. The queen later organized a grand festival to celebrate her revenge from her husband. To prove that she was really akin to the devils incarnate, she wasted no time and effort subjecting her own daughter to torment and unfathomable pain (Segal 250). Electra sends her whole life grieving the acts of her mother to kill her father, and the mother results in punishing her for that, instead of making amends. Further, the queen is not moved by the sad news of her son’s demise, as a matter of fact, she is relieved that he is gone. To her, it was a good riddance that her greatest nemesis was no more. She doesn’t even show the remorse of a mother losing a son, and just immediately decides to celebrate.
From all this evidence, it is as if the author is inviting the audience and preparing them to the murder of Clytemnestra due to her said evil deeds, thus trying to balance or justify lack of punishment to Electra and her brother. On the same light, we understand that it is Electra who is more interested in the murder of the royal couple as a means to justice, while Oreste is only portrayed as a vessel to achieve this endeavor (Woodard 172). It is even more clear when the young man ends the lives of the elderly couple he does not seem to derive happiness or satisfaction from the act, indicating he was not very proud of what he did.
He even never cites the cold murder of his father as the driving force for his actions, still evidence enough to prove that the author was not hell-bent on trying to justify his course of justice, but presents his case as genuinely as he could to the audience to draw their own conclusions. Debates are however still rife with the writers motive of introducing reasons which led Clytemnestra to kill her husband- him being unfaithful and sacrificing their daughter Iphigenia. Clytemnestra: Come, let me question thee! On whose behalf Slew he my child? Was’t for the Argive host? (534-5).
The husband did it from the pressure from those other chieftains to appease the gods, even though he was totally against it. This is a clever ploy by the author to shift the burden of decision making to his audience since it makes it very hard to pick sides on who is right or wrong. It also suggests one thing that the people of Mycenae needed, a better system of justice and judgment since some issues arising would not be solved by the murder of the perpetrator and term the act as a justice.
It is quite clear that Sophocles Electra version is quite different from the other mythical narrations. A lot of attention is paid to the character Electra, from whom evolves a cascade of themes touching on the society around her. A society built on treachery and total disregard of the law. A society with no value to life and all the institutions guarding it. A certain school of thought has shared the thought that the author of this version was advocating revenge, which seems to be the climax of his narration, with no repercussions at all. However, a keen look at the fine details reveals otherwise, that the author was far much neutral and tried to balance some of the events while leaving others to provoke the mind of the reader. From there, the reader has to pick sides, on what he or she thinks is right or wrong.
Sophocles, E. A., and Sophocles. Ajax. Macmillan, 1963.
Woodard, Thomas M. “Electra by Sophocles: the dialectical Design.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 68 (1964): 163-205.
Segal, Charles Paul. “The Electra of Sophocles.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association. Vol. 97. Johns Hopkins University Press, American Philological Association, 1966.
Ringer, Mark. Electra and the empty urn: metatheater and role-playing in Sophocles. Univ of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Finglass, Patrick J., ed. Sophocles: Electra. Vol. 44. Cambridge University Press, 2007.`
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