> Other Versions of the Electra Myth in Greek Literature
Later epic and lyric versions (no longer extant except in fragments) including an Oresteia by the 6th century lyric poet Steischorus
Aeschylus’ Oresteia, 458 BCE, including:
Agamemnon (Agamemnon’s murder)
Libation Bearers (Orestes’ and Electra’s revenge)
Eumenides (the aftermath of that revenge)
Sophocles’ Electra, date uncertain but several decades after Aeschylus’ trilogy: (Orestes’ and Electra’s revenge)
Euripides’ Electra, date uncertain but several decades after Aeschylus’ trilogy: (Orestes’ and Electra’s revenge)
Euripides’ Orestes, probably 408 BCE: (the aftermath of the revenge)
(Euripides Iphigenia Among the Taurians, of uncertain date, includes a brief account of the aftermath of the revenge as part of its background)
It’s impossible to be certain which of the two Electra plays (Sophocles’ and Euripides’) came first, so we can’t speak with confidence of one of them as responding to the other. But it is clear that both of the later tragedians are in some sense in dialogue with Aeschylus’ Oresteia, a monumental work with which later tragedians would have expected their audiences to have some familiarity; Sophocles Electra follows the plot of Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers very closely, with a number of striking departures and reversals.
In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the victorious leader returns from Troy and is murdered, together with his Trojan concubine Cassandra, by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The play envisions this story as part of a set of continuing and interwoven stories that overdetermine the death of the central character. In his death, Agamemnon pays the price for his father’s murder of his brother Thyestes’ children (with Aegisthus as sole survivor); for his own sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to gain a favorable wind for Troy and for the Greeks’ sacrilegious behavior at the sack of Troy. He is also the victim not only of Clytemnestra’s anger over her daughters death but of her love for Aegisthus, her jealousy of Cassandra, and her thirst for power.
In the middle play of the trilogy, Agamemnon’s son Orestes returns from exile, accompanied by his friend Pylades. Praying at his father’s tomb, he sees a group of women, carrying libations to the dead, and recognizes his sister Electra. She in turn, matching the lock of hair he has offered with her own, and setting her foot in his matching footprint, anticipates her brother’s return. He reveals himself to her and tells her that Apollo’s oracle has ordered him (with threats of hideous punishment) to avenge his father, command that suits his own inclinations as well; together they lament their father and exhort him to help them take vengeance. Electra reports that her mother has had a dream in which she gave birth to a serpent that bit her when she nursed it; Orestes, identifying himself as the serpent, declares his intention of killing the murderers by treachery, just as they killed Agamemnon.
In what follows, Orestes and Pylades go to the door of the house pretending to be strangers from Phocis, reporting Orestes’ death. Clytemnestra is deceived, welcomes Orestes into the house, and sends Orestes’ old nurse to fetch Aegisthus. He enters the house, unarmed, and we hear his scream from inside (just as we heard Agamemnon’s screams in the first play of the trilogy). A messenger reports to Clytemnestra in riddling words that “the dead are killing the living”; understanding this message, she calls for an axe, but Orestes and Pylades confront her with drawn swords. She appeals to Orestes as his mother; he hesitates and turns to Pylades, who speaks, just this once in the play, to remind Orestes of Apollo’s oracle. He takes her into the house to kill her; the chorus of women wait outside.
When Orestes emerges, he speaks over the dead bodies of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus as Clytemnestra stood over the bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra, and speaks of the justice and fitness of his vengeance. But even as he does so his words suggest first a sense of the complexity of what he has done in killing his mother and then the growing trouble in his mind. He appeals once again to Apollo’s command as a justification, but even as the chorus tried to reassure him he catches the first glimpse of the Erinyes or Furies, bent on pursuing him for the matricide. [Aegisthus’ death is unproblematic, and not their concern.] We cannot see them, and neither can the chorus, but Orestes describes their hideous appearance and takes flight as the chorus concludes the play with a question: where will the linked deaths of this house ever come to an end?
As this play opens, we find Orestes as a suppliant at Delphi, Apollo’s oracle, surrounded by the Erinyes, who constitute the chorus of the play. On Apollo’s advice, Orestes flees to Athens, pursued by these vengeful divinities, and under Athena’s auspices a trial is held, with the Erinyes prosecuting and Apollo speaking for the defense. In the end, Orestes is acquitted, but it is made clear that the jury was evenly divided and that Orestes wins only by a ruling that a tied vote goes to the defendant; furthermore, much of what the Erinyes have had to say about their role in cultivating a proper respect for law and in defending the helpless finds an echo in the words of Athena. After the trial, the Erinyes threaten to vent their anger on Athens, but Athena (with the help of a thinly veiled threat and some persuasive rhetoric) urges them to accept a home and cult as beneficent divinities in Athens. They agree, and the play ends with a procession.
As you watch the Electra, consider the following changes and think about their effect.
- Electra’s role is considerably more central, and her character more complex than in Aeschylus’ play.
- Pylades is not a character in the play; instead, we have an old servant.
- Sophocles has added another sister, Chrysothemis; it is she who sees the lock of hair, and at a somewhat different point in the story.
- Electra is not in on Orestes’ plan to fake his own death, but is deceived by it herself. The death is narrated in great detail.
- Apollo’s oracular command is differently described.
- Clytemnestra has a different dream.
- Clytemnestra is killed first, Aegisthus second.
- The Erinyes do not appear at the end, and Orestes’ final declaration of justice seems to go unchallenged; the chorus conclude with words of freedom and fulfillment. Are there any hints in the play of an aftermath like that in the Oresteia? If so, to what effect? If not, to what effect?
- If we suppose the audience to have been familiar with Aeschylus’ Oresteia and its version of the story, what effect would this knowledge have on their understanding of Sophocles’ play and particularly if its ending?
For further, and wilder, retellings of this story, see the three Euripidean versions. A taste: in his Electra, the first character to appear on stage is a poor farmer to whom Electra is married; Electra makes fun of the very recognition tokens (the hair, the footprints…) in which Aeschylus’ character rejoiced; and the conclusion predicts the Aeschylean resolution while robbing it of its effect. In Iphigenia Among the Taurians, we learn that half the Erinyes refused to accept Athena’s ruling and continued to pursue Orestes. In Orestes, Orestes and his sister are condemned to death after a purely human trial, and seek to take matters into their own hands. All sorts of characters loosely associated with the story (Menelaus, Helen, their daughter Hermione, Clytemnestra’s father Tyndareus) make an appearance, and by the end of the play the plot has gone so far off the traditional track that Apollo (much criticized in what preceded) must appear to sort things out.