Study Guide

Electra

by Sophocles

Electra Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The story of Electra was treated by the three major classical tragedians, each in his own characteristic way. For Aeschylus, the story of Electra in the Chophoroi (458 b.c.e.; Libation Bearers, 1777) is but a single episode in the sweeping history of a family; it is the second play of the Oresteia, a connected trilogy that presents the story of Electra’s household from the return of her father, Agamemnon, to the acquittal of her brother, Orestes. For Euripides, the Electra was a psychological profile of a woman who had endured outrage and humiliation for nearly a decade; Euripides openly criticized Aeschylus’s treatment of this story and changed many details of the plot. For Sophocles, Electra became the embodiment of heroic defiance, a return to many of the themes earlier explored in the Antigone.

Indeed, there are many ways in which Sophocles’ version of Electra bears a closer resemblance to his Antigone than to the treatments of Electra by the other two playwrights. First, Sophocles contrasts both Electra and Antigone with a sister (Chrysothemis and Ismene, respectively) who is willing to compromise in order to live in peace. Both Electra and Antigone, in Sophocles’ version of their stories, devote themselves to a cause to such an extent that they forego husband and children; Aeschylus’s Electra has at least the serving women for comfort, and...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Electra Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

When Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murder King Agamemnon, Electra has her brother, Orestes, spirited away by the Paedagogus, a loyal servant charged with caring for the boy. When Orestes becomes a man, he, the Paedagogus, and Orestes’ friend Pylades return to avenge the murder. Urged on by Electra, Orestes is counseled by Apollo to gain vengeance stealthily. Wishing to take the culprits off guard, Orestes pretends that he and his companions are strangers, that Orestes was killed in a chariot accident, and that they come to return the princely ashes to his mother.

Even as Orestes explains his plan to the Paedagogus, intending also to lay an offering at Agamemnon’s grave, Electra, wailing, emerges from the palace. The three men leave, and Electra bemoans her lost youth, spent in mourning for her slain father. Oppressed with sorrow, she remains unbedded (a-lectra), a virgin obsessed with vengeance against her adulterous mother and Aegisthus. The Chorus’s advice about reasonable limits to mourning and expressions of rage do not sway her from her course. She saw Aegisthus kill her father at his hearth, and she is anguished to see the murderer ruling her father’s kingdom, wearing her father’s clothes, and sleeping with her father’s wife. Electra is now beyond childbearing, beyond marrying, and her life seems incapable of gaining meaning except through avenging the murder.

Electra’s sister, Chrysothemis, arrives bearing burial offerings that Clytemnestra, troubled by dreams, orders her to take to Agamemnon’s grave. Chrysothemis, though outraged, hopes to live comfortably, and she advises Electra to control herself; otherwise, Electra will be imprisoned, and she will have to live out her life alone. The prospect does not frighten Electra, who relishes the thought that Clytemnestra dreamed that Agamemnon returned, planted his scepter at his hearth, and produced foliage that covered all Mycenae. With the Chorus’s approval, she urges Chrysothemis to offer locks of her own hair and Electra’s hair and belt rather than what their corrupt mother sent....

(The entire section is 850 words.)

Electra Summary

The play opens at dawn in Mycenae, where Paidagogos and Orestes stand before the palace of the slain Agamemnon, discussing how best to...

(The entire section is 538 words.)