Write a note on Electra as a revenge tragedy?

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Karyth Cara | College Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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Revenge Tragedy

Revenge tragedy is defined as a genre in English Renaissance dramatic tradition that was inaugurated by Elizabethan playwright Thomas Kyd to initiate a revival of Greek tragic forms. Revenge tragedy was popular in the Renaissance (late 1400s to early 1600s) during the Elizabethan (1558-1603) and Jacobean (1603-1625) periods. The first Elizabethan revenge tragedy of the Greek and Roman tragedy revival was Spanish Tragedy, first performed in 1587, though Richard Edwards' Damon and Pythias, performed in 1564, is also given credit for being first to introduce Greek and Latin influenced tragedy to the English stage. Shakespeare is the playwright most noted for excellence in revenge tragedy, with Hamlet being the most lauded example of the English genre.

Basic elements shared by English Renaissance revenge tragedy are influenced by elements in Greek tragedy. As explained by Anne Pippin Burnett, professor at the University of California at Berkeley, in Revenge in Attic and Later Tragedy, one significantly different element from Greek tragedy that is found in revenge tragedy is the Christian doctrine of revenge as being solely the province of God: ""It is mine to avenge; I will repay," (Deuteronomy 32:35 and Hebrews 10:30). For the Greeks and later Romans, revenge, the punishment of evil for the commission of evil, was, according to Burnett, an integral part of the moral system and helped maintain order and justice: for Christians, revenge was a violation of moral and spiritual truth and duty [hence Hamlet's hesitation and delay]. This may be the reason madness was introduced as a character element: madness, whether feigned or real, it may have been reasoned, is the only thing that could compel a Christian to contemplate the act of vengeance, clearly prohibited by God and clearly only within God's power. Some, like Burnett, attribute the English revival of revenge tragedy to Greek tragedies while others, such as the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, attribute the revival to later Roman playwright Seneca, such as Phaedra, Agamemnon and Thyestes. Characteristics found in English Elizabethan and later Jacobean revenge tragedy that are borrowed from Classical tragedy are:

  • real or imagined injury
  • demand for justice
  • disguises
  • ghosts
  • ceremonies
  • central female characters, e.g., Ophelia
  • madness
  • kin-killing, e.g., as in Hamlet
  • dismemberment e.g., as in King Lear
  • degeneration of the tragic hero, e.g., Hamlet, who kills those not intended to be killed
  • play within a play
  • revenge must be successfully delivered (even when the injury is only imaginary as in King Lear against Cordelia)

Electra

The play Electra is a Greek tragedy about the heroism of Electra as she battles to take revenge against their father's death. Electra was the daughter of the king and queen of Mycenae, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Her brother was Orestes. In keeping with the elements of Classical Greek tragedy, Clytemnestra slays Agamemnon, when he returns from the Trojan Wars, with the help of her lover, Aegisthus. Electra manages to save Orestes from the murderous hand of Aegisthus, extended toward her brother as well. The Delphic oracle orders Orestes to leave his sanctuary of safety, return with Electra to Mycenae, and, with her support, take revenge for their father's death. Electra has been immortalized in dramas by many writers, most prominently by Greek tragedians Aeschylus (525-456 BCE), Sophocles (495-406 BCE) and Euripides (480-406 BCE). Though Electra is a tragedy of revenge, it is not a "revenge tragedy" because "revenge tragedy" is an English Renaissance form of drama while Electra is a Classical Greek tragedy, a form of drama that "revenge tragedy" sought to revive though with Christian overtones of torment over the moral and spiritual degradation of revenge.

Analyzing Electra as a Tragedy

While Electra cannot rightly be analyzed as a "revenge tragedy," since this is a Renaissance form of tragedy, it can be analyzed for elements that influenced the (much) later development of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy so well epitomized by Shakespeare's tragedies. Elements in the revenge of Electra that might have influenced later "revenge tragedy" are:

  • kin-killing: this is applicable to Clytemnestra's murder of Agememnon and to Orestes' murder of Clytemnestra
  • vengeance must be served against the agents of wrongdoing, in this case Clytemnestra and Aegisthus
  • a play-within-a-play when Orestes makes a charade of delivering his own cremated ashes to Electra (as a jest of sorts) when she does not recognize him nor he her, leading to her moving lament
  • disguise when Clytemnestra's corpse is presented as Orestes' corpse
  • demand for justice when Electra dreams of vengeance and Orestes is order by the oracle at Delphi to seek revenge
  • the central female character acts as an agent in forwarding the vengeance [Ophelia in Hamlet serves this function with a painful reversal of the role since her death adds to Hamlet's agony and impetus or impasse]
  • Euripides' version of Electra shows degeneration of the central heroic characters, Electra and Orestes, since they feel overwhelming guilt over their murder of Clytemnestra (they are saved when Clytemnestra's deified brothers tell them how to atone though assuring them that her death was a just one)
  • there is no madness
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