Electra is a compelling example of Euripides’ dramaturgy. At the same time, it affords a means of comparing his purpose and techniques with those of Aeschylus and Sophocles, for all of them used the same legend and presented roughly the same action. Aeschylus in Chophoroi (The Libation Bearers, 1777), part of the Oresteia trilogy (458 b.c.e.); Sophocles in Electra (418-410 b.c.e.); and Euripides in his Electra all treat Orestes’ return to Argos, his presenting himself to his sister Electra, their planning of the revenge against Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, and the execution of that revenge. The different treatments are, however, quite individual and show the distinctions among these three tragedians.
With Aeschylus, the twin murders of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra are the culminating crimes in a family polluted by generations of kin slayings. Regicide and matricide are evils instigated by Apollo to punish and purge the earlier murder of Agamemnon. Orestes alone takes on the burden of these crimes. Electra, a minor character, offers him encouragement to the deeds, but her nature shrinks from being an actual accomplice. Aeschylus shows Orestes’ revenge as an act of divine justice, a crime that will in time earn an acquittal. Sophocles takes a different view of the matter. The regicide and matricide are justifiable for him in human terms as the proper retribution for Agamemnon’s killing. Electra is portrayed as a hard, bitter, determined young woman who aids her brother as a rightful duty. This perspective is similar to that in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.).
Euripides calls both points of view into question. He sees the murders of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra as wholly unmitigated evils that are neither humanly nor divinely justifiable. Euripides says in effect that no killing is permissible for any reason. He carries this logic to its logical conclusion—that killers have as much right to live as anyone else no matter how twisted their psyche or how questionable their motives. This is a radical stand, but it is based on Euripides’ firm conviction of the value of every human life, a belief that...
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