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 shines through the whole of Electra and makes the idea of just retribution a mockery. Euripides gives the impression that he would have liked to abolish all courts and prisons, turning justice into a matter of individual conscience. What is interesting is the way he works out these ideas dramatically.
Whereas Aeschylus and Sophocles concentrate on royalty and heroes, Euripides does not hesitate to depict an honorable peasant or to show ignoble blue bloods. In fact, the entire action of Electra takes place in front of a peasant’s hut. To Euripides, each life has worth, and the index to that worth is strength of character. Position, wealth, power, beauty, and physique are nothing to him. Rather, he is chiefly interested in accurate, realistic psychology.
Each of the main characters is shown as a clearly defined personality in relation to a specific environment. Euripides tends to concentrate on the sordid aspects in Electra as the legend would seem to demand, yet it is here that his faith in human dignity reveals its power. It is easy to love good people, but to love people as warped by circumstances as Electra, Orestes, or Clytemnestra requires moral courage. Euripides possessed that courage, and he portrays their pain as though it were his own.
Electra has fallen from lavish prosperity to squalor and a forced, loveless marriage to a peasant, although that peasant is a compassionate man. She is slovenly and full of self-pity and spite. She envies her mother, Clytemnestra, who lives in luxury and power, and...
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she hates Aegisthus. Her single passion is to kill them both, and when she discovers Orestes, she uses him to obtain revenge. Orestes himself is a neurotic vagabond of no status but with authorization from Apollo to kill his mother and her lover, and he declaims pompously about nobility of character. Clytemnestra seems like a housewife in queen’s clothing, operating by a retaliatory logic. She takes a lover because her husband has a mistress, and she kills Agamemnon because he killed their daughter Iphigenia. None of this, however, has made her happy, and when she visits Electra out of motherly concern, she is hacked to death by her two children. Even Aegisthus appears to have decent aspects to him. It is precisely the ordinariness of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus that makes the realistic descriptions of their murders so sickening. Euripides convinces his readers and audiences that they deserve to live.
Once their passion for revenge is spent, Orestes and Electra are filled with self-revulsion and feel utterly degraded. Euripides brings two gods on stage, Castor and Polydeuces, to settle the matter, a deus ex machina ending that places the action in a new light. Apollo is directly responsible for the murders, just as Zeus is responsible for the Trojan War. These are not wise or just gods by human standards, and Euripides shows those human standards to have infinitely more worth than the abominable edicts of the gods. Euripides is supremely confident in his position, and he does not shrink from judging gods by it.
Consistent with his faith in humanity’s value, he allows Orestes and Electra a good measure of compassion in the end. They are both exiled, and Orestes will be driven mad by the Furies, which only he can see. Nevertheless, they, too, deserve to live, Euripides declares, and in time they, too, will win forgiveness. Rarely has the belief in human dignity had such a steadfast champion as Euripides.