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.
Clytemnestra, emerging from the palace, accuses Electra of bringing sorrow upon herself by her insolence. Although the Chorus and Electra believe that Clytemnestra assassinated Agamemnon out of lust for Aegisthus, Clytemnestra claims that she killed him because, on his way to Troy, he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia. Electra retorts that Iphigenia was sacrificed because Agamemnon, mistakenly killing a stag of Artemis, was doomed with all his crew to be stranded, unable to proceed or retreat, unless he sacrificed the girl. Even if Agamemnon had a wrong motive for the sacrifice, she argues, Clytemnestra’s act remains unacceptable.
After Clytemnestra prays to Apollo for a peaceful life with loving children, the Paedagogus enters to report Orestes’ death. Clytemnestra claims that she does not know whether to respond with joy at the end of a potential threat or with sorrow at the loss of her child. Actually, however, she is relieved. Electra, on the other hand, is crushed by the report. She resolves to bring on her own death by wasting away at the gate.
Chrysothemis returns with news that Orestes is back. She found a lock of his hair at Agamemnon’s grave, along with other offerings. Believing their brother to be dead, however, Electra guesses that someone left the offerings as a tribute to the deceased Orestes. Chrysothemis accepts the explanation.
Electra, devoid of hope of getting help from the outside, resolves to kill Aegisthus herself. She invites Chrysothemis to lend a hand, the rewards being twofold: admiration from the dead, who will honor their piety, and freedom for Chrysothemis to marry someone worthy. Chrysothemis is fearful, however, and argues that justice is sometimes harmful to the just....
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Electra is undeterred, and the Chorus praises her.
When Orestes arrives, pretending that he is a Phocian, he hands Electra what he claims to be her brother’s ashes; she laments the death of the child she saved from being murdered. Orestes, moved to reveal himself, is loath to do so in front of the Chorus, which advises Electra to moderate her mourning. Assured that the Chorus is on Electra’s side, however, he identifies himself, cautioning the joyous Electra to restrain herself and focus on what they had to know and to do in order to succeed.
The Paedagogus reappears with the news that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are relieved by the thought that Orestes is dead. Orestes and Pylades enter the palace, and, after hearing vain cries for mercy from Clytemnestra, the Chorus and Electra hear the queen die. Orestes returns in a sober mood, hoping that Apollo’s prophecy and his fulfillment of it will have positive results.
Aegisthus arrives almost immediately, happily expecting more news about Orestes’ death. Electra leads him to believe that Orestes’ body is in the palace, and he orders the doors to be thrown open, so that any who still hope for Orestes’ return can see the proof of his demise. Confronted by Clytemnestra’s corpse, Aegisthus thinks that it is Orestes’, but he soon recognizes his plight. Orestes forces him to enter the palace where, like Clytemnestra, Aegisthus meets his end.