Sophocles, the most successful of the ancient Greek playwrights, garnered between eighteen and twenty-four victories in yearly competitions at the Festival of Dionysus. He wrote about 123 tragedies, of which seven are preserved. Three concern the family of Oedipus; one relates the story of Deianira and her husband, Heracles; and three are devoted to the Trojan War and its consequences. Electra, Sophocles’ only surviving play about the family of Agamemnon, preserves the basic story as Aeschylus revised it from Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) but alters the details yet again. The changes help the reader to understand Sophocles’ interpretation of the myth and the yield for humanity that he saw in it.
Homer carefully avoids the horror of matricide in his account of Orestes’ vengeance, recalling that Orestes murdered Aegisthus and properly buried both him and Clytemnestra. Though a number of alternative explanations for Clytemnestra’s death can be advanced, Aeschylus sees matricide implicit in the situation, and in the last two plays of the Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777), his trilogy about the family of Agamemnon, Orestes is plagued by Furies, or in the vernacular of later ages, “driven mad by guilt” for slaying his mother. He is acquitted when the goddess Athena’s utterly unjustified vote of not guilty breaks the deadlock of an evenly divided jury. Aeschylus is concerned with exploring matters of state: how personal anguish relates to one’s obligations to a slain king and father; how humanity progresses; and what is involved in moving from one system of justice to another, here from blood vengeance to trial by jury.
Sophocles is more interested in the ways in which experience, working with innate qualities, determines a human being’s character. The gods hardly figure in his play, and guilt is not the issue. Given their innate proclivities and experiences, his characters do what they think or feel they must do; the worst of them, Clytemnestra, sees and regrets in some measure the horrors she perpetrated, and the best, Electra, is goaded into encouraging and supporting horrors of equal magnitude.
Noble and idealistic Electra, obsessed by the loss of the father she loved and feeling repugnance for her mother that is tainted with jealousy, abandons all hope of marrying, loving a husband, and bearing children. Instead, she...
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