Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038

Since the time of their first production in the fifth century B.C., scholars and critics have contended that the tragedies of Sophocles represent Greek drama in its purest and most highly attained form. Aristotle used elements of Sophoclean tragedy as the main concepts of his general theory of drama in the Poetics . According to Aristotle, a tragedy is most successful when the moments of recognition (what he termed anagnorisis) and reversal (peripeteia) occur at the same time. Aristotle claims that a tragedy is not merely the imitation of an individual but of a life. By this he means that an individual's actions are more important to the development of the play than the particulars of his or her character.

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Aristotle criticizes plays which include lengthy speeches solely for the purpose of expressing character and praises those works which sacrifice such elements in favor of a meaningful and well-structured plot. Sophocles is considered a master at characterization, particularly in Electra, providing just enough necessary information about each character through succinct and direct lines.

The twentieth century writer Edith Hamilton praised Sophocles's characterization, particularly in comparison to his contemporary (and teacher) Aeschylus. In her widely read book The Greek Way, Hamilton claimed that Sophocles surpasses Aeschylus in technical ability, though he falls short in sheer dramatic power. According to Hamilton, when Sophocles wrote a play, it would be done as well as it possibly could be in terms of craftsmanship. In Electra, there are no words wasted, no time spent on details which detract from the main thrust of the plot.

Hamilton noted that in this play, Electra's character is conveyed in the terse, compact dialogue exchanged between she and Chrysothemis. The depth of Electra's suffering, expressed in the lament sung between Electra and the chorus, is brought into relief when contrasted with Chrysothemis's compliance and acceptance of her miserable situation. Electra is clearly the stronger and more noble character, striving to avenge their father's murder and not accepting the tyranny of their mother silently. As Hamilton claimed, Sophocles is able to convey the essential elements of his characters and draw the audience into their stories through intense, compressed dialogue which is charged with meaning.

In terms of dramatic power, Hamilton believed that Sophocles does not achieve the emotional heights of which Aeschylus was capable. For example, she wrote that Sophocles passed over the murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes, in order to get to the real climax of the play, the killing of Aegisthos. In her opinion, Sophocles missed a moment of great dramatic opportunity. After Orestes kills Clytemnestra, Electra and her brother discuss the deed only briefly before Aegisthos enters and they prepare to kill him as well.

Hamilton concluded that Sophocles made the matricide into punishment for Clytemnestra's own crime, which would have been accepted by the audience and would not have moved them into the higher feelings of pity and awe. She argued that the high passion which could have been invoked by the matricide was beyond the reach of Sophocles's talents and that he knew he could not adequately convey such passion. Therefore, she concluded, he did not attempt to write what he could not do perfectly.

Virginia Woolf wrote a brief essay entitled "On Sophocles' Electra" in 1925 (published in Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays), in which she commented on the way Electra is presented as a tightly bound character, unable to move or act on her own. Woolf claimed that Electra's cries, even in moments of crisis, are bare and consist of mere expressions of emotion. However, these cries are crucial and shape the movement of the play. Woolf even compared Sophocles's use of dialogue to that of the British novelist Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), claiming that Austen's female characters, like Electra, are bound and constrained by their social roles yet are able to express much through simple phrases. Though their words may be direct and simple, these women are able to shape the outcome of the drama at hand, even when they themselves are not the most active characters in the story.

Another twentieth century critic writing in the same critical collection on Sophocles (Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays), Thomas Woodward, also discussed how Sophocles's Electra progresses while seemingly bypassing the heroine altogether. Like Woolf, Woodward noted that Electra stands in the midst of a drama which involves the men in the story; she lives in a world of suffering while the men are able to act in a more noble realm. Yet, Electra finds her place in the larger sphere outside of her own feelings, and, according to Woodward, her strength and passion overpower the men's plot; she fully deserves to have the play centered around her.

Though she does not perform the climactic murders herself, Electra is a truly heroic character by virtue of her depths of emotion and her righteous motivation for revenge. Indeed, Sophocles emphasizes her importance by giving her one of the longest speaking parts in Greek tragedy and by having her remain on the stage for nine-tenths of the play. Through all of this, however, the audience is made aware of Electra's isolation as a woman confined to a life inside the palace walls. While Orestes and the other men are able to act on their plans, Electra can only lament. Yet it is perhaps her lamentations which cause the gods to send Orestes back—and so she is able to provoke action, even if she is restricted from acting herself.

Woodward and other modern critics have also asserted the importance of props as dramatic devices in Sophocles's work. In Electra, the urn which Orestes carries when he enters the "recognition" scene dominates the stage. It is the focus of the scene: Electra addresses it in a lament while holding it in her arms, almost as if it were a living actor. It is, in fact, a surrogate for Orestes, until he reveals himself to her. Because of how Electra acts towards the urn, Orestes ceases to conceal his true identity from her. The urn therefore is critical to the tragedy—once Orestes reveals himself to Electra, she is released from her sorrows and the play quickly draws to its bloody conclusion.

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