Cycles of Violence in Electra

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1277

Ordinarily, a hero is a righteous person who stands on the side of justice, fighting oppression. In many ways, Electra's personality, strong and determined, is admirable and heroic. Her desire to avenge the murder of Agamemnon, her father, regardless of the consequences, is commendable, but her situation is more complicated that of an ordinary hero. In the world of Electra, heroism depends on one's point of view. From Agamemnon's perspective, Electra would be heroic, but from Clytemnestra's point of view, her daughter may seem admirable but misguided. The fact that right and wrong change places depending on how the circumstances are considered is significant. It raises the possibility that an absolute standard of justice may elude us. Further, since this is a blood feud with a long history, the rights and wrongs almost fade into the fog of time.

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The play's moral high-ground shifts back and forth, as victims of crimes become criminals themselves—and visa versa. The play attempts to distinguish between what was done—the crime—and who was to blame—the criminal—and why they acted as they did. It explores differences between the fact of the crime and the personal guilt or innocence based on premeditation, intention, and free will, for which an individual can be liable. It raises questions not of Justice (is this a crime against the law?), but of Equity (yes, it's against the law but are there extenuating circumstances).

For example, two people steal money. One is a poor man who has never stolen anything before in his life; out of work, he needs money to buy medicine to save his dying daughter's life. The other man is a multi-millionaire who has been convicted of stealing half a dozen times now, who wanted the money because he wanted the money. Yes, they both stole. They're both guilty of breaking the law, but are their crimes the same—in other words, should they be punished identically? They are identical in regard to the letter of the law but in terms of equity—fairness, they differ. The poor man's crime seems understandable and justified—to some extent, at least—while the rich man's criminal act appears motivated solely by greed.

Part of the problem—in the previous example as in Electra—stems from a conflict between and among different types of law: divine law or the will of the gods; natural law, based on blood relationships; and human law, ordained by the state. In the world of the play, human law is the weakest of the three. Solutions to grievances depend more on an ethic of revenge rather than on justice. How else can a victim seek remedy for injustice? The answer lies in a society's stages of development.

In primitive society, loyalty to the family surpasses loyalty to the state and without a powerful state government to make and enforce law, vengeance remains necessary. Crime demands retribution and since the intermediary third party, the state, is weak and unable to impose a just settlement, the family seeks revenge. One of the things embedded in Electra's story, though, is an end to this cycle of revenge and the initiation of a modern, rational system of justice.

From Agamemnon's perspective, killing Iphigeneia was just. After all, the king of all gods, Zeus, ordered him to undertake the Trojan War and Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter in the service of that cause, obeying what he believes to be the will of the gods. Agamemnon's actions may violate natural law, a father killing his child, and human law but they seem in accordance with divine law as the Greeks understood it; this is the highest law and Agamemnon obeys.

Clytemnestra privileges natural law, the love of a mother for her child, over divine law, the need to sacrifice Iphigeneia to prosecute the war. Clytemnestra admits to violating human law in killing Agamemnon, but is...

(The entire section contains 3326 words.)

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