Cycles of Violence in Electra

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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.

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...

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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 pleased that Iphigeneia's sacrifice (what she sees as Agamemnon's greater crime) mitigates her guilt. As she tells Electra: "I killed him.... Because that man who you still cry for / Was the one Greek who could bear to sacrifice / Your sister," Iphigeneia.

Electra strikes an uneasy balance between natural and divine law. She appeals to natural law in condemning her mother, saying, "You issue yourself remorse and punishment. / For if a killer merits death / You must die next, to satisfy that justice." Electra's position is not pure, however, for she ignores the claims of natural law that called for Iphigeneia's revenge, which Clytemnestra has satisfied in killing her husband. On this point, Electra appeals to divine law, asking what else Agamemnon could do, under orders from the gods to fight the war and believing his daughter's sacrifice was the only way to free his fleet.

Complicating the debate between them is Clytemnestra's marriage with Agamemnon's murderer, Aegisthos. Electra calls her mother's appeal to natural law an "ugly pretext.... To join with a mortal enemy in marriage."

Orestes's position is unique, as he finds himself punished by one divine entity, the Furies, for obeying another divine entity, Apollo. By revenging his father and killing his mother at the insistence of the gods, he obeys divine law and violates natural law. After all, Orestes should by nature have been the avenger of his mother's death, except for the fact that he is her murderer. Finding himself persecuted by the Furies, Orestes too feels it is wrong for him to be punished for doing what the gods ordered.

Chrysothemis is a militant centrist, trying to hold a middle ground. She recognizes that Clytemnestra's actions are evil and that Agamemnon should be revenged. She also realizes that she has no real power and is ready to accept necessity. She echoes the position recommended by the Chorus, who see and proclaim against evil but advocate stoic acceptance of life's tribulations. As Chrysothemis says, "be reasonable.... Helpless as you are, yield to the strong."

In Electra, there are a series of wrongs present: Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia; Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon; Orestes (aided/ supported by Electra) kills Clytemnestra. All are wrong yet all have reasons which justify their actions—and in that sense, all are justly motivated. We might ask: is Orestes his mother's murderer or executioner? Is he murdering her or serving justice to her for killing Agamemnon? She might reply that she did not kill Agamemnon but "executed" him for his role in the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigeneia. To which Agamemnon might reply, it was the gods who prevented the fleet from moving unless Iphigeneia was sacrificed—is not her death the fault of the gods?

Remaining within the narrative history of a single play in this family drama, it is impossible to escape this cycle of accusation and recrimination. The myth—and the drama—continues in Aeschylus's Eumenides, where it can be seen to tell the origin of Attic democracy. After killing Clytemnestra, Orestes flees, pursued by the avenging Furies. He finds solace only in the temple of Athena, who appreciates his predicament. She decides his case cannot be adjudicated by the gods alone and so sets it before a human jury in the Court of Areopagus.

Critics see this symbolizing the birth of the Greek rule of law, a movement from an ethic of revenge to a system of justice and equity (a system that supports and informs modern justice). Based on reason, the decision of human jurors ends this cycle of blood feuding. The story of Electra's family concludes with the classical endorsement of reason's role in moderating passion.

Source: Arnold Schmidt, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Schmidt received his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, where he specialized in literature and drama.


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Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, arrives back in Argos from exile to avenge the murder of his father by his mother. A plot is hatched which leads to the death of Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, but the play centres on the character of Electra, Orestes's sister, and her sufferings at the hands of Clytemnestra.

The Electra plays of Sophocles and Euripides share plot and main characters, if not title, with Libation-Bearers, the middle play of Aeschylus's Oresteia. The relationship between the two Electra plays is a subject of constant debate, as no firm date can be assigned to either. The approach is so different that a case can be made for either Electra having been written as a riposte to the other. What is not in doubt is that at the time of writing his Electra Sophocles and Euripides each knew Aeschylus's Libation Bearers and could be confident that their audience did too.

Sophocles declares his independence from any previous version in the opening scene with the arrival back in Argos of Orestes and Pylades with Orestes's Servant or Tutor, a new character in the story, who is to play a major role in carrying out Orestes's revenge on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. When Orestes has announced his intentions, the Tutor persuades him to leave before the entrance of Electra. The rest of the play is effectively Electra's; she remains on stage, a picture of mounting desperation, as she continues to mourn her father despite her mother's plans to have her put away. She loses her last hope with the news that Orestes has been killed in a chariot race. She resolves to take action herself, with or without the help of her sister Chrysothemis. With no more than a quarter of the play to run, she finds herself confronting the urn containing her brother's ashes.

But his death is, in fact, only supposition. The audience knows that her brother is alive and holding the urn himself. It was the Tutor who told the story of the fatal race. It is all part of the plot, and only Electra's passionate grief weakens Orestes's resolve to keep her in the dark until he has succeeded in his revenge. Electra's plight runs parallel to Orestes's return, but until late in the play has no effect upon it. Indeed, when brother and sister are reunited their extravagant behaviour almost sabotages the plot.

The recognition scene, which Aeschylus placed early in his Libation Bearers, is delayed by Sophocles so as to provide an emotional chmax that the violent end of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus barely matches. The use of a stage property, in this case the urn, is a device used elsewhere by Sophocles to concentrate and externalise an issue; Ajax's sword in Ajax, and the bow of Heracles in Philoctetes offer similar examples of the stage power residing in an object. The urn has the extra dimension of being both a mechanism in the plot and a trigger to the release of Electra from her captivity.

The powerful emphasis on Electra's character is at the expense of the moral dilemma of Orestes. Aeschylus based the Oresteia on the paradox inherent in the demand of a God that a son avenge his father, when to do so involves the killing of his mother. Euripides in his Electra stresses the horror of the act of matricide with an Orestes driven reluctantly to commit an unnatural act. For both of these playwrights the climax was the murder of Clytemnestra—with Aegisthus killed first in order not to distract from the mother and son confrontation.

Sophocles reverses the order of the murders. Aegisthus is away from the palace when the Tutor tells of the chariot race and when Orestes introduces the urn to confirm the story. Clytemnestra's death is simply an appropriate act accompanied by neither the threat of the Furies which hounded Aeschylus's Orestes, nor the conscience and revulsion which torment him in Euripides's version. For Sophocles, Apollo has authorised Clytemnestra's death and that is enough. When Aegisthus does appear, Clytemnestra is already dead, a sheeted figure he takes for the body of Orestes. The revelation that it is Clytemnestra offers as macabre a moment as any in Sophocles and leads rapidly to the conclusion of the play. Though Orestes and Electra are now united, her oppressors dead, her story continues to run parallel to that of her brother without the two truly overlapping.

By consciously bypassing the issue of matricide Sophocles returns to a Homeric notion of justice. In the Odyssey Orestes had been held up as a model of filial behaviour with no questions raised about the rightness of his actions. But in Homer Aegisthus was the principal villain and there was no Electra. Aeschylus had added the moral dimension with the clash between Apollo, demanding that Orestes avenge his father, and the Furies demanding their due for the murder of a mother. Sophocles does not dodge this issue. He deflects it, by introducing new characters and a novel dramatic structure, in order to point to Electra herself. Few Greek plays are as single-minded in their presentation of the individual.

Source: J. Michael Walton, "Electra," in The International Dictionary of Theatre 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St James Press, 1992, p. 218.

The Plot of Electra

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High on the wall of the scenae frons for this production of Sophocles' Electra is hung a gigantic reproduction of Schliemann's so-called "mask of Agamemnon." This giant face, its mouth rendered much more severe than in the original—so severe that under many of the lighting conditions of the performance, it seems to harden into a scowl—stands as mute witness to this play, with its bizarre remnants of his great Mycenean kingdom. Hanging profusely, even haphazardly, below the face are black curtains which catch the light at certain times in the play, looking at these moments like a blood-streaked shroud, littered with slashes. More significant use might have been made of the face: although it possesses an attitude, we do not sense that the characters do what they do because the face impels them.

At the start of the performance, the center door opens slowly, lit from behind like a great red furnace. It comes up like an automatic garage door, and the slowness and ominousness with which it rises sets the rhythm for the first section of the performance. Then the actors file in through the door in a dumb-show that at first seems too long, too tedious: they seem to be entering merely in order to introduce the characters. They walk in a kind of death march, and their gradual massing on the stage, in the half-light, gives a mounting sense of both grief and foreboding. The dumb-show ends with a re-enactment, in silence and slow motion, of the murder of Agamemnon—but done in such a spare manner that we are sure only of the death blow, and the plucking of the crown from the head of the falling figure by the female murderer, as all actors exit. Then the center door slowly closes, and Sophocles' play begins.

After the brief prologos, in which Orestes seems almost bewildered, as if he had wandered in from another play (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, perhaps), we have the most striking clue that we are about to witness a remarkable performance: the entrance of Electra. This production, from first to last, is rooted firmly in Marietta Rialdi's startling portrayal of Electra. To begin with, at her entrance, she really does not enter at all. The center door opens, and we see (or think we see, with the light in our eyes) an ambulatory bed, a kind of hospital gurney, at the head of which is a ghostly figure in dark glasses—the attendant, apparently. On the bed is a strange, stunted figure, whose voice we can locate only because of the fluttering of its arms. The figure on the bed is Electra, crying in a kind of hysterical lost child's voice—exhausted, it seems, from having done this for days, months, years. Has she been confined to this bed because of mental illness, strapped in out of fear that the madwoman will harm herself? She has the shrill demented sound of the profoundly insane.

The remarkable achievement of Rialdi is that she portrays a constant emotional state of being in extremis—on one shrill note that seems never to waver, conveying Electra's total commitment to the cause of keeping alive the memory of her slain father—yet never tires us. Her cries become a kind of accompaniment that has a stylistic rightness to the events which have given it impulse. She cannot relent, and we begin to enter her vortex of grief and despair. She moves us easily from vicarious experience—the second-hand experience of the audience—toward an experience that seems direct, that feels like our own. Rialdi keeps us engaged by modulating, phrasing, slightly varying her pace and her pitches, a striking vocal achievement. She seems to draw no breath, and we discover ourselves gasping, taking them for her. She goes from grief to grief without flagging: her speech of despair later on in the play, to the urn supposedly containing the ashes of the dead Orestes, which she embraces fiercely, like a lover, is the most spectacular reminder to us that any true grief is bottomless, wretched, unremitting.

Her entrance sets the tone for all of this. Lying on the gurney, she is only partially visible to us—she remains inside the inner below for a long portion of her speech. We see her forearms flapping, as if to punctuate her speech, but they seem ineffectual, like vestigial wings. Then the gurney is wheeled in to Left Center, and parked there, abandoned. Electra's vocalizations and her emotional extension do not waver through any of this. Continuing her strange aria, she gradually struggles to a sitting position, then throws her legs over the edge of the gurney, then stands on the floor, then waddles away on her own. Rialdi, who is tiny in physical stature, is brilliant throughout this section. Her struggle to walk is inept, uncoordinated. Her body seems to have atrophied from her time in bed, and her limbs seem incapable of response. Her physical appearance is dwarfish, warped.

One is grateful to Rialdi for daring to exhibit herself so unattractively in order to convey with such realism and poignancy the dementia of Electra. She gives us much of Hugo von Hofmannstahl's insight into this character, and serves Sophocles with it brilliantly. Her dementia has a further extension: at the moment of Orestes' revelation of his identity to Electra, the audience responds with greater relief and enthusiasm than she does. We are momentarily baffled by Electra's seeming not to notice. She takes in this information only insofar as it means that the revenge can now be resumed. She is so steeped in her own habits of grief and self-pity that she cannot alter her pattern of behavior, even as she is delivered from them. Rialdi's is a thoroughly original performance.

In the important scene between Electra and Clytemnestra, much is revealed to the audience of the similarities between the two women. Electra has waited years for her revenge, as did Clytemnestra, but the latter's hatred has since metamorphosed into fear. As with Electra, the central emotion goes deep, to the core of her self. Rialdi's Electra—the demented soprano—and Thalia Calliga's aging Clytemnestra—all contralto profundissimo—argue in a duet skillfully handled in its sustained, slow movements, and deliberate, forceful vocalization. Their passages of stichomythia make sharp contact between the adversaries, as Clytemnestra, edgy and defensive, refuses to face Electra, and stands looking at us—the ambiguity in her face impossible to decipher.

Minor objections aside, the production stands on the achievements of Marietta Rialdi, who has given a startling and bold interpretation of Sophocles' play and of his central character. Her success is in no small measure due to her acting, based as it is upon her willingness to expose the last indignity of Electra. But Rialdi refuses to allow us the comfort of sympathy for her; instead, she makes us face the ugly reality. Electra's hatred has consumed her utterly.

Source: John A. Hawkins, review of Electra in Theatre Journal, Volume 39, no. 3, October, 1987, pp 387-89.


Critical Overview