Places Discussed

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*Argos

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*Argos (AR-gohs). Ancient city in southeastern Greece, adjoining the Gulf of Argolis. Its area was prominent in the Bronze Age; therefore, its very name summons an ambience of antiquity and myth for Sophocles’ audience. In the play, the first speech (by Orestes’ mentor Paidagogos) introduces Argos as the old and sacred homeland for which Orestes has yearned. Like a guidebook, Paidagogos enumerates its most famous sights: the river Inachus (believed to have been a god and the first king of Argos), the marketplace (consecrated to the god Apollo), the temple of the goddess Hera, and the palace. By providing so much geographical information, Paidagogos reminds the audience that he is—as his name suggests—like a pedagogue, the tutor who led children to school in Ancient Greece. Therefore, Orestes’ coming to Argos is likened implicitly to education for him (and, presumably also for the audience, brought into this fabled place of splendor and tragedy).

Appropriate to the function of Greek drama as both religious instruction and ritual, the play concerns the spiritual cleansing of Argos. Despite Paidagogos’s acute awareness of the city’s beauty and venerable tradition, his speech presents the kingdom as desecrated and thus in need of the purification Orestes and Electra will bring by avenging their royal father’s death. According to a notion common among many ancient religions, only more blood can cleanse the earth from the impurity generated by the shedding of a king’s blood, in this case that of Agamemnon, murdered by his wife. Consequently, through a divinely ordained execution of the murderers, Orestes expects to make the land flourish again.

Historical Context

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Athens and the City-states
Although the exact date of Sophocles's Electra is not known, it was probably written and first performed around 409 B.C. (at that year's Dionysia), when the playwright was in his eighties. At this time, the Greek states were battling one another in the Peloponnesian War. The city-state of Athens had established itself as the dominant region in Greece, following its decisive role in the defeat of the Persians in the battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.

After the Persians were expelled from Greece, the city-states banded together to form the Delian League. This alliance ensured the mutual protection of each state and was ostensibly a confederacy of equals. Each city paid an annual tribute to maintain the strength of the alliance. However, Athens gradually became the leader of the Delian League, and Pericles, head of the Athenians, used the surplus tribute to rebuild the Athenian Acropolis rather than for the common good of all the states.

Under Pericles, the Parthenon and other architectural masterpieces were constructed on the Acropolis at this time (approximately 450 to 405 B.C.). Predictably, members of the other Greek states were angered at Pericles for using their tribute money to beautify his own city. Because of this and other affronts, they waged war against Athens in the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C. Athens ultimately fell to the military strength of Sparta.

Greek Drama
Tragedies such as Electra were presented in the annual Dionysia festivals in Athens, where playwrights competed with each other for a prize. At the Dionysia, each writer presented a group of four plays: three tragedies, which often formed a trilogy on a given subject—such as Sophocles's Oedipal trilogy (Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus, and Oedipus Rex)—and a satyr-play, which was a form of comic relief. The tragedies concerned mortals who were at the mercy of their fate and who evoked pity from the audience. Greek audiences expected to be moved by the drama unfolding before them, experiencing a catharsis, or a purging (purification) of the emotions of pity and fear. These emotions were associated with the fall of a great person, the tragic hero.

In contrast to the cathartic effect of the tragedies, the satyr-plays provided a lighthearted antidote. In these plays, the chorus dressed as satyrs, figures who were half-man and half-beast, and performed rough but witty routines which can be likened to later forms of light entertainment such as slapstick or vaudevillian comedy. The third genre of Greek drama, comedy, was not performed at the Dionysia. However, there are many surviving comedies from the fifth century B.C., and these seem to have served the function of providing an emotional release also. In addition, comedies were directly political and provided a vehicle for authors to offer thinly veiled commentary on the happenings of the day.

The Legend of the House of Atreus
Electra concerns one part of the story of the House of Atreus, a doomed family which was cursed from its inception. According to legend, the patriarch Atreus was the grandson of Tantalus, who killed his own son and served the pieces of his body to the gods at a feast. Because this was an atrocious crime, the gods sentenced Tantalus to eternal punishment in the underworld. They also restored his son, Pelops, to life. Pelops, a favorite of the god Poseidon, won a chariot race which enabled him to claim the beautiful Hippodamia as his wife. However, he was only able to win the race because Hippodamia bribed the other charioteer to lose on purpose. When the charioteer came to claim his bribe, Pelops killed him and the charioteer uttered a curse on Pelops and his descendants as he died.

Atreus, who became the king of Mycenae, was one of the sons of Pelops and Hippodamia. He was cuckolded by his brother, Thyestes, and, in a fit of anger, killed Thyestes's sons and served them to his brother at a banquet, in a crime similar to that of his forbearer, Tantalus. Thyestes, upon finding out what Atreus had done, cursed him and his house as well. In order to avenge his sons' deaths, Thyestes learned from the Delphic Oracle that he had to father a child by his own daughter Pelopia; the product of this union was Aegisthus.

Atreus, however, believed the boy to be his own son, and raised him as such, since he had in the meantime married Pelopia. But when Aegisthus learned that Thyestes was his true father, he killed Atreus. Thus, Atreus's real sons Agamemnon and Menelaus were forced into exile as Thyestes took over the throne of Mycenae. The rivalry between Agamemnon and Aegisthus, central to the story of Electra, had begun.

Agamemnon married Clytemnestra, producing their daughters Iphigeneia and Electra and their son Orestes. When Agamemnon departed for the Trojan War, Clytemnestra took his rival Aegisthus as her lover and plotted to kill her husband when he returned. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus succeeded in murdering Agamemnon, and the plot of Electra centers around Electra and Orestes's plans to avenge their father's death by killing their mother and Aegisthus.

Sophocles's audience would have been familiar with the legend of the House of Atreus and would have recognized the disparities between his version of the legend and other plays which dealt with the same cursed family. It was not necessary for the classical audience to be presented with the entire legend in any given play; rather, each play concentrated on one major aspect of the larger story, assuming the audience was already familiar with the general legend.

Literary Style

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Stichomythia
A series of short—usually one line—dialogue exchanges between or among characters. The words are often confrontational and language seems to act as a substitutes for physical violence. Originating in Greek tragedy, stichomythia occurs in Roman (i.e. Senacan) tragedies and also in the Elizabethan plays influenced by classical predecessors such as in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Richard III. In Electra, stichomythic dialogue takes place between Electra and Chrysothemis early in the play and between Electra and Orestes during the revelation scene.

Tragic Irony
Irony is a sophisticated rhetorical strategy whereby a character is led to believe one thing, when in fact, the opposite is true. While it serves a dramatic function, it also serves a thematic one, reminding the characters and audience of the limitations of human knowledge: what we know to be certain may not be; and the uncertainty of human circumstances—what we know to be good may turn out badly, while assumed evils may result in good.

In Electra, there are several examples of tragic irony. One occurs when Electra thinks that Orestes is dead (while Chrysothemis thinks him alive) when he is alive all along. It recurs later, when Orestes, in disguise, tells Electra of his own death, until her grieving makes him confess the truth.

Tragedy
In his Poetics, Aristotle defines a tragedy as a play which recounts the fall or destruction of a person of elevated position. In Classical and Renaissance tragedy, the person is usually a king, though tragedy can befall anyone elevated in politic, ethical, or spiritual terms. For example, Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus is tragic, for, though Faustus is not a noble, he is socially elevated as a great scholar and falls by his own hand in the service of his intellectual pride.

Tragic heroes fall in part because of fate, but their fall is usually not due to destiny alone but rather is complicated by some character flaw, "hubris" or pride usually precipitates such a fall. In the case of King Oedipus in Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, it is his desire to know the cause of the plague that afflicts his kingdom; the plague was brought on when he killed his father and married his mother. In the case of Hamlet, it is his inaction and hesitation. Because of the offenses of her ancestors, Electra's family is cursed to suffer. This fate or destiny generally dictates her tragedy, but the specific cause is her failure to balance passion (grief at her father's murder) with reason (her mother's guilt is partially mitigated by the role Agamemnon played in their daughter Iphigeneia's death).

Compare and Contrast

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The Athenian Age: Greece has a legal system based largely on revenge. Later, during the high point of Athenic culture in the fifth century B.C., a more complicated system of law develops, one on which many modern legal concepts are based.

Today: Legal systems prevent people from seeking revenge individually (acting as vigilantes). Rather, injuries are remedied by way of the courts.

The Athenian Age: It is a sign of respect to cremate the dead and keep their ashes in urns. These are large vessels decorated with graphics that identify the deceased, relating key events from their lives. For warriors, the urns might recount their most celebrated battles.

Today: While some people are cremated, many are buried in caskets below the ground.

The Athenian Age: Greeks' lives are largely dictated by what they believe the gods intend. Worship of multiple gods, who represent such aspects of life as war, music, love, and agriculture, is commonplace.

Today: Monotheistic religion (the worship of one god) dominates world religion. While some still believe their destinies are controlled by a higher power, many more believe that humankind shapes and directs its own fate.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES
Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way, W.W Norton (New York), 1930, pp 258-70.

Woodward, Thomas. "The Electra of Sophocles" in Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Woodward, Prentice-Hall, 1966, pp. 125-45.

Woolf, Virginia. "On Sophocles's Electra" in Sophocles: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Thomas Woodward, Prentice-Hall, 1966, pp. 122-24.

FURTHER READING
Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece, Harvard University Press, 1995. This book illuminates the world of women in Sophocles's time, revealing that although their roles were limited, they contributed to the cultural and artistic life of Ancient Greece.

Nardo, Don, Editor. Readings on Sophocles, Greenhaven Press, 1997. This is a collection of critical essays on Sophocles, which also includes a useful appendix on Greek theatrical production and a biography of the playwright.

Woodward, Thomas, Editor. Sophocles: A Collection of Cntical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1966. Woodward's collection of essays includes his own article, "The Electra of Sophocles," and Virginia Woolf's essay, "On Sophocles's Electra." The collection also offers an excellent critical overview of many of Sophocles's dramatic works.

Bibliography

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Reinhardt, Karl. Sophocles. Translated by Hazel Harvey and David Harvey. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. A structural appreciation of Electra as the first of Sophocles’ uniquely related last plays.

Sophocles. Electra. Translated by William Sale. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Sensitive, detailed analyses of theme, meaning, and structure. Introduced by Eric A. Have-lock’s excellent general survey and Adam Parry’s sketch on metrics.

Webster, T. B. L. An Introduction to Sophocles. 2d ed. New York: Methuen, 1969. A challenging portrait of a pious Sophocles, for whom god-inspired matricide is good.

Whitman, Cedric H. Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. Sees Electra as a play that embraces the Homeric values of the Odyssey. Celebrates Electra’s suffering, endurance, and wise triumph.

Winnington-Ingram, R. P. “The Electra of Sophocles: Prolegomena to an Interpretation.” In Oxford Readings in Greek Tragedy, edited by Erich Segal. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Presents an interpretation in which the Furies were operative on Electra and Clytemnestra before her murder, allowing for both Homeric and Aeschylean interpretations.

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