The story of Electra was treated by the three major classical tragedians, each in his own characteristic way. For Aeschylus, the story of Electra in the Chophoroi (458 b.c.e.; Libation Bearers, 1777) is but a single episode in the sweeping history of a family; it is the second play of the Oresteia, a connected trilogy that presents the story of Electra’s household from the return of her father, Agamemnon, to the acquittal of her brother, Orestes. For Euripides, the Electra was a psychological profile of a woman who had endured outrage and humiliation for nearly a decade; Euripides openly criticized Aeschylus’s treatment of this story and changed many details of the plot. For Sophocles, Electra became the embodiment of heroic defiance, a return to many of the themes earlier explored in the Antigone.
Indeed, there are many ways in which Sophocles’ version of Electra bears a closer resemblance to his Antigone than to the treatments of Electra by the other two playwrights. First, Sophocles contrasts both Electra and Antigone with a sister (Chrysothemis and Ismene, respectively) who is willing to compromise in order to live in peace. Both Electra and Antigone, in Sophocles’ version of their stories, devote themselves to a cause to such an extent that they forego husband and children; Aeschylus’s Electra has at least the serving women for comfort, and Euripides’ Electra is even married. Most important, perhaps, Sophocles’ Electra depicts the vengeance against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus as an end to the household’s suffering; in both Aeschylus’s and Euripides’ versions, there is foreshadowing of Orestes’ pursuit by the Furies, who will seek to punish him for this murder. Thus, Sophocles’ Electra, like his Antigone, represents the price that must be paid for heroic endurance.
Yet while Antigone paid with her life for defying Creon, Electra emerges triumphant at the end of this play. By the close of the tragedy, Electra’s vengeance has been fulfilled, her patience has been justified, and her enemies have been destroyed. The audience is able to witness her joy as vengeance is achieved. Nevertheless, Electra’s cries of joy are as chilling as they are deserved. Electra has gained her victory only at an appalling personal cost. She has devoted her youth to the memory of her father and has planned her vengeance for nearly a decade. Heroism comes at a price far higher than the chorus, Chrysothemis, and even most members of the audience would be willing to pay.
When Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murder King Agamemnon, Electra has her brother, Orestes, spirited away by the Paedagogus, a loyal servant charged with caring for the boy. When Orestes becomes a man, he, the Paedagogus, and Orestes’ friend Pylades return to avenge the murder. Urged on by Electra, Orestes is counseled by Apollo to gain vengeance stealthily. Wishing to take the culprits off guard, Orestes pretends that he and his companions are strangers, that Orestes was killed in a chariot accident, and that they come to return the princely ashes to his mother.
Even as Orestes explains his plan to the Paedagogus, intending also to lay an offering at Agamemnon’s grave, Electra, wailing, emerges from the palace. The three men leave, and Electra bemoans her lost youth, spent in mourning for her slain father. Oppressed with sorrow, she remains unbedded (a-lectra), a virgin obsessed with vengeance against her adulterous mother and Aegisthus. The Chorus’s advice about reasonable limits to mourning and expressions of rage do not sway her from her course. She saw Aegisthus kill her father at his hearth, and she is anguished to see the murderer ruling her father’s kingdom, wearing her father’s clothes, and sleeping with her father’s wife. Electra is now beyond childbearing, beyond marrying, and her life seems incapable of gaining meaning except through avenging the murder.
Electra’s sister, Chrysothemis, arrives bearing burial offerings that Clytemnestra, troubled by dreams,...
(The entire section is 1,801 words.)