Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1076
Fifteen years pass since the slaying of Agamemnon. Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, arrives in Argos with his tutor. He travels under another name, for Aegistheus, who has ruled in Argos since killing Agamemnon, ordered him killed while he was still a child. Orestes, however, was saved and reared by wealthy Athenians. Orestes is eager to visit Argos, for his mother, Clytemnestra, now shares the throne with Aegistheus. His sister Electra is also still in Argos. Orestes arrives, not as one seeking vengeance but as a tourist. Young, rich, handsome, and well educated, he is free of obligations and commitments, light as air, and apparently reasonably happy to be so. He finds a city in which the atmosphere is leaden and oppressive. He receives no answer to his requests for directions, and the first person to address a word to him is an idiot. It is as though a conspiracy exists to exclude him from the affairs of the city.
The truth is that the people of Argos are so involved with their own problem that they are quite incapable of seeing beyond it. The problem from which they suffer is that they assumed a burden of collective guilt. Fifteen years before, they did nothing to prevent Agamemnon’s death; instead of admitting their responsibility, they wrapped themselves up in remorse. This uniform pattern of behavior suits the god Zeus, since it holds Aegistheus’s subjects in check and leaves little scope for personal initiative. Another sinister, persistent presence is swarms of flies, sent by the gods to plague the populace as a constant reminder of their guilt. Death seems to be curiously intermingled with life in this city of frightened people. Repentance is even institutionalized. Once a year, on the anniversary of Agamemnon’s death, the “day of the dead” is announced.
One person in Argos, however, remains independent and defiant. Electra, though treated as a slave by her mother and Aegistheus, is rebellious. Contemptuous of the general fear and superstition, she lets it be known to Orestes, who did not yet reveal his true identity, that she lives only for the day when her brother will come to seek vengeance. At the same time, however, Electra is pathetic and occasionally childlike. While she vilifies Zeus with all her might, she also betrays her longing for warmth and affection in her questions about other cities of Greece. When Orestes asks her if she ever thinks of fleeing, she answers that she lacks the courage to do so because she will be afraid on the roads by herself. Electra, however, also has a fixed attitude. She feels a thirst for vengeance that does not ring true or confident when set alongside her gentleness in other matters. As is foreseeable, Orestes becomes sufficiently curious about the city, or sufficiently interested in the plight of his sister, to decide to remain a little longer in Argos.
At the beginning of the second act, the scene changes from Argos to a mountain slope outside the city. The people are gathered for the rites of the “day of the dead” and for the release of the dead from the underworld, for it is made known that a rock on the mountainside conceals the entrance to the underworld. Once a year, this rock is rolled back, and dead acquaintances of the people of Argos come back to torture the city’s conscience. On this occasion, Aegistheus arrives late for the ceremonies, which he himself instituted. The solid, impenetrable fear of the crowd begins to give way to blind panic, as they feel quite helpless without some leadership when facing the presence of the dead. After Aegistheus appears and the stone is rolled back, the crowd—men, women, and even children—beg for pity and ask forgiveness for being alive.
Into this uncanny, grotesque, hysterical atmosphere steps Electra. Fired by what Orestes describes to her as happy, sunny towns elsewhere in Greece, she tells the crowd to throw off its burden of guilt. For a brief time, the assembled people listen hopefully. She, however, is no match for Zeus. Displaying his divine powers, he sends the stone that was supposed to bar the entrance to the underworld crashing against the steps of the temple built on the mountainside. Awed, the crowd turns against Electra.
In this sclerotic society, whose organization for fifteen years was hardened from above, no change from inside seems possible. Through contact with Orestes, Electra becomes enterprising enough to attempt a change. Electra’s only weapon, however, is words, and her effort, though noble, is inevitably futile. It is to a considerable extent through Electra that Orestes becomes fully involved in the affairs of Argos and commits himself to a course of action. He reveals his identity to her. Electra, bewildered by the disproportion between her expectations and the Orestes she sees before her, cannot conceal her disappointment. The change is not sudden, but, more than ever, Orestes is conscious of his meaninglessness in Argos and elsewhere. Bitterly regretful, he says that he barely exists, for he is ignorant of the deep passions of living men and women.
He affirms that he wants to belong fully to the town and that he wishes to draw it to him. Still unsure of himself, however, he tries to appeal to a higher authority. Zeus, lurking in the background, is only too glad to suggest that Orestes continue in the path of humility. At this, Orestes rebels; he realizes that he must commit himself, that it is he who must make a decision. He decides that, in the circumstances, there is only one course that can be followed. He plans and executes the killing of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra.
In the end, in a speech to the people of Argos, Orestes claims that he killed for their sake, to free them. He proclaims that he assumes their guilt and that they need no longer be afraid. Taking the burden of guilt from the city, Orestes flees Argos. Electra, however, does not have the strength to follow Orestes. It is as though, in slaying Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, Orestes took away her one reason for living: her desire for vengeance. Zeus did not have much trouble in winning her over to the side of those who spend their lives in atonement. At the end of the play, Electra becomes credulous, tractable, repentant. No explanation is offered of where Orestes flees or of what happens to Argos.