Sophocles was a deeply sensual dramatist. His language, though sometimes characterized
by harsh words or complicated syntax, was for the most part grand and majestic. He was careful
to avoid both the colossal phraseology that typified the work of Aeschylus and the ordinary
diction of Euripides. He paid unprecedented attention to the spectacular effects of the play,
insisting upon inlcuding meticulously painted scenery that was to be properly and purposefully
placed. Sophocles was also of a profoundly religious temperament, filled with a deep reverence
for his country's gods, but without any strains of crude superstition. In many of his plays, he
grapples with his country's sacred myths, examining them from the point of view of the diligent
artist and pondering their relation to the struggles of humanity.
Electra is widely considered to be Sophocles's best character drama due to the
thoroughness of its examination of the morals and motives of Electra herself. After Electra's
father, King Agamemnon, returns from the Trojan War, his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover,
Aegisthus, murder him. Sophocles's play deals with Electra's intense desire for revenge in the
years following her father's murder.
Sophocles's version of the Electra story was written around 410 BCE, and it is difficult to
read it without thinking of Euripides's Electra and the middle portion of Aeschylus's trilogy, the
Oresteia, which recounts the same events. When Aeschylus told the story, he did so with an eye
to the ethical issues associated with a blood feud. Sophocles, however, addresses the problem of
character—namely, he questions what kind of woman would want so keenly to kill her mother.
Euripides similarly focuses on the issue of character, but Euripides's Electra is ultimately
destroyed by her situation, whereas Sophocles's Electra prevails and triumphs, rendering his play
both a highly satisfactory revenge drama and an interesting study of the psychology of Electra
herself. The play is considered one of Sophocles' most successful dramas.
Pylades, Orestes, and the Old Man, Orestes's keeper, arrive at Mycenae at daybreak. They
have come to exact revenge for the murder of Agamemnon, Orestes's father, as instructed by an
oracle of Apollo. Electra, Orestes's sister, is heard sobbing within the house outside of which the
three stand discussing how to execute their plan. Orestes wishes to greet her, but instead the Old
Man leads him away to present an offering at his father's grave, as Apollo's oracle has instructed.
Electra emerges from inside the palace gates, pouring forth her grief in a mournful address to the
heavens and praying to the deities to help her exact revenge for her father's death. The chorus,
which is comprised of the virgins of the palace, attempt to console Electra, but Electra,
bemoaning the oppression she suffers at her mother's hands, her deep sorrow at her father's
death, and her longing for Orestes' return, proves inconsolable.
Chrysothemis, Electra's younger sister, emerges from the palace with a funeral offering.