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Electra | Study Guide


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Electra | Context


The Great Dionysia

Every March, Athens hosted the Great Dionysia, a six-day drama festival in honor of the god of wine, Dionysus. The festival's roots are unclear, but it is considered the origin of both comedy and tragedy. It began with choral performances. Large, extravagantly dressed male choruses performed dithyrambs—songs in honor of Dionysus—accompanied by reed instruments while dancing in circles around an altar to the god. Over the next few days playwrights each contributed three tragedies and a satyr play. The Great Dionysia can be considered a precursor of the Tony Awards. Prizes were given for best playwright (known at the time as "poet"), best director, and so forth. The first acting award went to Thespis, who is said to have been the first poet to have a tragedy performed at the festival. The word thespian—"actor"—comes from his name.

Greek Tragedy

The stories upon which Greek tragedies are based almost invariably came from mythology, which was closely tied with the traditional religion of Greece. Since the audience was already familiar with what occurred in the story, the playwright was able to focus on a unique interpretation of the motivations and impact of these familiar events. In Greek tragedy, a flaw (often pride) in one of the central characters, who is nobly born, leads to a tragic ending. This resulted in the audience experiencing a catharsis—a release of the strong emotions that have built up during the play.

The staging of a Greek tragedy was subject to strict rules. For example, it takes place in one setting in a short period of time. The chorus never speaks; it sings its lines. There might be any number of actors, but most had nonspeaking parts. In early tragedies one actor performed all the speaking roles. Between the scenes he would disappear behind the skēne—initially a sort of onstage tent and later a large façade that formed a meaningful part of the setting, such as the home of one or more of the characters—to change his costume. While he changed, the chorus would fill in with its sung comments. When the number of actors was raised to two, it became possible for one to play one character and the other to take all the remaining roles. Actors wore huge masks so the audience could see and hear them throughout the large amphitheaters in which the plays were performed. Sophocles's use of three actors enabled one or even two characters to stay onstage between episodes, as occurs in Electra.

A Greek tragedy follows a set structure:

  • It begins with a prologos (prologue), which introduces the topic of the play.
  • Then the chorus enters in the parados and dances while singing about the background to the story.
  • The main action of the play takes place in a series of episodes. Since the plot usually revolves around murder and mayhem but violence was not permitted onstage, the most important events are generally described in monologue and dialogue.
  • An episode is usually followed by a stasimon, a choral ode commenting on the events of the episode.
  • The play concludes with the exodos, which comprises the climax and resolution of the plot as well as the chorus's final comments on the moral of the play.

Electra's Family History

In order to understand Electra, it is important to understand the family history that leads to the events in the play. For several generations before the action of the play even begins, the Pelopidae dynasty (sometimes called the House of Atreus or Atreidae in the play, after Pelops's son) had suffered under a curse, which led to a series of murders within the family, all related to revenge. Electra's grandfather Pelops competed in a chariot race to marry a princess. He defeated his competitor by bribing a charioteer, Myrtilus, to loosen the wheels of the man's chariot, killing him. Pelops then murdered Myrtilus to cover his tracks, but not before Myrtilus had cursed Pelops and all his descendants. The next generation suffered under this curse, with Atreus and Thyestes plotting against each other until both were dead. Their sons, Agamemnon and Aegisthus, were the second generation to be affected. Orestes was the last.

Electra's parents, Agamemnon, Pelops's grandson, and his wife, Clytemnestra, ruled Argos. In addition to Electra, they had two daughters, Iphigenia and Chrysothemis, and a son, Orestes. When Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, went to war with Troy, Agamemnon took his fleet of ships to fight for his brother. But the fleet was prevented from sailing by Artemis, a goddess whom Agamemnon had offended. To appease the goddess so she would allow his fleet to set sail, Agamemnon killed his daughter Iphigenia as a sacrifice to her.

As revenge Clytemnestra took a lover, Agamemnon's cousin Aegisthus. Aegisthus had his own axe to grind with Agamemnon because Agamemnon's father had killed Aegisthus's brothers and fed them to his father (also an act of revenge). So, when Agamemnon returned from Troy, Clytemnestra—with Aegisthus's help—killed him. To protect her little brother, Orestes, from Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, Electra had the family tutor take the child to Strophius, King of Phocis, who was married to Agamemnon's sister. Orestes grew up in Phocis, becoming close friends with Strophius's son Pylades. Once grown, Orestes was told by an oracle to return to Argos and avenge his father's murder.

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