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Electra | Study Guide


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Electra | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the purpose of Paedagogus's opening speech in the Prologos of Sophocles's Electra?

The purpose of the prologos in Greek drama was to introduce the characters, setting, and plot to the audience by reminding them of the story, which was already familiar to them since most dramas were based on well-known mythological or historical events. Here Paedagogus establishes the identities of the characters present onstage: Orestes, Agamemnon's son; Pylades, Orestes's friend; and himself. He also sketches the setting, which helps the audience visualize the location and specifies the time of day ("already the sun's bright ray is waking the songs of the birds into clearness, and the dark night of stars is spent"). Paedagogus also establishes the play's historical background: "There is the ancient Argos of thy yearning,—that hallowed scene whence the gadfly drove the daughter of Inachus." Inachus was the first king of Argos and thus Orestes's distant predecessor. His daughter, Io, was seduced by Zeus. When Zeus's wife, Hera, found out, she turned Io into a heifer and sicced a gadfly to sting her. It pursued Io through Asia and ultimately into Egypt before Zeus returned her to human form. This story reminds the audience not only of Orestes's roots as a prince of Argos, but also of the ways in which the gods affect human lives. Paedagogus also introduces the theme of revenge by mentioning Apollo ("the wolf-slaying god"), who is especially important to the plot of Electra in this regard, as Orestes's subsequent words make clear. Paedagogus elaborates on this theme in his introduction of the skēne as "the house of the Pelopidae"—Orestes's direct family line. The cursed bloodline of the house of Pelops is an important motif throughout Electra, and he mentions the family's bloody history, culminating in "the slaying of [Orestes's] father." This event causes Orestes to become "the avenger of [his] murdered sire."

In Sophocles's Electra how does Apollo affect the actions of Orestes and his co-conspirators?

If Orestes's words in the Prologos are to be believed, Apollo gave him fairly explicit instructions as to how Orestes is to exact vengeance for his father's murder. Orestes is to act "alone, and by stealth, without aid of arms or numbers"; Apollo also advises Orestes to leave offerings at his father's tomb. Orestes complies with the god's instructions, bringing with him only his old tutor, his friend (and foster brother) Pylades, and two attendants. They arrive stealthily by night and keep their presence secret. Orestes hatches a plan that uses deception to gain entrance to the palace: The tutor will disguise himself as "a Phocian stranger" sent by an ally of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to tell them of Orestes's death in a chariot race. Orestes and Pylades will later bring an urn supposedly containing Orestes's ashes—another act of stealth. Orestes has created the details of the plan (the tutor's story, the funeral urn), but the god dictated the overall concept. As Orestes says, he "come[s] with divine mandate to cleanse [his fatherland] righteously." Because he is dutifully following Apollo's plan, Orestes feels no guilt about plotting to kill his mother. Paedagogus emphasizes the importance of carrying out Apollo's instructions when he refuses to allow Orestes to remain and listen to Electra's lamentations: "No, no: before all else, let us seek to obey the command of Loxias [a reference to Apollo], and thence make a fair beginning, by pouring libations to thy sire; that brings victory within our grasp, and gives us the mastery in all that we do." The tutor believes that only by adhering to the god's plan will they succeed. Anything else will place them in danger.

How does Sophocles use juxtaposition in the Prologos of Electra?

Sophocles introduces his most pervasive juxtapositions in the Prologos: word and deed, life and death, and light and darkness. He also establishes links between life and light and between death and darkness. Paedagogus introduces all three major juxtapositions in his first speech: first he speaks of Agamemnon's death ("the slaying of thy father") and Orestes's rescue and continuing life ("I ... saved thee, and reared thee up to manhood"). He continues, "Our plans must be laid quickly; for lo, already the sun's bright ray is waking the songs of the birds into clearness, and the dark night of stars is spent. Before, then, anyone comes forth from the house, take counsel; seeing that the time allows not of delay, but is full ripe for deeds." The men lay their plans in words, but these must quickly be transformed into deeds. He also draws attention to the end of night and the arrival of dawn. This emphasizes that a day is beginning that will prove life-changing for all the characters in the play. In the Prologos Orestes is concerned about pretending to be dead, implying it might be a bad omen, but he tries to shrug it off: "Why should the omen trouble me, when by a feigned death I find life indeed, and win renown? I trow, no word is ill-omened, if fraught with gain ... as I trust that from this rumour I also shall emerge in radiant life, and yet shine like a star upon my foes." In this speech Sophocles contrasts death and life, linking life to light and by inference death to darkness. He also contrasts word (the lie or "rumor" of Orestes's death) with deed (Orestes's "emerge[nce] in radiant life" and confrontation with his foes).

How does Sophocles introduce time as a motif in Electra?

When Paedagogus draws attention to the brightness of dawn and the end of night in the Prologos, he is also emphasizing the motif of time. He will repeat this emphasis a few lines later, when he prevents Orestes from listening to Electra's lamentations. This will be echoed in Episode 4, when he insists that Electra and Orestes celebrate their reunion later and move forward with the plan while there is still time: "Now have done with this long discourse, these insatiate cries of joy, and pass within; for in such deeds delay is evil, and 'tis well to make an end." In the Prologos Orestes also brings up the need for immediate action: "Enough;—be it now thy care, old man, to go and heed thy task; and we twain will go forth; for so occasion bids, chief ruler of every enterprise for men." In addition, the past, in the form of family history, haunts everyone in the play in the form of a cursed bloodline that produces a chain of violent murders. This history of murder and revenge has a long reach through time, beginning generations before Orestes arrives in Mycenae to avenge his father's death. Electra also represents this motif. She seems frozen in time ("bearing that endless doom of woe"), held captive till Orestes can return and free her to move forward with her life by avenging their father.

In Sophocles's Electra what is the power dynamic between Orestes and Paedagogus?

Since Paedagogus is Orestes's old tutor and since he has raised Orestes from the age of about 10, he treats the younger man very paternally, feeling free to boss him around. He often seems to be in charge of the revenge plot in some way, reminding Orestes to act quickly, for example. But it must be remembered that a tutor was a family servant and therefore had only as much real control over his charges as was granted by the family. Of course, in this case, Orestes is now too old to have a tutor. At roughly 19 or 20 he is a young man, not a child. He has also been raised as a prince of Argos by his foster father, the king of Crisa. In this sense Orestes has dominance over Paedagogus because of Orestes's higher social rank. Furthermore Orestes is the one who received instructions from Apollo's oracle. Thus he is the only one who can be in charge of the revenge plot. He refers to Paedagogus as his "true friend and follower" and "foremost in our support." Orestes issues instructions to him: "I will tell thee, then, what I have determined." Still it is clear that he relies on his old tutor for wise advice since he continues, "Listen closely to my words, and correct me, if I miss the mark in aught."

In Electra what can the audience deduce about Orestes from the story he invents to explain his fake death?

Orestes instructs his former tutor, "Tell them ... that Orestes hath perished by a fatal chance,—hurled at the Pythian games from his rapid chariot." This is not a surprising choice for a young nobleman of about 19 or 20. A man of Orestes's age and class would probably find this a heroic death. The chariot races, which had been added to the games in imitation of the Olympic games, would have been particularly exciting. Orestes's participation would have also branded him as a courageous, quick-thinking athlete—a man to be admired. Critics have often seen Orestes's choice of his fake death as an indication of his youth and immaturity and of his lack of understanding of the seriousness of his task. Of course there may have been other reasons for inventing this particular story. The Pythian games were held every four years in Apollo's honor, so Orestes may have invented the story as a way of referencing the god who had commanded his actions. Also he may have realized that the tutor's intended audience, Clytemnestra, would expect him to be an empty-headed young noblemen out to prove his manliness. Therefore this backstory would be particularly believable and even gratifying to her. Finally Orestes's story references the chariot race from which his family's curse sprang. He may consider it a clever hidden foreshadowing of what is to come, because he hopes to end the curse when he carries out Apollo's justice by killing his father's murderers.

In the Prologos of Electra Orestes and his companions hear Electra lamenting inside the palace and hurriedly leave. What impression does this give of Electra's role in their plans?

When he first hears her Paedagogus calls Electra "some handmaid"; it is Orestes who wonders whether it might be Electra and suggests they "stay ... and listen to her laments." But the tutor won't allow it, saying, "Before all else, let us seek to obey the command of Loxias, and thence make a fair beginning ... that brings victory within our grasp, and gives us the mastery in all that we do." Thus it is clear that their mission is more important to them than Electra is. Also Electra is inside the palace—the house Orestes has come to "cleanse"—while the men are outside rehearsing their plans. As a result the audience receives the impression not only that Electra has no part in the revenge plot but that she is somehow associated with the people within the palace whom the men plan to kill. Of course the audience learns later that Aegisthus keeps her imprisoned inside the palace whenever he is at home, so this impression is inaccurate. The effect of both these impressions is to separate the revenge plot from Electra's story, which is the actual focus of the play. It also separates her as a female character who longs for revenge from the male characters who plan to enact it. Electra's desire for revenge is based on an exploration of the principles of justice, devotion, and honor, while Orestes's desire for revenge is superficially based on his fated role as his father's avenger rather than on any deep emotion or thought. Even at the end, in a physical juxtaposition, Electra is outside the palace while the revenge plot continues inside it.

In Electra what is the significance of how Electra is dressed?

Electra's style of clothing is mentioned in both the stage directions and the dialogue of the play. When she first appears the stage directions describe her as "meanly clad." This may surprise the modern audience since Electra is the daughter of a king and queen. She is therefore a princess but is dressed in shabby clothes like a slave. Sophocles's contemporary audience, however, would not have been surprised since the story was so familiar to them. Electra confirms this visual impression when she says to the chorus in the Parados, "I serve in the halls of my father, clad in this mean garb, and standing at a meagre board." Thus although she lives in the palace that is her birthright, she is treated, clothed, and fed as a servant. This shows that Electra is in no way a part of the family that Orestes has come to turn out of the house he means to reclaim. It is also worth noting that it was common for mourners in ancient Greece to tear at their clothing and hair. This has probably contributed to modern costuming of Electra as wearing rags and having her hair in disarray. These would be in keeping not only with her low status but also with her unending mourning for her father, Agamemnon.

How does the chorus treat Electra in the Parados of Electra?

In Electra the chorus is a group of Mycenaean women who support and comfort Electra, as well as offer advice. The chorus uses several arguments in its attempts to get her to stop mourning Agamemnon and antagonizing her mother and stepfather. It supports her position when it speaks of her "false mother" and expresses the wish that "the author of" Agamemnon's murder may "perish." Yet the chorus also questions why Electra is "enamoured of misery" and reminds her that her sisters and brothers are alive and have also lost their father. At this point in the play, the chorus advocates that Electra take a more pragmatic position in response to Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The women ask her to leave things to Zeus, Agamemnon (whom the Greeks believed was still a king in the afterlife), and Apollo. Then they advise her "to say no more" because her "conduct" "greatly aggravate[s her] troubles, ever breeding wars with [her] sullen soul; but such strife should not be pushed to a conflict with the strong." Despite Electra's refusal to accept any of the chorus's comfort or counsel, the women treat her affectionately and patiently, in effect, maternally. They even say they speak "in love, like a true-hearted mother." In a sense the chorus takes the place of Electra's mother; after all, Clytemnestra has completely abandoned that role, having ceased to support or care for Electra at all. As the Parados ends and the play begins, the Chorus Leader confirms this interpretation when she says, "I came, my child, in zeal for thy welfare no less than for mine own; but if I speak not well, then be it as thou wilt; for we will follow thee." As might be expected of a truly loving mother, she accepts Electra's decision and supports it.

In Electra how are Orestes and Electra alike and different?

As brother and sister both Electra and Orestes have been orphaned through their father's death and faced their mother's rejection. Both are committed to the same goal: revenge on their father's murderers. And both are exiles. Orestes is a literal exile, having fled his homeland and been raised abroad. Although she still lives in what was once her father's palace, Electra is exiled from her family and rank because she is treated as a slave. But there are also significant differences between the two, most of which stem from gender. As a man Orestes has more freedom and power in society. He is expected to take action, such as avenging his father's murder. As a woman Electra lacks social power, although she is ready to resist her gender role as she makes her own plan for revenge when she learns of Orestes's death and believes she has no other choice. Because of their different genders, Orestes also has the freedom to marry and produce heirs. Electra, however, can be prevented from marrying and producing heirs by her mother and stepfather. Because of these differences, time passes differently for each of them. While Orestes feels the pressure of time moving forward, forcing him to act, Electra feels the weight of time holding her in place while she waits for Orestes's return.

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