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Electra | Study Guide


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Electra | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does Sophocles use literary techniques to emphasize meaning in Chrysothemis's first speech in Electra?

Chrysothemis's first speech relies heavily on juxtaposition. She juxtaposes the differences between Electra's attitude toward Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and her own. While Electra "declaim[s] ... at the public doors" and continues her "vain indulgence of idle wrath," Chrysothemis "care[s] not to seem active, without the power to hurt." At the same time she claims that she is also "grieved at [their] plight" and says, "could I find the strength, I would show what love I bear them." This is verbal irony, which may be seen as another form of juxtaposition. Chrysothemis does not mean to say that she loves Clytemnestra and Aegisthus but that she hates them just as Electra does. Despite her seeming admiration for Electra's strength, Chrysothemis tries to convince her sister to follow what she believes is a more sensible path: "And would that thine own conduct were the same!" In an immediate juxtaposition, she admits to Electra that "right is on the side of thy choice, not of that which I advise." Yet she finishes her comments by reverting to her previous position: "if I am to live in freedom, our rulers must be obeyed in all things." Although she claims to agree with and admire Electra, she favors pragmatism in her dealings with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus in order to protect herself. Chrysothemis's use of juxtaposition may well indicate that she feels some internal turmoil and guilt over her decision to be pragmatic rather than mourning and insisting upon revenge as Electra does.

In Electra how does Clytemnestra's dream affect Electra?

When she hears of Clytemnestra's dream about Agamemnon's scepter, Electra is momentarily lifted out of her mourning. She believes her father "had some part in sending her these appalling dreams" and hopes it is a sign that Orestes will come soon. The dream also empowers her to ask Chrysothemis to throw away Clytemnestra's grave offerings, pointing out that it is "[un]likely that the dead in the tomb should take these honours kindly at her hand, who ruthlessly slew him, like a foeman, and mangled him, and, for ablution, wiped off the blood-stains on his head." Instead Electra convinces her sister to take their own offerings to their father's tomb and to "pray that [Agamemnon] himself may come in kindness from the world below, to aid us against our foes; and that the young Orestes may live to set his foot upon his foes in victorious might." Surprisingly Chrysothemis agrees to do as Electra asks, which probably further raises Electra's hopes. Thus the dream allows Electra to establish a degree of unity between her and her sister. But Chrysothemis still remains self-protective and pragmatic, fearing Clytemnestra's response: "when I attempt this task, aid me with your silence ... for, should my mother hear of it, methinks I shall yet have cause to rue my venture."

In Electra in what ways does Chrysothemis function as a foil to her sister?

A foil is a character whose qualities contrast with and thus emphasize the qualities of another character. Chrysothemis is a bit fearful and, to protect herself, treats Clytemnestra and Aegisthus with a show of respect and obedience. As the audience learns in Episode 1, she is willing to act against them but only if she thinks they won't find out. Her fearfulness, pragmatism, and duplicity contrast sharply with Electra's staunch courage, loyalty to their father, and adherence to truth. These differences are highlighted in the quick exchange of lines (stichomythia) between the sisters, which emphasizes the strong differences in the sisters' attitudes toward their situation. Chrysothemis: But hast thou no care for thy present life? Electra: Aye, my life is marvellously fair. Chyrsothemis: It might be, couldst thou only learn prudence. The audience can see that Chrysothemis, in her fine clothes, might find life more pleasant than Electra does in her rags. But Electra does not consider catering to Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to be mere self-protection, as Chrysothemis does; for her it is a betrayal of their father. Electra: Do not teach me to betray my friends. Chyrsothemis: I do not,—but to bend before the strong. Electra: Thine be such flattery: those are not my ways. Chrysothemis: Tis well, however, not to fall by folly. Electra: I will fall, if need be, in the cause of my sire. This touches a nerve with Chrysothemis, who believes her father would understand her pragmatism. Of course Electra retorts that Chrysothemis is a coward. Chrysothemis: But our father, I know, pardons me for this. Electra: It is for cowards to find peace in such maxims. Chrysothemis: So thou wilt not hearken, and take my counsel? Electra: No, verily; long may be it before I am so foolish. Fortunately when Chrysothemis mentions Clytemnestra's dream, it allows the sisters to draw closer together, at least to some extent, as Chrysothemis becomes complicit in Electra's defiance. Of course she still insists on secrecy, which contrasts with Electra's more honest approach.

What is the perspective of the Chorus in Stasimon 1 of Electra?

In ancient Greek tragedy the Chorus often acted as a seer by predicting future events such as the outcomes of characters' actions. That's the role it takes on here as it interprets Clytemnestra's dream: "If I am not an erring seer and one who fails in wisdom, justice ... will come, triumphant in her righteous strength,—will come ere long ... to avenge." Again the Chorus sides firmly with Electra, casting blame on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the "partners in crime" who "have been fired with passion that hurried them to a forbidden bed, to accursed bridals, to a marriage stained with guilt of blood." However, although the Chorus is sure the dream must bode ill for the two murderers, the epode of the stasimon reminds the audience that the curse is unlikely to end once revenge against Clytemnestra and Aegithus is complete: "For since Myrtilus" who cast the curse that afflicts the house of Pelops, "sank to rest beneath the waves ... this house was never yet free from misery and violence." Thus the Chorus casts a sense of foreboding over Electra's moment of hope, emphasizing the unending nature of revenge.

What does Electra mean in saying she is "no unworthy child" to Clytemnestra in Electra?

When Electra draws her comparison between her mother and herself, she refers to certain character traits of which her mother accuses her: disloyalty (to Clytemnestra), petulance (for her general sullenness and bad temper), and impudence (for not showing respect to her mother and stepfather). Electra suggests that these characteristics apply to Clytemnestra herself. She considers her mother disloyal to both Agamemnon and their children ("the stainless offspring of a stainless marriage"). She feels that Clytemnestra is also petulant in her treatment of her daughter, as her first words to Electra demonstrate: "At large once more, it seems, thou rangest,—for Aegisthus is not here, who always kept thee at least from passing the gates, to shame thy friends." Finally Clytemnestra is impudent not only in her lack of respect for Agamemnon and their children, but even to the gods. She claims she killed Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter to Artemis, but he did so only because Artemis had demanded the sacrifice of him. She also uses this rationale to mask other motives for killing him: political gain and marriage to Aegisthus. But Electra's words suggest that the similarity between her and her mother goes even deeper. Just as Clytemnestra engaged in a revenge plot against Agamemnon (Aegisthus also bore him a grudge on his father's behalf) and murdered him, Electra longs to take a similar revenge on her father's murderers. Electra implies this when she says, "base deeds are taught by base."

In Electra Episodes 1 and 2 what is the effect of the repetition of the words "blood for blood"?

The phrase "blood for blood" is uttered three times in Electra and poetically develops the theme of justice and revenge. It also references the motif of the cursed bloodline of the Pelopidae. In Episode 1 Electra says "For if the hapless dead is to lie in dust and nothingness, while the slayers pay not with blood for blood, all regard for man, all fear of heaven, will vanish from the earth." She refers to her father, Agamemnon, as the "hapless dead." "The slayers" are, of course, her mother and stepfather, who she believes must be killed as they killed Agamemnon, thus paying "with blood for blood." As long as they have not paid, duty to family and to the gods cannot be fulfilled, and neither human nor divine justice can prevail. Electra returns to this idea of justice in Episode 2. She points out that her mother appears to share this view of justice as blood for blood, when Clytemnestra claims that her murder of Agamemnon was justified because he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia. But Electra accuses her mother of having had a hidden agenda: Clytemnestra gained power as a result of murdering Agamemnon and she was personally motivated by her affair with Aegisthus as well. Electra ultimately turns the idea of blood for blood against her mother, saying "if we are to take blood for blood, thou wouldst be the first to die, didst thou meet with thy desert." The Chorus also echoes the phrase in the Exodos after Orestes has killed Clytemnestra: "The curses are at work; the buried live; blood flows for blood, drained from the slayers by those who died of yore." This time though, in the Chorus's role as seer, its echo of this theme also carries a warning that because the curse on the Pelopidae is involved, the cycle of revenge might not be over for the family. The Chorus also refers to the motif of the dead and their effect on the world of the living; Orestes, who is alive, acts on behalf of his dead father, Agamemnon.

How does Episode 2 of Electra portray the role of women in Greek society?

Ancient Greek society was dominated by men. Women were largely considered passive. After all, even in the backstory of Electra, Clytemnestra did not kill Agamemnon by herself; she needed Aegisthus's help. From Clytemnestra's first lines in Episode 2, it is clear that Aegisthus dominates the household. She says that Electra is only outside because he is not home and that "since he is absent, [Electra takes] no heed of" Clytemnestra. Later she threatens, "thou shalt not fail to pay for this boldness, so soon as Aegisthus returns." This reflects the paternalistic nature of Greek society; as the father, Aegisthus rules the house. Electra is also trapped by the male-dominated culture. She is unable to fulfill her duty and avenge her father herself. This is not only due to her lesser physical strength as a female but also because she cannot act outside the confines of her gender as dictated by Greek culture. Women mourn, so she continues visibly and disruptively mourning (a pervasive motif in Electra). But for justice to be carried out, she is dependent on her brother, Orestes. She has been waiting anxiously for him to come, expecting him to arrive at any time. When informed that he is dead, Electra despairs: "I am lost ... I am undone!" revealing the extent to which her identity depends on her brother. Yet she then plans to enact the revenge herself when she learns of Orestes's death. While the prescribed gender roles are certainly present in the play, Sophocles shows Electra ready to break out of these constraints as a last resort. Electra's ultimate inaction, however, may diminish the significance of these intentions.

How does Sophocles make use of juxtaposition in Episode 2 of Electra?

In Episode 2 Electra suffers a second reversal of mood and fortune. Hearing of Clytemnestra's dream in Episode 1 gave her hope, but she is plunged into despair when she hears of Orestes's death. She has good reason for despair. She is bereft of her brother, whom she loved so dearly. He represented her last hope for revenge on her father's killers so her father's bloodline could reclaim the throne of Argos. Finally Orestes was her only true friend and ally (aside from the Chorus, which is impotent by definition since it can only comment and never act). After Clytemnestra leaves, Electra contrasts the "weeping and wailing" that might be expected of a mother who has just learned her son is dead with Clytemnestra's actual response: "she left us with a laugh!" But Electra is genuinely devastated by the news. Juxtaposing references to life and death, she cries out, "Dearest Orestes, how is my life quenched by thy death!" and "let them slay me; for 'tis a grace, if I die, but if I live, a pain; I desire life no more."

How is the messenger speech in Electra an example of dramatic irony?

Superficially the messenger in Electra is a stranger bringing news of a death—a perfectly normal event in a Greek tragedy. Such plays often included a stranger acting as a messenger to convey violent actions that were not allowed to be shown onstage. But this messenger is not a stranger. He is Paedagogus, the former tutor of Agamemnon's children, now a friend and advisor to Orestes. Like a traditional messenger Paedagogus is supposed to bring the news that Orestes was killed in a chariot race. However he only does so as part of Orestes's plot for revenge. In a pivotal piece of dramatic irony (which arises when the audience knows something the characters do not), Sophocles's audience knows the entire speech is a fabrication. It is part of a plan designed to gain Orestes entrance into the palace, a plan that will end in the death of Clytemnestra, who listens to the speech with a mistaken sense of relief. Thus the speech is not actually a messenger speech in the traditional sense at all, but an artful piece of misinformation and manipulation. The messenger speech in Electra also juxtaposes words and action. It does not relate an actual deed; instead, his delivery of false words to Clytemnestra is a deed that furthers the revenge plot.

In Electra why does Paedagogus include so many specific details in his messenger speech?

Some critics have disparaged the messenger speech in Electra as nothing more than Sophocles showing off his writing skills. But there are good reasons why the speech must be so detailed and compelling. Paedagogus has to convince Clytemnestra that Orestes is dead. Only then will she drop her guard and invite the three conspirators into the palace. In order to convince her Paedagogus claims to have been present at Orestes's death. To prove this he provides extensive details about the chariot race, building the scene and suspense in such a way that his listeners can imagine being there themselves. He describes where the competitors came from, the horses that drew their chariots, and the action of the race. He includes sensory impressions throughout—"the noise of rattling chariots," the flying dust, how "the breath of the horses foamed and smote." His description of the accident that kills Orestes is convincingly realistic: "slackening his left rein while the horse was turning, unawares he struck the edge of the pillar; he broke the axle-box in twain; he was thrown over the chariot-rail; ... as he fell on the ground, his colts were scattered into the middle of the course." Based on Paedagogus's story, since his was the only chariot involved, there can be no mistake that it was Orestes who died, although his body was unrecognizable. Paedagogus appears to pay careful attention to his listeners' reactions. When he sees they are convinced, he prepares them for the next element in the plot: the arrival of the urn. As was usual for a person killed away from home, Orestes's body was burnt, he says, and the ashes placed in a funeral urn, which will arrive shortly. His tale is so successful that Clytemnestra invites him into the house, unknowingly setting the stage for her own death.

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