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Electra | Study Guide


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Electra | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Episode 2 of Electra what does the audience learn about Clytemnestra's feelings for Orestes when she hears of his death?

Clytemnestra's immediate reaction is mixed: "O Zeus, what shall I call these tidings,—glad tidings? Or dire, but gainful? 'Tis a bitter lot, when mine own calamities make the safety of my life." Crying "O Zeus" gives an impression of spontaneity, so the audience may assume that Clytemnestra's reaction is sincere. Her response also seems honest since she admits that Orestes's death is her gain because it makes her safe from his revenge. Thus it is likely that she does feel some maternal pain about his death, which she explains as the "strange power [of] motherhood; a mother may be wronged, but she never learns to hate her child." It may be that Paedagogus is surprised by this show of honest maternal affection, as he says, "Then it seems that we have come in vain." Does this mean that the revenge plot is off? Is he thinking better of it? Whether he is or not Clytemnestra's next words show that she has had enough time for the message to sink in: she is safe from Orestes's vengeance. She complains that "neither by night nor by day could sweet sleep cover mine eyes, but from moment to moment I lived in fear of death. Now ... I am rid of terror from him" and goes on to say, "his state is well." If the tutor had any doubts, this convinces him that Clytemnestra's maternal sorrow was no more than a passing emotion; her dominant response is relief, and her comments to Electra show spite rather than maternal feeling: "Thy coming, sir, would deserve large recompense, if thou hast hushed her clamorous tongue."

What narrative techniques does Sophocles employ in the opening of Episode 3 of Electra?

The episode opens with a clever use of dramatic irony. When Chrysothemis enters the stage, she immediately cries, "Joy wings my feet, dear sister, not careful of seemliness, if I come with speed; for I bring joyful news, to relieve thy long sufferings and sorrows." She has found Orestes's offerings at their father's grave and correctly deduced that he has returned. Electra calls her "mad" and accuses her of "laughing at my sorrows, and thine own." Electra believes she has heard proof of Orestes's death from Paedagogus (disguised as a messenger), but the audience knows that Chrysothemis is absolutely right. Despite the logic of Chrysothemis's deduction and the truth of her assertion, the well-told lie is more convincing to Electra, who can therefore explain away the grave offerings as having been given in Orestes's memory. This juxtaposition of truth and lie also points up the pervasive motif of disguise and deception in the play. Not only has Electra been deceived about Orestes's death, but she unwittingly perpetrates that deceit on her sister.

In Electra Episode 3 why doesn't Electra mention her mother when trying to convince Chrysothemis to join her in avenging their father?

Electra is very cautious, as she understands her sister's pragmatism very well. First she secures Chrysothemis's agreement to "lighten the load of our present trouble" and "be brave in doing what I enjoin." Still distraught over learning of Orestes's supposed death, Chrysothemis agrees, though she hedges a bit, saying "if any good can be done, I will not refuse." Then Electra focuses on Aegisthus, cataloguing his major wrongs against them, but never mentions their mother. She says Aegisthus is their "father's murderer" and points out that he will never let either of them marry. Their stepfather, she says, "is not so ill-advised as ever to permit that children should spring from thee or me for his own sure destruction." Any male child of Electra or Chrysothemis would have a claim on the throne of Argos, as Agamemnon's heir. Matricide was considered a particularly terrible crime. Electra hopes that by focusing on Aegisthus rather than their mother, she will make the deed more acceptable to her sister, assuming that it will be easier for Chrysothemis to imagine killing Aegisthus than their mother. After all neither Electra nor Chrysothemis are fond of their stepfather or have the kind of sentimental bond with him that they might form with their mother. But Electra's tactic fails. Chrysothemis says vengeance is a man's work and that Electra is sure to fail. As usual, she counsels Electra to "learn ... prudence, at last though late, of yielding, when so helpless, to thy rulers"—their mother and stepfather.

How does Electra's interaction with Chrysothemis in Episode 3 of Electra change Electra's behavior?

The messenger's arrival between Electra's two conversations with her sister drives the plot forward. In Episode 1 Chrysothemis is convinced by a hopeful Electra to take the sisters' offerings to their father's grave. Electra believes that Clytemnestra's dream portends Orestes's imminent return. However, when Chrysothemis returns in Episode 3, she finds a despondent Electra and rebuffs Electra's desperate attempts to persuade her to take action against Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Her sister's negative response makes Electra desperate enough to decide to act on her own, taking on the duty to her father and to the gods that she believes Orestes can no longer fulfill. For the moment Electra becomes the hero, the avenger. She decides to cease being a person of words (mourning and accusations) and to become a person of deeds (revenge).

How does Electra's decision to avenge her father in Episode 3 of Electra relate to the juxtaposition of word and deed?

Despite her best intentions Electra's words will never be translated into deeds. Chrysothemis believes Electra cannot act because of her gender, reminding her that she is "a woman, not a man, and no match for [her] adversaries in strength." She fears that "plotting to vanquish a foe so strong" may cause Electra to "change [their] evil plight to worse." After rehashing their differences Electra sends Chrysothemis away, saying, "never will I follow thee, however much thou mayst desire it; it were great folly even to attempt an idle quest." The audience knows, though, that Electra's own quest is idle. She will not act because Orestes has already set his revenge plan in motion. Her words are as empty as the urn that is supposed to contain her brother's ashes. Yet her words, unlike the urn, are honest and sincerely meant. This juxtaposition between words and actions raises a question regarding Sophocles's intent behind the characterization of Electra. Is it possible that she, as the character after whom the play is named, represents more than words and passivity, or in her endless reactions to both truth and deception, does she represent simply the power of hate and loyalty to keep one locked in passion but, ultimately, inaction?

In Strophe 1 of Stasimon 3 of Electra why does the chorus talk about birds, Zeus, and Themis?

By invoking birds, Zeus, and Themis, the chorus juxtaposes natural law and divine law, indicating its belief that Electra has chosen to act in accordance with both. The chorus speaks of the natural law that leads birds to care for their young and assumes that young birds also tend their parents. It contrasts this with the ways of humans, who, if Agamemnon's family is any guide, freely betray, abandon, and even kill one another. Zeus, the ruler of the gods, was an enforcer of natural law, which is why the chorus says at the end of the stasimon that, by deciding to punish her father's murderers, Electra is showing "piety towards Zeus." (Zeus was often associated with birds in that the eagle was one of his sacred animals, so it was natural for Sophocles to link Zeus with birds.) Themis was the goddess of law and order and was Zeus's high councilor. For the Greeks her name was synonymous with divine law. This is why the chorus links the two of them with the punishment of human sin: "by the lightning-flash of Zeus, by Themis throned in heaven, it is not long till sin brings sorrow."

What insight into both Electra and Clytemnestra does the audience gain from Electra's monologue as she holds the urn in Episode 4 of Electra?

Electra believes that the urn contains the ashes of her younger brother. Although it does not, in this scene the urn still functions as a symbol of loss. As Electra grieves over the urn, she recalls the child Orestes—"thou wert radiant, my child"—sounding more like his mother than his sister. As she continues her words confirm this impression: "For thou wast never thy mother's darling so much as mine; nor was any in the house thy nurse but I." Her longing to have been there to tend his dead body ("woe is me, these loving hands have not washed or decked thy corpse") and her desire to join him in death ("now I fain would die, that I may not be parted from thee in the grave") are reactions that might be expected from a newly bereaved mother. When Clytemnestra learns of Orestes's death, her overwhelming response is relief because he can no longer take revenge upon her. Her lack of maternal grief might be shocking to the audience, but this revelation offers some insight into Clytemnestra's distance from her children. This would also make her animosity and resentment toward Electra more understandable. Of course it is also possible that Clytemnestra's distance from Electra and Orestes is what prompted them to form a bond that went beyond that of siblings to one more like that of mother and child.

In Episode 4 of Electra what does Electra's description of her sufferings to Orestes reveal about their relationship?

Electra believes she is explaining to a stranger the extremity of her reaction to her brother's ashes. In reality, of course, she is explaining her situation to her brother himself. As she holds the urn that symbolizes the loss of her brother as well as all her hope for revenge, she reaches her lowest point after many years of daily suffering. Orestes has been living abroad in a palace as a prince. His exchange of letters with Electra and his conversations with his former tutor are all he has known about the situation before now. He has had no direct experience of it since Electra shielded him by rushing him away immediately after their father's murder. Therefore Orestes has no understanding of the suffering that has afflicted Electra or even Chrysothemis. He has not seen how Aegisthus and Clytemnestra have treated his sisters or the people of Argos who continued to show loyalty to Agamemnon's line. In the Prologos he only knows that he is there to carry out the oracle's instructions. Now Orestes sees firsthand how much Electra has suffered, which thrusts him into emotional maturity. He suddenly understands both the effects of the situation on those who have been living them day after day and that his deception has added to Electra's suffering. He also realizes that his planned acts of vengeance will not only fulfill a duty to Apollo but will also end Electra's years of frustration and mistreatment.

Why does Orestes insist that Electra return the urn before revealing himself to her in Episode 4 of Electra?

"Give up this urn, then, and thou shalt be told all," says Orestes, but Electra begs him not to be "cruel" by taking away her "chief treasure." He insists, finally telling her the urn does not contain Orestes's ashes and that "a fiction dothed them with his name." Only then does she allow him to remove the urn from her arms and he finally reveals that he is, in fact, her brother. There are two reasons why Electra must give up the urn, which symbolizes both loss and deceit, before Orestes can reveal himself. The first is a practical one. The urn buys Orestes and his allies access to Clytemnestra. The plotters need the urn intact in order to give it to her. If Electra keeps it their plan is ruined. If she keeps it, learns it does not contain Orestes's ashes, and somehow damages it, the result is equally catastrophic. So, to keep the urn safe and move forward with their revenge plot, they need the urn. On a symbolic level Electra must let go of the urn so she may cease mourning an unreal loss in order to take her real brother into her arms and rejoice. The act of relinquishing the urn is an act of relinquishing her constant lamentation. When she has let it go, she is so overwhelmed with happiness that she is briefly in danger of losing her otherwise obsessive focus on avenging her father.

In Electra how are the messenger scene in Episode 2 and the urn scene in Episode 4 similar?

Both scenes are dominated by dramatic irony and the motif of disguise and deception. In both, Electra is in deep despair over Orestes's death, grieving over the loss of her brother and the end of her hope that he will avenge their father. But, as the audience well knows, Electra is actually the victim of a deception by Paedagogus and Orestes. Her supposedly dead brother is actually alive. In the messenger scene, Electra pays rapt attention to Paedagogus's story of Orestes's death during the chariot race, then breaks down in response to this complete fabrication. Similarly in the urn scene she cradles and grieves over an empty urn that the audience knows is merely a prop that does not actually contain her brother's ashes. But both scenes are necessary if the revenge she so desires is to take place because the messenger's lie and the empty urn are integral to the success of Orestes's plot to take revenge on Aegisthus and Clytemnestra.

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