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Electra | Study Guide


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Electra | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Electra why does Orestes wait so long before revealing himself to Electra?

Based on what the audience learned in the Prologos, Electra was never intended to be a part of the revenge plot, which originated with Apollo. With Orestes's fine-tuning the plot is complete, and Orestes, Paedagogus, and Pylades intend to carry it out themselves. The deception that Orestes is dead and that this group of people has arrived to bring his ashes home is integral to the plot's success. Telling anyone about it, including Electra, could jeopardize its success. But when he hears how deeply Electra is hurt by his supposed death and realizes how much emotion and energy she has invested in the idea of revenge over the years, Orestes "can restrain [his] lips no longer." Allowing her to suffer may have been a kind of test of Electra's loyalty. It seems that her sincere grief and despair have proved her commitment to their goal and her trustworthiness, and Orestes spontaneously decides to tell her of the revenge plot.

Why in Electra does Orestes tell Electra to make sure Clytemnestra cannot "read ... thy secret in thy radiant face"?

There are two reasons for this warning: one related to the plot of Electra and another related to how Greek tragedies were staged. Orestes is concerned that Electra's happiness will be apparent to her mother the moment Clytemnestra sees her, thus revealing that he is not dead and warning Clytemnestra that she is in danger. After all Electra is generally completely honest and transparent; up to now she has refused to lie to her mother. But Electra assures him that she would not ever cause him "the least pain" and that she also realizes she must act deceptively in order to serve Apollo. In this way, Electra, who has always criticized Chrysothemis for hiding her true feelings, agrees to do just that, becoming a human version of the empty urn. Anyway, she says, she hates her mother so much that Clytemnestra would never "see [her] face lit up with smiles." The actors in a Greek tragedy wore huge masks that enabled the actors to be seen and heard throughout the large amphitheaters in which the plays were performed. Orestes's admonition to Electra makes it believable to the audience that, despite her joy, Electra's face will remain frozen in an unhappy expression.

In Episode 4 of Electra why does Paedagogus refuse to relate details about Clytemnestra's feelings?

Electra and Orestes's conversation is interrupted by Paedagogus coming out of the palace. Immediately Orestes questions him on how their plot is progressing. The tutor answers until asked about the response to the news that Orestes is dead: Orestes: What, then, will be my prospects when I enter? Paedagogus: Good; for thou art secured from recognition. Orestes: Thou hast reported me, I presume, as dead? Paedagogus: Know that here thou art numbered with the shades. Orestes: Do they rejoice, then, at these tidings? Or what say they? Paedagogus: I will tell thee at the end; meanwhile, all is well for us on their part—even that which is not well. It may be that once again Paedagogus doesn't want to waste time by talking about the situation at this moment. After all he says shortly afterward that "now is the time to act; now Clytemnestra is alone ... but, if ye pause, consider that ye will have to fight ... with other foes more numerous and better skilled." On the other hand he may be concerned that, if Orestes heard Clytemnestra felt some sincere grief over her son's death, he might hesitate to act or even refuse to kill his mother. Matricide was frowned on not only in natural law, but also in human law and divine law. Although Apollo instructed him to kill Clytemnestra, Orestes is a young man who has not seen his mother for nearly a decade. Moreover he has already deviated from the god's plan by revealing himself, Paedagogus, and the plan itself to Electra.

What aspects of Orestes's and Electra's personalities in Electra demonstrate the technique of juxtaposition, and how do these juxtapositions change by the end of the play?

Despite being siblings with a shared goal of revenge, Orestes's and Electra's personalities have many contrasting characteristics, or juxtapositions: Word versus deed: Orestes is a man of action who has designed and is in the process of implementing a complex revenge plot. Electra, in contrast, is a woman of words. She has not left the palace grounds in a decade, waiting there for Orestes to come and take physical action because she cannot. Instead she can only resort to verbal accusations against her mother and stepfather. Allied versus alone: Orestes moves in public circles, dealing with other nobles and forming alliances. The fact that he has loyal accomplices in Paedagogus and Pylades testifies to this. Electra, on the other hand, is an outcast and alone (except for the moral support offered by the chorus, which cannot act). She cannot even form an alliance with her sister Chrysothemis, who loves her and wants to keep her safe. Deception versus honesty: Orestes easily concocts and executes a plot that hinges on deception. Electra is direct, almost always saying exactly what is on her mind and in her heart. Once Electra is reunited with Orestes, however, she is able to move on from her solitary and brutally honest inaction to round out her personality. She is suddenly in an alliance and is able to contribute to the revenge plot by using deception to trick Aegisthus.

How do Clytemnestra's and Electra's prayers to Apollo function in Sophocles's Electra?

The two prayers to Apollo both parallel and oppose one another in the play. The first occurs in Episode 2. Clytemnestra worries about her safety after her dream of Agamemnon. She begins by complaining she must pray quietly so Electra can't overhear and "with her malice ... spread some rash rumour throughout the town." Clytemnestra asks that her dream "be fulfilled ... for [her] good" or otherwise "recoil upon [her] foes." Throughout her prayer Clytemnestra focuses solely on her own happiness and well-being. She defines other human beings—including her family members—as worthy of Apollo's aid if they wish her well and worthy of his punishment if they wish her ill. Immediately afterward Paedogogus enters and delivers the message that her son, Orestes, is dead, and Clytemnestra mistakenly believes that Apollo has answered her prayers. She does not realize that Orestes is actually still alive and her fate is sealed. The second prayer is Electra's and takes place in Episode 4 as Orestes, Pylades, and Paedagogus also pray immediately before entering the palace to kill Clytemnestra. In Electra's prayer it is the wishes of her brother and his friends that come first: "graciously hear them, and hear me besides." Her prayer is much shorter than Clytemnestra's and, rather than complaints, contains veneration and abject begging. She offers no gifts, but mentions briefly that she has brought what she could in the past. Electra asks Apollo to help her brother and his allies carry out Apollo's plan and to "show men how impiety is rewarded by the gods." Thus she does not define worthiness according to who favors her but according to dutiful observance of divine law. Shortly after Electra's prayer Clytemnestra is killed. Clytemnestra's selfish prayer is not fulfilled. Electra's humble prayer, on the other hand, is answered.

What are the similarities and differences in Electra between the death of Clytemnestra and the death of her husband, Agamemnon?

Clytemnestra's murder occurs in the same location as Agamemnon's nine years earlier and under similar circumstances. But while some characteristics of the two killings are similar, there are also important differences between them. On the surface both murders appear to be revenge killings. Clytemnestra claims to have wanted Agamemnon killed to avenge their eldest daughter, Iphigenia, because Agamemnon had killed her as a sacrifice to the goddess Artemis. However Clytemnestra's motive for killing her husband may have gone far beyond revenge. She also lusted after another man, her lover Aegisthus, and after political power. With Agamemnon out of the way, she and Aegisthus married and became co-rulers. Although getting rid of her mother and stepfather would certainly improve her social position, Electra, unlike her mother, does not seem motivated by a desire to rule. Her thirst for vengeance is more personal than political. She wants her mother dead because Clytemnestra is responsible for the death of Electra's father. In addition Electra and Orestes's vengeance is sanctioned by a god, Apollo, as opposed to being a supposed act of vengeance in response to a goddess. Finally the second murders are focused more on bloodlines than the first murders. It is one thing to kill your husband, but another to kill your own mother. Electra and Orestes's revenge is enacted against someone who represents an essential link in their own bloodline. Their murder of their mother is therefore more shocking than the murder of Agamemnon. While the women's motivations differ, there is a striking parallel between the murders. Although both women plot the deaths of others, neither one actually commits the crime herself. They rely on male surrogates, or extensions of themselves, in the form of Aegisthus and Orestes, to commit the actual killings. Through her lover's actions Clytemnestra kills her own husband and commits regicide (killing a king). Through her brother's actions Electra commits matricide and regicide. Here Sophocles establishes a situational irony (when what is expected not to happen in fact happens) as Electra unintentionally emulates the actions of the person she most despises: her mother.

In the Exodos of Sophocles's Electra how is the chorus's response to Clytemnestra's death ambiguous?

Even though they clearly agree that Clytemnestra's death was a necessary and just punishment for murdering Agamemnon, the women of the chorus also seem deeply distraught over what is happening. The chorus's response is ambiguous because rather than feeling that Electra and Orestes's revenge has finally provided closure for their family, the chorus sees more trouble ahead. Once Clytemnestra is dead, they sing, "The curses are at work; the buried live; blood flows for blood, drained from the slayers by those who died of yore." They likely refer to Agamemnon, who may be considered to have sought to be avenged through his son's hand. But they also mention "slayers" even though only Clytemnestra has died. This gives the impression that they are actually talking about all the killings and killers that have plagued the family since the curse was laid on Pelops and his offspring. The women say they "heard ... sounds dire to hear, and shuddered." They bring up the curse on the Pelopidae, speaking of the "fate that hath pursued" the "ill-fated realm and race." This suggests that it is all too likely that the cycle of revenge is not over. Orestes has committed matricide, one of the greatest sins, and Clytemnestra has other children by Aegisthus. The chorus appears to foresee another act of revenge in the family's future.

In the Exodos of Electra how does the conversation between Electra and Aegisthus address the theme of loyalty versus pragmatism?

In Chrysothemis's conversations with Electra, she frequently counseled Electra to speak politely to Aegisthus and Clytemnestra and to give the appearance of a dutiful daughter. Electra refused out of loyalty to her father. Now, however, it is exactly that appearance of gentleness and duty that best serves her purposes of vengeance. As Aegisthus reads the situation, Orestes's death has left Electra with no choice but to change her ways. However this is an instance of dramatic irony. As the audience knows, Orestes is alive, and Electra can be calm because she has already succeeded in getting revenge against her mother. In her conversation with Aegisthus, she tells no lies at all: It's just that her words do not mean what Aegisthus believes them to mean; they mean the opposite. She makes pointed, deadly remarks, and all the while Aegisthus believes her to be defeated, and thus within his power. For instance when he asks where the strangers are, Electra tells him, "Within; they have found a way to the heart of their hostess." He understands the reference to Clytemnestra's heart to be figurative, but Electra means it literally. Electra concludes their conversation by saying, "No loyalty is lacking on my part; time hath taught me the prudence of concord with the stronger." This is precisely what Chrysothemis told her to do: to submit to those who are stronger than she. However, it is Orestes who, with a god's backing, has turned out to be the stronger and with whom Electra is allied. In this case, for Electra, loyalty and pragmatism are finally in agreement.

In Electra why does Electra direct Orestes to "slay [Aegisthus] forthwith"?

Aegisthus has just realized that the stranger speaking to him is "none but Orestes" and now requests, "Yet suffer me to say one word." This is the sort of ploy that buys the hero of an adventure movie today just enough time to save his life or allows him to say the one thing that makes his adversary waver. But Electra is ready for Aegisthus to try to save himself. She says to Orestes, "suffer him not to speak further ... When mortals are in the meshes of fate, how can such respite avail one who is to die? No,- slay him forthwith." She wants to silence Aegisthus before he can wriggle out of his situation. She also seems to have lost patience after all these years of waiting. She wants the vengeance to be complete and to move forward with her life, which has been on hold for so long.

In the Exodus of Electra what does Electra mean when she tells Orestes to "cast [Aegisthus's] corpse to the creatures from whom such as he should have burial?

Sophocles makes Electra's words ambiguous. She may be suggesting that Aegisthus's corpse should be left exposed for dogs to devour. This would denigrate the corpse in two ways: first by denying it a proper burial and a tomb where libations could sustain Aegisthus in the afterlife and, second, by equating his body with table scraps. It would also reflect very badly on Electra, as such an act was considered an outrage and barbaric, even for a justified act of revenge. On the other hand, by "creatures" Electra may be referring to Aegisthus's supporters. Agamemnon's children are generally favored over Aegisthus by the people of Argos. This is clear since one of the chorus's functions is to serve as a voice of the people and the chorus has steadfastly supported Electra and Orestes throughout the play. Thus Electra's words might be interpreted as a political statement. If the body were left out for his supporters to bury, this would still dishonor Aegisthus because his corpse would have to be buried secretly. As a result he would again miss out on having a tomb where grave offerings could be left for him.

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