Electra | Study Guide


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Electra | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is the significance of the final exchange between Orestes and Aegisthus at the end of Electra?

With the exception of the chorus's final comment, Electra ends with an exchange between Aegisthus and Orestes. In addition to a few delaying tactics, when he asks to say a few words and challenges Orestes to kill him there on the steps, Aegisthus asks the memorable rhetorical question, "Is this dwelling doomed to see all woes of Pelops' line, now, and in time to come?" In his own lifetime, he has played his role in the cycle of revenge that plagues the Pelopidae dynasty, having killed both Agamemnon's father (Atreus) and Agamemnon. Now Aegisthus finds himself on the sharp side of the blade and recognizes that, in this family at least, murder breeds murder. Orestes is the last to speak, perhaps hoping to downplay Aegisthus's prophetic statement. Orestes's words make clear that he believes revenge to be justice. He says, "Well it were if this judgment came straightaway upon all who dealt in lawless deeds, even the judgment of the sword: so should not wickedness abound." Justice, according to Orestes, should be swift and final if it is to be effective. Electra was likely written and produced during the final years of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was in decline and experiencing a wave of lawlessness. It is likely that this sort of immediate justice would appeal to Sophocles's audience. Orestes seems to want to believe that when he kills Aegisthus, his act will put an end to the cycle of revenge. But is this possible? After all he has just committed matricide. Orestes may speak last, but Aegisthus may truly have the last word.

What is unusual about the chorus's final song in Electra?

In Greek tragedy the chorus's final ode usually offers some analysis of the events of the play and provides the moral of the story. At the end of Electra, however, the chorus is uncharacteristically abrupt, singing only one sentence: "O house of Atreus, through how many sufferings hast thou come forth at last in freedom, crowned with good by this day's enterprise!" This sentence contains no analysis and offers no moral. Instead the chorus appears to be congratulating the surviving children of Agamemnon, wholeheartedly condoning the deception and murder that has gone on over the course of the day, and predicting that the future of the Pelopidae dynasty is rosy. But after the events of the day, which include matricide, and knowing the history of Electra's cursed bloodline, it is hardly likely that the family is free of the cycle of revenge. It is almost as if Sophocles were making one final dig at the family, and possibly at the notion that revenge is a solution that provides closure.

In what ways does Electra not fit the traditional definition of a tragedy?

Traditionally a tragedy revolves around a noble person who is brought low by a flaw in his or her character. However this does not seem to apply to Electra. She can no longer be said to be a member of the nobility since she is being treated as a servant or slave. In addition she reaches her lowest point in the middle of the play, then her situation suddenly reverses, and the play ends in her triumph over Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Electra is a traditional tragedy only in that its protagonist suffers so greatly, mourning her father, missing out on the support of her sister, being spurned by her mother, and then seemingly losing her younger brother, who was her only hope of deliverance from her misery. Tragedy is also characterized by catharsis, a purging of strong emotions, especially fear and pity, that have built up in the viewer over the course of the play. This is generally accompanied by some insight into the human condition. Catharsis appears to occur for Electra in Episode 4, at the point when she realizes that Orestes is alive. Suddenly Electra's suffering is is over. Yet the audience, although deeply moved by Electra's suffering and joy, can never fully share her catharsis because they see and feel the events from a different perspective than she does. Unlike Electra they have known from the beginning that Orestes is alive and victory is at hand, so the fact that Orestes is alive comes as no surprise. In addition the catharsis that could result from the successful completion of the revenge plot is complicated by the particularly horrifying nature of the crime (matricide). The possibility that the murders will simply extend the family's cycle of revenge, rather than preventing further suffering, also undercuts any sense of catharsis. It is possible that this reality suggests that Electra does, in fact, have something resembling a tragic flaw: her excessive passion and deluded belief that the revenge cycle will end.

In Sophocles's Electra what evidence suggests that Electra is sane, and what evidence suggests that she is insane?

The question of Electra's sanity has aroused debate for centuries. How could anyone grieve for years and not be driven mad by grief? How could a person be rejected by those closest to her, including her own mother, and not be driven mad by loneliness? Many of Electra's words and actions seem to support this notion. She could be considered to be insane to think she can carry out the revenge plot; she is a woman alone hoping to kill a king and queen. This is a self-destructive choice, as her sister constantly points out; self-destruction is a symptom of madness. And even if she could succeed, history tells her that vengeance is self-perpetuating. To indulge in it at all might also be seen as a form of insanity. Finally, after years of being focused on revenge, she almost gives away Orestes's revenge plot by exclaiming loudly and at length over her brother when they are reunited. This extreme and destructive behavior might also be seen as an indication of insanity. However other evidence suggests that her actions are perfectly sane. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus really are villains, so it makes perfect sense to refuse to kowtow to them and to seek to punish them. Electra is logical and quick-thinking when she saves Orestes, and her love for him seems natural; this also indicates that she is sane. Finally Electra understands that what she intends has an element of evil in it; this self-knowledge is a hallmark of clear-minded sanity. It is also unusual in women who take revenge in Greek tragedies.

How is the day on which the action of Sophocles's Electra takes place pivotal for Electra, Orestes, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus?

In one day the characters who live in the palace of Mycenae undergo a reversal of fortune, one all have anticipated to a greater or lesser degree and most have attempted to promote or prevent: Electra begins as a slave and an outcast, locked in perpetual mourning; she ends up a princess surrounded by loved ones and the dead bodies of her persecutors. For Orestes the day is the end of a long journey, the realization of a hope years in the making. He starts the day as an exile who must sneak into his ancestral homeland and ends it as a king of that homeland, reunited with his sisters. In contrast both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus begin the day as monarchs and believe briefly that they have escaped payback for the murder of Agamemnon; but fate catches up with them, and they finish the day as corpses.

How do Sophocles's Electra and Euripides's Electra differ in their portrayal of the main character and their treatment of the revenge theme?

In Sophocles's play Electra has not been allowed to marry but has remained in her family's home as a servant. She is unwavering in her determination to avenge her father's murder and, like her brother, Orestes, feels no compunction whatsoever about killing her mother and Aegisthus. There are hints that Orestes's actions might lead to repercussions, but none of the characters let that deter them from acting or show any concern. Even the chorus, who first advises Electra against revenge, is wholeheartedly on the side of the avengers. Euripides's Electra has been forced to marry a peasant. She actually works harder than one of her mother's slaves and has no time to mope about the palace grounds; she's too busy working her husband's farm. The issue of matricide disturbs everyone involved; Orestes almost doesn't go through with it. After Clytemnestra's death both Electra and Orestes feel deeply guilty about their actions and become remorseful. For the siblings, the chorus, and even the audience, it is hard to decide what is right and what is wrong. A deus ex machina, a character who miraculously arrives to solve a problem, appears and indicates how the brother and sister can achieve absolution. Revenge may be just, Euripides says, but it is not to be taken lightly; some level of atonement is required. In his play Electra and Orestes become exiles. Sophocles may eliminate this moral complexity in order to explore and emphasize the idea of absolute dedication to duty, justice, and revenge.

What role do the city-state and people of Argos play in Sophocles's Electra?

Sophocles's Electra focuses tightly on the house of Atreus: Electra and her immediate family, the descendants of Pelops. But the city-state of Argos and its people are mentioned in the play and represented by the women of the chorus. It is clear that the people do not support the usurpers. Argos is the first thing Paedagogus mentions in the Prologos when he says to Orestes, "There is the ancient Argos of thy yearning." That Orestes should have yearned for Argos establishes the close emotional tie between his family and the citizenry. However the people of Argos do not appear to have a similarly close relationship to Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In Episode 2 Clytemnestra feels she cannot pray openly to Apollo because she worries that Electra will "spread some rash rumour throughout the town." So, even though Electra is confined to the palace and its grounds, she apparently has enough connections in the town to spread negative information to its citizens. This explains why Aegisthus keeps her locked in the palace, where he threatens to lock her away permanently. He fears she will raise the citizenry against him. When he returns in the Exodos, believing that Orestes is dead, he tells Electra to "throw wide the gates, for all Mycenaeans and Argives to behold; that, if any of them were once buoyed on empty hopes from this man, now, seeing him dead, they may receive my curb, instead of waiting till my chastisement make them wise." Aegisthus makes the mistake of thinking that he can threaten the citizens of Argos in order to dominate them. He doesn't realize that he will be dead shortly himself because Orestes, whose dead body he tries to use to control the populace, is alive and will take his place as ruler.

How do the male and female characters in Electra experience place and time differently?

In general Sophocles's male characters interact with time and place dynamically. The men in the play are active, moving from place to place. Orestes and his companions arrive at the beginning of the play after a long journey. They focus first on the features of the place, which remind them of family history and their love of Argos. They also focus on the time of day. In order to fulfill their plan for revenge the men have to resist the passage of time and make good use of the time they have. Paedagogus reminds Orestes about this several times and keeps their plan on schedule. Aegisthus is also traveling. He has left on business and when he returns, he plans to remove Electra from the palace. Aegisthus returns too late, though, and finds that he has run out of time. In contrast the female characters' relationships with place and time are static. The play's female characters are passive, remaining mostly in the palace and its grounds. The passage of time matters little; Electra mourns; Clytemnestra worries; Chrysothemis bides her time. They seem to live in an eternal present—repeating the same arguments and reliving the same emotions. Electra's incessant mourning and the many vivid descriptions of Agamemnon's death make his death present in the play. Electra seems to welcome it; Clytemnestra yearns for release from it. Electra may literally be a prisoner, but Clytemnestra is in effect equally trapped.

In Sophocles's Electra how do the gods affect the lives of mortals?

Although other gods are mentioned during the play, one god truly drives the action: Apollo. Apollo (also known as Phoebus), speaking through his oracle at Delphi, has set Orestes and his companions on their course toward revenge. He went so far as to outline the plan: "Phoebus gave me the response which thou art now to hear:—that alone, and by stealth, without aid of arms or numbers, I should snatch the righteous vengeance of my hand." Also, before embarking on the plan, Orestes must "first crown my father's tomb, as the god enjoined, with drink-offerings and the luxuriant tribute of severed hair." Clytemnestra (in Episode 2) and later Electra and the conspirators (in the Exodos) pray to Apollo. He answers each prayer immediately, granting Electra's prayer but tricking Clytemnestra into believing she is safe based on the false report of Orestes's death. The difference between Electra and many other ancient Greek plays is that Apollo's influence is indirect. Neither he nor any other divinity shows up in person. The agents of the events are all mortal. This raises the question of whether any divine force is really involved at all. This is the same question raised by the chorus in the Parados about Agamemnon's murder: "Guile was the plotter, Lust the slayer, dread parents of a dreadful shape; whether it was mortal that wrought therein, or god." By the time Sophocles was writing plays many Greeks were questioning the existence of the gods.

How do the dead continue to influence the living in Electra?

The dead continue to exert a powerful influence on the living throughout Electra. Agamemnon has been dead for years, but Greek religion held that the dead live on in the underworld, where they are maintained by the grave offerings left for them, especially libations such as milk or wine. Electra and Chrysothemis discuss this when they decide not to leave Clytemnestra's offerings on Agamemnon's tomb, but replace them with their own. Electra suggests she pray that their father "may come in kindness from the world below, to aid us against our foes." The dead are also often kept "alive" because the living cling to their memories of them. Agamemnon is constantly present in Electra's thoughts because she mourns him years after his death, and while he never appears as a character in the play, his presence is vivid. Because of the cycle of revenge each murder victim is, at least figuratively, the agent of his murderer's death, and thus continues to be present in the world of the living. After hearing of Clytemnestra's murder the chorus says that "the buried live; blood flows for blood, drained from the slayers by those who died of yore." In a sense, because of the curse, several generations of the dead are involved in the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus—right back to Myrtilus, who cursed Pelops in the first place.

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