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Electra | Episode 1 | Summary

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Summary

Electra recounts her mother's misdeeds. Not only did Clytemnestra murder her husband, but she and Aegisthus, who helped her commit the murder, live together as husband and wife. She rules with him; she sleeps with him. And each year she happily celebrates Agamemnon's death. She also berates Electra for continuing to mourn Agamemnon and for saving Orestes, whose possible return is a constant worry. The chorus Leader asks whether Orestes is coming soon. Electra says he always promises to come but never does.

Electra's younger sister Chrysothemis comes out of the palace, dressed in finery. She has a different take on how to deal with their mother and Aegisthus. Even though she knows Electra is right, she feels she had no power to act and so must be pragmatic, or practical: in order to keep her freedom, she must obey them as "rulers." Electra says this is equivalent to siding with their father's murderers. Chrysothemis warns Electra to stop mourning so openly because she will be locked away in a dungeon if she continues to make a fuss. Electra refuses.

Chrysothemis says she is on the way to their father's grave with funeral libations from their mother. Clytemnestra is terrified by a nightmare in which Agamemnon returns and plants his scepter in the hearth, which sprouts into a tree "wherewith the whole land of Mycenae was overshadowed." The news pleases Electra, who tells her sister not to take the libations to the tomb but to throw them away, replacing them with libations from the sisters instead. Chrysothemis agrees but still begs Electra not to tell anyone what she has done.

Analysis

Episode 1 introduces the conflict between Electra and her sister Chrysothemis, which represents the conflict between loyalty and pragmatism. Electra is loyal, honest to a fault, and filled with the passion of vengeance and grief. Chrysothemis is more practical than emotional. She tends to observe rather than act, studying a situation from various angles to determine how it best benefits her survival. She is willing to express love and loyalty for her father—but only as long as it doesn't get her in trouble.

In Electra Sophocles makes frequent use of dramatic irony, which occurs when the audience knows something the characters do not. When, for example, Electra tells the chorus that Orestes "promises to come; but he never fulfils the promise," this is an instance of dramatic irony because the audience knows that Orestes is already in Mycenae and plans to fulfill his promise of vengeance that very day.

Electra says that Clytemnestra "fear[s] no Erinys." The Erinyes—also called the Furies—were the Greek goddesses of vengeance. These goddesses, who usually came in threes, hunted down and punished anyone who transgressed the laws of nature, targeting especially murderers, oath-breakers, and those who commit crimes against the gods or their parents. (The Greek audience would be aware that, after killing his mother, Orestes was himself pursued by the Erinyes.) Electra soon amends her statement to admit that her mother does fear one avenger, namely Orestes. Clytemnestra's response to her dream, as related by Chrysothemis, is evidence that she cannot shake this fear.

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