Electra | Study Guide


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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the motifs in Sophocles's play Electra.

Electra | Motifs and Style


Cursed Bloodline and Revenge

The family's cursed bloodline is frequently mentioned in Electra. As the Greek audience would have known, Agamemnon's bloodline had been tainted when his grandfather Pelops deviously murdered two people in his quest to marry a princess. One of his victims, Myrtilus, cursed Pelops and his descendants, who proceed to slaughter each other down the centuries. In the Prologos, Paedagogus points out "the house of the Pelopidae ... so often stained with bloodshed." At the end of the play, as Aegisthus is led off to death, he remarks, "Is this dwelling doomed to see all woes of Pelops' line, now, and in time to come?" (Exodos). These words may also invoke the tension between fate and free will and between justice and revenge. Since the family is cursed to slaughter one another, to what extent do the characters choose their actions? Likewise to what extent do they meaningfully invoke justice in their actions, given that revenge begets more revenge?

Disguise and Deception

In Electra people are not always as they appear and do not always speak the truth. This is immediately clear in the Prologos, when Orestes and his companions discuss their revenge plot, which involves multiple layers of deception. Paedagogus must masquerade as a messenger, and Orestes, Pylades, and Orestes's attendants as no more than bearers of Orestes's funeral urn. Chrysothemis claims to believe her sister Electra is right about their father's murder, but is subservient to her mother and Aegisthus as the rulers of Mycenae. Clytemnestra pretends that she took revenge on Agamemnon purely out of grief for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, but has hidden personal and political motives for his murder. Even Electra, who has been ruthlessly honest and refused to mask her mourning for years, must disguise her joy about her brother being alive.

Deception also plays a key role in the chain of murders that constitutes the curse on the bloodline of the House of Atreus, from Pelops's fixing a chariot race, to Clytemnestra's devious plan to murder Agamemnon, to hiding Clytemnestra's body under a covering in order to surprise Aegisthus.

The Dead

Electra revolves around the role of the dead in the world of the living. The Greeks believed that the dead were alive in the Underworld and remained alive as long as they were remembered by the living. Agamemnon, for example, though dead, is still present to the living in two ways: in the hearts of his children, especially Electra and Orestes, whose revenge is fueled by his ongoing presence in their lives, and as a portent, or warning sign, in Clytemnestra's dream.


Mourning and lamentation is a continual motif throughout the first half of the play. Electra's first utterance—from offstage—is "Ah me, ah me!" as she mourns her dead father, Agamemnon, who died several years before. Orestes wants to "stay here and listen to her laments," but Paedagogus calls him away to pour libations on Agamemnon's grave—another form of mourning. Electra then continues to mourn, which the audience learns she does all day every day. Orestes's supposed death fuels her grief, and when she gets the chance to mourn over his ashes, she clutches the urn to her and laments further.

The motif is absent in the second half of Electra. From the moment Orestes reveals himself to Electra, her joy outweighs her sorrow, and events move so rapidly toward resolution that there is no more time for mourning. Even Aegisthus, upon seeing his wife Clytemnestra's corpse, has no time to mourn her since he is immediately confronted by Orestes and taken into the house to be killed.


The concept of time is mentioned repeatedly in Electra, but from different perspectives. Until Orestes returns, Electra has been frozen in time, unable to move beyond the moment when she lost her father and had to send her beloved brother into exile. The years have passed without lessening her grief. The audience knows it has been years because Orestes points out in the Prologos that his old tutor has aged and "the lapse of time, will prevent them from recognising" him. But for Electra, her grief over her father's death is never-ending, despite the chorus's assurance that "time is a god who makes rough ways smooth" (Parados).

When revenge is discussed, however, the play focuses on the swift movement of time. It is dangerous to hesitate and better to act while you have the chance. For this reason Paedagogus opens the play by exhorting his companions to act quickly: "The time allows not of delay, but is full ripe for deeds" (Prologos). He returns to this idea of time pressing them to act quickly in Episode 3: "This is my counsel to you twain ... now is the time to act; now Clytemnestra is alone ... but, if ye pause, consider that ye will have to fight, not with the inmates alone, but with other foes more numerous and better skilled." Chrysothemis feels the pressure of time as well, repeatedly trying to convince Electra that "now is the time to be wise" (Episode 1).


Juxtaposition is a literary technique that allows an author to compare and contrast two characters, events, or things. Sophocles uses this technique throughout Electra, often contrasting words and deeds by using antithesis, placing something in opposition to something else. Noticeable contrasts are those of life and death (Orestes and Agamemnon), light and darkness ("the sun's bright ray ... the dark night," Prologos), and words and actions ("time allows not of delay, but is full ripe for deeds," Prologos).

Sophocles also juxtaposes characters' actions, such as Electra's and Clytemnestra's prayers to Apollo, to invite the audience to compare and contrast them, thereby offering insight into the themes of the play. Clytemnestra prays to extend her revenge through the death of her son so that she may be protected from his vengeance, while Electra prays for the just fulfillment of Apollo's plan. In addition the contrast between Chrysothemis's and Electra's attitudes toward Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, for example, raises an important and unsettling question: is it wiser to seek revenge or to accept change and move on? The play also contrasts different grave offerings for Agamemnon's or Orestes's grave. Each set of offerings represents the connection between the giver and the deceased. For example Clytemnestra's offerings to Agamemnon are motivated by fear of vengeance, while the daughters' offerings are motivated out of love.

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