Electra | Study Guide


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

Electra | Symbols


For the most part, Greek drama generally relied on symbols that were mentioned by the actors rather than appearing as actual objects onstage. Sophocles was innovative by including actual props onstage to act as potent symbols.

Empty Urn

The funeral urn is supposed to contain Orestes's ashes. Of course the audience knows from the start of the play that Orestes is alive and well. While any funeral urn is a symbol of loss, this one is also a symbol of the deceit on which the action of the play turns.

But when Electra and Clytemnestra first encounter the urn, each believes it holds Orestes's remains. The reaction of each woman—first to the urn as representation of his death and then to the truth that that representation is a sham—is very different. When Electra first sees the urn, she takes it in her arms and treats it almost as if it she were Orestes's mother. Clytemnestra's reaction to the urn is to decorate it for burial as required by society; the urn is empty of ashes just as Clytemnestra is empty of maternal love and grief. The urn also represents both women's futures: because it is empty, it signifies that Electra's vengeance is not dead, and also that Clytemnestra's fate is sealed.

Grave Offerings

Grave offerings are discussed in Electra but are not actually physically present on the stage. In Greek society remembering the dead ensured their immortality and was considered a social, civic, and religious obligation. Graves of the wealthy and powerful were decorated with elaborate painted statuary featuring not only the deceased but also family members and other mourners. People, mostly women, regularly visited the graves of their dead to leave offerings, including mementoes, valuables, food, and drinks (known as libations). Such offerings ensured that the dead person was nourished in the afterlife. In the play for example, Chrysothemis discovers milk has been poured on Agamemnon's grave (Episode 3); from this libation, garlands of flowers, and especially a freshly cut lock of hair, she deduces that Orestes has returned from exile.

In Electra several sets of grave offerings are discussed: Clytemnestra's, the sisters', and Orestes's. In each case they represent the emotional attachment of the giver to the person who has died. Clytemnestra has sent funeral libations (via Chrysothemis) not to show devotion to Agamemnon but because she is rattled by her dream about him. As a result, Electra tells her sister to throw the libations "to the winds" or "bury them deep in the earth" and substitute their own offerings—Electra's belt and a lock of hair from each sister. At least these would be gifts of true filial love rather than "offerings of enmity" (Episode 1). Like the sisters' choices, Orestes's offerings are personal, including a lock of his hair.


The skēne was a tent-like structure or large facade that was part of the staging of Greek drama, useful as a combination changing room and backstage area. Greek playwrights tended to make good use of the skēne in their plots. In Sophocles's Electra the skēne serves as the palace of the rulers of Mycenae and therefore the home of Clytemnestra, her daughters, and her husband Aegisthus. The palace also represents Agamemnon's bloodline—the House of Atreus (sometimes called the Pelopidae dynasty or the House of Atreidae)—including past, present, and future generations.

However, at the start of the play, what was once Electra's home has become her prison, for she is not allowed to leave the palace unless Aegisthus is away. Electra's incessant grieving allows no one to forget that the palace was formerly Agamemnon's home and Orestes's as well. The hearth—considered the heart of any home—was the scene of Agamemnon's murder. It is also the setting of Clytemnestra's dream about her husband's family tree growing to overshadow the kingdom, and it becomes the place Orestes chooses to execute his father's murderers.


In general a king's scepter is a symbol of his authority. Agamemnon's scepter is also a reminder of how power is passed down the generations. It originally belonged to the god Zeus, having been crafted for Zeus by his blacksmith brother Hephaestus. The messenger god, Hermes, gave it to Pelops, Agamemnon's grandfather. From there it passed down to Pelops's son Atreus (Agamemnon's father), then to Atreus's brother Thyestes (Aegisthus's father), and eventually to Agamemnon; then Aegisthus took it into his possession.

In Clytemnestra's dream, Agamemnon's scepter, which Aegisthus now wields, is back in Agamemnon's hand. When he strikes the hearth with it, a tree shoots up and overshadows all of Mycenae. In this way his scepter becomes a symbol inElectraof the dominance and rule of Agamemnon's descendants.

Questions for Symbols

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