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Electra | Themes

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Sophocles's themes in Electra reflect his interest in the personal relationships that drive the conflicts between and within his characters.

Duty

In Electra duty to family is paramount. However, both camps—Electra, Orestes, and their supporters, on the one hand, and Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, on the other—can claim duty to family as their motivation. Electra and Orestes claim a duty to their murdered father to avenge him; Clytemnestra similarly claims she is motivated by a duty to the daughter Agamemnon killed as a sacrifice to Artemis. Even Aegisthus is motivated by duty to family: Agamemnon's father and Aegisthus's father were brothers who had long fought over the rulership of Mycenae.

People also have a duty to the gods, but for Sophocles this duty is secondary, which is just as well since performing one's duty to the gods can end in trouble—a lesson Agamemnon learned only too well when he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis. Still Orestes has been told by Apollo's oracle to avenge Agamemnon's death, so he acts out of duty to both family and the god.

Justice and Revenge

In the first half of the play, Electra stands alone in her pursuit of justice. The world around her is corrupt; the land is ruled by murderers; her mother, Clytemnestra, has rejected her children; and her sister, Chrysothemis, while admitting that Electra is right, considers it wiser to fall in line with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, who have might on their side. But for Electra, justice is not a matter of personal convenience; it is a matter of what is right. And avenging her father is right.

Clearly revenge may be seen as a kind of justice, but Electra also asks whether all revenge is just. Both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus also claim to have acted in revenge. However, since the revenge they carried out on Agamemnon was as much, if not more, about forming an alliance to gain political power, it is unjust. Still the Greek audience would be familiar with the continuation of Orestes's story: he was pursued by the Furies, the underworld goddesses of vengeance. Just or unjust revenge traps the avenger in a deadly cycle. The chorus's ambivalence (initially counseling Electra to check her desire for revenge but later supporting her plan) perhaps reflects Sophocles's attempt to represent the complexity of this type of revenge.

Loyalty versus Pragmatism

Electra and her sister Chrysothemis embody this theme. Throughout Sophocles's play, neither deviates from her belief that she is right. Electra's loyalty to her long-dead father and absent brother is unyielding, even when she realizes she has no allies at all. For her she must remain steadfast and keep trying to avenge her father as long as she stays alive. Until she knows she has succeeded, she will not bend.

Chrysothemis, on the other hand, feels equally strongly that she must be realistic; their mother and Aegisthus rule Argos and hold the two young women's fates in their hands. She firmly believes that through obedience and good nature she will be able to win their approval and live a happy life. For her, this is the wise course, and in Episode 3, after hearing Orestes is dead, Chrysothemis begs her sister to follow her example. Electra refuses, saying, "never will I follow thee, however much thou mayst desire it; it were great folly even to attempt an idle quest." Still confident she has chosen the best path, Chrysothemis replies, "by and by, when thou standest in evil plight, thou wilt praise my words."

Motherhood

Where motherhood is concerned, Clytemnestra is a poor role model indeed. When talking with Electra, she claims to have killed Agamemnon to avenge her daughter Iphigenia, whom he had killed in sacrifice to Artemis. But the Greek audience would have been as aware as Electra that Clytemnestra had more compelling motives. She had taken Aegisthus as her lover, and it was likely she wanted her husband—Aegisthus's enemy—out of the way.

Her attitude to her children is not a positive one. After hearing that Orestes has been killed in a chariot race, Clytemnestra claims to feel sorry for the loss of her son: "There is a strange power in motherhood; a mother may be wronged, but she never learns to hate her child" (Episode 2). But her dominant feeling is relief that she must no longer look over her shoulder in fear that Orestes is sneaking up on her to kill her. Clytemnestra's treatment of her living daughters offers no evidence of maternal love. Electra is belittled, treated like a servant, and ridiculed for her suffering. Chrysothemis, despite her attempts to placate her mother and Aegisthus, is also little more than a well-dressed errand girl.

In contrast it is Electra who took on the role of mother for her little brother, Orestes. After their father's murder, she protected him from meeting the same fate by sending him off with the family's tutor to be raised elsewhere. Since then she has managed to keep in regular contact with him. When the messenger reports that Orestes is dead, Electra is the one who grieves as a mother might. Upon spying the urn she thinks must contain his remains, she begs to hold it and then cradles it like a baby, as she weeps and murmurs to her "dead" brother about the last time she saw him: "Thou wert radiant, my child, when I sped thee forth from home!" (Episode 4). The words "my child" are more motherly than sisterly, and she declares, "For thou wast never thy mother's darling so much as mine."

Questions for Themes

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