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Electra | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Set in Argos, Greece, shortly after the Trojan war, Sophocles's Electra tells the story of one woman's drive for revenge against her mother and stepfather for the murder of her father. Believed to have been first performed around 410 BCE, Electra was probably one of Sophocles's last plays. Electra is often cited as his best drama because of its focus on the psychological motivations of Electra herself.

Electra and her family members—Orestes, Agamemnon, and Clytemnestra—were important figures in Greek mythology and popular characters in Greek tragedies. The story of Electra's revenge has been adapted a number of times both in antiquity and even into the 21st century.

1. Other famous Greek dramatists wrote Electra plays.

The first version was Aeschylus's play The Libation Bearers in his Oresteia Trilogy, written around 458 BCE. Sophocles's and Euripides's plays—both titled Electra—followed about 40 to 50 years later. Scholars therefore have debated whether Euripides influenced Sophocles or the other way around. One critic argues that Euripides's play came first "not only on metrical and stylistic grounds, but also because the play engages so closely with Aeschylus's Oresteia."

2. Sophocles placed more emphasis on the character of Electra than Aeschylus did.

One commentary describes the character Electra in Aeschylus's play as a "slight, secondary figure, a compliant young girl." Sophocles's Electra, on the other hand, is a grown woman and the complex driving force behind the revenge plot. Critics Roisman and Luschnig describe Sophocles' Electra as "a rebellious, principled heroine, a fighter for justice whose passionate idealism compels admiration (and revulsion)."

3. Electra is one of only seven of Sophocles's 120 plays to survive intact.

Other surviving plays include Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the King, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus. While a brilliant and innovative playwright, Sophocles did not take the stage to perform in his own plays as some other playwrights did. It is reported that his weak voice kept him from adding the role of actor to his extensive resume.

4. Scholars disagree on whether the matricide in Electra was ethically justified.

Scholars who have written about Sophocles's Electra generally fall into one of two opposing teams: the optimists and the pessimists. Sophocles expert P.J. Finglass explains:

The "optimists" argue either that Sophocles presents the matricide as an ethically justified act, or that his treatment simply does not raise any moral questions. The "pessimists," on the other hand, take a much darker view of the vengeance, and a correspondingly less sympathetic view of Electra and Orestes.

5. A Freudian psychological term was named after Electra.

In Sophocles's Electra the main character responds to her father's death more like a lovesick widow than a grieving daughter. Electra's fierce attachment to her father inspired Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung's naming of the Electra complex. This phenomenon was first identified by Sigmund Freud, who hypothesized that female infants are sexually attracted to their fathers and jealous of their mothers.

6. Electra might have inspired the famous chariot race in the 1959 film Ben-Hur.

Both ancient and contemporary critics have noted similarities between the chariot race in Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ (on which the 1959 film is based) and Sophocles's chariot race in Electra: "where the last stone marked the goal's course." While there is no definitive evidence, the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana, confirms that Wallace owned a copy of Sophocles's Electra in his personal library.

7. Sophocles's Electra inspired a German-language adaptation of the Electra story.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an Austrian playwright and librettist, wrote his own theatrical version of the Electra story in 1903. Like Sophocles's version, Hofmannsthal's Elektra focuses on Elektra's psychological condition and motivations, depicting Elektra as an "obsessive neurotic" with a "relentless thirst for blood." The play was considered groundbreaking at the time. Hofmannsthal partnered with the German composer Richard Strauss to adapt his 1903 drama into an opera.

8. Electra is onstage for 93% of the play's lines.

Electra is sometimes referred to as a monodrama because her character pervades the action. This constant presence creates a kind of paradox in that much of the time Electra's voice, delivering 43% of the lines for which she is present, is unwanted or it interrupts the plot.

9. The Chorus has mixed feelings for Electra.

The play's Chorus creates tension in the play by actively supporting Electra in some cases (they sympathize with her mistreatment since the death of her father) and disagreeing with her in others (they support Chrysothemis's argument against Electra to move on from the desire for revenge).

10. The name Electra means "bright one."

The name Electra, sometimes spelled as Elektra, is associated with light, which fits the the play's theme of justice. Sophocles's play asks: does Electra's revenge on behalf of her father bring light and justice to her family situation, or is she blinded to real justice by her desire for vengeance?

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