You have been asked to judge the case of Clytemnestra vs Electra based
on the Electra of Euripides (textbook pages 459-463, Euripides Electra 907-1176). Electra is the prosecution and Clytemnestra is the defense. Review both their cases and deliver your verdict. You must show familiarity with the text, but you are free to defend your verdict.
Textbook pages 459-463:
By clever manipulation of the plot to create a different emphasis in the interpretation of the characters and their motives, Euripides seriously questions religious and philosophical beliefs about right and wrong action and the nature of justice. The setting for his play is the hut of a peasant, who is the husband of Electra. This peasant provides a prologue that gives the essential background for the plot with its subtle Euripidean twists, only a few of which can be mentioned in this brief summary. Most important is the fact that Aegisthus has married off Electra to this poor but well-meaning man, in the belief that he would have nothing to fear from such a match. Indeed Electra has remained a virgin, untouched sexually by her husband, whose nature is admirably noble. Orestes, at the command of Apollo, returns with Pylades and encounters Electra. Eventually their scene of recognition is confirmed most realistically. The servant who once saved the infant Orestes now, as an old man, points out to Electra a scar that proves the identity of her brother. As Electra makes abundantly clear, similarity in locks of hair and footprints or the design of woven fabric are not enough for certainty. Now Orestes can make plans for his vengeance. He receives a great deal of assistance from the old servant for his scheme against Aegisthus, and it is Electra who takes a particularly vicious delight in laying the plot herself for the death of her mother, Clytemnestra. Euripides, like Aeschylus, places the murder of Clytemnestra last for his own macabre purposes. The circumstances and the religious setting of the murder of Aegisthus place him in an ingratiating light. The scene is described by a messenger to a gloating Electra. Aegisthus is approached by Orestes and Pylades while he is preparing a sacrifi ce in honor of the nymphs, and he welcomes the strangers most hospitably as guests and friends. After he has butchered the sacrifi cial bull and bends over to examine the severed parts of the animal in fear of bad omens, Aegisthus is brutally stabbed in the back by Orestes, who brings his body and his severed head to his sister. Electra, painfully triumphant, addresses the remains of her most bitter enemy with the following apostrophe (907-961):
ELECTRA: Alas, fi rst of all in reproaching you with evils where will I begin? What sort of ending will I provide? How shall I list all those in between? To be sure, from early dawn I never ceased rehearsing the things that I wanted to say to you face to face if ever I should become free from those former terrors. Well now we are free and I will repay you with this litany of evils which I wanted to recite to you when you were alive. (907-913) You destroyed me and you made me and Orestes here bereft of a dear father, even though you were never wronged. You married my mother shamefully and killed her husband, commander-in-chief of the Hellenic forces against Troy, while you stayed at home. You reached such a pinnacle of folly that you expected that, having wronged my father's bed and married my mother, she would do you no wrong. Whenever anyone has corrupted the wife of another in a clandestine aff air and then is compelled to marry her, let him know for sure that he is a sorry fool if he thinks that she who has already betrayed one husband will be a chaste wife for him. You lived a most abominable life, not realizing how evil it was. Yet you knew that you had entered into an unholy marriage and my mother knew that she had taken an impious man as her husband. Both of you base, each partaking of each other's evil fate, she of yours and you of hers. And among all the Argives Clytemnestra never was called the wife of Aegisthus, instead you heard yourself denigrated as the husband of Clytemnestra. (914-931) This is a disgrace that the woman and not the man controls the household, and I hate it when in the city children are designated not as the off spring of the male, the father, but of the mother. When a husband has married a conspicuously superior wife, the woman receives all the attention but no account is taken of the man. But this is what deceived you, what you did not understand. You boasted that you were somebody relying upon wealth for your importance. But money is nothing. It is our consort for only a little while. Nature is what remains steadfast, a good character, not money; it stays with us always and lifts away evils. But wealth, dishonest associate of the foolish, fl ourishes for a short time and then fl ies out the door. (932-944) As for your aff airs with women, I remain silent. Since it is not proper for a virgin to speak out about them, I will only off er discreet hints. You behaved outrageously, possessed as you were of a royal palace and endowed with physical beauty. As for me, may I get a husband who does not look like a girl but is manly, whose children would be like Ares. Good looks alone are merely a pretty adornment for devotees of the dance. (945-951) Away with you, completely ignorant that you have paid the penalty for your crimes that have in time been found out. Let no one as wicked as you think that, if he has run the fi rst phase of the course well, he is triumphing over Justice, before he approaches the fi nal turn and the end of his life. (952-956) CHORUS: He has done terrible things and he has paid a terrible retribution to you and Orestes because of the power of Justice. ELECTRA: So be it. Servants, you must carry the body inside and hide it in the darkness so that when my mother arrives she may not see the corpse before she is slaughtered. (959-961)
At this point Clytemnestra arrives upon the scene. She had been summoned with the false announcement that Electra had recently borne a son, just as Electra had planned, and, as it was with Aegisthus, her entrapment appears particularly sordid. The confrontation between mother and daughter raises similar issues that had been argued in Sophocles' version, but Euripides provides crucial additions with disturbing differences in motivation; so much of their confl ict is steeped in sexual rivalry and jealousy and psychological perversity. Clytemnestra is even very much aware of the nature of Electra's complex when she observes that it is ingrained in her daughter's nature to love her father more than her mother. Here is a much weaker Orestes than we have ever seen, who must be goaded and driven by his sister to murder their mother, and Electra herself, obsessed with a passionate hatred, actually participates in the killing.
ELECTRA: Hold on now, another decision is thrust upon us. (962) ORESTES: What is it? Do I see an armed force coming from Mycenae? ELECTRA: No, but the mother who gave birth to me. ORESTES: Good! She is stepping right into the trap. (965) ELECTRA: How splendid she looks in her fi ne chariot and robes. ORESTES: What are we to do now? Will we murder our mother? ELECTRA: Are you overcome with pity at the sight of your mother in person? ORESTES: Ah, how am I to kill her, the one who bore me and nourished me? ELECTRA: In the same way as she butchered your father and mine. (970) ORESTES: Oh Phoebus, you prophesied sheer folly. ELECTRA: Where Apollo is a fool, who are wise? ORESTES: You, Phoebus, who told me to kill my mother, a crime which I should not commit. ELECTRA: What possible harm is there since you are avenging your own father? ORESTES: I am guiltless now, but if I do the deed I will be condemned as the killer of my mother. (975) ELECTRA: But if you do not avenge your father, you will be impious against god. ORESTES: The murder of my mother—to whom will I pay the penalty?
ELECTRA: To whom will you pay, if you fail to accomplish vengeance for your father? ORESTES: Did some demon, disguised as god, order me to do this? ELECTRA: A demon sitting on the sacred tripod? I really don't think so. (980) ORESTES: I cannot be convinced that this divine oracle was right. ELECTRA: Don't become a coward and a weakling. ORESTES: Am I to devise the same treachery against her? ELECTRA: Yes, the same that you used when you killed her husband Aegisthus. ORESTES: I will go in and undertake a terrible task. I will do a terrible thing— if the gods think it is right, so be it. This ordeal is both bitter and sweet for me. (985-987) CHORUS: Lady and queen of the land of Argos, daughter of Tyndareus and sister of the noble twins, the sons of Zeus, who live amid the stars in the fi ery fi rmament and are honored by mortals as their saviors in storms at sea. Greetings, I give you honor equal to the gods because of your great wealth and blessed happiness. Now is the right time for your fortunes to be provided for. Hail, O queen! (988-997) CLYTEMNESTRA: Out of the chariot, Trojan women, take my hand and help me to get down. The temples of the gods are adorned with Trojan spoils, and for my palace I have taken these chosen women from Troy, a small yet lovely gift, in exchange for the daughter whom I lost. (998-1003) ELECTRA: Shouldn't I, mother, take hold of your royal and blessed hand, for I also am a slave, cast out of my ancestral home and living in a miserable one? CLYTEMNESTRA: I have these slaves here; don't trouble yourself on my account. ELECTRA: Well, am I not just like these women, taken prisoner when my palace was captured, driven out of the house, left bereft of my father? (1008-1010) CLYTEMNESTRA: Such are the results of actions your father devised against those whom he should have loved. I will explain. I know that when a reputation for evil clings to a woman, a bitter sharpness inevitably invests the tone of her argument. So it is with us, and that is not good. But if, upon learning the truth, you have a worthy reason to hate, it is right to hate but if not, why should there be hatred? (1011-1017) Tyndareus gave me to your father and the marriage was not intended to bring death to him or me or the children whom I bore. Yet that man, Agamemnon, through the pretext of marriage with Achilles, took my daughter from home and brought her to Aulis, where the fl eet was kept from sailing. There he placed Iphigenia high upon the sacrifi cial altar and slit her white throat. If to avert the capture of his city or to benefi t his house or to his other children he killed this one girl on behalf of many, it would be forgivable. No, it was for the sake of Helen, a voracious whore, and because Menelaüs, who married her, did not know how to control his adulterous wife. This was the reason why Agamemnon murdered my daughter. And yet for all that, having been wronged, I would not have become a savage and killed my husband. But he came back to me bringing with him the maiden Cassandra, mad, possessed by god, and he brought her to our marriage bed; now there were two wives in the same household! (1018-1034) Women really are foolish prey, I do not deny it. This is taken for granted, every time a husband wrongfully rejects his marriage bed for someone else. When his wife at home in her desire to follow his example takes on a lover, then all the blame is blazoned forth upon us women, but the men who are responsible hear not a word of criticism. What if Menelaüs had been secretly abducted from his home? Would it then have been necessary for me to kill Orestes so that I might rescue Menelaüs, the husband of my sister, Helen? How would your father have tolerated that crime? I would have had to suff er death at his hands for killing his son. Should he not have died for killing my daughter? Yes, and so I killed him, turning to his enemies—the only way possible. For any friend of your father would never have conspired with me in his slaughter. Speak your refutation freely, if you like, and explain how your father died unjustly. (1035-1050) CHORUS: You have made a just argument but your justice is tainted with shame. A woman who is right-minded should concede to her husband in everything. Any woman who does not think so is not included in my reckoning. ELECTRA: Remember, mother, your last words which gave me liberty to speak. (1055-1056) CLYTEMNESTRA: Yes I do and I stand by them now, my child. ELECTRA: After you have heard what I have to say, mother, will you treat me badly? CLYTEMNESTRA: Not at all. I will be sweetly disposed towards you. ELECTRA: I will speak then and this is how I will begin. I only wish you, O you who gave me birth, were of a better mind and character. You and Helen are sisters, through and through. The physical beauty of you both is worthy of my praise, but the two of you morally are whores, and I do not consider you worthy of your noble brother Castor. Helen was willing in her rape and brought about her own ruin, and you destroyed the best man of Hellas, making up the pretext that you killed your husband because of your daughter. Those who believe you do not know you as well as I do. (1060-1068) Even before the sacrifi ce of your daughter and when your husband had scarcely left home, you were primping before a mirror as you adorned your blonde tresses. A wife who decks herself out in beauty while her husband is away, I label a wicked woman. For she should not vaunt her fair features out of doors, unless she is looking for evil. I know for a fact that you alone of all the women of Hellas rejoiced when you heard that the Trojans were doing well, but if they were losing, your eyes would look troubled because you did not want Agamemnon to return from Troy. Yet there was every reason for you to behave properly. You had a husband in no way inferior to Aegisthus, whom Hellas chose as its commander-in-chief. Furthermore, in contrast to Helen, your sister, who did such terrible things, you could have won for yourself great renown for virtue since evil actions present a foil to enhance the good for all to see. (1069-1085) If, as you say, my father killed your daughter, in what way have I or my brother done you wrong? After you killed our father why didn't you include us in the ancestral estate? Instead, you gave what was not really yours as a dowry for your lover and bought your marriage with him. Your husband Aegisthus is not banished because of your son Orestes nor has he died on my account, even though he has infl icted a living death upon me, twice as painful as the death of Iphigenia. If slaughter demands slaughter as a just penalty, then I and your son Orestes will kill you to avenge our father. If your actions are just, ours would be too. (1086-1096) CLYTEMNESTRA: My child, it is ingrained in your nature to love your father always. This is the way things are. Some are attached to the fathers, others love their mothers more than their fathers. I will forgive you, for in truth I am not that exultant at all about the things that I have done, my daughter. But you so unwashed and so unkempt in your dress, have you just recently given birth and become a mother? Alas, poor me and my plots! I drove myself into a fury against my husband, more than I should have. (1102-1110) ELECTRA: Too late for bewailing when you have no remedy for your plight. My father is dead, so why don't you recall your son who wanders far from home? CLYTEMNESTRA: I am afraid to. I must look to my own safety, not his, since they say that he is enraged at the murder of his father. (1114-1115) ELECTRA: Why do you allow your husband Aegisthus to treat me so cruelly? CLYTEMNESTRA: That's the way he is; and you are inherently stubborn. ELECTRA: I am suff ering, yet I will put an end to my fury. CLYTEMNESTRA: If so he will persecute you no longer. ELECTRA: He is arrogant because he lives in my house. (1120) CLYTEMNESTRA: You see, you are at it again, kindling a fresh infl ammatory quarrel. ELECTRA: I'll be quiet, for I fear him, how I fear him! CLYTEMNESTRA: Stop such talk. Why did you summon me here, my child? ELECTRA: You have heard, I know, about the birth of my child. Make the proper sacrifi ce for me—I don't know how—as it is ordained for a son after he is born. I have no experience in this because until now I have been childless. (1124-1127) CLYTEMNESTRA: This is not my duty but that of the woman who delivered the child. ELECTRA: I gave birth alone and delivered the child myself. CLYTEMNESTRA: Is your home so bereft of friendly neighbors? (1130) ELECTRA: No one wants to have friends who are poor. CLYTEMNESTRA: I will go and sacrifi ce to the gods as is appropriate after the child's birth, and when I have done this favor for you, I will go out to the countryside, where my husband is off ering sacrifi ce to the Nymphs. Servants, take the horses out to pasture and when you think that I have fi nished this sacrifi ce to the gods, be back here, for I must also oblige my husband. (1132-1138) ELECTRA: Enter my humble house but be careful that the soot inside does not defi le your robes, for you will make to the gods the sacrifi ce that you should. All is made ready, the knife that was sharpened has already slaughtered the bull, next to which you will fall after you have been struck down. Even in the house of Hades you will be joined in matrimony with the one whom you slept with in life. I will grant this favor to you and you will grant to me justice for my father. (1139-1146) CHORUS: Retribution for evils. Changed gales of vengeance blow through the house. Once my king, mine, fell stricken in his bath. The stones and the rooftop shrieked with the cry that he uttered: "O wretched woman, my wife, why will you kill me who have returned to my dear fatherland after ten years?" In retribution this unhappy woman of an adulterous marriage is brought to justice, she who took up an axe with sharpened blade and by her own hand killed her husband who had returned after many years to his home and its Cyclopean walls that reach to the sky. A poor, suff ering husband, whatever evil wrong took hold of his unhappy wife. Like a lioness roaming the woods, who pastures in the mountains, she accomplished her deeds. (1147-1164) CLYTEMNESTRA: (from inside the house): O my children, by the gods, do not kill your mother. CHORUS: Do you hear her cry from within? CLYTEMNESTRA: Ah, woe is me! CHORUS: I pity her, overpowered and undone by her children. God metes out justice, sooner or later. You have suff ered a terrible fate but you, poor wretch, committed an unholy crime against your husband. But here they come out of the house, defi led with freshly shed blood of their mother, triumphal testimony of how they silenced her cries of anguish. No house is more lamentable than that of the family of Tantalus. (1168-1176) Orestes and Electra appear, the bodies of both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra at their feet. After the horror of murdering their mother, all bravado is gone, and upon full realization of what they have done, they become craven with a remorse that is both sad and repellent. Electra must bear full responsibility for committing the crime along with Orestes; brother and sister have learned to their dismay and regret that the desire for retribution, even when ordained by the command of god, is far different emotionally and psychologically from the real trauma of actually killing their mother. ORESTES: O Earth and Zeus, you who witness all that mortals do, behold these bloody, abominable murders, two corpses lying on the ground, struck down by my hand in recompense for my suff erings. (1177-1181) ELECTRA: Our tears overfl ow, my brother, and I am the cause. In fi ery rage I, poor wretch, came against this mother of mine, who bore me, her daughter. CHORUS: Alas for misfortune, your misfortune. You, the mother who bore them, have suff ered unforgettable misery and more at the hands of your children and you have paid justly for the murder of their father. (1185-1189) ORESTES: O Phoebus, you prophesied a justice I could not foresee, but all too clear now is the misery that you have wrought. You have bestowed on me the fate of a murderer driven from this land of Hellas. To what other city will I go? What friend, what god-fearing human being will look upon the face of a man who has killed his mother? (1190-1197) ELECTRA: Alas, woe is me! Where will I go? At what dance will I be accepted? What marriage will be in store for me? What husband will take me to his marriage bed? CHORUS: Your thoughts have been changed back once again to considerations that are good. Now your thinking is holy, then it was not and you made your brother do a terrible thing, when he did not want to. (1201-1205) ORESTES: Did you see how the poor woman opened her robe to show me her breast as I slaughtered her, alas for me, and I grabbed at her hair as her body that gave me birth sank to the fl oor? CHORUS: I know full well the pain that you went through when you heard the piercing cry of your mother who bore you. (1210-1212) ORESTES: This was the cry that she uttered as she touched my cheek with her hand: "My child, I beg you," and then she clung to me so closely that my sword fell from my hand. CHORUS: Poor woman! How did you dare to see with your own eyes your mother breathing out her life? (1218-1220) ORESTES: I covered my eyes with my cloak as we began the sacrifi ce, plunging the sword into my mother's fl esh. ELECTRA: I ordered you to do it as we took hold of the sword together. CHORUS: You have done a most terrible deed. ORESTES: Come, help me cover the limbs of our mother with her garments and close up her wounds. You gave birth to your own murderers. ELECTRA: See how we cover you, whom we loved and we hated. (1230-1231) The play ends with the appearance of the Dioscuri, and it is Castor who acts as the deus ex machina. He reaffi rms religious and philosophical issues raised by Orestes himself as he hesitates in horror, while his sister is prodding him to join her in murdering their mother. To kill a mother is a terrible crime, with devastating ramifi cations, whether or not it is decreed by god. CHORUS: Thus end great evils for this house. But look! Who are these two who arrive high above the house? Are they divine spirits or gods from the heavens? Mortals do not appear in this way. Why in the world do they come into the clear sight of humans? (1232-1237) DIOSCURI (Castor speaks for the two of them): Listen, son of Agamemnon. We, Castor and Polydeuces, address you, we the twin sons of Zeus, brothers of your mother. We just now calmed a terrible storm at sea and come to Argos in time to witness here the slaughter of our sister and your mother. She received justice, but you did not act justly. And Phoebus, O Phoebus—but since he is my lord, I keep silent. Being wise, he did not prophesy to you wise things. Yet all this must be commended and now you have to do what Fate and Zeus have ordained for you. (1238-1248) Castor goes on at some length to predict the future course of events, including the pursuit of Orestes by the Furies and his acquittal by the court of the Areopagus in Athens. Pylades is to marry Electra.
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