I have concentrated on reading the Sophocles version and the translation I have worked with is that of Hugh Lloyd Jones (Loeb Classical Library – Harvard 1994). It is clear that the dramatist has focussed all the serious attention on Electra in this version. Electra seems more fleshed out than the Aeschylus incarnation taking centre stage but also with very human flaws and ambiguities – it’s not all black and white and this could be said of the other characters too, particularly the pietas scenes of and libation prayer to Apollo of Clytemnestra l.634 ff.
But the paradox at the heart of this depiction is that she is a rebel but apparently one supporting male values. She is a transgressor but in the end all this wild flouting of a woman’s traditional role results in nothing more than resuming her place in the house of Atreus as a potential noble wife. Could she be both at the same time and be a satisfying character to an ancient audience? Or is this Sophocles playing with female emancipatory urges within the secure trope of the male heir (Orestes) resuming the reins of control and order in the end?
The play opens with Orestes and the Old Slave arriving in Argos in the early hours. The purpose of this interchange is to introduce the plan of faking Orestes death in a chariot race (a significant literary and mythic echo of the death of Myrtilus) and announcing it to the palace while he and Pylades his faithful sidekick prepare to kill Clytemnestra and Aegsithus while disguised as urn bearers of Orestes’ ashes. Orestes then leaves the stage not to reappear until the end – from now on the action focusses upon Electra and her transgressive acts of mourning and plans for revenge.
The chorus of Argive women are initially neutral and react cautiously to Electra’s outbursts of grief countering her transgressive outbursts by warning her that excessive mourning is inappropriate. The metre of anapaestic dimeter lends a chanting marching even drum-like warning to their words:
l.233-235 ‘all’oun eunoia g’audo
mater hosei tis pista
me/tik/tein s’a/tan a/ta/is
‘Well, I speak as a well-wisher
Like a mother-in-law in whom
You can have trust, telling you
Not to create misery by means of misery’
However, they gradually warm to her cause and end up endorsing her acts outrageous as they are. Electra justifies her excessive mourning as an expression of respect and ‘pietas’ to the unjustly slain dead (her father Agamemnon). She also bewails her lot as having lost her rightful place as a noble woman in the palace of Argos.
The chorus plays an interesting intermediary role or referee between Electra and her sister Chrysothemis who portrays the obedient daughter willing to compromise as a survival strategy under the new regime of the usurper Aegisthus. Her speech reveals her as an appeaser in Electra’s eyes.
‘But as things are I think that in time of trouble I must lower my sails, and not seem to perform some deed, but do them no harm; and I would like you to follow suit.
‘but if I am to live in freedom, I must obey those in power in everything.’
Moreover in l.378 Chrysothemis warns Electra of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra’s plans for her should she continue her rebellious attitude:
‘all’eksero soi pan hoson katoid’ego
mellousi gar s’ei tode me lekseis goun,
entaitha pempsein entha me poth’heliou
‘Well, I will tell you all I know!
If you do not leave off these lamentations,
They plan to send you to where you shall no longer see
The light of the sun,’
Electra is having none of this appeasement and remains resolute, almost reckless in her defiance of Aegisthus, daring him to come and dare to do what he is planning. It transpires that Chrysothemis is on her way to Agamemnon’s tomb to offer libations.
The libations are in fact an idea of Clytemnestra, prompted by dreams/nightmares, in which Agamemnon returns from Hades and plants his staff beside the hearth which grows into a fruitful bough. Fearing an adverse portent, Clytemnestra out of guilt tries to appease the dead. Here we see Sophocles painting a sympathetic picture of the queen trying to make amends with an act of piety.
Next we have Electra’s confrontation with Clytemnestra and one of the key themes at the centre of this play – that of justice and piety or rather the conundrum where one individuals pious act can be another’s outrage and revenge lust, and the justifications that opposing sides have for their acts. The two sides are both with their fault lines and we have a very blurred and ambiguous tone with Sophocles, making for a deeply fascinating drama with issues that still burn in our psyches to this day. How much evil is acceptable to preserve a life? The State? Is any kind of bloodshed justified whatever the reason? Is the best course expedience and to tow the official line? Do we trust the state to uphold justice? Or to take things into our own hands when the need arises and is most pressing?
There is no clear winner in the ensuing war of words: Both put their cases eloquently but with their own biases. We hear of the ‘real’ reason for Iphigenia’s sacrifice – Agamemnon had angered Artemis by slaying a stag in her sacred grove and uttering a blasphemy to boot. It was divinely ordered slaughter…so for Electra that makes it alright unlike Clytemnestra’s slaying of her father, an act of lust and greed, mere human directives as matched against those of the gods – the highest evil and arrogance and therefore deserving of scorn and revenge. There is another interesting aspect to these interchanges – they often have the tone of a teenage daughter railing against the hypocrisy of her parents – subtle and endearing overtones of generation gap which those of the audience with young grown up daughters would surely have identified with!
This is one of the endearing fascinations of the play, how through Sophocles imaginative and dextrous lines Electra displays so many different emotional and psychological levels of engagement as a headstrong young woman with the various characters, all the time holding our attention – she mesmerises as a convincing figure burning with righteous indignation and fury one minute, sobbing her heart out the next and finally bursting with joy when Orestes, deus ex machine like, reveals his true identity and brings her out of the pit of despair. She is a glittering multi-faceted jewel of young womanhood and at one point it looks almost as if Orestes wants her to rule with him by his side, her passions and freedom totally unrestrained…and yet…and yet the slightly unclear ending has Orestes and Pylades marching Aegisthus off to the hearth inside the palace to his doom…to restore male order to the house of Argos. The chorus end with the lines:
‘ho sperm’ Atreos, hos polla pathon
di eleutherias molis ekselthes
tei nun hormei teleothen’
‘Seed of Atreus, after many sufferings
you have at last emerged in freedom,
made complete by this day’s enterprise!’
The seed of Atreus although referring to both Electra and Orestes seems to imply a male lead in its masculine allusions. Where does this leave Electra? Is she a transgressor merely to enable the male order to reassert itself – to return to a subservient role and married off to a noble suitor to continue the status quo of the palace? I think Sophocles felt that he had to cap her freedom with Orestes finishing off the deed as if to contain the dangerous excess of a young woman breaking the bonds of convention in her quest for justice. Within the confines of the drama it is exciting for Sophocles to explore the female energy unleashed in its various guises but as if to close the lid again upon such dangerous and transgressive thoughts and deeds he must have had the overriding impulse to contain and control such dangerous and potentially revolutionary energy or at least channel it into safer male agendas. So although I personally don’t think of Electra as a ‘male order bride’…I do think that she has been ‘disarmed’ and rendered harmless to men at the end of the drama, for unchained, she would be too strong.