Euripides’ play Electra, produced in 415 b.c.e., starts with a peasant, or Farmer, recounting past events: Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon and took the throne of Mycenae. Agamemnon’s son Orestes escaped and has been raised in Phocis. Daughter Electra, when marriageable, was forced to wed this peasant instead of any noble, whereby Aegisthus’ rule might be endangered. The marriage has not been consummated. “If any man thinks me a fool, for harbouring / A young girl in my house and never touching her, / He measures what’s right by the wretched standard of / His own mind” (107).
Electra bemoans her lot: Clytemnestra has borne other children, and so, she and her brother Orestes have been banished from their own home. Electra doesn’t mind toiling so long as she can grouse about her mother: “she is motivated rather by envy of her mother than loyalty to her father” (Hadas 205). Orestes and his friend Pylades arrive: “Orestes is a frightened vagabond who talks grandiloquently of nobility” (Hadas 205). Orestes has been sent by Apollo’s oracle to avenge his father’s murder: Aegistus, “the man who helped my witch mother kill my father” (138). He and Electra, who doesn’t recognize him, exchange stories, and when he asks his sister whether she would join her brother in killing their mother, she responds, “I would, and in my hands I’d have the selfsame axe that killed my father!” (144). Electra reveals that Aegisthus “when he’s drunk, so people say, / Jumps on the grave, or flings stones at my father’s name / Inscribed there” (116) and acts paranoid about Orestes. Electra’s Farmer-husband offers humble hospitality. With the help of an old one-time servant to Agamemnon, who points out the similarity in hair between Orestes and Electra, and their shoe size (?), and a convenient scar — “along his eyebrow that was cut once when he fell chasing a fawn with you in his father’s courtyard” (152) — Orestes’ identity is revealed to Electra. The siblings conspire. Unlike other versions of the legend, such as Sophocles’ Electra, Electra is active in the murder of her mother: “Mother’s death shall be my responsibility” (154).
Electra and others hear screams, and a Messenger soon reports that Orestes had pretended to join Aegisthus in an animal sacrifice but murdered the usurper: “standing on tiptoe, dealt him a blow on the top of his spine, breaking through the joints of his back! His whole body twisted up and down in convulsions and in agony he kept shrieking as he met his bloody end” (160). Orestes immediately won over the king’s guards to his side. He presents the severed head to Electra, who has a bit to say to it, hesitating momentarily only because “My fellow-citizens are hard to please and quick to apportion blame” (162). Orestes urges her to speak. She rails about the marriage Aegisthus forced her into, his valuing money over character, his being a sexual predator. “Let no criminal, then, think he has outstripped Justice if he has run the first lap well, until he reaches the finishing line and has ended life’s race” (163-164).
Electra is elated but not sated. Orestes balks at the idea of killing Clytemnestra, their mother, knowing he’ll be exiled. Electra points out the dilemma: he is guilty of impiety if he does not completely avenge his father’s death. Electra sends word that she has given birth. Clytemnestra visits and does a rather convincing job of explaining her side to all the famous events, particularly her wrath at Agamemnon for tricking their daughter Iphigenia to her sacrificial death before the Trojan War. “Well, even so, wronged though I was, I would not have lost control or killed my husband. But home he came with a crazy woman in tow [Cassandra], a visionary, installing her as his concubine, and tried to keep two brides together under the same roof!” (166).
The Chorus is characteristically idiotic: “Your words are just; yet in your ‘justice’ there remains / Something repellent. A wife ought in all things to accept / Her husband’s judgement, if she is wise. Those who will not / Admit this, fall outside my scope of argument” (141). Electra aligns Clytemnestra with her sister Helen. She accuses her mother of primping before the mirror long before Agamemnon’s crimes, obviously for someone else. And Electra claims Clytemnestra’s rationalizations do not address the persecution of Orestes and herself. Clytemnestra accepts that Electra favors her father, but as to this business of the new baby? Clytemnestra is tricked into agreeing to perform the necessary rites. Orestes joins Electra. From offstage, we hear, “O children, in heaven’s name, do not kill your mother!” (170). Orestes and Electra, afterwards, show some dread. What husband will want Electra? She admits to Orestes, “I urged you on with encouragement, my hand joining yours on the sword-hilt” (171).
The “Dioscori” — spirits of Uncles Castor and Pollux, (or Polydeuces) — appear above the house and Castor announces that “Her fate was just; but your act is not justified” (148). Electra now will become Pylades’ wife and the Fates (the Furies) will chase Orestes around in exile, because he shed kindred blood, until he gets to Athens where the tie vote at his trial will acquit him. Castor also offers this oddity: “Helen, in fact, / Never saw Troy; she has just come from Proteus’ palace / In Egypt. Zeus sent off to Troy a phantom Helen / To stir up strife and slaughter in the human race” (149). Huh?
Anyway, things don’t sound so bad, and Castor acknowledges that Orestes was driven by the oracle of Apollo in the first place. Brother Orestes and sister Electra bid each other a tearful farewell.
Euripides. Electra and Other Plays. Trans. John Davie. NY: Penguin Books, 1998. 129-174, 235-242.
Euripides. Electra. Trans. Philip Vellacott. Medea and Other Plays. Baltimore: Penguin Classics, 1963. 105-152, 201-204.
Hadas, Moses and John McLean, eds. Introduction. Electra. Ten Plays by Euripides. NY: Bantam Books, 1981. 205.
Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.