Euripides’ play Electra, produced in 415 b.c.e., starts with a peasant 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 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. He and Electra, who doesn’t recognize him, exchange stories, Electra revealing 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. With the help of an old one-time servant to Agamemnon and a convenient scar, Orestes identity is revealed to Electra. The siblings conspire.
Orestes pretends to join Aegisthus in an animal sacrifice but murders the usurper and wins over the king’s guards to his side. He parades the severed head to Electra, who is elated but not sated. Orestes balks at the idea of killing Clytemnestra, their mother. 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. She was also less than pleased that Agamemnon brought back Cassandra as his new slave toy. 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, with Electra’s aid, kills mom.
The “Dioscori” (spirits of Uncles Castor and 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, 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. 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.