Homer refers to this legend in The Odyssey but, characteristically, downplays the kin-killing, in this case matricide. One major editor of Euripides’ Orestes compares it to Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida: “tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched, disfigured, and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure” (106). There seem to be no good characters other than the weak Hermione. The play is dated to 408 BCE, not long before Euripides withdrew from Athens.
Electra introduces the play, referring to family background (Tantalus, Pelops, Atreus) with qualifying phrases: “or so they say,” “Or so the legend goes” (113). More recently, events with Menelaus, Helen, and the murder of Agamemnon after the Trojan War have led to Orestes and Electra conspiring and carrying out the murder of their mother, Clytemnestra, six days ago. Orestes hasn’t eaten since nor bathed, and is half-mad. Electra doesn’t know if the city of Argos will condemn them to “stoning or the sword” (115), and she rails about Helen, who appears and seems habitually to be blaming gods for all human events. Helen and Menelaus’ daughter Hermione will be sent to do honors to Clytemnestra’s grave.
Orestes slowly comes to and blames Apollo for the crime (129). He requests help from uncle Menelaus, but Tyndareus tells Menelaus that Orestes should have brought his mother to a court of law (142). Orestes feels he did the state a service (145). But Menelaus afterwards hems and haws:
Believe me, Orestes,
I sympathize from the bottom of my heart.
And nothing in this world would please me more
than to honor tha touching appeal for help.
. . .
I only wish I could. But it just so happens
that I arrived in Argos in a weakened way —
devoid of support…. (151)
Blah blah blah. Orestes perceives the cheesiness and calls him a “cheap traitor” (153). Pylades, who aided and abetted, speaks with Orestes and insists he’ll stay to face the music also instead of skulk away into hiding. “‘Provide yourself with friends / as well as kin,’ they say. And the proverb tells the truth. / One loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives” (161), beams Orestes.
It is reported that the Argives voted for the death penalty after some discussion. Only one small farmer agreed that Orestes did them all a favor (166). Electra and Orestes must kill themselves. Of course, Menelaus didn’t even show up in support of his family. Pylades decides they should murder Helen; then they’ll really be heroes: “men will … thank us, congratulate us for doing away / with a vicious, worthless woman” (177). Electra has a plan too: take Hermione hostage. Orestes is impressed with Electra’s “mind of a man” (180): “If ever a woman deserved to live, not die, / that woman is you” (180). If?
After Orestes’ prayer to Agamemnon, Electra divides the Chorus in half to guard while Orestes and Pylades enter to murder Helen, which they do, although there is some ambiguity involving possible disappearance or ascension when the event is reported by a servant. Hermione is taken hostage, and Orestes and Pylades hold her on the roof with Orestes holding a sword to her throat. Electra is ready to set the place ablaze, and Menelaus must witness this.
In a bizarre deus ex machina ending, Apollo appears and reports that Helen was magically delivered from death: “she sits enthroned forever, a star / for sailors” (205). Menelaus will marry again, Orestes will live but in exile and marry Hermione. Everyone praises Apollo and everyone else. The end.
Euripides. Orestes. Euripides IV. Ed. David Grene and Richard Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. 105-208.