"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

09 February 2014

Electra, by Sophocles

Chorus: Now is the turn for the killer’s blood:
            Blood for the blood that was spilled from those so long ago (102).

Each of the three major tragedians whose work survives from ancient Greece has given us a version of the Electra story—Aeschylus in The Libation Bearers, and both Sophocles and Euripides in plays titled Electra. However, the three versions are quite different. Not the plots, you understand, which have minor differences. But in how the characters are portrayed. I haven’t read Euripides’ Electra yet, but when I get there and blog about it, I’m sure there will be a fuller comparison. But for the moment I am going to do some compare and contrast between The Libation Bearers and Sophocles’ Electra.

In terms of similarities, both focus on the same set of events. Twenty some years before the play starts, Clytaemnestra and her lover Aegisthus murder Agamemnon, king of Argos, upon his return from the Trojan War (for more info on why they murder him, see my blogs on Agamemnon and the rest of the Oresteia). After this, Electra—daughter of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra—got her brother out of Argos so that he could eventually return and take vengeance on the murderers. Both plays actually open with Orestes returning to Argos and Electra being sad about their father’s murder. In both plays Orestes and his companion(s) decide on a clever plot to get into the palace: posing as messengers bringing news of Orestes’ death in a far off land, then they kill Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. In both plays, Electra and Orestes are reunited and she exhorts him to revenge.

However, Aeschylus and Sophocles treat this basic plotline very differently, mostly in terms of how the characters are portrayed. The following chart tries to present (in no particular order) some of the big differences between the two versions:

Order of Murders
Aegisthus, then Clytaemnestra
Clytaemnestra, then Aegisthus
Not the play’s focus, she takes a back seat to Orestes. She mourns her father, hates her mother, and is treated as a servant, but this isn’t a primary focus of the play
Electra has way more dialogue than anyone else, the story is clearly her story. Much of this play is spent with her recounting her sufferings, proclaiming her cause just, and vowing revenge; she becomes the most rounded character as we learn most about how her mind works (she is somewhat like Antigone)
Definitely the hero of this play, Orestes’ quest figures as noble and we get to understand his motives best. He uses the ruse of a messenger because Apollo told him to
A kind of Odysseus like figure, who seems to prefer stealth to a direct confrontation—he uses the ruse as much because he is sneaky as because Apollo said to. We don’t learn as much about him in this play
Picking up from Agamemnon, she is a kind of Lady Macbeth figure, brutally cunning, but also rhetorically powerful and somewhat conflicted. Although she doesn’t regret killing Agamemnon, she does seem to feel some guilt about denying him the proper funereal honors
More brutish and dictatorial, clearly a kind of impotent potentate. Her main rhetorical strategy is yelling at Electra (who gives her the kind of arguments Aeschylus’ Clytaemnestra might give) and trying to justify murdering her husband. Offers belated honors for Agamemnon out of fear, not guilt or remorse; has a twinge of sadness at hearing or Orestes’ death, but then uses that to abuse Electra further
Secondary Characters
Cilissa, Orestes’ old nurse
Pylades, who speaks one line
Orestes’ tutor, who initially delivers the news of Orestes’ death
Chrystothemis, Electra and Orestes’ sister
Pylades, who does not speak
Part of a Larger Cycle/Trilogy
Yes, preceded by Agamemnon, followed by The Eumenides

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