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

08 March 2014

Electra, by Euripides


Orestes: Ah, one can never foretell a manly spirit,
            so full of variety is the nature of men.
I have men a nonentity, the son of a fine man,
            and I have seen cultured children born of humble parents.
I have seen a millionaire with a shriveled heart,
            and a generous spirit in the heart of a pauper.
By what measure can one truly judge and discriminate?
. . .
So learn some wisdom
            and avoid the pitfall of hasty judgment.
Only by conduct and by character
            should you judge the quality of a human being:
            those that make contented states and happy families.
. . .
In all, it is the spirit that matters (17-179).

Tutor: My son, in failure no one is a friend:
            rare indeed is it to be accepted regardless of success or failure.
Now, listen to me.
You are not sustained by friends or wishful thinking.
The regaining of your ancestral home and city
            depends entirely on yourself—and a little luck (187).

Orestes: But first, Electra,
            salute the gods, the authors of this outcome,
            then praise me.
I am only the pawn of fate and heaven,
            who have in a battle of deeds not words destroyed Aegisthus.
So all should know it, I bring you the corpse itself.
Expose it if you will for beasts to ravage
            or impale it on a stake for vultures to rend.
He is your chattel now, once called your king.
Electra: I blush to speak but am forced to say it. . .
Orestes: Say what? Speak out. All fear is past.
Electra: . . .that gloating over the dead invites reprisals (197).

Chorus: A change of heart!
            How you have veered with the wind!
            Now tender thoughts—not then:
            A ghastly act and a forced brother (208).

All three of the surviving Greek tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—have an Electra play. For Aeschylus it is The Libation Bearers (the middle play of the Oresteia trilogy), while Sophocles titles his play after Electra, and Euripides does the same. However, although the three plays are focused on the same characters and have broadly the same plot outlines, reading all three gives a really illuminating understanding of how Greek tragedy worked. Essentially, most tragedies retold a basic set of stories—which is why so many of the extant plays relate to the Oedipus or Agamemnon stories—and the goal was not to present something new but to present a venerable myth in a new and intriguing way. This means that all three of the plays have stark differences in tone, style, characterization, and minor plot points.

The way I read Euripides’ Electra is primarily as a critique of Sophocles’ version, particularly the recognition scene, where Euripides directly confronts Sophocles’ play. During the third episode of Euripides’ version, the tutor (who had served Agamemnon and rescued the infant Orestes from death) arrives from the countryside to see the visitors who bring news of Electra’s brother. Now, Orestes and Pylades have been in the house for a while, and for conspicuously unexplained reasons (I think Euripides tries to draw our attention to this bizarre tactic) Orestes is pretending to be a messenger from Orestes ostensibly still in exile. For some reason he doesn’t tell Electra that he’s Orestes in any version of the play, and Euripides pays special attention to how odd this charade is. But in both Aeschylus’ and Sophocles’ versions of the story, Electra reads a series of signs and figures out that the visitor is her brother. Euripides throws a wrench into this narrative by having Electra dismiss (with legitimate reasoning) the three signs she reads in Sophocles’ version. First the tutor tries to compare the lock of hair Orestes left at Agamemnon’s tomb to Electra’s hair, but she protests that sometimes strangers have the same color and texture hair while sometimes relatives don’t. Then he tries to get her to see if her foot is the same shape as the footprints at the tomb, but she argues that men and women don’t have the same size or shape of feet. Then he asks if there is any piece of cloth she had made for Orestes that she would recognize if he still had it, and she says that she was just a child at the time and couldn’t make cloth and that the cloth would have had to grow with him to still fit as an adult if it was made for him as a baby. But what is weird is that Electra jumps at an equally spurious piece of evidence once the tutor has seen Orestes. He claims that a small scar on Orestes’ head came from a fall as a small child, and Electra immediately accepts this—regardless of the fact that Orestes is supposed to have a good amount of martial training and probably been in numerous fights, any of which might have resulted in a similar injury to someone other than Orestes. But I think Euripides uses this as the recognition moment for two reasons: 1) the plot requires a recognition so the play can proceed, and 2) it self-consciously draws more attention to the contrivance of recognition in Sophocles.

The other big change in Euripides’ version from both Aeschylus and Sophocles is that the matricidal siblings immediately are overwhelmed with guilt and regret after killing Clytaemnestra. Although in both of the earlier plays they (especially Orestes) was concerned about the ethical implications of matricide, even in revenge for a murdered father, Euripides does the most to emphasize the horror of this murder.
Interestingly, when Jean-Paul Sartre picked up the Electra story for his play The Flies, he made Orestes into an existential hero who claims unapologetically his actions and accepts his fate, while Electra immediately shrinks from the matricide and attempts to renounce her role in the killing.

The other thing I find fascinating about the Electra story is the figure of Pylades. He is in all three plays, but between the three he has only one line (in Aeschylus’ version). Other characters talk to him continually—Orestes, Electra, Castor (who is only in Euripides’ play)—but Pylades almost never says anything. He’s supposed to be Orestes’ best friend, and he helps murder Aegisthus and (in some versions) Clytaemnestra, but he doesn’t ever say anything. I don’t know what to make of his weird silent presence throughout these plays, other than to note that it must be an incredibly difficult role to perform because standing on stage without saying or doing much of anything while other characters are talking is deceptively difficult.