|Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon |
by Frederic Leighton (1869).
This year, without actually setting out to, I've been reading a lot of Sophocles, and Electra (Ἠλέκτρα, 410 B.C.) is the final play I had left to read of the seven surviving plays.
In this Sophocles writes about Electra, princess of Argos, daughter of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra, sister of Iphigeneia, Chrysothemis, and Orestes. King Agamemnon fought in the Trojan War, but on his return he was murdered by either his wife or his wife's lover Aegisthus. Before the play begins Electra smuggles her young brother Orestes to Strophius of Phocis so that he may grow up safely. When he is an adult he will return and avenge his father's death.
And the play opens with Orestes plotting to do just that. Orestes is talking to his tutor, and he says -
... When I went to learn from the Pythian oracle how I was to punish my father's murderers, the reply was that I was to go alone without men or arms to help me, and by stratagem exact the just penalty of death. That was the divine command. Our plan, then, must be for you to take an opportunity of entering the house; find out what's going on inside, and bring word. You won't be recognised after all these years. No one will know you with that white hair of yours. Spin a tale that you're a visitor from Phocis, sent by Patheus - he's a great ally of theirs. Tell them that Orestes is dead - take your oath on it - some accidental death, say; a fall from his chariot at the Pythian games, or some such story. Meanwhile, Pylades and I will go on and visit my father's grave - for the god ordered this - with libations and a lock of hair; then we'll come back, with that vessel of beaten bronze that we have hidden in the wood, and deceive them with the comfortable assurance that my body has been burned to ashes and no more.
An ill-omened action? No matter, if a pretend death will bring me true life and glory. I call no omen bad that leads to advantage in the end. I have heard stories of sages who have been reputed dead and then have come home again to be held in new and greater honour. So I am confident that from this forged death I shall rise again like a new star to dazzle my enemies.
As the plot further, Electra is heard weeping: she suffers greatly, missing her father and frustrated, wishing for revenge on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, who treat her badly. Her sister Chrysothemis warns her to she will be punished if she continues to mourn, then tells her of Clytemnestra's dream that Agamemnon returns, and in her panic she has asked the younger sister to make a funeral offering. The sisters argue - Electra has remained true and loyal to her father, Chrysothemis on the other hand is more practical, accepting that what is done is done, and believing it is important to move on in life. She prays that Orestes will not return to disrupt their peace, yet of course Electra has no peace and prays for Orestes return. Orestes tutor then enters, as planned, telling them that Orestes has been killed. Though sad, Chrysothemis is also relieved; Electra is heartbroken. Electra then attempts to persuade Chrysothemis to join her in taking revenge themselves but of course Chrysothemis refuses. Electra falls yet deeper into her depression until Orestes reveals himself, and together they take their revenge on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.
Electra is a truly remarkable play, and perhaps my favourite Sophocles play. Like his other plays, there is in Electra a philosophical conflict: is revenge appropriate? Should Electra move on as her sister had done and live a happier life? To whom should she be loyal? Is it right Electra be isolated for her extreme, idealistic views? These themes are explored through the discussions between the two sisters, but this is also a play with much drama, excitement, and tension. Sophocles portrays pain and mental torment so well, as he has in his others. It is, as I say, an exceptional play.
This story is portrayed also in the Oresteia Trilogy by Aeschylus (450s B.C.) and Euripides Electra (410s B.C.) and I'm looking forward to reading both. I did struggle with the first part of Aeschylus but, with this push, I'm planning on re-reading it soon and then reading the rest. For now - I'm just sorry there are no more plays by Sophocles I have left to read. He is without a doubt my favourite playwright.
~ Sophocles' Plays ~