Skip over navigation

Electra

Sophocles

Important Quotations Explained

Exodus, Lines 1860–2008

Key Facts

Take no weapons. No shield. No army. Go alone—a hand in the night. Snare them. Slaughter them. You have the right.

This is the oracle of Apollo, recalled in retrospect by Orestes as he sets his plan for revenge into motion. Although the oracle is received before the events of the play begin, it plays a crucial role in terms of both plot and thematic development. While Electra is emotionally motivated to revenge by an intense desire for justice, Orestes has not shared her experiences, nor has he suffered as his sister has at the hands of his father's killers. His primary motivation, then, is the accurate fulfillment of Apollo's oracle. Throughout the play, he tailors his actions to correspond to Apollo's requirements, and he judges his success to be "good" only insofar as the oracle was "good." The wording of the oracle introduces important thematic elements as well. It introduces the motif of a "trap," which is applied primarily to the revenge itself, but more broadly and abstractly to the desire for revenge and also to the conditions of life in the home of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, both as described by Electra. The oracle's wording is also crucial in that it includes the word "right;" that word lends sanctity to a matricidal revenge that becomes increasingly questionable as the play progresses.

Oh my friends, In times like these, Self-control has no meaning. Rules of reverence do not apply. Evil is a pressure that shapes us to itself.

This quotation is spoken by Electra to the chorus at the end of the Prologue; it concludes a speech in which Electra admits that her intense desire for revenge is both consuming and unwilled. She recognizes that she is compelled to act as she does, yet regardless she denies that she has any desire to stop acting as she does. In this quotation, she disavows "self-control" and "reverence," both strongholds of rationality, and surrenders herself to the pressures of evil, as if now they, and not she herself, will be the agents of her actions. Although her initial semblance of rationality and justice does not yet crumbled into the ravenous desire for violence she displays in the final scene, Electra forewarns the audience, the chorus, and herself of what is to come. Her self-awareness is unusual for a Sophoclean character and adds complexity to the ultimate revenge. That revenge, while it is desired by Electra, is yet seemingly beyond her control since she has, as articulated in this quotation, abandoned herself to the powerful pressures of evil that can cause an individual to act uncharacteristically. Some scholars have suggested that Electra loses her mind as the play progresses, but this quotation suggests that perhaps her irrationality is not a symptom of madness, but of the usurpation of the mind by evil.

And yet, It is true, Justice is not on my side. Your choice is the right one. On the other hand, If I want to live a free woman, There are masters who must be obeyed.

This quotation is spoken by Chrysothemis as she encounters Electra mourning in the streets. She has just chastised Electra for her stubborn grieving and urged her to continue on with life as usual; here, however, she interestingly admits that Electra is "right" in her position. It has been noted several times in this SparkNote that while Electra initially embodies the value of justice, Chrysothemis embodies the contrasting value of expedience; Electra is willing to forgo physical comforts for the sake of justice, and Chrysothemis is willing to act in whatever way will maximize her personal benefit, even at justice's expense. In this quotation, Chrysothemis succinctly and clearly exemplifies her adherence to expedience.

This quotation is important not only for its expression of a conflict of value systems (justice v. expedience) that recurs throughout the play, but also for what it suggests about the characters of the sisters. Chrysothemis's acknowledgment that Electra's choice is the "right" one and that Electra "has justice on her side" lends greater sanctity to Electra's increasingly questionable desire for revenge; Chrysothemis's statement thus lends strength to Electra's arguments and actions while at the same time demonstrating what might be considered either Chrysothemis's pragmatism or her weakness.

Then she saw him take hold of his scepter And stick it in the hearth—His old scepter from the old days, That Aegisthus carries now. And from the scepter sprang a branch In full climbing leaf Which cast a shadow over the whole land of Mycenae.

In this quotation, Chrysothemis relates to Electra the climax of Clytemnestra's dream of the night before, in which Clytemnestra saw Agamemnon return from the dead. The images of the dream are full of symbolism; the scepter is clearly a symbol of authority, and the tree into which the scepter grows is symbolic of the return to the natural order with the return of authority to the legitimate heir. Agamemnon's rule was unnaturally cut short by his murder and the usurpation of power by Aegisthus; Aegisthus and Clytemnestra have perverted the progression of natural order by prohibiting the marriage of Agamemnon's children. The dream is clearly an omen of events soon to come; Orestes, the legitimate heir, will return, exact revenge, and reclaim power, thereby restoring the natural order. Terrified by the dream and what it might suggest, Clytemnestra has sent Chrysothemis to make an offering at Agamemnon's tomb to pacify what she fears might be his returning spirit.

Father, father, father! Your perpetual excuse—Your father got his death from me. From me! That's right! I make no denial. It was Justice who took him, not I alone. And you should have helped if you had any conscience. For this father of yours, This one you bewail, This unique Greek, Had the heart to sacrifice your own sister to the gods.

Clytemnestra utters this quotation after she has found Electra out mourning on the streets as usual. Although only a small part of a larger speech, this quotation alone serves a variety of functions, which include character and thematic development and complicating the plot. Clytemnestra's angered frustration at encountering her daughter on the street again demonstrates the lack of maternal love and patience of which Electra repeatedly accuses her; her evident frustration simultaneously points to Electra's dogged persistence in bemoaning her fate in public. Perhaps of most importance, though, is the exploration of Clytemnestra's motive in killing Agamemnon, whom, we learn for the first time here, sacrificed his own daughter to the gods. In Clytemnestra's opinion, the sacrifice was unnecessary and therefore justly demanded the retribution she delivered by killing her husband. This adds a level of moral complexity to the plot, for if Clytemnestra's action of answering a killing with a killing was "wrong," then Electra's desire to avenge her father's death by killing her mother is similarly "wrong." The situation raises other questions as well: was Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter necessary? Did it demand retribution? Was Clytemnestra justified in killing her husband, and, if so, is the revenge Electra desires truly necessary?

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us