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Electra

Sophocles

Lines 445–691

Lines 1–444

Section three, Lines 692–1466

Summary

First Episode, Lines 444–647

After Electra's dialogue with the chorus, Chrysothemis, Electra's younger sister, enters the stage with funeral offerings in hand. This encounter marks the drama's first episode, or scene. Chrysothemis approaches Electra and scolds her for once again standing in the doorway and mourning the injustice of her father's murder and her own resulting situation. Chrysothemis acknowledges that Electra may have justice on her side, but she also recognizes the practicality of going with the flow. Electra is visibly offended by Chrysothemis's attitude. Chrysothemis then tells Electra that unless she stops her constant mourning and complaining, Aegisthus, her stepfather who is now absent in the country, plans to remove Electra and imprison her in a secluded room. Electra welcomes this threat in a stubborn exclamation of defiance.

Finally, Electra asks her sister about the garlands and libations she is carrying. Chrysothemis relates that their mother, Clytemnestra, has sent Chrysothemis to pour libations at Agamemnon's grave, frightened by a dream she had the night before. Although Clytemnestra has told no one the content of the dream, nonetheless she was overheard relating its aspects to the sun. In the dream, Agamemnon had come to life again and placed his scepter, now held in the hand Aegisthus, in the hearth. A branch grew up from the scepter, from which leaves sprung and cast a shadow over all Mycenae. Clytemnestra is terrified about what the dream might suggest, and to pacify her murdered husband's spirit, or perhaps to show neglected respect, she has sent Chrysothemis with offerings to Agamemnon's grave. But Electra beseeches her sister not to bring Clytemnestra's offerings to the grave, but instead to offer Agamemnon a prayer for herself and for her brother and sister, and for the return of Orestes to avenge their father's death. Under the assumption that Clytemnestra will not find out, Chrysothemis agrees to do Electra's will.

First Stasimon, Lines 648–691

The chorus has been present onstage during the encounter between Electra and Chrysothemis. Indeed, they help Electra to persuade her sister that it is better to honor Agamemnon's grave with their own offerings than with the wicked Clytemnestra's. Chrysothemis's departure to the burial ground marks the end of the first episode, separated from the second episode by the first stasimon. The first stasimon consists of a reflection by the chorus on Clytemnestra's dream. The chorus is convinced that the dream is an omen of impending justice and Orestes' return, and it traces back the crimes of the house of Pelops, to which Agamemnon, Orestes, Aegisthus, and Electra belong, believing it has found a principle of corruption at work in the family which, with Orestes' revenge, will be finally vindicated.

Analysis

In the First Episode, the contrasting values of expediency (or pragmatism) on the one hand and justice on the other become embodied in the characters of Chrysothemis and Electra, who maintain different and opposing stances in their acceptance of their father's death. Justice and reverence are already closely associated with the character of Electra, who has consistently invoked these values throughout her previous monologues. Chrysothemis, whom although the chorus has described her as fundamentally similar to her sister, nonetheless reveals immediately her differences from Electra. What distinguishes the two is Chrysothemis's adherence to expediency rather than to the principles of justice. Chrysothemis will not act to exact a just revenge unless she knows she can succeed, which, as of now, she feels she cannot. Yet while she affirms the practicality of her position, she acknowledges the moral superiority of Electra's, and when expediency allows, Chrysothemis will choose justice. Provided that Clytemnestra will not find out, for instance, Chrysothemis is willing to replace her wicked mother's offerings with her own and her sister's.

Electra, while not swaying from the principles of justice, ironically defends her principles in her sister's terms of expediency. She acknowledges that a level of physical comfort is required before one can practice virtue but she essentially shows that she requires less physical comfort than Chrysothemis. Indeed, she welcomes the overheard plan of Aegisthus to lock her away, which indeed she is willing to suffer in the name of her father. Justice and expediency, then, while at odds on the one hand, on the other hand are not mutually exclusive. Chrysothemis and Electra each acknowledge the position of the other as legitimate.

Clytemnestra's dream clearly represents an omen of impending justice. The image of the scepter is linked with authority, which has been unnaturally appropriated by Aegisthus and Clytemnestra with the murder of Agamemnon, the legitimate ruler of Mycenae. With their usurpation of power and illegal marriage, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus have deprived their own children of inheritance rights and status, while at the same time making marriage impossible for anyone else in the royal line; they have hence destroyed the natural process of lineage. When, in the dream, Agamemnon takes hold of his scepter and roots it in the hearth, it grows branches and blooms leaves, symbolic of the return to natural order that will indeed occur when the imposters are killed and the natural, legitimate heir, Orestes, returns.

The chorus recognizes the meaning of Clytemnestra's dream. They verbalize what we already know, namely, that Apollo's plan as revealed to Orestes is working out. In the final stanza of its song, the chorus shifts its focus to the crimes of Pelops, the founder of the royal family at Argos to which Electra, Agamemnon, Orestes, and Aegisthus belong. In doing so, the chorus expands on the idea of tainted natural order introduced by the images of Clytemnestra's dream, extending the unnatural roots of evil beyond Clytemnestra and Aegisthus's murder of Agamemnon, all the way back to the murders committed by the founding father of the family. Orestes's return as the natural heir hence gains even greater symbolic weight, for he symbolizes the end of the evil perpetrated not just by a single generation, but by a series of generations throughout history.

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