Skip over navigation

Electra

Sophocles

Section three, Lines 692–1466

Lines 445–691

Section four, lines 1467–1859

Summary

Lines 692–1089, Second Episode, Part one

Clytemnestra enters the stage once the chorus has finished its song, marking the start of the second episode. A servant attends her, carrying garlands for a sacrifice. Clytemnestra chides Electra for being out in the streets as usual and embarrassing the family. If Aegisthus were not away, Clytemnestra says, he would keep Electra indoors and out of sight. Clytemnestra maintains that Electra has no cause to blame her, because what Clytemnestra did to Agamemnon she did out of justice, exacting revenge for Agamemnon's sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. Clytemnestra, perhaps from the unnerving effect of her dream, is more lenient with Electra than usual and grants her daughter the right to respond, which Electra does with full force. She maintains that her mother's reason for killing Agamemnon was out of lust for Aegisthus, and that Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia was legitimate and necessary. An angry goddess had halted Agamemnon and his fleet on their way to free the army at Troy and refused to let them go unless Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter. Electra maintains that Agamemnon hated making the sacrifice, but that he had no choice in the matter.

Clytemnestra angrily breaks off their discussion so that she might proceed with the sacrifice, which was her initial intent. She calls on Apollo and explains to the god that her sleep was troubled with dreams. She prays that if these dreams were good omens, that they should come to pass, but if not, that they should befall her enemies and not herself. She prays for wealth and long life, and in euphemistic, guarded terms, she prays that Orestes might not return.

The moment Clytemnestra finishes her prayer, the Old Man enters the stage in the character of a messenger from a Phocian friend. He relates to the women that Orestes is dead, and he describes in great length and detail the manner of his death at a chariot race in Delphi. Electra is visibly overcome with grief, and the chorus, too, laments the death. Clytemnestra has confused and mixed emotions at the news. She is affected slightly by maternal feelings and vaguely horrified that her prayers might have brought about the death of her own son. At the same time, however, she is delighted that the possibility of Orestes's return and vengeance has been eradicated. Clytemnestra invites the Old Man inside the palace to receive her hospitality, and the two exit the stage, leaving Electra alone with the chorus.

Kommos, lines 1090–1165

Alone together on stage, Electra and the chorus engage in a mournful duet, during which Electra gives herself up to sorrow as the chorus tries in vain to console and comfort her. She expresses disgust at the ultimate joy her mother demonstrated at the news of Orestes' death, and she despairs at the thought that her one remaining hope for revenge has been taken away from her. She resigns herself to a life of mourning, and she openly welcomes death.

Second Episode, Part two, Lines 1166–1391

Chrysothemis returns to the palace after having left her offering at Agamemnon's grave, marking the second phase of the second episode. She is apparently filled with joy, and she rushes up to Electra, who is mourning the death of Orestes in front of the palace gates. Chrysothemis tells Electra that their brother Orestes is alive, and that she is sure of this because, as she made her offering at Agamemnon's grave, she found newly offered wreaths of many flowers and a lock of fresh cut hair. The hair, she is convinced, could belong to no one but Orestes. Electra's grief is renewed, and she relates to Chrysothemis the news of Orestes death. Chrysothemis's joy is immediately replaced with despair, and she willingly listens as Electra puts forth a plan to ease their sorrow. The plan, of course, is for the sisters to take the matter of revenge into their own hands, and to kill both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Chyrsothemis rejects the plan, which she considers as lacking in sense and moreover without any possible chance of success. Electra voices her lack of surprise at her sister's unwillingness to take the risk and vows to exact revenge on her own. Chrysothemis issues skeptical words of warning to her sister before going inside the palace.

Second Stasimon, Lines 1392–1466

Chrysothemis's exit marks the end of the second episode, and immediately the second stasimon, consisting of the chorus's song, begins. The chorus bemoans Electra's isolation. Electra, they sing, has been betrayed and abandoned by her sister, left alone by the deaths of her father and brother, and is mistreated by her wicked mother. It celebrates her undying sense of virtue and her inability and unwillingness to live either amongst evil or with shame. Abandoning its traditional conservative stance, it encourages Electra to retaliate against those who have acted against her, in the name of faith, justice, and reverence.

Analysis

Clytemnestra's entrance is highly reminiscent of Chrysothemis's entrance in the first episode. Both enter onto the stage on their way to make an offering, and both address Electra with the tone of exasperated frustration when they find her, once again, out mourning on the street. In both cases, too, the sacrifice, when finally performed, has been altered in some way by Electra, whether by her words or by her presence. Chrysothemis, for instance, abandons the libations given her by Clytemnestra at Electra's suggestion and instead makes an offering of her own at Agamemnon's grave. Clytemnestra makes her prayer to Apollo in guarded terms since Electra is present to hear her pray. Such parallels suggest the force of Electra's character in her ability to dominate and preoccupy the thoughts and consequent actions of both her mother and her sister.

The deliberation over Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia again raises the question of expediency versus justice. Clytemnestra holds that she murdered Agamemnon justly, to exact revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter. Electra maintains that her mother murdered her father out of expediency, so that she might be able to marry Aegisthus, the man after whom she lusted. In a similar vein, Clytemnestra holds that Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia out of expediency, for the sake of Menelaus and the Greek army. Electra, however, holds that Agamemnon was indeed acting not out of expediency, but out of necessity. In arguing with her mother over these points, Electra, who has hitherto been the drama's champion of justice, demonstrates nonetheless the limitations of her grasp on the idea of justice. She insists that to answer a killing with a killing, as her mother has done, can never bring about justice; but, in doing so, she undercuts her own larger agenda, which is to seek justice for the killing of her father by killing her mother. Such a contradictory position does not necessarily render Electra's position and character as weaker than one might have initially supposed; indeed, it endows her character with an element of humanity that renders her, if anything, more realistic and complex.

Clytemnestra's prayer may be couched in guarded, euphemistic terms, but its ultimate purpose is to actively prevent Orestes' return. The Old Man's immediate entrance at the end of the prayer seems to be an immediate response to the prayer, and his message (albeit false) that Orestes has died has interesting effects on Clytemnestra. Perhaps because of her prayer, she holds herself responsible for Orestes's death, and she is overcome briefly by maternal feelings. Although ultimately relieved and pleased by the news, Clytemnestra initially shows grief, complicating her character and rendering it more human in just the way that Electra's previous self-contradictory position regarding justice did the same. The Old Man's message has interesting ramifications for Electra's character as well. His news marks a new stage in Electra's suffering. Her sister's unwillingness to ally with her, combined with her mother's cruelty, have already suggested Electra's isolation, and Orestes's death strips her of her final hope, leaving her a character without friends, love, hope, or even the will to live.

Upon Chrysothemis's return from Agamemnon's grave, Electra regains a faint glimmer of hope in the possibility that her sister might avenge their father's murder with her, but Chrysothemis's tendency toward expediency rather than justice immediately shatters this hope. Indeed, before Electra has even set her plan out, Chrysothemis forewarns that she will take part in it only if it will benefit her in some way. Once she has considered the plan and deemed it unlikely to succeed, she rejects it. But she does so not in the language of expediency as much as in the language of virtue. She points out the legitimate fact that it is the opposite of virtue to pursue honor if honor's pursuit threatens the family or the city. Likewise, Electra makes her case for the plan in the negative language of expediency, rightly pointing out that Chrysothemis will lack substantial benefits, such as marriage rights and inheritance rights, if she does not act to reestablish the natural order. Once again, Electra and Chrysothemis cling firm to their respective value systems of justice and virtue while at the same time acknowledging the other's position. Compromise, however, is impossible, and the second episode ends with Electra's utter isolation.

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