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Electra

Sophocles

Section four, lines 1467–1859

Section three, Lines 692–1466

Exodus, Lines 1860–2008

Summary

Third Episode, lines 1467–1845

Orestes and Pylades enter onto the stage with servants carrying an urn, which, it is pretended, contains the ashes of the dead youth. Orestes, in the character of a Phocian, asks the chorus if the house in front of which they stand is indeed the home of Aegisthus. The chorus replies affirmatively and points to Electra as the next of kin and the appropriate individual to announce the visitor's arrival. Electra, however, seeing the urn under Orestes's arm and understanding that it is meant to contain the ashes of her brother, enters into a fresh bout of grieving and asks if she might take the urn from him, to which request Orestes complies.

Electra laments over the urn in a speech of utter despair. She recounts how she tried to save Orestes by sending him away after their father's murder and she equates Orestes's death with her own. Now, she says, she is nothing. Orestes is greatly affected by the sight of his sister's suffering, and he cries out, exclaiming that he cannot hold his tongue any longer. He maintains his fictive guise for a short while longer as he listens to his sister relate the injustice and mistreatment she suffers at the hands of Clytemnestra. Then, finally, assured by Electra that the chorus of women is trustworthy and will not give any secrets away, Orestes decides to reveal himself. First, however, he asks Electra to return the urn to him. The thought of parting with the ashes of her brother and her only hope renews Electra's agony. Orestes allows her to keep the urn as he tells her who he is, showing her their father's ring as proof of his identity. Electra's emotions undergo a complete reversal. She longs to celebrate, but Orestes urges her to keep silent for the time being, at least until their father's murder has been avenged. Regardless of his wishes, Electra can hardly refrain from joyful speeches and songs.

The Old Man enters from within the palace gates and chastises the two for their imprudence and indiscretion, saying that they could have been easily overhead. He urges immediate action, in accordance with Apollo's oracle. Orestes asks the Old Man about the conditions inside the house and the reactions of the inhabitants to the news of his death. The Old Man is unforthcoming, saying only that the plan, hence far, is unfolding well. Electra asks her bother who the Old Man is. Finally, after a bit of convincing, she recognizes him as the faithful servant to whom she entrusted Orestes as a young boy to smuggle off to Phocia after Agamemnon's murder. Electra blesses the Old Man, who replies that catching up will have to wait until later. He says that now is the time for action and he hastens Orestes into the house, where Clytemnestra waits alone. After the Old Man, Orestes, and Pylades have left the stage, Electra gives a prayer of thanks to Apollo for the living return of her brother.

Third Stasimon, Lines 1846–1859

The third stasimon follows Electra's prayer and concludes the third episode. The stasimon is exceptionally brief, a fitting precursor to the drama's climactic action. The chorus envisions Orestes making his way through the house and exclaims that it won't be long until revenge has been achieved.

Analysis

The third episode is characterized by a high level of dramatic irony. For the bulk of it, the audience is aware of what Electra is painfully ignorant, namely, the identity of the man before her. This irony adds to the pathos of Electra's grief. The audience squirms with discomfort to see Electra suffer so, and unnecessarily. At the start of the third episode, Electra is already undone by grief at her brother's death; the sight of the urn only heightens her despair, which is painfully demonstrated in her excessively mournful address to her brother's supposed ashes. At the climactic moment of the speech, Electra asks to be taken into the urn also, which is likely an allusion to the most famous friendship in Greek literature, with which a classical audience would certainly have been familiar. In Homer's Iliad, for instance, the ghost of Patroclus, Achilles's best friend, returns from the dead to ask Achilles to have his ashes placed in the same urn as his own. An allusion such as this emphasizes the magnitude of both Electra's love for her brother and equally the grief she feels at his passing. Her claim that she has been reduced to nothing by Orestes's death functions in a similar way. The pathetic irony resides in the fact that the very person who can make her the opposite of nothing is in fact standing beside her, yet Orestes continues to let her suffer in an awful spectacle of grief. Electra's suffering prior to Orestes's simple revelation of his true identity pitches her into her greatest and final phase of despair. Throughout the play, Electra has been stripped down. She is stripped of her mother's love and of the simple aspects of comfortable dress and food. She is stripped of her sister's alliance, of her brother, and with his death, she is stripped of hope. Yet before Orestes reveals himself to her, he demands that she return to him the urn, which symbolizes Electra's final stripping away, leaving her a barren character, devoid of love, friendship, family, hope, or even the useless ashes of her dead brother. The audience can bear to witness Electra's grief, which is truly the epitome of human suffering, only because of the dramatic irony employed. Although Electra herself is ignorant of the fact, the audience knows that her suffering will end, and hence it can keep its eyes open to true despair.

The greater the depth of despair, too, the greater the sense of relief and release once despair has been reversed. Electra's joy is evident both in the content of her song and the lyric of the meter in which she sings. Orestes's attempts to urge her restraint are fittingly and contrastingly in prosaic iambics. Electra's celebrates not the future as much as a release from the past and from the perversion of marriage and birth brought about by Clytemnestra's and Aegisthus' actions. In a sense, she celebrates the return to natural order symbolized by the tree-like scepter in Clytemnestra's dream.

The Old Man's unwillingness to reveal to Orestes Clytemnestra's human response to the news of Orestes's death increases the Old Man's level of moral ambiguity. Recall that Clytemnestra did not display unbounded or unqualified joy at the news. Indeed, for a moment she was visibly affected by maternal feelings. That the Old Man is unforthcoming about Clytemnestra's response might be indicative of a fear of swaying Orestes's resolve to carry out the revenge in accordance with Apollo's oracle, or it might simply be a product of the Old Man's sense that time is of the essence. Indeed, he does say that he will tell all later. Regardless, his unwillingness to speak of the matter forces the audience to recall that which he will not reveal to Orestes, which is the human side of Clytemnestra's character. Her human side itself complicates the audience's moral response to the revenge, but so too does the Old Man's unwillingness to reveal that humanity.

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