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Electra

Sophocles

Exodus, Lines 1860–2008

Section four, lines 1467–1859

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

Once Orestes, Pylades, and the Old Man have entered into the house, Electra—who is outside the palace gates to make sure that Aegisthus does not approach unobserved—urges the chorus to be silent so that they might hear Clytemnestra's cries coming from inside. Clytemnestra calls out first to Aegisthus to save her, but he is not at home. She then beseeches Orestes to pity her, his mother, and then she cries out in pain as she receives Orestes's first blow. Electra calls to her brother from outside to hit Clytemnestra again, which he does, killing her.

Orestes comes outside and replies to Electra's queries that all is going according to Apollo's oracle and that indeed their mother is dead. The chorus interrupts their exchange, crying out that they have spotted Aegisthus approaching, back from his excursion in the country. Orestes hurries inside, full of resolve to finish the revenge he has begun. Aegisthus approaches Electra, asking her where the Phocians with news of Orestes's death have gone. Electra tells him that they are inside the house with Clytemnestra. Aegisthus asks if indeed they have brought the news he has heard rumored, and Electra replies that they have brought more than news alone. They have brought proof that Orestes is dead. Aegisthus expresses his pleasure and demands that Electra open the gates and the doors of the house so that all Mycenaeans might be able to see the corpse that he believes belongs to Orestes. Electra complies, and a shrouded corpse becomes visible, with disguised figures of Orestes and Pylades standing beside it.

Aegisthus commands Orestes, whom he believes to be a stranger from Phocia, to uncover the corpse, whereupon Orestes tells Aegisthus to uncover it himself. As Aegisthus is uncovering the corpse, he orders Orestes to call for Clytemnestra, and then, as the corpse is revealed, he sees that it belongs to Clytemnestra herself. All of a sudden, Aegisthus understands that the man standing beside him is Orestes, and that he has been caught. He asks if he might speak, but Electra denies him the right, begging Orestes instead to kill Aegisthus immediately and to throw his corpse out for scavengers to eat. Orestes orders Aegisthus inside, explaining that he wants to kill him in the exact spot where Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon years before. Orestes and Aegisthus enter into the house, followed by Electra, where Aegisthus will be killed in a manner supposedly so gruesome that it must be left to the audience's imaginations. The chorus, alone on stage, makes a final comment, declaring that the seed of Atreus has broken free.

Analysis

In the Exodos, the moral ambiguities present throughout the play come together in sharpest focus. In the Prologue, Electra suggests that her desire for revenge and her habit of constant mourning are not as much self-willed and self-approved as much as they are forced upon her. She expresses a certain level of self-doubt that seems healthy and rational given the extremity of her desires and actions. In the Exodos, however that rationality and self-awareness prove entirely absent. She displays excessive enthusiasm at the prospect of murder that might be considered morally repugnant. She delights in the sounds of her mother's cries as she is killed and urges Orestes to strike Clytemnestra "again." She baits Aegisthus as he returns home, feigning a humbleness and servitude that barely conceal her excitement at the murder she knows will shortly occur. Aegisthus himself is endowed with a touch of humanity, worrying not to offend the gods and offering to undo potentially offensive remarks. This human touch is similar to the human touch given Clytemnestra with her, albeit brief, grief and guilt over Orestes's death. The humanization of the play's supposed villains and the vilification of the play's supposed heroine lend the ultimate revenge a deep complexity.

The revenge is also troubling given the reappearance of Electra's slightly defective sense of justice. In her exchange with Clytemnestra in the second episode, she condemns her mother's killing of Agamemnon, insisting that to answer a killing with a killing will never achieve justice, thereby undercutting her own desire and purpose, which is to answer her father's killing by killing her mother. In the Exodos, Electra believes justice is finally being realized with her mother's and Aegisthus's deaths. Yet she has previously condemned the very logic behind her actions. Electra's desire to throw Aegisthus's corpse out for scavengers is disturbing, especially when viewed through a classical Greek lens. The desecration of a human corpse, regardless of who the corpse belonged to, was a miscarriage and a blasphemy of justice. Electra's adherence to the principles of justice, or at least to her understanding of those principles, proves itself to be unnervingly spotty.

These moral ambiguities, however, exist more to complicate the play and the revenge than to undercut the revenge entirely. Despite Electra's questionable sense of justice, and despite her overzealous enthusiasm for murder, there remains a strong case for the revenge. On the one hand, it occurs in accordance with an oracle from Apollo, which in Athenian times was stronger than law and a blasphemy to ignore. The reactions of the chorus, too, throughout the play, seem to sanctify the revenge. Traditionally quite restrained, the chorus is increasingly sympathetic to Electra, and decreasingly suspect of her desire for revenge. Indeed, in the Exodos, the chorus is an enthusiastic participant in the revenge, excitedly giving the alert when Aegisthus approaches. One thing we can be sure of is the fact that Sophocles provides questions, not answers. Through the morally ambiguous chorus, for instance, he even forces the audience, witnesses like the chorus to these events, to question its moral bearings.

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