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Electra

Sophocles

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

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Quiz

Electra is an especially complex play because of the moral ambiguity of the ultimate revenge. How does Sophocles's presentation of his characters enhance this complexity?

By the end of the play, the audience might not be completely convinced that the revenge is entirely justified or necessary. This is largely due to the way in which Sophocles presents his characters. The villains are not entirely villainous, and the heroine is not exclusively heroic. Over the course of the play, Electra seems to lose her grip on rationality as she is increasingly consumed by her desire for revenge. The Electra we see in the final scene is disturbingly violent and unjust, relishing the sounds of her mother's death, refusing to let Aegisthus speak before he is killed, and demanding that his corpse by left out for scavengers. Sophocles forces us to ask, how can we unreservedly admire this heroine?

Likewise, how can we fully hate either Clytemnestra or Aegisthus? Sophocles allows them both to display a certain element of human decency. Clytemnestra's relief upon hearing the news of Orestes' death is hardly unqualified; indeed, she is unable to deny her maternal sentiments of grief, however brief. Likewise Aegisthus, upon making an irreverent statement and offering to retract it if it was offensive, displays a level of humility one might not expect in a villain.

Discuss the role of the chorus in Electra and its shifting attitude toward Electra and the revenge.

In the beginning of the play, the chorus beseeches Electra to cease her constant mourning, and they attempt to console her in her suffering. this traditionally conservative stance is slowly eroded over the course of the play; at the moment of revenge, the chorus is an active and enthusiastic participant, giving urgent warning when it sees Aegisthus returning.

The chorus initially softens its stance upon hearing Chrysothemis relate Clytemnestra's dream. They regard the dream as an omen that the retribution for which Electra so longs is nigh, perhaps legitimizing their support of the heroine. The urge Chrysothemis, then, to do as Electra bids and throw Clytemnestra's offering for Agamemnon away, replacing it with one of their (the sisters's) own. Afterwards, the chorus is far more sympathetic to Electra than to Clytemnestra in their angry exchange, and the chorus is as distraught at the false news of Orestes's death as is Electra herself. The chorus's support of Electra and the revenge grows thus stronger throughout the play. One effect of this is to lend sanctity to the revenge, which itself seems increasingly questionable as Sophocles reveals news things about his characters (see question one, above).

How does Chrysothemis function within the play? Do we know Electra better because we have a sister with which to compare her?

As they watch her approach for the first time, the chorus refers to Chrysothemis as being very similar to Electra, but as soon as Electra and Chrysothemis begin to interact, their differences become glaringly evident. Chrysothemis pragmatically does only that which will benefit her. She emphasizes this again and again throughout the play, first when she tries to persuade Electra to cease her mourning, and then again when she rejects Electra's plan to take the revenge into their own hands. She might be like Electra in certain ways, as the chorus maintains she is, but her attitude regarding revenge is starkly different. While her expedient pragmatism is perhaps not as heroically admirable as Electra's passion for justice, it serves to highlight the impractical and irrational nature of Electra's obsession with vengeance.

What role does Apollo play in the tragedy? How important is the oracle?

Consider the deceptions present in Electra. Why does Electra allow Chrysothemis to go on at such length about the grave offerings? Why does Orestes allow Electra to suffer over his false death for so long?

What is the role of Pylades in Electra? When, during the play, is he present, and why?

Compare the interactions between Electra and Chrysothemis and between Electra and Clytemnestra? How are they similar? How are they different?

The Old Man is an important figure in the play. How does he function to assist the progression of the revenge? What is his role?

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