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The Opposing Values of Justice and Expediency

Perhaps best embodied in the characters of Electra and Chrysothemis respectively, the opposing value systems of justice and expedience come into frequent conflict throughout the play. Electra adheres strongly to the principle of justice, willing to suffer and mourn continually in its name and in its pursuit. Chrysothemis, on the other hand, while indeed she recognizes that Electra is morally right in her position nonetheless bends towards expedience; "benefit," for her, is a key word: she performs those actions from which she will derive greatest benefit, regardless of whether or not they are necessarily "just."

The value systems collide also in Electra's debate with Clytemnestra about the nature of Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon. According to Electra, the murder was motivated by expedience; Clytemnestra had to remove Agamemnon so that she could be with Aegisthus, the object of her lust. According to Clytemnestra, however, the murder was just; she was exacting revenge from Agamemnon for his sacrifice of their daughter. The characters even deliberate whether the sacrifice itself was motivated by expedience or by justice, as a requirement of the gods. The collision of the ideas of justice and expedience functions again and again throughout the play to call into questions the motivations behind key characters, complicating a clear comprehension of their morality and of traditional conceptions of heroes and villains.

The Effect of Revenge on Its Perpetrator

Electra's hatred for her mother and her all-consuming desire for revenge bring about powerful changes in her psyche that point clearly to the profound effect revenge can have on its perpetrator. At the outset of the play, Electra adheres strongly to the principles of justice. As the play progresses, however, and the moment of revenge approaches, Electra grows increasingly irrational, demonstrating a questionable grasp on the very principle of justice by which she claims to be motivated. Her enthusiasm in listening to the cries of her dying mother, her refusal to allow Aegisthus to speak before his death, and her desire to desecrate his body by throwing the corpse to scavengers all suggests the maddening potential of the pursuit of revenge. Indeed, many scholars are divided over whether Electra's victory over her mother represents the triumph of justice or the downfall of Electra.

The Degrading Effects of Dishonor

Again and again throughout the play, characters make reverent reference to the abstract concept of honor and guard wildly against dishonor. In his prayer to the household gods at the start of the play, Orestes begs not to be exiled from honor but rather to succeed in his mission and gain his rightful command over the house. One of Electra's preoccupations, too, is preserving and ensuring the honor of her family, her father, and herself. She claims that she mourns to honor her father, and in a similar vein the chorus relates that she has made her life a "wall of tears against dishonor." Clearly, then, there is a sharp and important division between the states of honor and dishonor. This division is perhaps best explained at Electra's lowest point of degradation, just after Orestes has asked her to return the urn to him. Already, she has been ill treated and abused by her mother, betrayed and abandoned by her sister, and left hopeless and helpless by the news of her brother's death. When the disguised Orestes then tells her that she might not keep her brother's ashes, she asks if she has been so dishonored by the dead, as well. The definition of dishonor, here, comes out of the abstract and into its clearest focus: "dishonor" is degradation, betrayal, and abandonment, and it is this state that the play's characters so strive to avoid.

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