Electra

by: Sophocles

Section three, Lines 692–1466

Summary Section three, Lines 692–1466

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.