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On to Electra, Sophocles’ take on the Oresteia story you might know so well from Aeschylus. Sophocles’ play fits into the story at just about the same place as The Libation Bearers: it details the grief and desire for vengeance harbored by Electra, Agamemnon’s daughter and Orestes’ sister, and it goes right into the act of revenge itself: Orestes’ murder of his father’s slayer, Aegisthus and of his mother, Clytemnestra.

As the title might imply, there is much more of a focus on Electra in Sophocles’ play than in Aeschylus’s. After a brief introduction showing Orestes and his companions sneakily arriving at the palace, most of the rest of the play shows Electra running into various people and letting them know that her dissatisfaction with the current arrangement is coming to a head. The current arrangement being that Aegisthus is king, is Clytemnestra’s wife; Electra has been complaining this whole time, so she is on a sort of lock-down where she’s not allowed to leave the palace grounds. Her sister, Chrysothemis, insists that she, too, is interested in getting revenge, but she finds that idea too troublesome and would prefer to just get along with everybody.

Eventually Orestes’ tutor arrives and, according to plan, tells a big old yarn about Orestes’ death in a chariot race. Soon after Orestes himself arrives, in disguise. He slowly reveals himself to Electra, the two talk excitedly, the tutor comes out of the palace and says they are wasting time; Orestes then murders his mother and waits for Aegisthus to arrive; he does, and he talks calmly with Aegisthus for a few lines before leading him back to the spot of his father’s death to finish the deed.

The ending is rather abrupt in this one. With all the passionate brutality of Aeschylus’s version, this one seems very cold and calculating. It almost doesn’t seem like Greek tragedy, in that regard, how efficient and direct they are. The most striking thing about it is that there is absolutely no deliberation about Orestes killing his mother. That, too, is done with a kind of cold efficiency that, again, you wouldn’t expect in Greek tragedies. Even the chorus is largely quiet by the end.

This speed and relative terseness at the end gives the end of the play a chilling quality. The mood reminds me of a bloody Western, or maybe an old Samurai movie. Orestes is a little bit less of a character, so I guess it’s consistent to the balance of the story that we don’t get much conscience-talk from him. We do get a lot from Electra, and it’s hard not to notice that she is not very divided. She has no qualms about exacting revenge; there is no inner-struggle or even any question. Her agony seems to center on a feeling of powerlessness and victimization: she’s trapped in the palace; Orestes, in whom she has placed all her hopes for revenge, is absent and perhaps never coming back, for all she knows; everyone around her despises her and tells her to be quiet. Not that this doesn’t make sense, granted the conflict. But, just as with The Women of Trachis, the lack of inner conflict makes me wonder what I can take away from this.

Unlike Trachis, I do feel that there is something rich being portrayed here. I might read this one again, someday, just to get back into the feeling, so get a feel for Electra’s situation, for the people around her. I can’t say that the whole thing is much more than intriguing at this point, but I found myself touching a somewhat deeper bottom with this one than with the other Sophocles.

So I put this one just one increment higher than The Women of Trachis. Though the latter is a little bit more fun (in an action movie kind of way), the stronger character development ranks this play as a B-list classic, instead of a C-list. Or B instead of B minus. Definitely worth a read, without too many qualifications as to who’s doing the reading.

So that’s the end of the works of Sophocles, for me. Next I’ll be moving on to Euripides. By my current count, there are ten of his plays for me to get through, to have read all of them. This includes Rhesus, whose authenticity is debated. Well, it’s in my library, and I’ve never read it, so it’s staying on the list.

Happy reading, everyone!


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