Electra, A Woman of Many Temperaments

Statue of Electra holding Orestes’ ashes. Courtesy of Greek Myth Link.

Electra is one prominent female figure in Ancient Greek literature as all three of the renowned tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides have written their own respective plays centered around this one woman. Their takes, on the other hand, differ vastly and depending on what type of woman portrayal peaks your interest, you are sure to find an enjoyable read with one of them.

The backstory for each play is that Clytemnestra, Queen of Argos, murders her husband, Agamemnon (King of Argos) with the help of her new lover, Aegisthus because Agamemnon has brought home his own concubine, Cassandra, after returning from the Trojan War. Clytemnestra feels justified in her murder because Agamemnon had offered their daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice to Artemis to gain good winds after offending the goddess. Aegisthus also happens to be Agamemnon’s cousin and in aiding the murder, he also gets revenge for his father, Thyestes, who was tricked by Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, into eating his own children. After Agamemnon dies, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus rule Argos and Orestes (Clytemnestra & Agamemnon’s son) is rescued from potential harm by his sister, Electra, who smuggles him away to stay with Strophius of Phocis. This is why I love the Ancient Greeks; they’re so much more complicated than anything on television these days.

Sophocles’ Electra depicts the loyal, devoted daughter who openly scorns her mother for her father’s death and is seething to avenge her father. In their confrontation, Clytemnestra claims the following:

Justice slew him[Agamemnon] and not I alone, Justice whom it was your part to support if you had been right-minded.

She is wholly confident that she had every right to kill Agamemnon and accuses Electra of being crazy if she doesn’t see the murder as a justified act. Electra certainly doesn’t and rebuts:

your deed was not just; no, you were drawn to it by the wooing of the base man[Aegisthus] who is now your spouse.

She further defends Agamemnon’s honor by claiming that it was “under sore reluctance and with sore constraint” that her father was forced to kill his own daughter.

This confrontation establishes that Electra is certainly “Daddy’s Little Girl” but it oddly also shows that Electra is her mother’s daughter because they have the same stubborn nature when both women think they’re right. Sophocles is excellent when it comes to depicting family relations- he’d make a great writer for theatre today. I’d pay to see his plays if he was a struggling playwright in NYC.

As this play draws to an end, Electra tries to persuade her sister, Chrysothemis to help her avenge Agamemnon when she hears that Orestes has died. Can we just take a minute here to appreciate the fact that a woman actually takes the reins for once?

Ok, of course, Orestes is just in disguise and eventually becomes the one who commits the matricide and kills Aegisthus. However, Sophocles’ break from convention in allowing the possibility of a woman in charge is commendable.

Euripides’ Electra is radically different in that he creates an Electra who resents her mother for marrying her to a peasant.

I have no part in the holy festivals. I am deprived of a share in the dances. I am ashamed to think of Castor, my kinsman, to whom they betrothed me before he went to the gods. But my mother sits on a throne amidst the spoils of Phrygia, and about her seat are stationed Asiatic captive women whom my father won; they wear Idaean robes clasped with brooches of gold.

Electra has to endure life as a peasant’s wife and work harder than even the foreign slaves in Clytemnestra’s kingdom. When your mother treats you as such, it then becomes a stronger motivation to want her dead. Euripides relies much more on dialogue in his play and is more attune to the lives of the working class.

What makes Euripides’ Electra a compelling read is that he doesn’t make it easy when it comes to deciding which characters are “right” and which ones are “wrong” in their words and actions; there is a great deal of gray area.

(For both plays, I read the Bantam Dell editions, which I have hyperlinked for you if you’d like to pick up a copy.)

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9 thoughts on “Electra, A Woman of Many Temperaments

  1. Love this line: “This is why I love the Ancient Greeks; they’re so much more complicated than anything on television these days.”

    I’ve read Aeschylus and Sophocles’s versions of the Electra tale, but Euripides’s Orestes always seemed curious to me, much like his version of Electra seems in your review.

    • I’ve actually never read Euripides’ Orestes. Does he differ radically from the mythology?

      If I had to stereotype Euripides based on his works I have read, I’d call him the “rebel tragedian.” I always end up in a bit of disbelief at how he veers from the original myths. Of course, this is what keeps things interesting!

      • Euripedes’s Orestes takes place right before he goes to Athens to receive justice (the plot of Aeschylus’s The Eumenides). The ending is kind of bizarre and I haven’t seen corroboration with that version of events anywhere (but I’m not classics scholar and much of the ancient Greeks’ texts are lost to us now…). I don’t want to ruin it for you when you read it, though!

  2. Yes, Elektra and her mother share a stubborn streak. I wonder, though, if Aegisthus were not part of the picture would her rage really be tempered? I’m not so sure…

    Sophocles a struggling playwright in NYC? I can’t picture that. He would dominate the scene! 🙂

    -Jay

    • I think she still would in Euripides’ version…maybe less so in Sophocles since Aegisthus seems to play a bigger part in provoking Electra in Sophocles’ version. Euripides’ Electra blames Clytemnestra for devaluing her own daughter in fear that she may marry well and give birth to a son who could be a threat to both her and Aegisthus. What easier way to prevent that than marrying your daughter off to a peasant? I felt Electra cared more about this act than Clytemnestra’s affair.

      Sophocles would probably quickly overcome even Andrew Lloyd Weber’s fame if he started out here in NYC!

  3. Definitely curious to check out the different versions now to compare them. I went with Sophocles just because he was the voice that I identified most with when reading the Greeks when I was younger. I’d be curious to see if this is still true. Nice post, thanks for sharing.

    • I think you’d be greatly surprised by Euripides’ take on Electra. I certainly was when I read it the first time. I’d love to hear your thoughts when you do. Also, thanks for being our first subscriber!

  4. I have not yet met Electra in the reading I’ve done. How fascinating to compare her character in the two works.

    And I agree: it’s so fun to discover the complexities to the stories of the Ancient Greeks!

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