50. Electra, by Euripides (420 BC)

Plot : A retelling of The Choephori, the second play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, dealing with Agamemnon’s son Orestes returning from exile to take revenge on his own mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus for his father’s murder, and the degradation of his sister Electra.

My copy is the Penguin edition Medea and other plays edited by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140441298). Untypically, although there were footnotes provided at the back of the book, there were no linking numerals in the text, so the reader is never sure on the presence or absence of helpful notes until they break off reading to check.It was a 1963 printing so perhaps bibliographic footnoting practice has changed or was subject to the whims of the editor/publisher.

My thoughts

The murder of Aegisthus is not particularly notable – squabbles over the throne are not uncommon in history or literature. The real point of controversy is the murder of Clytemnestra. Her deceit and murder of Agamemnon was driven (so she claims) by his own sacrifice of their other daughter Iphigenia to secure fine weather for the warships bound for Troy and the recapture of Helen. Her treacherous affair with Aegisthus was her means of allying herself with someone powerful enough to allow her revenge upon Agamemnon, although Electra believes her mother was promiscuous by nature like her sister Helen.

In forming an alliance with Aegisthus, Clytemnestra earns the contempt of the Argive people, but also turns her back on her other children Orestes and Electra, leaving them to their fate.

Orestes kills Aegisthus but is reluctant to kill his mother. Electra urges him on to the second murder, and together they drive the sword blade into her. Both are immediately horrified by their matricide, suggesting they may have been influenced by means not totally in their control : the family curse or even the Gods (Orestes was under the advice of Apollo.

I did respect the peasant who has been given Electra as his bride (preventing her from having noble-born sons to carry out revenge on Aegisthus), but refuses to consummate the bond, and cares for her until Orestes’ return. His humanity and goodness are recognised by Orestes in his speech on the measure of a man (p.118)

This is my 50th read for this blog, and was posted in the week marking the 1000th view.

Favourite lines/passages

Often I find the Chorus passages in many Greek plays a tedious distraction from the main plot, but in Electra they were actually quite beautifully rendered, even if their subjects were only tangential to the main story line of this play.

Famous were the ships

which sailed long ago from Hellas to Troy,

when the dancing of oars without number

joined in their journey the dancing sea-nymphs,

where, drawn by the music of flutes,

dolphins were leaping and rolling

beside the purple-painted prows….  p.119

Then it was that Zeus turned back

the glittering journeys of the stars

and the burning sun and the pale face of dawn;

and from that day on, the blaze of divine fire

drives always towards the western sky;

and the wet clouds lie to the north,

and the parched plains of Ammon languish untouched by dew,

and Zeus withholds from them his sweet rain.                                          p.130


Personal rating: Giving this a  5. Nothing remarkable and treads ground already covered.

Next : Heracles, another play by Euripides




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