Plot: The background of this story has Agamemnon returning from the siege of Troy only to fall victim to his murderous wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The boy child Orestes was smuggled away before he too can be killed, thanks to his sister Electra.
This play starts years later, with Electra a half-starved and ragged dressed prisoner in what was once her father’s house, praying for Orestes’ return as a grown man to exact their revenge. He does indeed return, but sends a false message ahead of him to say that he has been killed in a chariot race, to dull any suspicions. Electra hears the story, and believing it to be true, unsuccessfully tries to convince her sister Chrysothemis to help her kill their mother and her lover themselves, and “never to shame, by life ingloriously bought an honourable name”. Forced to act alone, she is delayed by the arrival of Orestes and his friend Pylades pretending to carry the ashes of her brother. Eventually Orestes reveals his true identity to Electra, and the long awaited revenge begins.
The final of the four plays in the Penguin edition Electra and other plays (ISBN 0140440283)
My thoughts: Sophocles’ last surviving play took me back again to the story of Electra, also told in Aeschylus’ Choephori (The Libation Bearers). Sophocles makes Electra a very strong character, with her grief and long-nursed hatred of her mother (especially compared with her sister Chryosthemis’ docile acceptance) and her strong argument of marital infidelity that trumps Clytemnestra’s claims of seeking revenge for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. He paints a far more black-and-white picture of the history and events of this story than the other tragedians, and there is little sympathy for Clytemnestra and none for Aegisthus.
This version seems to end on a happy note for the children of Agamemnon, but the beating of the Furies’ wings will soon be heard by Orestes.
So goodbye, Sophocles, and thanks for bringing the third character onto the stage and moving us from dialogue to drama.
Personal rating: Better than Aeschylus’ version but not as interesting as Euripides’ sequel to these events, also entitled Electra. Maybe a 5.
Also in that year: Athens defeats the Spartans in a naval battle at Arginusae, but it may prove too little too late.
Next: The Bacchae by Euripides