Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Electra - Sophocles

Electra is super over the top emotional. When we first meet her she is mourning the death of her Father, a good cause for emotions, but she could have used a lecture or two from the Stoics. She's not really the heroine of the play, rather she's more of a lamenting foil, carrying the plot forward with her histrionics.

We learn from Electra's lamenting, that her mother, Clytemnestra murdered Electra's father, Agamemnon, after he returned victorious from the Trojan War with his war bride Casandra.  Clytemnestra murdered them, ostensibly for offering Electra's sister Iphigenia as a sacrifice to the gods to ensure success in battle. Clytemnestra argues it was a just killing:

"Your father - this is your constant pretext - was slain by me. Yes, by me - I know it well; it admits of no denial. For Justice slew him and not I alone, Justice whom it was your part to support if you had been right-minded. This Father of your whom you are ever lamenting was the one man of the Greeks who had the heart to sacrifice your sister to the gods - he the father, who had not shared the mother's pangs."

Electra's rebuttal is that rather than fighting for Justice, Clytemnestra, having taken Agamemnon's cousin as a lover, killed Agamemnon to get him out of the way of her tryst; far from a just killing. Furthermore, she argues, rather than offering Iphigenia of his own volition, Artemis demanded the offering be made in recompense for the life of a stag Agamemnon killed and then foolishly boasted of its slaughter. Who can argue with a god? So while Agamemnon had no choice in the matter, Clytemnestra could have handled matters much differently.

Now for the morally ambiguous part: so while Electra mourns the death of her father, she plots the death of her mother in the same breath, perceiving no moral inconsistencies with this behavior. When she can't convince her sister Chrysothemis to embark with her on a plan to murder her mother and her mother's lover, she wails and moans and wrings her hands anticipating her imminent banishment.

Clytemnestra, having temporarily quieted Electra, proceeds to offer her supplications to the gods. She has had a terrible dream that Agamemnon has returned and planted his scepter in the floor of their house. She has a premonition that her son Orestes, if still alive, will be responsible for her death.  All of a sudden a stranger enters with sad news and an elaborate story about the death of Orestes, (Electra interjects: "I am lost, hapless one, I am undone!" With Clytemnestra quickly shushing her, telling the stranger to continue his story and trying her best not to look too overjoyed.)

The stranger proceeds to tell a stirring account of the chariot race where poor Orestes was trampled. Only there was no chariot race, and Orestes is waiting in the eaves to happily come to his sisters aid and murder their mother, which he does promptly.

Electra: "Orestes, how fare you?"
Orestes: "All is well within the house if Apollo's oracle spoke well.
Electra: "The guilty one is dead?"
Orestes: "Fear no more that your proud mother will ever put you to dishonor."

Very proud of themselves they gleefully plot the murder of their step-father, Aegisthus.  As Aegisthus comes on stage expecting to be met with the body of Orestes he sees a prostrate form covered in a shroud. Electra goads him into removing the covering from the face and instead of the face of Orestes, he sees that of Clytemnestra. Quickly he realizes he has walked into a trap and as he begs to be allowed to speak one final word, his demands fall on hardened and closed ears...

Electra: "In heavens name, brother, do not suffer him to speak further or plead at length! When mortals are in the meshes of fate, how can such respite avail one who is to die? No, slay him forthwith and cast his corpse to the creatures from whom such as he should have burial, far from our sight! To me nothing but this can make amends for the woes of the past."

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