A summary and analysis of the play by Sophocles

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 135-142.

The theme of the Electra, which, with the Ajax and Philoctetes, belongs to the Trojan legend, is the same as that of the Mourning Women of Aeschylus, but with a marked difference of treatment. Electra, and not Orestes, is the chief character, and for her Sophocles claims all our sympathies. The scene is laid in front of the palace; but there is no grave of Agamemnon, as in the Aeschylean tragedy. At daybreak enter, as if from foreign lands, Pylades, Orestes and his keeper, who gives him instructions as he introduces him to the city of his fathers. Orestes replies with a speech on the injunction of Apollo and the manner in which he means to execute it, then addresses a prayer to the gods and to his father's house. Electra is heard sobbing within; Orestes wishes to greet her immediately, but is led away to present an offering at the grave of his father. Electra comes out, and in a pathetic address to heaven pours forth her griefs, and in prayer to the infernal deities her unappeased longing for revenge.

"The holy light and all-surrounding air, which ere this oft have heard my cries of woe, hear me only wailing for my hapless sire, whom his own wife and her paramour smote in foul and grievous death.

But I at least will ne'er
Refrain my eyes from weeping, while I live,
Nor yet my voice from wail;
Not while I see this day
And yon bright twinkling stars;
But like a nightingale
Of its young brood bereaved,
Before the gates I speak them forth to all.
O house of Hades and Persephone,
O Hermes of the abyss, and thou, dread Curse,
And ye Erinyes, daughters of the gods,
Ye dreaded ones, who look
On all who perish, slain unrighteously,
On all whose bed is stealthily defiled,
Come ye, and help avenge my father's death;
Send me my brother here."

The chorus, consisting of virgins of the place, approaches Electra to give her consolation. In alternating song and speech with the chorus, she makes known her unabatable sorrow, the contumely of her oppressed life, her hopelessness on account of the delays of Orestes, notwithstanding her frequent exhortations, and gives faint hearing to the encouraging arguments of the chorus. Chrysothemis, the younger, more submissive, and favorite daughter of Clytemnestra, comes with a funeral-offering, which she is ordered to carry to her father's grave. An altercation arises between Electra and Chrysothemis concerning their different sentiments: Chrysothemis tells Electra that Ægisthus, now absent in the country, has come to the severest resolutions respecting her; to which she bids defiance. Then she relates the dream of Clytemnestra, that Agamemnon had come to life again, and planted his sceptre in the floor of his house, whence there sprung up a tree overshadowing the whole land: terrified at which she had commissioned her to be the bearer of an offering to the dead. Electra advises her not to regard the commands of her wicked mother, but to offer up at the tomb a prayer for herself and her brother and sister, and for the return of Orestes as the avenger. Chrysothemis promises to follow her advice and departs.

The chorus divines from the dream that retribution is nigh, and traces back the crimes committed in the house of Pelops to the first guilty deed of that ancestor. Clytemnestra chides her daughter, to whom, however, perhaps from the effect of the dream, she is milder than usual: still she justifies what she did to Agamemnon. Electra attacks her on that score, but both without violent altercation. After this, Clytemnestra, standing beside the altar, prays to Apollo for welfare and long life, and, secretly, for the destruction of her son.

Now enters the keeper of Orestes, and in the character of a messenger from a Phocian friend, describes his death at a chariot race in the Pythian games, though the news afterward proves to be false. The following is the description of the race:

Cheering all
Their steeds at once, they shook the reins, and then
The course was filled with all the clash and din
Of rattling chariots, and the dust rose high;
And all commingled, sparing not the goad,
That each might pass his neighbor's axle-trees
And horses' hot hard breathings; for their backs
And chariot wheels were white with foam, and still
The breath of horses smote them; and he, come
Just where the last stone marks the course's goal,
Turning the corner sharp, and letting go
The right-hand trace-horse, pulled the nearer in,
And so at last the chariots keep their course;
But then the unbroken colts, their sixth round or their seventh,
Dash their heads right against the chariot wheels
Of those who came from Barké. And from thence,
From that one shock, each on the other crashed;
They fell o'erturned, and Crissa's spacious plain
Was filled with wreck of chariots.

Did not this passage clearly serve as the inspiration for the chariot race in Wallace's Ben Hur? Compare, for instance, the accident, "where the last stone marked the goal's course," with that described in Ben Hur: "Messala having passed, the Corinthian was the only contestant on the Athenian's right, and to that side the latter tried to turn his broken four; and then, as ill-fortune would have it, the wheel of the Byzantine, who was next on the left, struck the tailpiece of his chariot, knocking his feet from under him. There was a crash, a scream of rage and fear, and the unfortunate Cleanthes fell under the hoofs of his own steeds."

"At the moment chosen for the dash, Messala was moving in a circle round the goal. To pass him, Ben Hur had to cross the track, and good strategy required the movement to be in a forward direction; that is, on a like circle limited to the least possible increase. The thousands on the benches understood it all; they saw the signal given--the magnificent response; the four close outside Messala's outer wheel; Ben Hur's inner wheel behind the other's car--all this they saw. Then they heard a crash loud enough to send a thrill through the Circus, and, quicker than thought, out over the course a spray of shining white and yellow flinders flew. Down on its right side toppled the bed of the Roman chariot. There was a rebound as of the axle hitting the hard earth; another and another; then the car went to pieces; and Messala, entangled in the reins, pitched forward headlong."

Clytemnestra hardly conceals her joy at the death of Orestes, although at first a slight touch of maternal grief comes over her, and she invites the messenger to partake of her hospitality.

Electra, in touching speeches and songs, gives herself up to sorrow; the chorus seeks in vain to comfort her. Chrysothemis, full of joy, returns from the tomb with the assurance that Orestes is near at hand, for she has found there a lock of his hair, his drink-offering, and wreaths of flowers. Electra's despair is renewed by this account; she tells her sister the dreadful tidings which have just arrived, and calls upon her, now that no other hope is left them, to take part with her in a daring deed, and to put Ægisthus to death; a proposal which Chrysothemis, not possessing courage enough, rejects as foolish. The chorus bewails Electra, now so utterly desolate; Orestes comes with Pylades, and some servants bearing the urn, which, it is pretended, contains the ashes of the dead youth. Electra prevails upon him by her prayers to give it into her hands, and laments over it in the most touching speeches, by which Orestes is so affected that he can no longer conceal himself: after some preparation, he makes himself known to her, and confirms the discovery, by showing her the seal ring of their father. She gives herself up in speeches and songs to the most unbounded joy, till the old man comes out, and rebukes, and warns them both for their imprudence. Electra, with some difficulty, recognizes in him the faithful servant, to whom she entrusted the preservation of Orestes, and gives him thankful greeting. On the advice of the old man, Orestes and Pylades hastily betake themselves with him into the house, to surprise Clytemnestra while she is yet alone. Electra offers a prayer in their behalf to Apollo; the ode of the chorus announces the moment of retribution.

"Now Ares, breathing slaughter, speeds into the house, and all the Erinyes pass across the threshold, they who track all deeds of crime, and in the fair ancestral halls the avenger plants his foot, bearing fresh bloodshed in his mighty hand, and Hermes leads them straight to the goal, veiled in night and secrecy."

Electra comes out again, to watch that Ægisthus may not approach unobserved. From the palace are heard her mother's cries of agony. The chorus shudder. Again the cry is heard! "Ah me, woe, woe! Ægisthus, where art thou? My son, my son, have pity on thy mother!" "Little pity hadst thou on him or on his father," cries Electra. And pierced by the steel, Clytemnestra groans in her death agony.

"The curse is now fulfilled," says the chorus; "for those who died long since now drain the blood of those who slew them."

Orestes, dripping with blood, appears with Pylades. The unhappy woman is dead, and now Ægisthus is seen approaching. He asks for the Phocian who brought the tidings of Orestes' death. Electra bids him go within the house, when he shall hear and see that which shall rejoice him. But he commands the body to be brought and shown to the citizens, that they may no longer cherish empty hopes, but render due obedience to himself.

Orestes and his companion bring the body of Clytemnestra, covered with a sheet, and Ægisthus rejoices at the sight. "Withdraw the veil from the face, that I may mourn his death."

Orestes bids him uplift the veil himself.

Thou givest good counsel, and I list to thee;
And thou, if yet she tarries in the house,
Call Clytemnestra.
(as Ægisthus lifts the veil) Here she lies before thee!
Seek her not elsewhere.

Ægisthus sees that it is the queen:

Into whose snares, whose closely tangled mesh,
Have I, poor victim, fallen?

Electra bids her brother lose no time. He leads Ægisthus to the place where once he slew Agamemnon, there to die himself.

Thou must not die the death thou wouldst desire;
I needs must make it bitter. Doom like this
Should fall on all who dare transgress the laws,
The doom of death. Then wickedness no more
Would multiply its strength.

The chorus close the play with the words:

"O seed of Atreus, after many woes,
Thou hast come forth, thy freedom hardly won,
By this emprise made perfect."

In his lectures on dramatic art and literature, Schlegel has made an acute and brilliant comparison between the Mourning Women of Aeschylus and the Electra of Sophocles. He shows that Aeschylus dealt with the sombre and terrible side of the story, especially in its relations to those dark divinities which were so large a feature in his theology. Sophocles, on the other hand, while elaborating the details, represents the whole story in a milder and less terrible form, by concentrating our sympathies on Electra, on her constancy in adhering to her own deep convictions, and on the heroism she displays in suffering.

"What especially characterizes the tragedy of Sophocles is the divine innocence existing amid such terrible surroundings, the fresh bloom of life and youth which pervades the whole. Apollo, the bright sun-god, at whose bidding the deed was done, seems to shed his brightness throughout; even the day-break with which the play opens is full of meaning. The world of graves and shadows is kept aloof; what in Aeschylus is inspired by the soul of the murdered man comes here from the heart of the living Electra, who lends herself to love and hate with equal strength.

"Sophocles gives Orestes a more consistent individuality than does Aeschylus; neither before nor after the deed does he show any hesitation or qualms of conscience. He is altogether harder and sterner, as witness the terrible dramatic trick played upon Ægisthus with Clytemnestra's body, and the shameful death to which he is led at the close. Clytemnestra's dream offers perhaps the best means of comparing the poets' treatment. It is in both alike appropriate, significant and suggestive; that of Aeschylus is more awe-inspiring and more terrible, that of Sophocles the more majestic in its horror."

Purchase Books on Electra


  • Sophocles and His Tragedies - Biography of the Greek dramatist and analysis of his poetic qualities.
  • Ajax - Summary and analysis of the play by Sophocles.
  • The Antigone - Summary and analysis of the play by Sophocles.

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