27 May 2014

Complex Electra

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

If it was Antigone last fortnight, it’s Electra today. The ancient Greek tragedies were so closely interwoven that it is hard not to be simply led from one to the other, to be astonished at the themes they covered and the breadth of their analysis. Electra ruminates death and parental betrayal long before Hamlet made it a well-loved trope. She contemplates matricide in the same breath as filial affection, she goes from strong to weak in seconds, shows passion and indifference, and, above all, seeks peace.

The story goes thus: Clytemnestra has murdered her husband, Agamemnon, to marry the interlocutor Aegisthus. Her younger daughter, Chrysothemis, bears the tragedy with quiet grace, but the elder, Electra, her father’s favourite, is furious. Put under house arrest, she reaches out to her brother, the banished Orestes, to return and avenge their father. Electra and Orestes execute the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, and the Chorus mourns.

Since much of Greek tragedy returns to the same historic sources, there are several versions of Electra’s story. In Euripides, she is clear-headed about her fury with her mother, but grappling very seriously with her sexuality; in Aeschylus, she is a secondary character, rendered insignificant by the importance of Orestes; in Sophocles, she is, like all the women in his plays, heartrendingly human. The background story varies too: Chrysothemis appears only in Sophocles; neither Aeschylus nor Euripides note the existence of a younger sister. In fact, according to some of the earliest myths, before the Trojan War, Agamemnon tries to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, at the altar of war, although Homer does not mention her in the Iliad; later versions, including Euripides, claim that Iphigenia was replaced at the last moment by a sacrificial goat and that she went on to become the priestess at Tauris. Sophocles’s Electra indicates that Clytemnestra was so tormented by the loss of her daughter that she plotted her husband’s murder with her lover Aegisthus.

Virginia Woolf remarks of the Electra of Sophocles: ‘His Electra stands before us like a figure so tightly bound that she can only move an inch this way, an inch that. But each movement must tell to the utmost, or, bound as she is, denied the relief of all hints, repetitions, suggestions, she will be nothing but a dummy, tightly bound.’ In Sophocles, Electra is human: frail in the hands of her brother, strong in the face of her mother, so disarmingly honest in her conversations with her sister. She is all feminine wiles in her scene with her stepfather, but breaks almost instantly when she speaks to Chrysothemis. It is almost as though Sophocles introduces Chrysothemis with the sole intent of humanizing Electra’s anguish. From the arrival of Orestes, she is irrationally single-minded; as Orestes delivers blow after blow upon Clytemnestra, Electra cries out for more violence rather than less, relishing maniacally in the murder of her mother. She is morally ambiguous: early in the play, she argues with Clytemnestra that one murder does not justify another when Clytemnestra claims that she was avenging Iphigenia’s death when she killed Agamemnon; and yet, with Orestes, she refutes the very same logic, demanding a blow for a blow, a death for a death.

Freud explains this away with a father fixation, as he is wont to do, but a close reading of Sophocles shows not an obsession with Agamemnon but a search for peace; so shattered is she after the deaths of her father and her sister that she begins to believe, against her own judgement, that only the deaths of her mother and stepfather can repair her. She grapples continuously with the senselessness of her feelings; her isolation becomes the focal point of the play. In Sophocles, even the Chorus seems regularly flummoxed by Electra’s actions.


Neither Euripides nor Aeschylus deals with the inherent femininity of Electra as beautifully as Sophocles does. In Euripides, her sexuality is ambivalent and she shows incestuous tendencies towards Orestes and, in part, even Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In Aeschylus, Electra is an empty vessel for the real revenge of Orestes. But in Sophocles, here is a character defined by a heartbreaking sense of loneliness. Who will marry her now, she wonders, in one of the most pitiful monologues in the play. Will she ever mother a child and will she ever have feelings for the child after all that she has been through? She is constantly seeking to create an identity for herself. Sophocles alone recognises her vulnerability and brokenness; he alone gives voice to her loneliness, reading her not as a sexual creature – although she certainly is that – but as a dynamic creature, full of desire, hope, fury, love, anger, hatred, and loneliness. In fact, everything that has ever been applied to Hamlet can be applied to Electra in this much earlier dramatization of the profoundly complex issues of the ethics and philosophies of incest, murder, and revenge. 

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