Euripides' Elektra


Euripides takes a wholly different approach from Sophokles' version of the Elektra myth. For most of the play he emphasizes the psychology of the insulted and injured, their tactics against power, the unnaturalness of the revenge murders, and then the totally unheroic distress the young murderers are further plunged into: where the words of Apollo seem unjust and inadequate compared to the nature of their crimes.


Protagonist: Elektra. Deuteragonist: Orestes; Tritagonist: Farmer; Old Man; Messenger; Clytemnestra; Castor.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        


Sophokles defended the Oracles and the old concepts of the gods against the new skepticism. He insisted that Tragedy, in the form of the Dionysiac festival, depended upon faith in the old gods, myths, cults, oracles, of which the festival of Dionysos was a major example.. The necessary condition for Tragedy in Sophokles’ sense was the 'Supertext' of mythic thinking, of drawing upon a storehouse of mythic and metaphysical references, which gave meaning even to tragic experience and which united the culture of the polis in a constant round of civic-religious festivals, cults and ceremonies (represented, often, by the Chorus).

Sophokles saw it as essential, therefore, however uncomfortable or absurd the result, to prove the power and rightness of tragic heroism: to validate the myths.

Euripides on the other hand, voices greater and greater skepticism about the mythic traditions and the justice of the gods. This makes him dissatisfied with conventional tragic form that he frequently handles clumsily, as in this play, Elektra

For Aeschylus and Sophokles, the action of Orestes and Elektra was shown as god-sanctioned, and necessary, even if horrible. In Aeschylus, Orestes practically has no choice, being under Apollo's orders; and we saw that the action of The Libation Bearers was one of ritual and holy preparation for justified and god-directed killing. That meant that Aeschylus' version of the action concentrated far less on 'plot' and much more on Choric ceremony.

Sophokles' Elektra emphasizes psychological and ethical dimensions of characters who initiate plan and action. He is interested in the psyches of his characters and how they voluntarily become the heroic instruments of Apollo's purposes: therefore, he is concerned to express their inner dignity, suffering, heroism. What interests him are the characteristics of heroism, and how to render them convincingly.

Euripides takes a wholly different approach. For most of the play he emphasizes the psychology of the insulted and injured, their tactics against power, the unnaturalness of the revenge murders, and then the totally unheroic distress the young murderers are further plunged into, where the words of Apollo seem unjust and inadequate compared to the nature of the crimes. Euripides' 'Elektra' removes the divine sanctions from the cosmos Aeschylus elaborately built into The Oresteia and the ethical heroism that Sophokles depicted in his 'Elektra.' 

Between the three plays, 'The Libation Bearers', Sophokles 'Elektra' and Euripides 'Elektra' there seems to be a major cultural shift occurring in Greek consciousness. The future audience was with Euripides, not Sophokles. The city state, Athens, after its defeat in the Peloponnesian war, no longer saw itself as the center of the universe, the leader of the world. Therefore, the more human scale of Euripides characters and plots seemed more appropriate to the situation than the Sophoklean heroism. 

When the theater passed from the playwrights to the acting profession actors, too, preferred the looser structures of Euripides where they could improvise, to the controlled structures of Sophokles. There is an almost Shakespearean carelessness in Euripides' plotting. The form Sophokles perfected does not express Euripides' idea of the world. His skepticism cannot bring into harmony the elements Sophokles' can integrate, for example, making meaningful the mess of the Herakles-Deianeira tragedy - even if the meaning is uncomfortable. Euripides in the Elektra, seems unable to see meaning in the story he is dramatizing.

Euripides's plots are more clumsy - but also more experimental. He probably would have liked to have got rid of the Chorus altogether. He often does not know what to do with it so that its presence is incongruous (in the 'Medea') or given to inappropriate utterances even at times reduced to lyrical interludes. He blurred the distinction between Tragedy and Comedy and invented a new genre, such as 'Helen' and 'Iphigenia in Tauris'. that anticipate Shakespeare's late Romances.

Elektra, the princess, is shown as an impoverished farmer's wife. The farmer himself is the (good) antithesis to the heroic value system. The Scene and its costumes and 'props' are deliberately debased, already undermining the heroic pretensions of the myth. 

Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are more 'squalid' than in Aeschylus. Aegisthus wanted Elektra murdered and Clytemnestra saved her only from policy. Aegisthus has put a price on Orestes' head, to have him murdered in exile. Out of this nastiness, the Farmer and Elektra have established a human form of mutual respect. (Elektra insists on working for her husband). Elektra 'dramatizes' her situation, making it an accusatory example of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra’s wickedness.

The Athenian audience might have been shocked by Euripides' insistence on the plebeian nature of the characters and setting, (e.g. Elektra with her water-jar so that Orestes will think her a slave). Sophokles' Elektra, though also in rags, maintains a heroism in extremity. Euripides' more naturalistic low-life scene, characters and props suggest he is not interested in the heroic in the old myths but in reducing the heroic to the terms of everyday common life.

Euripides and Sophokles seem to dispute what tragedy should express. In the few plays of his that survive we find Sophokles consistently asserts the heroic ethos, and honors it at whatever the cost to individual or communal comfort. For Sophokles, contact with the heroic is a fearful privilege, a painful 'height' worth the sacrifices it requires, .

Euripides, on the other hand, calls into question the value of the heroic ethos, denies its grandeur and translates its actions into those of our ordinary humanity. For him, the tragedies serve as expressions of a human misery that has few redeeming features: except the common humanity and decency his tragic victims establish between themselves.

Scholars disagree whether Euripides or Sophokles version of 'Elektra' came first: in other words, who is answering whom. Is Sophokles answering Aeschylus by creating a tough revenge tragedy in which there are no Furies to oppress Orestes? Is he also answering Euripides' sardonic reduction of the heroism of the story by showing how the heroic in the myth is still valid for a tragic drama of his times? If Euripides play followed Sophokles, then Euripides would be debunking both his great predecessors.

Euripides' version of Elektra is thought to have been produced in the year (413,) and at the time of the most disastrous single event in Athenian history: the total destruction of the Athenian invasion fleet and army sent to Sicily, followed by the collapse of the Athenian economy. The invasion had been the single greatest act of hubris by the (Athenian) Greeks until Alexander. Athens War with Sparta and Corinth had dragged on for about 18 years, with successes and defeats on both sides. Athens was the more brilliant and adventurous of the combatants whereas Sparta and Corinth actually needed to enlist the support of Greece's old enemy, Persia. Persia had been humiliated by Greece, and gave up its ambition of conquering the nation: but it managed, through its great wealth, to influence events in the war. The Athenians, sensing a vacuum left by the Persian Empire's abdication, decided, at one bold stroke, to become the masters of the known world.

Sicily, at this time, was much like the United States compared to Europe before the first world war: it was a New World, extremely wealthy, innovative, but detached from the conflicts of the Greek mainland. Its major menace was the great Phoenician city of Carthage (which later became the enemy of Rome). The Athenians decided to seize control of Sicily and so control the entire Mediterranean. This, without doubt, would have made them the chief power in the world. History would have been irrevocably changed.

At the time Euripides and Sophokles were writing their versions of the Elektra myth (if we accept the dates round about 413-410 B.C.E) Athenian society was in a crisis, calling into question, or defending, the values that gave it the courage to build an empire. This might be the reason why Euripides and Sophokles, between them, seem to take up the theme of heroism and its consequences. 

The 'Homeric' definition of the heroic, to which Sophokles remained faithful, emphasized a tough-minded, individualist idea of honor. Right to his last plays, 'Philoktetes' and 'Oedipus at Colonus' Sophokles presents us with heroes who, though their extreme intransigence makes them difficult to like, still compel respect for their integrity. Euripides, on the other hand, seems to deny that there is a place for this form of heroism in the context of the Athens of his day. Though earlier he had been patriotically anti-Spartan, he became increasingly critical of Athens' war policies. His version of Elektra totally deglamourizes the myth, denying it the value Aerschylus claimed for it.

The Prologue
The Setting
The scene anticipates the unglamorous action that Euripides will dramatize. The theater by this time used scene painting and so the farmer's squalid house would have been the disturbing 'backcloth' to the action. The costumes of both the Farmer (who remains unnamed though he is Elektra's husband) and of Elektra would have been emphatically mean. Elektra describes how her hair and clothes are filthy; she is too dirty and poor to take part in the procession of other girls and women at the Argive holy feast.

Her husband relates the 'mafia-level' drama of the family history: how Orestes had to be rescued from being murdered when a child, how Aegisthus now has put a price on his head, a reward to any who kill him in exile: how Elektra has been married to the poorest man so that her children will not have the 'rank' to revenge, and how the farmer's marriage is unconsummated. 

All these ignominious details are there to challenge the audience's sensibilities, being deliberate, low-life, travesties of the heroic story. The detailed realism is not there to bring us uncomfortably close to the mythic world as with Sophokles, but to debunk it. Sophokles' Elektra also is dressed in poor, slave's clothes, incongruously at odds with her character; but his Elektra quickly establishes her heroic temperament. 

Euripides' Elektra, on the other hand, has been brought down to the level of her costume and situation. She carries a water jar, intends to clean the cottage, and her husband talks of putting the cows out to pasture and planting the fields. The myth is brought down to the labor of contemporary everyday peasant life - the anti-heroic.

The Prologue is made up of three quite separate sections: almost three separate soliloquies. First is the farmer's soliloquy, interrupted by a brief dialogue with Elektra: then Orestes' virtual soliloquy, the address to Pylades: then Elektra's return from the well, “singing and dancing”, recalling her past and her situation in Argos. 

Euripides often likes to embroider or elaborate a situation, to get us to contemplate it and so he keeps it 'static', as with these three 'soliloquies'. Even more static is the fact that Elektra's song and dance is a 'set piece': a piece of 'operatic' theatricality. Euripides was known for the elaborate lyrics and melodies he introduced to drama.

The Parodos accentuates Elektra's isolation: she has no part in the communal life of feasting not because she proudly chooses her isolation, but because this is the condition that has been forced upon her without her consent.

First Episode
The meeting between Orestes and Elektra. This, in Aeschylus and Sophokles, is a 'recognition scene' and the great moment of the play. Euripides, however, deliberately throws it away with a piece of quite unjustified subterfuge on Orestes' part - there is no reason why he should not tell Elektra who he is, once he is sure she is 'sympathetic'. 
No recognition takes place! Instead, Euripides uses the scene to accentuate the isolation of the two characters, their vulnerability, their reliance upon the humble (the farmer; the Old Man , the Argive peasant women) 

Typical of Euripides, too, is his method of speaking moral aphorisms that really do not fit into the 'plot': 

“Pity, impossible for lowborn brutes, comes
only to those who inherit noble feelings..
Uneducated men are pitiless..."

These seem to address the audience directly and not the characters on the stage..

The Farmer's re-entry, chiding Elektra for the impropriety of speaking to young men, keeps the drama within the genre of domestic play, actually just on the edge of Comedy. But deftly worked into the plot is Elektra's summons to the Old Man to bring some food to entertain the guests (Orestes & Pylades), using this 'humble instrument' for the 'recognition scene'. So much of the total situation seems to depend upon ordinary, non-heroic people. In this episode, Orestes actually steps out of the play's situation to address the audience in a long harangue on the goodness of simple folks: a most un-Sophoclean moment. And it contradicts his earlier comment on baseness vs. nobility.

1st. Choral Ode 
The shield of Achilles - from Homer! What has this Chorus to do with either the Episode (summoning the Old Man) or with the whole -play? It ends with an attack upon Helen, but this hardly seems sufficient justification. At most, it’s invocation of the heroic might be to insist on the remoteness, the fictional nature of the heroic ideal.

2nd Episode
Old Man, Orestes, Elektra.
A very odd episode. Euripides uses it:

(a) To send up Aeschylus' recognition scene: bringing myth down to earth and to common sense (30-31) This is very funny. Note that the three 'false' signs, hair, footprint, woven cloth, are all taken from 'The Libation Bearers' and are derided as ridiculously inadequate proofs.
The true 'sign' is what can pragmatically be seen and tested against memory. The Old Man recognized Orestes' scar just as, in Homer's 'The Odyssey', the Old Nurse alone recognizes Odysseus by the scar - Euripides' probably is jogging the audience's memory of Homer).

(b) To establish the importance of the Old Man in the plot, where it is the humble people who are the most crucial. So the 'great' recognition scene' is taken away from Orestes and Elektra. It will be the old Man who actively helps plot the deaths of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus
There is the briefest invocation to Zeus, Hera and Agamemnon's shade, before the killing.

2nd, Choral Ode
Related to the action of the play: the beautiful golden lamb stolen from the house of Atreus that might have started the curse on the house: Thyestes seducing Atreus wife and stealing the lamb. Then, in a typically Euripidean 'swerve' the Chorus, in the second Strophe and antistrophe, reports how Zeus was supposed to have changed the course of the sun and stars and then adds it cannot really believe such a tale, debunking the very myth it is invoking! 

3rd. Episode
Messenger’s report on Aegisthus's death. The murder is particularly nasty.
a. Aegisthus courteous behavior: this must make the audience uneasy: is it right to kill such a man in such a way?
b. The sacrifice is a holy ritual: to murder during its performance is sacrilegious. 
c. Orestes shares in the sacrifice of the bull, then converts the sacrifice to murder Thus Euripides undermines the antipathy to Aegisthus he earlier built up.

Enter Orestes with corpse of Aegisthus

Orestes: The gods are "the cause of our good fortune!"(54)

This is the only acknowledgment of the gods apart from the brief invocation before the killing. The action totally lacks the religious sanction Aeschylus gave to it in The Libation Bearers. Euripides plays down the holy, god-sanctioned tradition of the killing - perhaps because he no longer is confident the gods sanction such things. 

Elektra draws back from insulting Aegisthus' corpse only from fear of what people, not gods, will say and do. Her long speech over the corpse is entirely in terms of personal, not 'larger' resentments and seems psychologically petty and 'spiteful' - unlike the holy rage of Aeschylus's avenging siblings. Euripides is narrowing the action to the merely human.

Clytemnestra's murder.
Euripides' makes ethically and psychologically disturbing the killing of Clytemnestra. Elektra is unable to see the dimensions of what they are doing: she simplifies the action into mere careful strategy. She cannot, at first, understand Orestes' anguish and revulsion (It is only after Clytemnestra is killed that she shares in this)

Nor can she understand Orestes' terrible doubts about the justice and wisdom of an Apollo who demands this death. Elektra's past suffering has made her less human than Orestes, less able to see beyond her immediate anger. The mother is tricked into visiting the hut out of the most maternal of motives: visiting what she believes is her grandchild. Euripides thus reminds us of the painful fact that a mother is being murdered and that the revenge is losing sight of human realities. Clytemnestra speaks reasonably and humanly. She is tricked through treachery from her daughter and the Chorus. When Orestes holds back from killing his mother, Elektra takes the sword and helps drive it forward into Clytemnestra.

The Last Episode is a sardonic variation on Aeschylus.
Elektra and the Chorus at last recognize the murder is a wicked thing. But Elektra will be rewarded with marriage while Orestes must endure exile and solitude. The two Dioscurii blandly hand out the destinies of the guilty children and disown responsibility for Apollo's actions which they see as unjust. Before they depart, they promise to help the Athenian fleet in its doomed expedition to conquer Sicily: a bitter irony if the fleet already had been smashed.

The play is not a didactic attack upon the mythic traditions of Greek tragedy, but it is seems a sardonic reworking of the traditional themes in a way to make us feel uncomfortable about them: much the way Bernard Shaw's plays often manipulate audience's expectations of what the comedic form should be offering and then what Shaw instead offers.