CHARACTERS: Orestes, Elektra, Klytaimestra, Nurse, Aigisthos, Attendant, Pylades
CHORUS: servant women
SETTING: the tomb of Agamemnon; the palace at Argos
Orestes has come home to Argos from exile with his friend Pylades. He makes an offering at the tomb of his father, Agamemnon, and withdraws as a group of women approach. Klytaimestra has had a disturbing dream, and Elektra has been sent by her mother to appease her murdered husband’s wrath. Orestes reveals himself and is recognized by his sister. He tells her that Apollo has commanded him to avenge his father by killing his mother. In a grand kommos, brother and sister with the chorus re-create the moral universe of Agamemnon (“blood stroke for the stroke of blood”) and summon the spirit of their dead father. In the second half of the play the scene moves to the palace, where Orestes and Pylades gain access by announcing the “death” of Orestes. Klytaimestra sends a nurse to fetch Aigisthos; the chorus intervene to have the nurse tell Aigisthos to come alone. He arrives and is promptly killed by Orestes. In a great confrontation Klytaimestra bares her breast and asks Orestes if he can kill his mother. Pylades unexpectedly speaks and reminds Orestes of the words of Apollo. After the off-stage murder of Klytaimestra, we see a tableau, reminiscent of the first play, Orestes standing over the bodies of his victims. He sees in his mind the Furies (“the bloodhounds of my mother’s hate”) and in madness rushes off the scene.
If Agamemnon was the “action,” this play is “reaction,” “blood stroke for the stroke of blood.” Agamemnon and Orestes, played incidentally by the same actor, each finds himself in a dilemma imposed by the gods, each commanded to murder a female member of his family. One is in serious doubt about the moral universe, where a god commands murder, and the blood-for-blood vengeance seems to be sanctioned by Zeus. All of this, the chorus sing, was steered by Justice (Dike), the daughter of Zeus. The same powerful imagery pulses through this play (Orestes and Elektra as the “orphaned children of the eagle-father,” the dripping blood from the Furies’ eyes, the breath of Justice as “fury and death”), and one wonders where this will all end. A crucial opposition is found at v. 120, where Elektra wonders if she seeks a revenge-bringer (dikephoros) or a judge (dikastes), for in the next play revenge will yield to the order of civil justice. If the first part of the play preserves the same expansive pace of Agamemnon, the second half moves swiftly from scene to scene, until the action culminates with the confrontation of mother and son, “Stop, my son, respect this breast on which you nursed,” “Pylades, what do I do, kill my mother?,” and the surprising intervention of Pylades (speaking as the voice of Apollo) which turns this into a three-actor play
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005