DATE: a matter of great uncertainty, but 418–410 seem most likely.
CHARACTERS: Orestes, Paidagogos, Electra, Chrysothemis, Klytaimestra, Aigisthos; Pylades (silent)
CHORUS: women of the palace SETTING: the palace of Agamemnon at Mycenae
Orestes returns home to Mycenae with the faithful tutor (paidagogos), to whom his sister Electra entrusted him after their father’s murder. Electra appears and laments with the chorus her own state, the murder of her father, her relationship with her mother and Aigisthos, and especially Orestes’ long absence. Her sister Chrysothemis can live with this situation, but she cannot. Klytaimestra upbraids her daughter for being outside alone and for so constantly going on about her situation. The tutor enters to tell Klytaimestra and Electra the (false) tale that Orestes has been killed at Delphi. A stricken Electra vows to take revenge herself. Chrysothemis appears to tell of offerings placed on the tomb of Agamemnon, but Electra is convinced that they mark the death of Orestes. Finally Orestes enters with an (empty) urn supposedly containing his ashes. A recognition finally occurs, the token being their father’s signetring, and with Electra standing stage center Orestes and Pylades enter the palace and kill Klytaimestra. Aigisthos appears to learn more about the “death” of Orestes, but finds only the body of Klytaimestra and his own death awaiting him.
One approach will be that of “version,” since we have the dramatic treatments of the same plot by Aeschylus (Libation-Bearers) and Euripides (Electra). The relative dates of the two Electras are an intriguing but ultimately unsolvable problem, although it now seems more likely that Sophocles’ is the later version. Most interesting is the portrayal of the principal characters: the weakest Klytaimestra, an unpleasant and unfeeling Orestes, and an Electra who keeps herself going with one aim: the return of her brother to wreak revenge. Sophocles seems to be giving us a study of an obsessed heroine, whose one hope is first dashed and then fulfilled. Does this Electra have anything to live for once the murders are done? There seem to be no Furies in this version, although Electra herself has been like a Fury to her mother, and Apollo is all but invisible. When props occur on the Greek stage, they are full of significance, none more so perhaps than the empty urn that Orestes carries, supposedly containing his own ashes. Sophocles reverses the order of the murders, making the death of Aigisthos the climax, and returns the locale to Homer’s Mycenae.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005