Electra, by Sophocles

Reading Electra, I was surprised how similar the basic plot is to Hamlet (or I assume it is, since it’s a long time since I last read or saw Hamlet): a daughter finds her father murdered by a man who has now married her mother, and the play describes her mental struggle to react to the situation.

For Electra, this problem is exacerbated by her being a woman in a world where women fundamentally have no power to act of their own accord; they are obliged instead to get a man to act on their behalf. So Electra is waiting for her brother Orestes to turn up and sort everything out; and it is only her worry that this is never going to transpire – and later, that Orestes is dead – that drives her to consider the mad step of acting on her own behalf. Her sister Chrysothemis provides a neat counterpoint: she’s not happy with the situation either, but what can one do other than resign oneself?

I found this powerless position of women in society similar to the situation of Deianeira in Women of Trachis – and no doubt also Antigone in Antigone, though I need to re-read it – and not far either from how I view the position of women in general in Athenian society in Sophocles’ time. Reading Women of Trachis, I was partly thinking Sophocles was intending it as a comment on his times; and partly thinking he was just using the position of women as a set-up for his tragedy; – but the similarities in Electra make me think it must be something of an on-going theme of his. Traditionally of course it is Euripides, Sophocles’ contemporary, who’s seen as the playwright more interested in female roles; but three out of Sophocles’ seven plays have female leads, and Women in Trachis and Electra have almost all female casts. Maybe Euripides’ women have more freedom to act, I must re-read some and see.

I was always taught that Electra possesses a ridiculous plot device in which Electra learns of Orestes’ return when she recognises a lock of his hair on an altar; but re-reading it, this turns out – like many things we’re taught about Greek tragedy – not to be true at all. It is Chrysothemis who discovers the hair and assumes it belongs to Orestes; Electra actually ridicules her assumption; but in reality Chrysothemis has other, less absurd, reasons for believing what she believes.

Next up, Philoctetes: a tragedy in which no one dies and which has a happy ending.


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