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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Women of Trachis, by Sophocles

Last week I read Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine, a drama retelling the Oedipos myth, which is of much wider breadth than Sophocles’ Oedipos Tyrannos (it begins with the business of the Sphinx), though I couldn’t help wondering what the point of Cocteau’s effort was. His essential concept, of the Infernal Machine, is that of the fateful machinations of the plot as it works itself out to Oedipos’ destruction – and this is frankly much better done in Sophocles’ version.

Woman of Trachis in this sense I find very similar to Oedipos Tyrannos: it contains that the same ideal tragic plot, where a character acts sincerely and innocently without understanding the terrible consequences their actions are going to bring about. Not merely once but twice does Sophocles play the trick: with Deianeira’s giving of the fatal cloak; and with Hyllus’ blaming his mother for her evil actions when she is innocent.

I find myself wondering a few things. Is there dramatic irony in Women of Trachis (and is there in Oedipos Tyrannos)? I’m not so sure. – Women of Trachis is perhaps more useful in this respect, because at a guess you, like I, don’t already know the story – and it is this foreknowledge, not the playwright’s art, in Oedipos Tyrannos, which creates any dramatic irony (or so I suppose, without actually re-reading). Instead we learn of Deianeira’s error at the same time Deianeira does – at the same time our chorus, the Women of Trachis, does – and so the dramatist leads us into those feelings of empathy and sympathy which we might say are the basis of the tragic art.

And what of the gods? I find myself frustrated that my favourite E.R. Dodds essay on the subject has disappeared seemingly for good behind paywalls, because I’d have liked to have reminded myself what his argument was here (I just remember I didn’t feel I quite agree with it); but like Oedipos Tyrannos, Women of Trachis has the relation of men and gods very much in mind, particularly in the last scene between Heracles and Hyllus, which otherwise seems like something of an appendage to the main play. I don’t find any of it though so different to what I already expect of Sophocles, and of the ancient world in general: that the gods certainly work in mysterious ways, but that isn’t to suggest like later Christian thought, that they have our good in mind when they do so.

So Hyllus ends the play, addressing the chorus:

Women of Trachis, you have leave to go.
You have seen strange things,
The awful hand of death, new shapes of woe,
Uncounted sufferings;
And all that you have seen is God.