Friday, July 1, 2022

Electra by Sophocles - Nothing less than this / can cut the knot of evils / inside me

Peace follows Peace and we find a gap in the plays from approximately 420 to 417 BCE, where otherwise we have close to one surviving play per year from 431 to 404 or so.  Probably coincidence, but given that the next Euripides play saved by the anthologists is an explicitly anti-war play – peace did not last long – I wonder.  Maybe the anthologists were also interested in how Euripides knocked up against Thucydides.

I put the loosely dated Electra of Sophocles in the gap, so it is today’s play.  Maybe it is a little later, or a little earlier.  It’s The Libation Bearers of Aeschylus revisited, the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes, but with a large shift of emphasis to Electra, the suffering, vengeful daughter.  It is another perfect Sophocles play, balanced in pace and mood, troubling yet moving, built of rhetorical figures and imagery that move it in a single coherent direction.  None of that Euripidean raggedness.  Aristotle will approve.

is as purely psychological of a play as any we have read so far. “Why are you so in love / with things unbearable?” (56, tr. Anne Carson), as the chorus asks Electra.  Our heroine does almost nothing but exist, and compare her existence to those of others around her.  The limited action of the play, like the detailed chariot race, with a spectacular crash, belongs to other characters.  Is the space given to the chariot race an aspect of the alienness or the universality of ancient Greek culture?

I think I will just shake some of Electra’s, and Anne Carson’s, great lines from my notes:


will I leave off lamenting,

never.  No.  (54)

I ask this one thing:

let me go mad in my own way.  (55)

Kill him at once.

Throw his corpse out

for scavengers to get.

Nothing less than this

can cut the knot of evils

inside me.  (110)

That last one is a good example of what I mean by “purely psychological.”  Is there even a hint that the killing of Clytemnestra and even, at this moment in the play, Aegisthus, is about justice or the will of the gods?  Or about healing Electra’s wounds, perhaps only by creating new ones?

Anne Carson’s translation was a pleasure to read.  Her mix of strange and familiar registers is a strength.  The arguments between, for example, Electra and her mother would not sound too out of place in a contemporary drama, say by a weirdo like Sam Shepherd.  Here is some strange Carson:

Already the sun is hot upon us.

Birds are shaking, the world is awake.

Black stars and night have died away.  (51)

An odd way to say it is morning.  David Grene has:

                                                  Already the sunlight,

brightening, stirs dawning bird song into clearness,

and the black, kindly night of stars is gone.  (127, U of C edition)

So whatever Carson is doing is somewhere in the Greek.  She just shades everything a little weirder.

For an illustration, I chose a 6th century (BCE) relief of the murder of Clytemnestra, owned by the Getty, in which only Electra’s feet are still visible, on the left.  But she’s there.

Our next play will be a shocking contrast to Electra.  It is the Heracles of Euripides, c. 416, maybe; it is utterly anti-Aristotelian, as if written, decades before Poetics, as a rebuttal, not a Euripidean mess but an example of a competing aesthetic.  It also contains some things that are almost too painful to read.  Poor Heracles.  Poor everybody.


  1. I enjoyed the irony of the typical Sophoclean elevated speech contrasted against the theme of speech being a helpless response to action. Electra has nothing left but speech, and she's almost a Cassandra figure, as everyone has stopped (or at least tried hard to stop) listening to her. She goes outside the palace to vent her grief to the gods, who apparently also ignore her. Both Paidagogos and Orestes tell her to stop talking so they can get on with the action of killing Clytemnestra, and then Electra tells Aegysthos to be silent, that he's going to die shortly and there's no point in trying to stretch out his life by talking. Characters in this play are constantly trying to shut each other up.

    The dialogue between family members, as you say, is quite realistic. Snark and deliberate misunderstanding and one-upping, and then pretending to not have said what was just said, or not to have meant what was meant, etc.

    I also think it's interesting how Sophocles brings out the idea of moral versus immoral killing; there are deaths demanded by the gods, and those are not murder because the gods can only desire what is good and right; the morality of killings not ordained by the gods can be debated endlessly, because our own actions are ethically murky. A sophisticated play. Also, no Furies.

  2. Yes, exactly there is a lack of "action," but speech is action. Electra is quite active.

    Right, no Furies. A different metaphysics than that of Aeschylus, who is perhaps writing about the old story, while Sophocles is thinking "but what if it were now?" So the gods are more distant, the moral problems more human.

    So sophisticated. I had forgotten how much.

  3. That's interesting, because I see Electra as paralyzed, unable to move in any direction, trapped. She declares that she'll lie down outside the palace and starve to death. She accuses, she curses, she rails publicly, and is ignored or told to shut up. Her long-awaited savior tells her to shut up so he can act. She gets a dig in at Aegysthos when Orestes marches him off to die, but nobody responds to her. Electra is the most isolated character in any Sophocles play.

  4. I can imagine an "Electra" where she barely speaks at all, except in monologues to the audience. Yes, most isolated. I wish I could remember what Euripides does.

  5. Euripides takes plenty of poetic license, is what Euripides does. Electra gets married to a farmer and then actively helps Orestes kill Clytemnestra, whose deified sons come down from heaven and tell everyone what their punishments will be. It is the wack. I can't wait to read it again.

  6. Right, the farm, he moves the whole thing to a farm. For some reason I remember the outrageous "Orestes" better than the outrageous "Elektra."

  7. Finally catching up on these. "Purely psychological" indeed. David Grene's introduction calls it "perhaps the best-constructed and most unpleasant play that Sophocles wrote". That sounds about right. Chrysothemis warns Electra that her mother will send her "where never a gleam of sun shall visit you. You shall live out your life in an underground cave and there bewail sorrows of the world outside." One could argue that she might as well have already been there from the start - it's not really clear what difference it would make.

  8. Yes, Grene sounds right to me, too.

    The idea of the cave punishment is full of irony.