Friday, August 12, 2022

Electra by Euripides - Thus it is always told

A screwball, the Electra of Euripides (c. 413 BCE), but at this point his plays are all screwballs.  Electra is perhaps more subtly screwy.  It is not just his "version" of the story we already know from Aeschylus and Sophocles, but an attack on the story.

Many critics have wondered if it is a pure parody.  Some of it is a parody, most famously the mockery of the recognition scene in Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, which Euripides dismantles piece by piece.  “Besides, how could a lock of his hair match with mine?” (30, tr. Emily Townsend Vermeule) and so on, the rationalist side of Euripides making fun of the classics. 

The removal of the setting from the palace and tomb of Agamemnon to a rustic farm cottage is itself a deflation of the story.  But the subtle changes are in the characters, and the approach to the central problem of the play, by which I mean that Electra and Orestes reveal themselves as awful, and their desire for revenge more personal, more pathological, than divine.  Meanwhile neither Clytemnestra or even Aegisthus look so bad.

The murder of Aegisthus is a sick farce.  Why is he out in the country?

He happened to be walking in the water-meadow,

Scything young green shoots of myrtle for his hair.  (44)

I love that.  Hippie Aegisthus is a welcoming host, and his reward is to be stabbed in the back, with a knife that he himself gave to Orestes.  Clytemnestra is lured to the countryside to be killed by telling her that she is finally a grandma.  Even for Greek plays, these are cruel, odd killings.  Euripides is revising, perhaps undermining, the famous old stories.  Maybe he did not think he went far enough in this one, since he returns to the story in Orestes, a nihilistic masterpiece.

I will note one of the curious songs of the chorus (of peasants, also curious).  Just after Orestes and Electra are reunited, the chorus sings about, surprisingly, an episode in the terrible life of Thyestes, the great-uncle of Orestes and Electra, who wins the throne of Argos with a trick involving a magic golden lamb that results in Zeus reversing the sun’s course in protest.  As they finish the story:

Thus it is always told.

I am won only to light belief

that the sun would swerve or change his gold

chamber of fire, moved in pain

at sorrow and sin in the mortal world

       To judge or punish man.  (42)

Not disbelief, but “light belief.”  Euripides is working towards something.

I chose an image of an 18th century actress playing the role of Electra, not in a Greek play, I assume, but perhaps Crebillon’s 1708 Electre.  The print is from a 1772 book owned by the British Museum.  This is not the Electra of Euripides – all that hair, all that fabric, where his Electra has a shaved head and wears rags.

Unusually, we get a preview of next week’s play embedded in this week’s play.

CASTOR:     She never went to Troy.

Zeus fashioned and dispatched a Helen-image there

to Ilium so men might die in hate and blood.  (62-3)

What?  What?  Next week: the Helen of Euripides.


  1. I think this is an improvement over the previous versions of this story we've read, in part because of the characterization, particularly Electra. She's incredibly petty here - accusing both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus of too much vanity in their appearance, insisting to Aegisthus's corpse that Clytemnestra was probably cheating on him, and complaining that the murder of her father meant that Castor stopped courting her. Also, unlike in The Libation Bearers or Sophocles' Electra, she actually gets to do something here, participating in the murder of Clytemnestra. And yes, I liked Clytemnestra and Aegisthus here too.

    I also liked Electra's husband, who reminded me of Gabriel Oak of Far From The Madding Crowd and came across as the one fully decent character in the play. I'm glad Castor said that he'd get to go with Electra and Pylades at the end and become a rich man.

    The parody of the recognition scene is a lot of fun, and I like how no attempt is made to explain why Orestes conceals his identity from Electra for as long as he does. I guess he's just trying to be dramatic.

  2. I think that is a good part of my enjoyment of Euripides, that he has a more humanist, less mythic or heroic conception of his characters. He wrote a different kind of play, maybe several different kinds.

    I wish I could direct your comments to Twitter. They might recruit some readers. I always get something new from your remarks.

  3. I appreciate the kind words! I probably have too many ways to waste time on the internet already to join Twitter, but maybe someday. Anyway, having a place to think through these strange texts is its own reward.

  4. Oh no, don't join Twitter without a truly good excuse!