“Such is my story, – grievous to hear, if words can grieve; but for us, who beheld, the greatest of sorrows that these eyes have seen” – Paedagogus
I have always been a bit of a Greek classics geek. Meaning, I sorta love the stuff. The ever-meddling gods, the revenge, the pathos, the supernatural, the adventure, the family drama that puts even my dysfunctional clan to shame.
I’m not sure when exactly I became aware that there was this enticing world where fallible gods and goddesses both watched over and walked among heroic heroes and strange creatures. Honestly, it was probably Wonder Woman, who first introduced me. She was an Amazonian after all.
In high-school when everyone else moaned and complained about studying the Greek Myths, I asked for extra-credit assignments. Yup, that geeky. I read The Iliad and The Odyssey for fun on spring break. And then, I studied drama and got to immerse myself in it even more. A scene from Sophocles‘ Antigone won me an unexpected placement in a state drama competition. And when I got to my senior year and got to read and write about the rest of Sophocles’ Theban plays, I was happy. I was hooked on all the stories, yes, but also the language of the plays, the emotions so raw and beautiful. And I think more than anything I loved the themes. The same ones we write about and live and grapple with today, but somehow magnified and more important.
And then, I left high-school.
And here we are, fifteen-years later, and although I’ve had copies of the complete works of Aeschylus, Sophocles & Euripides sitting on my book shelves for nearly all that time, I’ve never picked them up.
I suppose I discovered historical fiction and sci-fi and fantasy and literary fiction and lists of Nobel and Pulitzer winners and modern classics and biographies and dystopia and vampires and well… got a little distracted.
When I came across the Greek Classics Circuit, I was drawn to it by this pull from my youth. “Remember how cool this is?” it said, “You love this stuff!” I really couldn’t argue. So I signed up, a little overwhelmed by the breadth of choices. So many I hadn’t gotten to yet. In the end I choose Electra because a) it was the only one of Sophocles’ major works I hadn’t read, and b)Elektra of Marvel Comics fame happens to be another one of my geeky loves.
It had honestly been so long since reading any Greek classics that I had forgotten much of the back-story to the play.
I sort of consider that a good thing. I didn’t have any pre-conceived opinions of how it should play out going into it. And it was rather like discovering an old friend as I got situated and came across names that were familiar and stories would come flooding back to me. But that wasn’t always the case. Other names were strangers that stuck on my tongue.
I found myself reading out loud. I do this occasionally, with Shakespeare, or other plays or books that I particularly love, but this story seemed to call for it. And hey, the majority of the time the characters that are speaking are women, so I really didn’t have a hard time pulling off the voices. But honestly, there is something about reading this play aloud that brings it to another level. I think often when dealing with the Greek classics, we forget that most of them were designed for performance or oral story-telling. That’s when they come alive. For me, this story came alive late at night, and in the dark.
Note: Possible spoilers for those unfamiliar with Electra, the Oresteia or the Theban stories.
“For if we are to take blood for blood, thou wouldst be the first to die.” – Electra
Right from the start I felt both a relatable connection and an annoyance with the character of Electra. I could feel her pain, yes. I could relate to her sorrow. It seemed like a kind of deep depression to me, a thing I’ve experienced enough to know it’s irrationality and it’s melancholy. As a modern reader though, I also found her almost petulant and self-centered. We aren’t told exactly how long after her father’s death this story takes place, but presumably many years (enough time for Orestes, who escaped into exile as a child) to grow into a man. Electra laments about her father’s murder as if it had happened that day. Granted this may be for the sake of the audience. She laments about being un-married, and childless, and lonely. “Oh woe is me,” is her favorite line. Literally. And unfortunately try as I might, I could not deliver it with a straight face a single time. A part of me wanted to pull her out of the pages and smack her.
It isn’t until later that we learn a bit more about the reasons for her complaints. Her mother and step-father Aegisthus know how she feels about her father’s murder. (She’s quite vocal about her opinions and in that way I suppose a strong character.) She had a hand in rescuing her brother Orestes from death at their hands. They fear his return. They fear allowing her to marry, knowing that she would raise any male child to avenge her father’s death. So she lives, (especially in contrast to her sister Chrysothemis, who is more prudent and plays the part of loyal daughter), in a palace with a mother she hates, with little freedoms, no luxuries and considers herself a slave in her stepfather’s house. She isn’t even free to visit her father’s grave to pay her respects. And, after all these years she has begun to give up hope that her brother Orestes will ever rectify the situation.
This play explores strong women as characters. We certainly get to hear the point of view of all the women involved in the story. Even Clytemnestra becomes an almost relatable character, explaining that she killed Agamemnon to gain justice for his sacrifice of another of their daughters to the gods. She also, (though relieved that she won’t have to be looking over her shoulder for an assassin anymore) is saddened when she believes Orestes dead.
“”There is a strange power in motherhood; a mother may be wronged, but she never learns to hate her child.” – Clytemnestra
There is the idea of a woman awaiting a “champion” or a hero to save her. But when misunderstanding’s ensue and Electra believes that her brother is dead, she starts to put together a plan to save herself. She will kill Aegisthus and Clytemnestra herself, avenging her father, pleasing her dead brother, and freeing herself and her sister in the process. She enlists her sister’s help, but Chrysothemis thinks the plan is insane.
“Seest thou not, thou art a woman, not a man, and no match for thine adversaries in strength?” – Chrysothemis
I thought, for a just a minute, this was going to be a great kick-ass girl saves herself story.
Of course, Orestes is not really dead and returns to save the day. But he does throw out another line on the subject as he worries about his ploy being overheard.
“Yet remember that in women too, dwells the spirit of battle.” – Orestes
The spirit apparently, but not the actual act. In the end, Electra cheers her brother on as he violently murders both their mother and step-father. At which point, the play abruptly comes to a close.
I’m left in awe of the violence in the final moments. I can’t tell if it is being glorified, condemned or just accepted. It is all done in the name of justice and in the case of Orestes, an order from the oracle of Apollo. The chorus is definitely in favor of it, and I suppose we are to take it as a triumphant and happy end to the tale.
Yet, Sophocles does seem sensitive to the idea, at least, that this really is a tragedy through and through. The revenge mentality has ruined the lives of all the people involved and how can it possibly just stop there? I’m left with a deep sense that though these two have triumphed, in committing such acts there is no going back. Their lives will be changed, yes, but likely just as unhappy as before.
I’m not sure that this rates as my favorite of the Greek classics, although as a character study and exploration into the mind of a woman willing to kill her own mother, it’s pretty compelling. I am definitely curious to read some different versions of it, both classic and modern. I also just highly recommend Sophocles in general. Coming back to his words after all this time was a fabulously delicious treat.
Version Read: The Electra by Sophocles (R.C. Jebb)