Chrysothemis, Electra’s sister, enters with burial offerings. Seeing Electra, she asks her why she is speaking publicly, giving away her anger at will. However, Chrysothemis adds, she too would be publicly angry if she had strength - but, living as a prisoner, she says, she chooses to keep silent. Electra accuses Chrysothemis of forgetting her father, and reminds her that she has done nothing to aid her vengeance. She then asks Chrysothemis what she would possibly gain by giving up her mourning. Chrysothemis, Electra says, hates Clytemnestra and Aegisthus “in word only”. Electra claims that, no matter how many gifts she was brought, she would never give up her mourning – and calls Chrysothemis a “traitor to [her] dead father and [her] friends”.
The Chorus steps in, pleading “no anger”, and then telling Electra to follow Chrysothemis’ advice, and Chyrsothemis to follow Electra’s. Chrysothemis replies that “the greatest of misfortunes” is coming to Electra to force her to stop mourning. She reveals that Electra, if she doesn’t stop her mourning, will be taken to an underground cave and imprisoned. This will happen, Chrysothemis says, when Aegisthus returns to the palace. Electra says she prays for Aegisthus’ speedy return, as she longs to get away from everyone, as far as she can. Chrysothemis wishes that Electra would learn common sense: Electra curtly replies that she will not learn to be false. Chrysothemis says she believes her father would pardon her, and that it would not be a good thing if Electra fell through stupidity alone. Electra says she is happy to fall, if she revenges her father.
Chrysothemis, aware that her words are doing no good, makes as if to leave, to take her offerings, sent by her mother, to her father’s grave. Electra asks why her mother would send offerings to the grave of someone she murdered. Chrysothemis thinks that it was “night terrors” which drove her to it. Electra is fascinated by this dream, and begs to hear it. Chrysothemis does not know all of the details, but explains that Clytemenestra dreamed she saw Agamemnon coming back to life and planting a scepter at the hearth, from which foliage sprang and covered the whole land.
Electra advises Chrysothemis not to put her mother’s offerings on her father’s grave. To do so, she argues, would be against the law of the gods. Instead, Chrysothemis should throw the offerings to the winds, or hide them in the earth, ready to be poured onto Clytemnestra’s own grave one day. How, Electra argues, will Agamemnon welcome offerings from the wife who murdered him? Electra tells Chrysothemis to cut locks from her and Electra's hair, lay them on Agamemnon’s grave, and pray for Orestes’ return. The Chorus concur with Electra’s advice, and Chrysothemis agrees to follow it.
In the stasimon, the Chorus predict Justice’s coming, “foreshadowing a just victory”. They also claim that Agamemnon has never forgotten the bronze, double-toothed axe which was used to murder him. They predict that a “many-footed, many-handed… bronze-shod Fury” will come to revenge Agamemnon’s “wicked” murder. They comment that, since Myrtilus sank in the sea, his descendants (who include Agamemnon) have suffered destruction and ruin.
Clytemnestra enters, surprised to see Electra walking outside and “disgracing” her family. She rails against Electra for telling people how unjustly her mother treats her. Clytemnestra only abuses Electra, she says, because she herself is abused by Electra. Clytemnestra does not deny having murdered Agamemnon, but claims that it was “Justice” to do so:
“Justice it was that took him, not I alone.
You would have served the cause of Justice if
you had been right-minded.”
Her reason for this is that Agamemnon sacrificed her daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods, for Menelaus’ sake. That sacrifice, she says, had to be repaid. If Iphigenia could speak, she would agree.
Electra asks her mother permission to respond, “truthfully”, and her mother grants it. Electra then argues that Clytemnestra’s murdering her husband is shameful, “with justice or without it”. Moreover, Electra asserts, the reason Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon was not justice, but the seduction of Aegisthus, who now lives with her in the palace. Electra then tells another version of Iphigenia’s sacrifice: it was repayment to the gods for killing a stag from a goddess’ sanctuary. But, Electra continues, even if Agamemnon had killed Iphigenia for Menelaus’ sake, what right did Clytemnestra have to take revenge by killing him? Surely, Electra points out, a death-for-death system of justice would only mean that someone would have to kill Clytemnestra? An eye for an eye, her argument (though not her exact wording) goes, leaves the whole world blind.
Electra then asks Clytemnestra why she is sleeping with Aegisthus, her husband’s murderer. What possible grounds for praise – what justification? – could be found in that act? Electra tells her mother that she does not even think of her as a mother. Orestes, Electra tells her mother, is wearing out his life “in misery and exile”. If Electra could have made Orestes murder Clytemnestra, she openly tells her mother, she would have done it.
The Chorus comment that they can no longer see whether Electra’s rage is just or not. Electra explains that she is ashamed of her behavior, but that she behaves like this – against her will – because of Clytemnestra. “Ugly deeds are taught by ugly deeds”, she concludes. Clytemnestra tells her she will not escape the “results of [her] behavior” when Aegisthus comes. Clytemnestra then asks Electra to let her make sacrifice to the gods. Electra agrees.
Clytemnestra makes a prayer to Phoebus Apollo. She says she has had dreams of “double meaning”, and asks the god to allow the good things to come, but to turn the bad things against her enemies. She also asks that plots against her be defeated, and that she be allowed to live out her life, “to the end uninjured”, living with those she loves, and with children who do not hate her.
The argument between Chrysothemis and Electra that begins the first episode can be read as a battle between action and words. Electra relies on words to incite or pray for action: revenge on her mother and Aegisthus, the coming of Orestes. Chrysothemis, in fact, feels the same way as Electra: “I am sick at what I see”, she says to her sister. Yet Chrysothemis doesn’t have the strength, or the bravery, to speak out against the wrongs her mother and Aegisthus have committed. Instead, she chooses silence. Her words, like Orestes' prediction of his own words, are false; words, Sophocles suggests, can rarely be trusted.
Electra, on the other hand, is all about direct expression. What she feels, she says – or, rather, screams. Moreover, when Electra says to Chrysothemis that she hates her father’s murderers “in word only”, she posits the idea that action is the only way to be honest. In other words, if you believe something, you act upon it. Speaking about it is not enough. Sophocles’ play (a play, thus far, of words and not many actions) again points up a clear distinction between words and actions, and continues to build toward the vengeful action which we know must provide the play’s climax.
That said, actions can lie as well. Consider Clytemnestra's offerings, carried by Chrysothemis. Pouring libations was a mourning ritual in ancient Greece, one which involved pouring wine or oil from a special bowl onto the grave (or sometimes onto the base of a tree) in remembrance and honor of the departed. Chrysothemis, in taking her mother’s offerings to her father’s grave, is again behaving (exactly as her language does) in a way which entirely contradicts the way she truly feels. Indeed, we might argue, this libation itself is as false as Orestes’ disguise: it comes not from someone who truly mourns Agamemnon, but instead from she who killed him. The libation is also a fascinating image in itself: liquid poured into the earth, which, at least in the context of this particular dream, might remind us of watering a plant: “foliage sprang / luxuriantly, and shaded all the land / of this Mycenae” in Clytemnestra’s dream. Perhaps Orestes figures as a branch of his father’s family tree. The libation is thus a contradictory metaphor -- pointing to life and new growth, while signifying mourning and remembrance. If dishonesty is predicated on contradiction (between expression and intent), the libation may itself emerge as an inherently deceptive act.
The locks of hair the sisters place on their father’s grave are also emblems of mourning, yet they are especially loaded here: in Aeschylus’ version of the same story, it is by locks of hair that Orestes and Electra recognize each other at a critical moment. Sophocles thus subverts our Aeschylean expectations (a move I will discuss later in further detail).
Moving to the second episode, the lengthy argument between Clytemnestra and Electra centers around one of the play’s key themes, “justice”. How is it morally right to behave? How do you react to someone behaving badly towards you? Does the logic of “an eye for an eye” really lead anywhere? Clytemnestra’s argument that she only abuses Electra because she receives abuses from Electra neatly draws out the “eye for an eye”, “measure for measure” logic which the ideas of vengeance in the play enact.
Yet this argument also informs us that such logic precedes the play's events: the death of Iphigenia seems to have set the wheel in motion. The myth of Iphigenia is as follows, according to Homer: Agamemnon, who had displeased the goddess Artemis, was a commander of the army. Artemis stopped the wind, making it impossible for the fleet to sail, and refused to give the army wind, unless Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia. He did so, which is why Clytemnestra felt bound to avenge Iphigenia’s death. Here "eye for an eye" logic runs as follows: Agamemnon killed Iphigenia, so Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon (and, we might add, Orestes therefore must kill Clytemnestra).
Clytemnestra argues that her murdering Agamemnon was, in light of Iphigenia’s death, “justice”. Electra retorts that, “without justice or with it”, Clytemnestra should be ashamed of having murdered her husband. “By what law” Electra asks, has Clytemnestra the power to revenge? So far, her argument looks strong – but then she goes further. In arguing that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon only so that she could wed Aegisthus, Electra moves the argument away from the “eye for an eye” logic she has just argued against. Yet, within fifty lines, Electra’s customary fury has overtaken her, and at the end of her long, furious speech she tells Clytemnestra that she would have trained Orestes to murder her if she possibly could have. She violates her own argument against "an eye for an eye", and denounces Clytemnestra as not a mother but a mistress. By the end of the speech, we too might agree with the Chorus, who comment: ‘I see she is angry, but whether it is in justice, I no longer see...’
The question of revenge is not simply an abstract moral question, but one bound up with personal and familial relationships. There is a conflict between personal and public roles: between family roles and a larger idea of what is right and wrong. There is no simple right or wrong answer. “Justice”, a word which resounds throughout the play, is harder to apply confidently to any character’s actions. Who is just? What is the right thing to do? Should Clytemnestra have killed Agamemnon? Should he have killed Iphigenia? Should Orestes kill Clytemnestra? To agree or disagree with one holds implications for each of the other questions. To further complicate things, Sophocles brings real humanity to Clytemnestra. We understand, even if we do not agree with, her reasoning, and her terror at the prospect of her dream demands our pity, if not our empathy. Indeed, everything is relative.