The setting is in front of the royal palace in Mycenae. Paedagogus, an old servant, addresses Orestes, son of Agamemnon, and Orestes’ friend Pylades. He tells Orestes that, now that he has returned to Mycenae, Orestes can see all the sights he has longed to see while he has been away fighting at Troy. Paedagogus also tells Orestes that, long ago, he took Orestes (then a baby) away from the palace shortly after Agamemnon, Orestes' father, was murdered. Since then, Paedagogus has raised Orestes to revenge his father’s death. Paedagogus tells Orestes and Pylades that it is morning, and they must attack before men leave their houses. “It is time for action”, Paedagogus concludes.
Orestes praises Paedagogus’ nobility, comparing him to a faithful old horse, and tells him of his plans. When Orestes went to the Delphic oracle, he asked the oracle how he should be revenged on his father’s murderers. Phoebus spoke to him, he says, and told him:
“Take not spear nor shield nor host;
go yourself and craft of hand
be yours to kill, with justice but with stealth.”
Orestes then tells Paedagogus his plan, based on the oracle’s advice: Paedagogus must go inside the house posing as a servant (no one will recognise Paedagogus now, Orestes opines, because so much time has passed and he now has gray hair) and report that Orestes has been killed. In the meantime, Orestes and Pylades will go to Agamemnon's grave and pay tribute to it by pouring libations and placing locks of hair. Returning to the palace, they will bring a thick bronze urn, and claim it contains Orestes’ ashes. Lying, Orestes, says, won’t bother him, as long as eventually he wins his glory: “no word”, he says “is base when spoken in profit”.
Orestes delivers a short prayer to the gods, arguing that he has come as their “purifier / in justice”, and begging them to allow him to restore the honour of his house. At that moment, a cry is heard from inside the house. Orestes wonders whether it might be his sister Electra, and asks Paedagogus if they should stay and listen. Paedagogus replies no, and Orestes and Pylades accordingly exit the stage.
Electra appears, offering a long prayer to “Holy Light” and to air, and commenting on the number of times she has beaten her breast and sung dirges. She has been sorrowing all night, singing dirges for her father, whom – she reveals – was murdered with an axe by Aegisthus, the lover of her mother Clytemnestra. Electra says she will never cease her mourning until she dies, crying out like a nightingale in front of her father’s house. She calls on the gods to bring vengeance and to send her brother to help her. She alone, she thinks, cannot bear the burden of her grief.
The Chorus address Electra and ask her why she is still mourning Agamemnon. Electra knows the Chorus have come to console her, but refuses to cease her mourning and begs them to suffer her to continue. The Chorus tell Electra that no amount of mourning will bring Agamemnon back, and that her “sorrow unending” will only destroy her. She is, they tell her, only discomforting herself. Moreover, the Chorus add, she does not bear the burden of grief alone: her sister Chrysothemis and brother Orestes bear it too. Electra says she has longed for Orestes to return -- and, though he claims he wants to come, he never has.
The Chorus try to comfort her, but Electra rebuts them: “for me already the most of my life / has gone by without hope” (183-4). She is now too old to marry and have children. Childless, she is dressed in “ugly rags”. The Chorus and Electra together reiterate that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus conspired to murder Agamemnon, and hope for the gods to grant vengeance. The Chorus once again implore Electra to put an end to her mourning, and not “to breed sorrow from sorrow.” Electra forcefully responds that her sorrow has no “natural measure”, and that humans do not have any instinctive power to forget the dead. How else might she behave, she asks them? She has to live and eat with those who murdered her father; she has to watch Aegisthus sit on her father’s throne; she has to watch her “father’s murderer in [her] father’s bed”.
Moreover, Electra adds, Clytemnestra fears nothing, and brazenly maintains a dancing festival on the day she murdered Agamemnon while deliberately mistreating his offspring. Thus Electra waits for Orestes’ return: “I wait and wait and die”, she says. Surrounded by evil, she claims it is impossible to behave moderately.
The Chorus ask whether Aegisthus is in the house, and Electra replies that he isn’t, but has gone to his estate. The Chorus ask whether Orestes is really coming home. Electra replies that he says he is coming, but “does nothing of what he says”. “A man often hesitates when he does a big thing”, the Chorus comment, calling Orestes “a true gentleman”.
The first of many unusual things about Sophocles’ Electra is its title. To the ancient Greek audience, it must have seemed hugely unusual that a play about the murder of Clytemnestra (events previously dramatized in Homer, and most famously of all, in Aeschylus’ Oresteia) would focus not on Orestes, who performs the murder, but on his sister Electra. (I will return later to the intertextuality of Electra, and look at the way it might be interpreted in conjunction with other versions of the same myth.)
It is nonetheless clear right from the very beginning that Electra fits the mold of the “Sophoclean hero”: like other Sophoclean heroes, she is described as “deinos”, which means both “wonderful” and “terrible” and remains one of the best ways of interpreting the extreme nature of Sophocles’ protagonists. We might shrink from their blood-lust, as we do with Electra’s bitter longing for her mother’s blood, but there is always something to admire in their sheer energy. Electra doesn’t just yell, she screams; she isn’t just angry, she’s furious.
Her grief is also of a particularly powerful variant. We are introduced to Electra via a harrowing offstage cry, and shortly thereafter learn that she does not sleep, but spends all night singing dirges to her father. As the Chorus point out, this sorrow might itself be seen as destructive. Ancient Greek culture stipulated a time limit for acceptable mourning, yet Electra insists that mourning can know no limits or boundaries. It is a moment later echoed by Shakespeare when Hamlet is scolded by his mother and Claudius for his ‘unmanly grief’. Moreover, like Hamlet, Electra argues that she has to live with the two people (her mother and Aegisthus) who murdered her father – how, then, can she forget her grief? This is not the mild Electra of the Oresteia, but an Electra who insists on how she feels in furious, screaming hatred. She is furiously, bitterly angry with her mother and Aegisthus, and she openly longs for them to receive their deserts.
This is a marked contrast, again, to the Electra the Greek audience might have expected. Remembering that the audience would have known that Electra was to be reunited with her brother, what Sophocles really provides here is a deeply psychological picture of what she was feeling. This is no mere, silent female stereotype, but a real woman, who is really suffering, and insists that her pain be respected. In this way, Electra represents something of a departure for the roles usually given to female characters in plays of this period. In the words of Simon Goldhill, Sophocles takes the reserved, feminine silence of Aeschylus’ Electra, and turns it into a rage-filled scream.
Stepping back for a moment from the specifics of Electra's character, it is important to locate her story within the wider mythology in which it takes place. (Whether through familiarity with Homer, Aeschylus, or oral retellings, Sophocles’ original audience would have been so familiar with this mythology that there would be no need to recap it in the play.) Some time before the play begins, Clytemnestra, along with her lover Aegisthus, murdered Agamemnon (father of both Electra and Orestes). Why Clytemnestra murdered her husband is the source of some debate in the play itself (see line 538 and onward) and Sophocles never provides one absolute answer as to her motives. Yet Orestes is bound in filial duty to revenge his father’s murder, even if that means killing his mother. Thus, hanging over the play before it even begins is the knowledge that Orestes will indeed kill his mother.
Moreover, we know that Orestes has visited the Oracle ("Pytho's place of prophecy") at Delphi to ask Apollo’s advice about how he should proceed. Here is what he says:
"When I came to Pytho’s place of prophecy
to learn to win revenge
for my father’s murder on those that did the murder,
Phoebus spoke to me the words I tell you now:
'Take not spear nor shield nor host;
go yourself, and craft of hand
be yours to kill, with justice but with stealth.'"
This prophecy is central to the play. The Greeks knew that if you wanted an answer from the gods you had to phrase your question very carefully. Look closely at the quote, and it seems that the question Orestes has, in effect, asked is “How should I revenge my father’s murder?” rather than “Should I...?” It is a subtle shade of meaning, but one which makes absolutely all of the difference. It is important too that the Oracle suggests a slight opposition between “justice” and “stealth”, yet also implies that it is impossible for both attributes to co-exist. This Orestes will prove. Moreover, Orestes believes that the prophecy gives him divine approval for the matricide he is to commit.
“It is time for action”, Paedagogus instructs at the end of the Parados. Yet what we see in the play itself is a series of deferrals of action, one after the other. The central action the audience expects from the beginning – the murder of Clytemnestra – takes a long time to arrive. These deferrals begin with Orestes’ disguise, continue through endless conversations involving Electra, the Chorus and Clytemnestra, through the revelation scene, and culminate at the end of the play, when Aegisthus is left alive. Conclusiveness, finality, and a “finishing point” in this play seem unattainable. The dictum of "an eye for an eye" goes on, and Sophocles hints at the continuation of the revenge motif even after his part of the story is finished.
Also noteworthy is Paedogogus and Orestes' discussion of the plan to disguise themselves and lie about Orestes’ death. One of the key oppositions of the play is between word and action; Orestes here offers the first of several arguments regarding the relationship between the two. If we agree with him that “no word is base when spoken in profit”, then his false words should not be judged too harshly. On the other hand, we might see him as a false actor, untrustworthy and all too skilled at covering up his real motives. Do we, as he suggests, judge him by his actions and their motivation – or by the way he carries out his actions? Once Orestes admits he is willing to lie, how can we ever trust anything he says? Can a liar be a morally praiseworthy character? Does the end justify the means?
Questions of morals and judgment resound throughout the play. Orestes, describing himself as a “purifier”, someone coming to remove an evil, and acting with the gods’ blessing (a potentially problematic description to say the least), seems fearless, entirely confident in what he is doing. Famously, at the end of Aeschlyus’ Oresteia, in the play Eumenides, Orestes is acquitted of having committed a crime, and the sinister Furies stop haunting him. In Electra Orestes seems just as self-assured, as if he knows the same fate is in store for him, and yet Sophocles’ play will go on to undermine this confidence: Orestes' anticipated "fate" never comes. Sophocles’ play asks questions rather than answer them, and its key query presents itself in the first scene: is Orestes right to revenge his father’s murder, or is matricide itself a more horrible sin? More generally, if it is indeed "time for action", what is the right action to take?