Paedagogus enters, disguised as a messenger, and asks whether he has arrived at the palace of Aegisthus. Told he has, he approaches Clytemnestra with news. Orestes, Paedagogus announces, is dead. Electra is crestfallen. “I am dead – I cannot live now”, she says. Prompted by Clytemnestra, Paedagogus tells the story of Orestes’ (supposed) death in a long speech. Orestes, he says, had won several races at the Delphic Games. Then came a chariot race the next day, and Orestes participated. However, during the race, an Aenean chariot-driver lost control of his horses, and a crash occurred. From this one accident, every team crashed into all of the other teams. An Athenian chariot-driver cleverly avoided the crash and continued racing: incensed, Orestes pursued him. Taking hard corners, the axle of Orestes’ chariot snapped, and he was thrown from his chariot, tangled in the reigns. He was dragged along by his horses until they were stopped, by which time Orestes was so covered in blood as to be unrecognizable.
Clytemnestra is unsure whether to think Orestes’ death a good thing or a bad thing. Either she is saved from his vengeance, or she has lost a son. Whatever the case, however, the news does sadden her: no mother, she says, can be glad at the death of her son. That said, how can she mourn someone who accused her of awful deeds, and who stopped her from being able to sleep? Electra, horrified that her mother is insulting her dead brother, asks: “Can this be right?”. Clytemnestra responds: "Not right for you. But he is right as he is."
Clytemnestra then takes Paedagogus into the house. Electra, left with the Chorus, makes a bitter, grieving speech to Orestes, telling him that “your death is my death”. She resolves to waste away her life, or to provoke one inside the house to kill her. Death to her, she says, would be a favor, and life “an agony”. The Chorus attempt in vain to calm her: “None can guess whence death will come”, they say.
Next, Chrysothemis appears, promising “happiness and a relief from all… troubles”. Electra asks her how she can hope to cure “my troubles which know no cure?” Chrysothemis announces that Orestes is here, and among them. Electra doesn’t believe her, first accusing her of being mad, and then of having been duped. Chrysothemis then tells Electra what she saw. When she came to their father’s grave, she says, she saw milk flowing from it, and a fresh wreath of flowers placed upon it. Approaching the grave, she found a lock of hair at the top of the pyre, which she immediately recognized as Orestes’. These offerings, she says, are proof that Orestes is here.
Electra explains to her sister that Orestes is in fact dead, and that a messenger, now inside the palace, brought the news. Electra suggests that the offerings on Agamemnon’s grave might be in memory of Orestes. She then proposes a plan to “relieve the suffering that weighs on us”: kill Aegisthus, her father’s murderer. This act, Electra argues, will win the sisters great nobility and freedom, and save the reputation of their father’s house. Chrysothemis' response is clear: “You are a woman – no man”. Electra, she says, has not the physical strength to do the deed, and, moreover, no one will think nobly of the sisters because of a dishonorable murder. Unsurprised by her sister’s response, Electra resolves to do the deed alone. Chrysothemis predicts that, should she follow through with her plan, Electra will come to realize her sister was right.
The Chorus meditate on what has been said, commenting that the house is sick, and that two children (Electra and Chrysothemis) “fight and struggle”. Electra, they reiterate, has no thought for her own life, and seems to live only to kill Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (“the two Furies of her house”). Good people, the Chorus say, would rather die than live dishonored.
At that moment, Orestes, disguised as a countryman from Phocis, enters with Pylades and asks whether he has arrived at Aegisthus’ home. One of the ladies of the Chorus goes in to tell Aegisthus of the new arrival. Orestes meanwhile tells Electra -- who does not realize who he is -- that the remains of her brother are in the urn he carries with him. Electra takes the urn, and makes a long lament over it, telling Orestes of her own grief and of Clytemnestra’s joy. The Chorus advise Electra that death is a “debt that all of us must pay”.
The disguised Orestes is deeply moved by Electra’s lament, and interrogates Electra about her situation. Eventually, Orestes shows Electra a signet ring that used to belong to his father, and Electra realizes who he is. A tremendously charged reunion follows, during which the Chorus are moved to tears. Orestes asks Electra to remain silent, “that none inside may hear”. Electra replies that she will never stoop to fear Clytemnestra. Orestes counter-argues, telling her that to “consider that in women too / there lives a warlike spirit”. Electra herself, he says, is proof of that.
Orestes then asks Electra to spare “all superfluity of speech”: he doesn’t want to hear about his mother, or about Aegisthus. Paedagogus enters from the house, interrupting their conversation. He implores them to “have done once and for all / with your long speeches”, and tells them to go inside, at once, to do the deed. Paedagogus has prepared the ground so that there is no chance Orestes will be recognized. Clytemnestra is alone, Paedagogus tells Orestes, and so “now is [his] chance to act”.
Orestes heads inside. Electra makes a short prayer to Apollo to “help us in the fulfillment of our plans” and to extract punishment “for wickedness”. She too then enters the house.
Sophocles' play takes place in a sort of liminal space, between "outside" and "inside" -- namely, at the doors of a palace. This setting is significant to the unfolding of the drama, with its emphasis on who lies within those palace doors. The palace is of course the original home of Agamemnon, and it is all we see. In Aeschylus' version of the same story, we see the king's tomb, and parts of the surrounding city; in Sophocles' version, no such luck. This focus underlines the status of the women in the play. A woman’s place, the ancient Greeks believed, was in the home -- or, more specifically, in the oikos, that is the household. In Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, Electra prays, sings songs of mourning, and then silently goes inside at the moment of the murder. This is not behavior that an ancient Greek audience would have been shocked, or surprised, by: that was how you might expect a well-behaved, well brought-up female to behave. Sophocles' Electra, on the other hand, never goes inside, never stays within her "proper" sphere; as a result, she is almost constantly onstage. She is exhausting company, railing long speeches to almost everyone who passes her – and indeed, almost every other character in the play tells her, at some point, to be quiet. She stands, loudly and defiantly, against the grain.
A woman's status, and the ways in which Electra does not abide by traditional norms, are discussed in the argument between Chrysothemis and Electra in the second episode. Chrysothemis tells Electra that she cannot kill Aegisthus because she is a woman, a line of argument similar to the one questioned in Sophocles’ Antigone: Chrysothemis urges caution, reminding Electra that the sisters are already in trouble, and begging her not to make it worse. Electra, however, in the true fashion of the Sophoclean hero, knows no limits and will pursue her will until the end. The argument eventually become stichomythic, Sophocles establishing sharp contrasts between the two sisters: Electra tells Chrysothemis that she can learn nothing from her, only for Chrysothemis to reply that she would if only she were less stubborn.
Crucially, even this last argument turns to the word “justice”. “It is terrible to speak well and be wrong”, Electra says, only for Chrysothemis to reply: “a very proper description of yourself”. Chrysothemis’ point is an interesting one, and one with which some students of the play might concur. Is Electra’s fury so strong, her grief so powerful, that it actually guides her away from doing the right thing? Would it be right for her to kill Aegisthus? The ancient Greeks would certainly have seen it as Orestes’ filial duty to revenge his father (just as Laertes, not Ophelia, revenges Polonius in Hamlet); but with Orestes supposed dead, does his duty pass to Electra? We are not sure how precisely the Greeks would have answered that question, though most scholars believe they would still insist a woman must not, under any circumstances, kill.
Chrysothemis, in the course of her dispute with her sister, utters one of the key lines of the play: “there are times when even justice brings harm with it”. Even if we accept the revenger’s duty by which Orestes is bound, it is still possible that in delivering justice, he could bring harm on himself. Even if you kill for a good reason, you are still a killer – and you will still therefore be punished. Sophoclean tragedy often hinges on a situation where there is no right response: compare, for example, Oedipus (see our ClassicNote on Oedipus Rex), who destroys his familial life by insisting on the truth, while at the same time correctly fulfilling his role as King of Thebes. Whichever way you turn, you will suffer, and the conflict between familial duty and justice is irresolvable. It is a question of weighing which is the better of the available options, and Electra, for her part, chooses to avenge her father, no matter the cost to herself.
To step back slightly earlier in this section to the announcement of Orestes’ death, Clytemnestra says she has had dreams of "double meaning", a neat metaphor encapsulating the ongoing theme of disguise, lying, and falsehood. Moreover, at the start of this third episode, Paedagogus delivers a long narrative speech on the death of Orestes. There is nothing particularly unusual about the speech taken out of context, but placed in context it provides a fascinating dramatic moment. Paedagogus knows, as the audience knows, that the speech is entirely untrue and that Orestes is alive. Clytemnestra and Electra are in the opposite position: they believe Orestes really to be dead. The interest of the speech for Sophocles’ audience then has nothing to do with the speech in itself, but in the reactions it provokes from the characters listening to it. And, true to form, Clytemnestra is not sure whether she (as the murderer of Agamemnon and mistress of Aegisthus) has escaped vengeance and should rejoice, or whether she (as Orestes’ mother) should mourn. There is no neater encapsulation of the conflict between justice and familial duties. Clytemnestra does not know how to behave.
What follows might almost be comedic in tone, though it is very difficult to guess how Sophocles might have intended it, or how his audience might have received it. As Clytemnestra warms to the idea that Orestes is dead, and begins to insult him, Electra feels enraged – but also, for the first time, defeated. Yet, as she resolves that all she wants now is death, the audience might be forgiven in finding the situation amusing: they know it is only a matter of time before the truth is revealed. As Electra launches into another long bout of mourning, Chrysothemis enters delivering that truth -- and, with it, "happiness and relief" for the sisters. It is a crucial turning point in the play. It has seemed up until now that luck is on Clytemnestra’s side. Yet what things seem and what things are can be two quite different things.
False disguises are also cast off a little later, when Orestes reveals himself to Electra. His supposed funeral urn provides another moment of potential comedy: Electra mourns over her dead brother’s body, when he is in fact alive and standing right next to her. The urn is a perfect manifestation of an outside appearance (a funeral urn) that suggests the wrong internal content (i.e. Orestes’ ashes) – a metaphor, then, for so much else in the play. It is by disguise too that Aegisthus, later in the play, will be tricked into his death – thinking that he sees the body of Orestes, which, uncovered, turns out to be the body of his wife. This ties in with the idea that words can be false, and that one can "speak wrong" instead of "doing right". Note the way in which, at the end of this section, everyone tries to stop speaking and start acting – creating a steady build-up of tension towards the actual murder. The intricate trickeries and manipulations of words are about to be cast aside in favor of acts.
Sophocles, though, makes another significant change to Aeschylus’ portrayal of Orestes’ eventual recognition. In Aeschylus, the recognition happens via locks of Orestes' hair, his footprints, and fabric Electra herself has woven. For Sophocles, however, what is more important than the relationship between siblings is that between father and children: it is a signet ring, or ‘sphragis’, which belonged to Agamemnon himself that identifies Orestes to Electra. It is no accident, then, that Freud named the female version of the Oedipus complex (a male having sexual desire for his mother, and hatred of his father) after Electra. It is surely noteworthy that Sophocles emphasizes Electra’s recognition of Orestes as a function of her love for her father. Later, even as her mother is killed, Electra shouts to her that she did not take pity on Agamemnon. Could Electra’s man-like strength (as detailed above in her argument with Chrysothemis) perhaps be read as representing her desire to be like her father? Perhaps, but Sophocles, as all of his plays prove, was a master at leaving open calculated ambiguities and possibilities of interpretation, without ever restricting his play to a single answer. This, indeed, is part of the reason why the play – and critical interest in Electra herself – still endures.