Electra by Sophocles

Electra by Sophocles Summary and Analysis of third stasimon and exodos (l. 1385 – 1510)

The Chorus launch into an ode about the approach of the “War God… breathing bloody vengeance”, and claim that “Hermes, the child of Maia” is ensuring the deed is brought to fruition. At that moment, Electra re-enters and tells the Chorus to be silent: the men, she says, “are finishing their work”. Clytemnestra, Electra says, is preparing the urn for burial, and Electra herself has run outside to watch in case Aegisthus approaches.

At that moment, Clytemnestra cries out from inside the house, a sound which the Chorus describe as a “terror to the ear”. Again, Clytemnestra cries, this time for Aegisthus. The third time she cries, she asks “My son… pity your mother”. Electra cries back that Clytemnestra had no pity for Orestes, nor for his father. “Oh! I am struck” screams Clytemnestra from the house; “If you have strength – again!” shouts Electra to her brother.

“The courses are being fulfilled”, the Chorus say, “blood to answer blood”. Orestes and Pylades emerge from the house, hands bloodied. Electra asks her brother how it has gone: Orestes replies “In the house, all is well, if well Apollo prophesied”. Clytemnestra is dead. The Chorus then see Aegisthus approaching, and Orestes and Pylades run back into the house.

Aegisthus asks Electra about Orestes’ (supposed) death, and she tells him two Phocian messengers have brought Orestes’ body. Aegisthus is delighted by the thought of seeing Orestes’ body, and commands the servants to open the doors of the house. A shrouded corpse is revealed, and Aegisthus asks Orestes (supposed a messenger) to draw back the covers from its face. Orestes responds: "Touch it yourself. This body is not mine, / It is only yours – to see and greet with love."

Aegisthus pulls back the covers and sees the body of Clytemnestra. Aegisthus accepts that this is his time to die, and asks to say one word. Electra interrupts, begging Orestes to kill him “as quickly as you can”. Orestes then takes Aegisthus inside the house, to kill Aegisthus on the spot where Aegisthus killed Agamemnon. “Justice shall be taken / directly on all who act above the law / Justice by killing”, announces Orestes. The Chorus offer a short reflection on the new freedom of the house of Agamemnon, and the play ends.


Sophocles’ treatment of Orestes’ matricide is hugely significant, particularly when one reads it against Aeschylus’ treatment in the Oresteia. There are two main points. First, Aeschylus’ Electra meekly heads inside at the moment of the murder. It looks, for a moment, as though Sophocles’ Electra is going to do the same. She delivers what seems a final prayer (echoing that made in the Oresteia), ending with the words: “prove to all mankind the punishment / the Gods exact for wickedness”. She then goes inside the palace. So far, so good: the Chorus, just as they do in Aeschylus, begin to sing an ode about justice and the “hounds” -- the “pursuers of villainy” -- heading into the palace. It is, however, the shortest ode in extant tragedy, at only 12 lines, as Electra soon reappears and interrupts: “Dear ladies, now is the moment that the men are finishing their work.” Moreover, she even silences the choral ode: “Wait in silence” (1398). It must have been an electrifying moment in original performance: turning the audience’s expectation entirely on its head.

The Chorus are confused, and ask Electra what she is doing: “Why have you hurried out here?” Electra’s answer is that she is here “To watch / That Aegisthus does not come on them unawares”. In the end, it is not Electra who is sent inside the palace, out of sight, but the murder itself. Clytemnestra is killed inside the palace, and even Aeschylus, prepared to face his death outside the doors, is ushered back in. Throughout it all, Electra remains in her place onstage. Still more shocking to a Greek audience would have been her reaction to what she hears: she seems to take pleasure in shouting insults back to her dying mother ("You had none for him", she cries back to Clytemnestra’s begging Orestes for pity), and, as Clytemnestra cries out that she is "struck", Electra shouts to her brother: "If you have strength – again!"

Electra’s emotions are essentially no different from Chrysothemis’: both women feel furiously angry with Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. However, Chrysothemis is able to cover up her real feelings to ensure her own survival; Electra, on the other hand, exhibits no such concern. One sister represses, the other expresses. Here in the climax, Electra’s verbal expression is carried even further as she, almost like a cheerleader, encourages her brother during his act. For any woman in ancient Greece, this would have been unmannerly, horrifying behavior, and it is worlds apart from what Aeschylus' Electra does.

Sophocles’ other key subversion of Aeschylus comes in the murder itself. In Aeschylus' version, at the moment when he must decide whether or not to kill his mother, Orestes – and this is hugely significant – pauses. He turns to his friend Pylades, who has been with him throughout the Libation Bearers but heretofore has not spoken a single word, and asks him whether indeed he should kill Clytemnestra. Should he fulfill the instructions of the gods (through an Oracle which he has interpreted as saying he should kill his mother) or should he take pity on Clytemnestra, who indeed bore him and raised him? “Count all men your enemies, rather than the gods”, replies Pylades, and Orestes takes his advice and murders his mother. Aeschylus, in short, provides a reminder, at the crucial moment, that this matricide seems to have been endorsed by the gods, and that Orestes is acting in accordance with the wishes of a higher power, as well as to revenge his father. In Sophocles, we might expect the same to happen – but it doesn’t. We hear Clytemnestra beg for pity from inside the house, but the response is not hesitation and moral questioning (from Orestes), but rather an incitement to continue the attack (from Electra). We do not see Orestes waver. There is no pause. He goes into the house and kills her mother. Pylades does not speak a single word. An audience versed in Aeschylus would be horrified: it would be rather like having Hamlet, instead of speaking ‘Now might I do it pat’, take out his sword and murder Claudius there and then.

Sophocles’ ending features other significant omissions. Orestes is pursued from the stage by the Furies in Aeschylus, spirits of vengeance which only he can see, and which track him now for killing his mother. No such thing happens in Sophocles: instead, the play ends with Orestes dragging Aegisthus off into the palace to his death. Where are the Furies? Where is the sense that Orestes too will suffer, having now murdered someone? Where, we might ask, to use a key word from the play, is the “justice”? Sophocles, tantalizingly, leaves all of these questions unanswered.

It is possible to argue that Sophocles’ omissions are only concessions to the fact that his audience already knew what happens: that they would expect to hear the cry of Aegisthus from inside the house at the very end of the play, they would assume that Orestes had paused to ask Pylades what he should do, and so on. Yet it seems to me, rather like the ending of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, that these gaps are deliberate, tactical ones. Sophocles is not explicit about the lack of justice in his play, but subtly suggestive. You might even go so far as to suggest that his play is, like the disguised Orestes, a version of the Libation Bearers which, when unmasked, reveals itself to be entirely different. Perhaps Electra itself, like so many things within it, at moments assumes a misleading verbal disguise.

Everyone at the end of Sophocles’ Electra keeps inciting action and stamping out words. “Too many words!” Orestes tells Aegisthus, as he leads him into the palace to kill him: “not one, not one word more / I beg you, brother”, Electra asks of Orestes as Aegisthus tries to utter his final words. The play ends, very definitively, with the murder of Clytemnestra and with the promise of further action, as Aegisthus is dragged offstage to his death. Yet Aegisthus has time to make a short prophecy on the "evils of the Pelopidae, now and to come". In no way does suffering stop as the play ends: there is – at least – one more death to come. It is the end of the play, but not really the end of the story, as the “eye for an eye” logic must continue with the murder of Aegisthus, and then potentially more murders after that. Conclusions and finishing points are elusive.

It is difficult then to read the final choral ode without some irony. Can we really expect that freedom has now come to the bloody House of Atreus? The resolution which Aeschylus presents at the end of the Oresteia comes only after a long trial, a vote, and lengthy expositions of the arguments for and against what Orestes has done. Here, Sophocles seems to wrap everything up very quickly: almost too quickly. It is an uneasy ending because, when we compare it to the Oresteia, it becomes very clear that so much is missing.

Once Orestes has murdered his mother, he comes out from the palace to be asked by Electra whether everything is well. His answer -- “All is well within, if Apollo prophesied well” -- hangs on that central “if”. Has Apollo prophesied well? We know that Orestes has interpreted the words of the Oracle as encouraging him to kill his mother. We also know that the answer you get from the Oracle depends very much on the question you ask, and that Orestes’ question ("How should I kill my mother?" rather than "Should I....?") potentially leaves no room for approval or disapproval from the Oracle. So is everything well? The play's final move is to throw the responsibility for judgment not to a final trial but to the audience. It is up to us to decide whether “justice” has indeed been served.

Finally, there is the question of Electra herself. Lest anyone think that the play is wholly sympathetic towards her, Sophocles finally has her order that Aegisthus' body be thrown to the dogs. This, as we know from Antigone, is a real outrage - and an unjustified and barbaric act. What, then, are we to make of this vicious, furious Electra? She may insist that she is a product of her circumstances -- of her father's death, her sister's indifference, Aegisthus' tyrannical rule, and so on. But is that enough? Our reactions to Electra are perhaps more informed by gut feelings than logical argumentation. Perhaps at the end of the day Sophocles means simply to demonstrate how terrible situations may produce terrible people.