Electra by Sophocles

Electra by Sophocles Quotes and Analysis


Before a man leaves his house, sets foot on the path,

let us hold our parley. We are where

we must not shrink. It is high time for action.

Electra (trans. Grene) l.20-2

This is Paedagogus' incitement to action. Talking is over, he says, and it is time to "do". It is the first explicit mention of action in the play, and yet, it is ironic that it is spoken - not, as it were, "done". Throughout the play, Sophocles explores the relationship between doing and saying, and how words can dissemble in ways actions never can.


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...

Electra (trans. Grene) l.33-6

Orestes has been to the Oracle to ask the gods' advice. Yet, as Greek tragedy shows everywhere, you have to be very careful how you phrase your question, and what Orestes has asked is "how should I be revenged?", not, as he seems to assume, "should I be revenged?" Do the gods approve of his matricide; is that implicit? Or has he just asked the wrong question?


In such a state, my friends, one cannot

be moderate and restrained nor pious either.

Evil is all around me, evil

is what I am compelled to practice.

Electra (trans. Grene) l.306-9

Here Electra announces her unwillingness to be moderate in her grief, and that she will know no bounds when it comes to her mourning. Moreover, and more problematically, she announces the "eye for an eye" retribution logic of the play: because of the evil which surrounds her (in the persons of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra) she herself will also be evil. It is, to say the least, a problematic moral standpoint, and one which will animate the rest of the drama.


For if he that is dead

is earth and nothing,

poorly lying,

and they shall never in their turn

pay death for death in justice,

then shall all shame be dead

and all men's piety.

Electra (trans. Grene) l.243-9

Electra here combines two key ideas of the play: "death for death" - in other words, the "eye for an eye" logic of vengeance - and the promise of "justice" - a word which resounds throughout the play and which never receives a satisfactory definition. Even Electra's own conception of justice is never made clear, for, though she advocate Clytemnestra's death, she rejects the fact that Agamemnon's death was meant to avenge Iphigenia's.


There is no denial in me. Justice,

Justice it was that took him, not I alone.

You would have served the cause of Justice if

you had been right-minded.

Electra (trans. Grene) l.526-9

Clytemnestra throws Electra's accusations back in her face, claiming that it was "Justice" (one of the play's key words) that she murdered her husband, as he had so cruelly sent Iphigenia to her death. Clytemnestra herself argues that she personally takes no blame for the murder: she wasn't acting as an individual, but abstractly in the interests of justice. This is a key question of the play: can the circumstances of a killing - the justification for it - affect how we morally look at the killer?


My son, my son,

pity your mother!


You had none for him,

nor for his father that begot him.

Electra (trans. Grene) l.1410-3

This is the key moment of Clytemnestra's murder, and a moment which creates a real frisson when held up against Aeschylus' Oresteia. Clytemnestra asks for pity from Orestes, just as she does in Libation Bearers - yet her begging does not prompt a pause from Orestes to consider the morality of what he is doing. Instead, Electra screams back at her mother from outside the house (the murder is taking place inside the house), arguing that she didn't pity Orestes or Agamemnon. It is, quite literally, Aeschylus' moment of pause transformed into a brutal avowal of "eye for an eye" logic.


Oh! I am struck!


If you have strength - again!

Electra (trans. Grene) l.1415

This is perhaps the most unusual thing that Sophocles could have had a female character say on stage: not only is Electra (unlike her Aeschylus counterpart) onstage for the murder, rather than offstage, but she is shouting encouragement to her brother to kill her mother. Moreover, it is not just that she wants Clytemnestra dead, but she wants her dead in the most brutal way possible: shouting to her brother to stab her again.


Orestes, how have you fared?


In the house, all

is well, if well Apollo prophesied.

Electra (trans. Grene) l.1423-4

This is the key moment, and one of the key ifs in all of drama. Is it complete? Electra asks. Have we been revenged for our father's murder? The audience familiar with Aeschylus' Libation Bearers may well be waiting for the Furies, the spirits of revenge, to come creeping after Orestes - for he himself has now committed matricide. But nothing happens. And even Orestes' answer is deeply ambiguous: everything is fine, if the Oracle made a correct prophecy. And, as the first quote in this section shows, whether or not the Oracle's prophecy should be interpreted as Orestes interprets it is another source of ambiguity.


Spare me all superfluity of speech.

Tell me not how my mother is villainous

nor how Aegisthus drains my father's wealth

by luxury or waste. Words about this

will shorten time and opportunity.

Electra (trans. Grene) l.1288-92

Here again, language is cast aside in favor of action - though, ironically enough, through the means of dialogue. The play tantalizes the audience with the promise of action, but a key question is whether it really delivers it - the double murder Orestes intends is only half done as the play ends.


O race of Atreus, how many sufferings

were yours before you came at last so hardly

to freedom, perfected by this day's deed.

Electra (trans. Grene) l.1508-10

These are the final words of the play, spoken by the Chorus. They predict, as you can see, after a long line of sufferings, that the house of Atreus (who was Agamemnon's father) has finally come to "freedom". Where has this "freedom" suddenly come from? From the deed of that day: from the murder of Clytemnestra. For any readers of Aeschylus, it is a very uneasy resolution. Where is the trial from the final play of the Oresteia to decide whether Orestes has committed a crime? Where are the Furies - and Orestes' profession of guilt for what he has done? How can the play end so suddenly, and without tying up so many of its strands? These questions are, characteristically for Sophocles, left unanswered.